Ubaidian Culture - Trade Networking and the Rise of Mesopotamia

How Trade Networks Contributed to the Rise of the Mesopotamia

Ubaid Period Pots from Ur
Painted pottery excavated from the Ubaid cemetery at Ur by C. Leonard Woolley. Penn Museum

The Ubaid (pronounced ooh-bayed), sometimes spelled 'Ubaid and referred to as Ubaidian to keep it separate from the type site of el Ubaid, refers to a time period and a material culture exhibited in Mesopotamia and adjacent areas which predate the rise of the great urban cities. The Ubaid material culture, including ceramic decorative styles, artifact types and architectural forms, existed between about 7300-6100 years ago, over the vast Near Eastern region between the Mediterranean to the Straits of Hormuz, including parts of Anatolia and perhaps the Caucasus mountains.

The geographic spread of Ubaid or Ubaid-like pottery, a pottery style which has black geometric lines drawn on a buff-colored body, has led some researchers (Carter and others) to suggest that a more accurate term might be "Near Eastern Chalcolithic black-on-buff horizon" rather than Ubaid, which implies that the core area for the culture was southern Mesopotamia--el Ubaid is in southern Iran. Thank goodness, so far they're holding off on that.


While there is widespread acceptance of the chronological terminology for Ubaid ceramics, as you might expect, dates are not absolute across the entire region. In southern Mesopotamia, the six periods span between 6500-3800 BC; but in other regions, Ubaid only lasted between ~5300 and 4300 BC.

  • Ubaid 5, Terminal Ubaid begins ~4200 BC
  • Ubaid 4, once known as Late Ubaid ~5200
  • Ubaid 3 Tell al-Ubaid style and period) ~5300
  • Ubaid 2 Hajji Muhammad style and period) ~5500
  • Ubaid 1, Eridu style and period, ~5750 BC
  • Ubaid 0, Ouelli period ~6500 BC

Redefining the Ubaid "Core"

Scholars are hesitant today to re-define the core area from which the "idea" of Ubaid culture spread out, because the regional variation is so extensive. Instead, at a workshop at the University in Durham in 2006, scholars proposed that the cultural similarities seen across the region developed from a "vast inter-regional melting pot of influences" (see Carter and Philip 2010 and other articles in the volume).

Movement of the material culture is believed to have spread throughout the region primarily by peaceable trade, and various local appropriations of a shared social identity and ceremonial ideology. While most scholars still suggest a Southern Mesopotamian origin for black-on-buff ceramics, evidence at Turkish sites such as Domuztepe and Kenan Tepe is beginning to erode that view.


The Ubaid is defined by a relatively small set of characteristics, with a significant degree of regional variation, due in part to differing social and environmental configurations across the region.

Typical Ubaid pottery is a high-fired buff body painted in black, the decorations of which become simpler over time. Shapes include deep bowls and basins, shallow bowls and globular jars.

Architectural forms include a freestanding tripartite house with a T-shaped or cruciform central hall. Public buildings have a similar construction and a similar size, but have external facades with niches and buttresses. The corners are oriented to the four cardinal directions and sometimes are built top platforms.

Other artifacts include clay disks with flanges (which might be labrets or ear spools), "bent clay nails" which were apparently used to grind clay, "ophidian" or cone-headed clay figurines with coffee-bean eyes, and clay sickles.

Head-shaping, modification of children's heads at or near birth, is a recently-identified trait; copper smelting at XVII at Tepe Gawra. Exchange goods include lapis lazuli, turquoise, and carnelian. Stamp seals are common at some sites such as Tepe Gawra and Degirmentepe in northern Mesopotamia and Kosak Shamai in northwest Syria, but not apparently in southern Mesopotamia.

Shared Social Practices

Some scholars argue that decorated open vessels in the black-on-buff ceramics represent evidence for feasting or at least the shared ritual consumption of food and drink. By Ubaid period 3/4, region-wide the styles became simpler from their earlier forms, which were highly decorated. That may signify a shift towards communal identity and solidarity, a thing also reflected in communal cemeteries.

