Timeline and Advances of the Mesopotamian Society

Societal Underpinnings of the Western World

Borsippa Ziggurat (Iraq)
Young Iraqis stand atop ancient ruins in the shadow of a Mesopotamian ziggurat, June 8, 2003 in Borsippa, Iraq. Mario Tama / Getty Images

Mesopotamia is the general name of a region where multiple ancient civilizations rose and fell and rose again in modern Iraq and Syria, a triangular patch wedged between the Tigris River, the Zagros Mountains, and the Lesser Zab River. The first urban civilization arose in Mesopotamia, the first society of people deliberately living in close proximity to one another, with attendant architectural, social, and economic structures that allowed that to occur more or less peaceably. Mesopotamia's timeline is thus a primary example of the way ancient civilizations develop.

Key Takeaways: Mesopotamian Timeline

  • Mesopotamia includes the eastern one half of the region known as the Fertile Crescent, in particular, the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from Anatolia to where the rivers meet and dump into the Persian Gulf. 
  • Mesopotamian chronologies typically begin with the earliest signs of incipient complexity: from the first cultic centers at 9,000 BCE, through the 6th century BCE with the fall of Babylon.
  • Scholars divide Mesopotamia into northern and southern regions, primarily based on environment but also differences in politics and culture. 
  • Early advances in the Mesopotamian region include cultic centers, urban cities, sophisticated water control, pottery, and writing. 

Map of the Region

Map of the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia and Egypt and location of first towns
Map of the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia and Egypt and location of first towns. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Mesopotamia is the ancient Greek label for the eastern half of the region known as the Fertile Crescent. The western half includes the coastal Mediterranean region known as the Levant, as well as the Nile Valley of Egypt. The technological and religious advances considered Mesopotamian issues diffused throughout the region: and there is some evidence that not all innovations originated in Mesopotamia, but rather were created in the Levant or Nile Valley and spread into Mesopotamia.

Mesopotamia proper is best broken into north and south Mesopotamia, in part because the regions have different climates. This division was politically prominent during the Sumer (south) and Akkad (north) periods between about 3000–2000 BCE; and the Babylonian (south) and Assyrian (north) periods between about 2000–1000. However, the histories of the north and south dating back to the sixth millennium BCE are also divergent; and later the northern Assyrian kings did their best to unite with the southern Babylonians.

Mesopotamian Timeline

Traditionally, the Mesopotamian civilization starts with the Ubaid period of about 4500 BCE and lasts until the fall of Babylon and the beginning of the Persian Empire. Dates after ca 1500 BCE are generally agreed upon; important sites are listed in parentheses after each period.

  • Hassuna / Samarra (6750–6000)
  • Halaf (6000-4500 BCE)
  • Ubaid Period (4500–4000 BCE: Telloh, Ur, Ubaid, Oueili, Eridu, Tepe Gawra, H3 As-Sabiyah)
  • Uruk Period (4000–3000 BCE: (Brak, Hamoukar, Girsu/Telloh, Umma, Lagash, Eridu, Ur, Hacinebi Tepe, Chogha Mish)
  • Jemdet Nasr (3200–3000 BCE: Uruk)
  • Early Dynastic Period (3000–2350 BCE: Kish, Uruk, Ur, Lagash, Asmar, Mari, Umma, Al-Rawda)
  • Akkadian (2350–2200 BCE: Agade, Sumer, Lagash, Uruk, Titris Hoyuk)
  • Neo-Sumerian (2100–2000 BCE: Ur, Elam, Tappeh Sialk)
  • Old Babylonian and Old Assyrian Periods (2000–1600 BCE: Mari, Ebla Babylon, Isin, Larsa, Assur)
  • Middle Assyrian (1600–1000 BCE: Babylon, Ctesiphon)
  • Neo-Assyrian (1000–605 BCE: Nineveh)
  • Neo-Babylonian (625–539 BCE: Babylon)

Mesopotamian Advances

The earliest cultic site in the region was at Gobekli Tepe was built 9,000 BCE.

Ceramics appeared in Pre-Pottery Neolithic Mesopotamia by 8000 BCE.

Permanent mudbrick residential structures were constructed beginning before the Ubaid period at southern sites such as Tell el-Oueili, as well as Ur, Eridu, Telloh, and Ubaid.

Clay tokens—a precursor to writing and critical to the development of trade networks in the region—were first used about 7500 BCE.

Clay Tokens, Uruk Period, Excavated from Susa, Iran
Clay Tokens, Uruk Period, Excavated from Susa, Iran. Louvre Museum (Department of Near Eastern Antiquities). Marie-Lan Nguyen

The first villages in Mesopotamia were built in the Neolithic period of around 6,000 BCE, including Catalhoyuk.

By 6000–5500, sophisticated water control systems were in effect in southern Mesopotamia, including man-made canals and storage basins for dry-period irrigation, and levees and dikes to defend from flooding.

Reed boats sealed with bitumen were used to support trade along the rivers and Red Sea by 5500 BCE.

By the 6th millennium, mud-brick temples (ziggurats) were in evidence, in particular at Eridu; and at Tell Brak in northern Mesopotamia, they began appearing at least as early as 4400 BCE.

Borsippa Ziggurat (Iraq)
Young Iraqis stand atop ancient ruins in the shadow of a Mesopotamian ziggurat, June 8, 2003 in Borsippa, Iraq. Mario Tama / Getty Images

The first urban settlements have been identified at Uruk, about 3900 BCE. Tell Brak became a 320-acre (130-hectare) metropolis by 3500 BCE, and by 3100 Uruk covered nearly 618 ac (250 ha), or about 1 square mile.

Also by 3900 BCE at Uruk are mass-produced wheel-thrown pottery, the introduction of writing, and cylinder seals.

Assyrian records written in cuneiform have been found and deciphered, allowing us much more information about the political and economic pieces of latter Mesopotamian society. In the north part was the kingdom of Assyria; to the south was the Sumerians and Akkadian in the alluvial plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Mesopotamia continued as a definable civilization right through the fall of Babylon (about 1595 BCE).

Cuneiform Babylonian clay tablet with Geometrical Problems.
Babylonian clay tablet with Geometrical problems in cuneiform script, from the British Museum's collection. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Ongoing issues plague Mesopotamia, associated with the continuing wars in the region, which has gravely damaged much of the archaeological sites and allowed looting to occur.

Mesopotamian Sites

Important Mesopotamian sites include: Tell el-Ubaid, Uruk, Ur, Eridu, Tell Brak, Tell el-Oueili, Nineveh, Pasargadae, Babylon, Tepe Gawra, Telloh, Hacinebi Tepe, Khorsabad, Nimrud, H3, As Sabiyah, Failaka, Ugarit, Uluburun

Selectd Sources and Further Reading

  • Algaze, Guillermo. "Entropic Cities: The Paradox of Urbanism in Ancient Mesopotamia." Current Anthropology 59.1 (2018): 23–54. Print.
  • Bertman, Stephen. 2004. "Handbook to Life in Mesopotamia." Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • McMahon, Augusta. "Asia, West | Mesopotamia, Sumer, and Akkad." Encyclopedia of Archaeology. Ed. Pearsall, Deborah M. New York: Academic Press, 2008. 854–65. Print.
  • Nardo, Don, and Robert B. Kebric. "The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Ancient Mesopotamia." Detroit MI: Thomson Gale, 2009. Print.
  • Van de Mieroop, Marc. "A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000—323 BC." 3rd ed. Chichester UK: Wiley Blackwell, 2015. Print.