Uruk and the Emergence of Civilization

The Invention of Cities, States, and Writing in Mesopotamia

By around 4000 BC, the marshy fringe of southern Iraq had become one of the most populous, sophisticated places in the world. This wasn’t an especially predictable state of affairs. Mesopotamia is mostly desiccated desert, a dry lowland extending north from the head of the Persian Gulf.

But two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, give it life. Ribbons of green amid the brown of the desert, they regularly spill their banks, dropping thick, fertile layers of silt onto the floodplain. When tapped for irrigation, this is some of the most productive farmland in the world. Even the wetlands at the head of the Gulf, far from being stagnant, lifeless swamps, are chock-full of usable resources like fish, shellfish, birds, edible plants, and reeds that can be used for everything from baskets to houses.

Where the crops grown along the riverbanks and in irrigated fields were combined with the bounty of the marshes, populations exploded. Some of, if not the, first cities appeared in southern Mesopotamia. For the later Mesopotamians, the first of these cities was Eridu. That was where the gods had handed down the core institutions and practices of their society, from kingship and proper religious observance to the very idea of the city. Eridu thrived for centuries, the temple at its heart built and rebuilt time and again, a symbol of the permanence of this first urban outpost.

Eridu might have been first, but after about 3800 BC, one of its neighbors eclipsed it in size, sophistication, and importance. This was Uruk, and far more than Eridu, it was where something we recognize as civilization was first born.

For much of the fourth millennium BC, Uruk was the largest city in the most urbanized region of the world. It had tens of thousands of inhabitants. Enormous monumental buildings like temples and palaces studded the city’s landscape. A priest-king ruled the city with the help of powerful households, nobles, and religious officials. This was the first state in the world as we understand it, a complex political entity centered on the city-state. It was also almost certainly the birthplace of writing, which emerged as an administrative tool to help keep track of the riches oozing through Uruk.

Uruk was the largest city of its time and place, and presumably the most important, but it wasn’t the only one. Some of the earliest writing found in Uruk lists a few of these other cities, places like Eridu, Nippur, Larsa, and Ur, the last of which would later become the leading power of Sumer and home to a powerful dynasty of kings. Each of these cities was surrounded by smaller towns and villages. Food and people flowed into the city, and the city served as the administrative focal point for a political unit - a city-state - ruled by a king.

Scholars have spent much of the past century or so trying to understand something that goes by the current name of the “Uruk Phenomenon.” This was a multifaceted expansion outward from southern Mesopotamia, centered on Uruk, that stretched east and north for a considerable distance. Mesopotamian migrants poured into what’s now western Iran. Trade routes spread in every direction, bringing in highly sought-after luxury items like gold, timber, and precious stones from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Uruk and Uruk-influenced material can be found as far away as the North Caucasus Mountains, on the borders of the Eurasian steppe. It was some combination of colonization movement, proto-imperial takeover, ideological ferment, and mercantile enterprise.

The thing about states is that they’re exceptionally effective organizational tools. They channel resources and human effort on a scale that other forms of political and social organization struggle to match. Unfortunately for the neighbors of these states, “channeling resources and human effort” often translates into war, raiding, and expropriation. The hunger for prestigious luxury goods sent traders or state representatives (or people fulfilling both roles) north toward Syria, where they seem to have settled among local communities. Soon after, however, some local settlements were built over in the Uruk style. In a few other places, Uruk-style settlements were built from scratch. In at least a couple of cases, wholesale burning and destruction accompanied the Uruk takeover. At Tell Hamoukar in Syria, for example, thousands of clay sling bullets have been found amid the remnants of the older local settlement, just underneath a later Uruk layer that was built on top.

As much as we might focus on soaring cityscapes, powerful kings, and political expansion, the most ubiquitous item of Uruk culture is actually a humble, misshapen piece of pottery: the beveled-rim bowl.

It doesn’t look like anything special, but beveled-rim bowls are absolutely everywhere on Uruk-period sites. In fact, they make up around 75 to 80 percent of all the pottery found dating to that period. The potters of Mesopotamia were certainly capable of making better things than this; they did so regularly, and even invented the potter’s wheel, which allowed them to create exceptionally fine and beautifully decorated ceramics. And yet these ugly little bowls are the most common thing. Why?

The bowls were mass-produced by the thousands, not on the wheel or even by hand, but in crude molds. The most likely explanation is that they were used to dole out grain rations, and according to chemical analyses, they might even have served as molds to bake that grain into daily bread.

If that’s the case, and it’s at least plausible, then it speaks powerfully to the nature of Uruk society. This was a deeply unequal and centralized way of organizing the world, with superiors and inferiors existing in complex status hierarchies. Those at the bottom were dependent on their betters, who controlled their labor and doled out their food supply, perhaps in those ugly little bowls.

In that sense, the Uruk expansion looks much more predatory. Armies marched out, took over key points along the trade routes, and brought back plunder, particularly in the form of enslaved people. In the early written texts, the most common non-numerical sign is the symbol for “female slave of foreign origin.” “Captive male” isn’t far behind. Not all of the people using those beveled-rim bowls, but certainly some of them, hadn’t come to Uruk by choice. The great monuments of the city, the visible symbols of civilization that still command our attention today, were probably built at least in part by those unfortunate captives.

The monuments of Uruk are stunning. Of that, there’s no doubt. But there was a cost to the emergence of civilization as we know it, and if this interpretation is correct, then it was a price paid by those outside Uruk and its neighbors.

Uruk and the Uruk Phenomenon are the subjects of today’s episode of Tides of History. If you’d like to learn more about this, check it out.