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Ancient Mesopotamia

The Ubaid Period

by Peter Kessler, 6 January 2008

The Ubaid culture was the crossover point between prehistory and the threshold of early urban civilisation. It is named after the site at which pottery from the period was first discovered, at Tell al-'Ubaid in southern Mesopotamia.

Ubaid culture can be split into three phases between 5300-3900 BC: Early Ubaid (or Eridu, the Sumerian 'First City'), which lasted until 4700 BC; Middle Ubaid (or Hadji Muhammad), which lasted until 4500 BC; and Late (or Classic) Ubaid. All these dates are somewhat disputed, but seem to be the most widely accepted set.

The various phases of Mesopotamian civilisation in its entirety from this point forwards can be categorised as follows:

  • Ubaid Period 5300-3900 BC
  • Uruk IV Period 3900-3200 BC
  • Uruk III Period 3200-2900 BC
  • Early Dynastic I Period 2900-2800 BC
  • Early Dynastic II Period 2800-2600 BC
  • Early Dynastic IIIa Period 2600-2500 BC
  • Early Dynastic IIIb Period 2500-2334 BC
  • Lagash Dynasty Period 2550-2380 BC
  • Akkad Dynasty Period 2450-2250 BC
  • Gutian Period 2250-2150 BC
  • Ur III Period 2150-2000 BC

The questions of who were the first Sumerians, or where they came from, or even exactly when they arrived in the Tigris-Euphrates valley have yet to be satisfactorily answered.

General Map of Sumer
Some of the earliest cities, such as Sippar, Borsippa, and Kish in the north, and Ur, Uruk, and Eridu in the south, formed the endpoints of what became that complex network of cities and canals (click or tap on map to view full sized)

A dark-haired and light-skinned people, they probably originated in a region to the east or north-east of Mesopotamia; their language was related to one spoken near the Caspian Sea.

It is likely that they arrived in the valley about 8500 BC, at a time at which the first primitive agricultural villages were being established there, two thousand years prior to the start of the Hassuna culture. Perhaps it was the growing attractiveness of agriculture which drew them in.

In any case, the Sumerians clustered in the far south of the valley, on the borders of the reed-choked swamps which covered much of the delta through which the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowed into the Persian Gulf (some distance to the north of the current conjunction between rivers and gulf). They were ideally placed to make the most of the coming revolution in farming.

True irrigation farming

The Early Ubaid Period was limited to the Sumerian heartland of Mesopotamia, near the old Persian Gulf coastline. This saw the population establish the first permanent settlements on the arid southern plains near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.

The Sumerians, with access to these two rivers, were the ones to develop irrigated agriculture on a truly grand scale. Later on, they tapped the waters of their rivers, primarily the Euphrates, to cultivate vast stretches of alluvial desert in order to bring them into production.

The result was a surplus of grain far beyond the day-to-day needs of the farmers who tended the fields - a surplus which gave the people of Sumer the time to develop new skills. They became inventive and thoughtful. Gradually, the first artisans, traders, priests, scribes, and merchants started to appear, sustained by the efforts of the farmers. A system of government emerged, as well as an organised religion and a new order of social classes - all the elements of what would come to be recognised as civilisation.

However, it wasn't all plain sailing. Unlike the farming land either side of the Nile, that of Sumer was inundated with a large amount of silt which was a constant cause of trouble for the man-made irrigation systems. The timing of the floods also hindered the Sumerians. They came in late spring or early summer, generated by the melting snows of the Taurus Mountains. This was too late for a spring crop and too early for autumn crops.

In addition, directly below the ground's surface was a large concentration of salt deposits. This high saline content in the soil made farming much more complex and difficult than was the case in Egypt. The area also suffered more from raiding and early warfare than did Egypt, and whenever the irrigation ditches were not properly maintained food shortages would ensue.

However, at the start of the period, this was still a relatively far off concern.

Ubaid house
Ubaid houses were characterised by a distinctive plan (click or tap on image to view full sized)

Ubaid period farming tools

Terracotta sickle, peg, axe and hammer heads, and spindle whorl, all left and centre, and a mace head and axe or hoe head on the right, probably Ubaid period 5000-4000 BC from Ur and Tell al-'Ubaid

Ubaid phases

The Early Period houses at Tell al Queili (from Ubaid 0 and Ubaid 1) show some similarities to the T-shaped houses built by the Samarra culture. This may indicate that these early Ubaid houses and the Samarra structures shared a common antecedent, perhaps dating to the earlier Hassuna culture (see sidebar links).

