The Ubaid culture was the crossover point between prehistory and
the threshold of early urban civilisation. It is named after the site where pottery from the
period was first discovered, at Tell al-'Ubaid in southern
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
(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 the first Sumerians were, or where
they came from, or even exactly when they arrived in the Tigris-Euphrates
valley have yet to be satisfactorily answered.
A detailed collection of features and king lists covering all of this
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 in about
8500 BC, at a time when the first primitive agricultural villages were
being established there, two thousand years prior to the start of the
In any case, the Sumerians clustered in the far south of the
valley, on the borders of the red-choked swamps that covered much of
the delta where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowed into the
Persian 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 (which has since
silted up and moved much further south). This saw the population establish the first
permanent settlements on the arid southern plains near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates.
Map of Sumer
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
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 that 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
the melting snows of the Taurus Mountains. This was too late for
a spring crop and too early for autumn crops.
addition, directly below the
ground's surface there 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.
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
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.
Houses of the later Ubaid
periods were different, conforming to the more typical tripartite
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
Period, with as many as 4000 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.
An Ubaid house
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
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 that 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
The first wheeled carts were very simple in their design
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.
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 Middle 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
The Ubaid draws to a close
The clay used on Ubaid figurines is generally a pale colour with
dark contrasting paint
This system would be greatly expanded during the
subsequent Uruk IV Period which began in 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.
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
The Ubaid had paved the way in southern Mesopotamia for the
development of full blown civilisation over the succeeding
Animal figurines, perhaps bulls, decorated with paint from Ur
Early cultures on the Mesopotamian plains
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
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