Houses of the later Ubaid periods were different, conforming to the more typical tripartite Ubaid style found at other Ubaid sites.

The destructive spring floods of the Euphrates were harnessed to provide vastly improved crop yields, which in turn sustained larger populations. The Sumerian city of Eridu may have covered ten hectares in area in the Ubaid period, with as many as 4,000 inhabitants. Larger populations brought an increased demand for raw materials which were not locally available, and trade networks expended as a result.

They established the growing of grain in extremely arid conditions which they helped to alleviate by carrying water from the rivers in pots. This phase shows clear connections with the Samarra culture to the north.

As the Middle Ubaid got underway, the farmers began to channel small canals towards their crops, saving themselves the labour of carrying pots of water. The canals were developed over the centuries, becoming more and more sophisticated and extensive. Alongside them, small settlements and villages developed into bigger communities, and labour became centralised. Farming reached a level of efficiency which allowed some of the inhabitants in the growing villages time to devote to other pursuits.

Large villages gradually developed into small cities in a period of rapid urbanisation. Ubaid culture spread rapidly outwards to displace the earlier Halaf culture in northern Mesopotamia, although there was a gap between the decline of the one and the arrival of the other. Ubaid goods also began to appear along the Persian coast to the south, in Arabia, revealing the spread of a trading network outwards from southern Mesopotamia. Fishing boats also made their first appearance at this time.


Invented during this period, it seems likely that the very first wheels were used in pottery making. Artisans would throw a lump of clay onto a horizontal plate balanced on an axle, then spin this to shape a round utensil - the same methods used by potters ever since.

The Sumerians were the first to think of flipping the potter's wheel on its side and adapting it for locomotion. The wheel enabled farmers to work land which was at a considerable distance from their village or town. An ox or a donkey hitched to a wheeled cart could pull three times the load the animal could previously carry on its back or drag on a flat-bottomed sledge. (When this idea reached the Pontic-Caspian steppe not too long later it revolutionised life there, creating a horseborne, chariot-riding elite which would sweep all other cultures before it in the form of the Indo-Europeans.)

As social stratification increased and villages grew, there emerged an early elite class. These probably formed a group of families who were linked to the village leader, or chieftain, and as the latter's power and influence grew, so did their status. Power came to be inherited and the seeds of later city states were laid down.

Communal religious activity was another important feature of this period. The earliest Ubaid temple at Eridu, a simple one-roomed shrine, had all the basic features of later Mesopotamian temples: an ornamented facade, an alter niche, and an offering table.

At Tell Abbada small clay counters found inside pots suggest that a primitive accounting system was already in operation, and out of such humble beginnings writing was developed.

As early as 8000 BC, small clay tokens of various distinctive shapes were evidently being used by Near Eastern farmers to keep inventory of their commodities. A cone-shaped token, for instance, might have indicated that a farmer had a certain amount of barley in his granary.

The Ubaid draws to a close

This system would be greatly expanded during the subsequent Uruk IV Period which began around 3900 BC, when the ancient Sumerian religious centre of Eridu was gradually surpassed in size by the nearby city of Uruk.

The Late Ubaid also saw the beginning of the Chalcolithic Period, or Copper Age (from the Greek khalkos, copper, and lithos, stone), in which the use of early metal tools appeared alongside traditional stone tools.

The archaeological transition from the Ubaid period to the Uruk period is marked by a gradual shift from painted pottery which was domestically produced on a slow wheel, to a great variety of unpainted pottery which was mass-produced by specialists on fast wheels.

The Ubaid had paved the way in southern Mesopotamia for the development of full-blown civilisation over the succeeding millennium.

Map of the Ubaid Culture in Mesopotamia
This map shows the locations of early cultures on the Mesopotamian plains, focussing here on the spread of the various Ubaid phases in the sixth and fifth millennia BC, overlaid over the spread of preceding cultures

In the fifth millennium BC the pottery of the Ubaid culture spread across modern northern Iraq and down to the coast of eastern Arabia. Part of this expansion was in pursuit of raw materials which southern Mesopotamia lacked.


Main Sources

Ember, Melvin & Peregrine, Peter N - Encyclopaedia of Prehistory

Lloyd, S - The Archaeology of Mesopotamia

Postgate, J N - The First Empires

Rymer, Eric - Farming in Mesopotamia

Scarre, Chris (Ed) - Past Worlds - The Times Atlas of Archaeology

The British Museum

Time Life Books - The Age of the God-Kings

UAE Interact - A Walk Through Time




Images and text copyright © P L Kessler, including exhibits at the British Museum. An original feature for the History Files.