Ubaid Agriculture

Little archaeobotanical evidence has been recovered from Ubaid period sites, except for samples recently reported from a burned tri-partite house at Kenan Tepe in Turkey, occupied between 6700-6400 BP, within the Ubaid 3/4 transition.

The fire that destroyed the house resulted in the excellent preservation of nearly 70,000 specimens of charred plant material, including a reed basket full of well-preserved charred materials. Plants recovered from Kenan Tepe were dominated by emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) and two-rowed hulled barley (Hordeum vulgare v. distichum). Also recovered were smaller amounts of triticum wheat, flax (Linum usitassimum), lentil (Lens culinaris) and peas (Pisum sativum).

Elites and Social Stratification

In the 1990s, Ubaid was considered a fairly egalitarian society, and it is true that social ranking is not very apparent in any Ubaid site. Given the presence of elaborated pottery in the early period, and public architecture in the later, however, that doesn't seem very likely, and archaeologists have recognized subtle cues which appear to support the subdued presence of elites even from Ubaid 0, although it's possible that elite roles might have been transitory early on.

By Ubaid 2 and 3, there is clear a shift in labor from decorated single pots to an emphasis on public architecture, such as buttressed temples, which would have benefited the entire community rather than a small group of elites. Scholars suggest that might have been a deliberate action to avoid ostentatious displays of wealth and power by elites and instead highlight community alliances. That suggests that power depended on alliance networks and control of local resources.

In terms of settlement patterns, by Ubaid 2-3, southern Mesopotamia had a two-level hierarchy with a few large sites of 10 hectares or larger, including Eridu, Ur, and Uqair, surrounded by smaller, possibly subordinate villages.

Ubaid Cemetery at Ur

In 2012, scientists at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia and the British Museum began joint work on a new project, to digitize C. Leonard Woolley's records at Ur. Members of the Ur of the Chaldees: A Virtual Vision of Woolley's Excavations project recently rediscovered skeletal material from Ur's Ubaid levels, which had been lost from the record database.

The skeletal material, found in an unmarked box within Penn's collections, represented an adult male, one of 48 interments found buried in what Woolley called the "flood layer", a silt layer some 40 feet deep within Tell al-Muqayyar.

After excavating the Royal Cemetery at Ur, Woolley sought the earliest levels of the tell by excavating an enormous trench. At the bottom of the trench, he discovered a thick layer of water-laid silt, in places as much as 10 feet thick. The Ubaid-period burials had been excavated into the silt, and beneath the cemetery was yet another cultural layer. Woolley determined that in its earliest days, Ur was located on an island in a marsh: the silt layer was the result of a great flood. The people buried in the cemetery had lived after that flood and were interred within the flood deposits.

One possible historic precursor of the Biblical flood story is thought to be that of the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh. In honor of that tradition, the research team named the newly rediscovered burial "Utnapishtim", the name of the man who survived the great flood in the Gilgamesh version.

Archaeological Sites

  • IraqOueili, es-Sawwan, Tepe Gawra, Uqair, Ras al Amiya
  • IranChogha Mish, Maddhur, Asmar, Abada, Ganj DarehUrEridu, Ubaid, Uruk, Tappen Sialk, Susa, Djaffarabad
  • Syria: Zeidan, Sabi Abyad, Tell Brak, Tell Beydar, Hamoukar, Arjoune, Mashnaqa
  • Turkey: Degirmentepe, Kenan Tepe, Domuztepe
  • Kuwait: H3 As-Sabiyah
  • Abu Dhabi: Dalma


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Carter R. 2006. Boat remains and maritime trade in the Persian Gulf during the sixth and fifth mllennia BC. Antiquity 80:52-63.

Carter RA, and Philip G. 2010. Deconstructing the Ubaid. In: Carter RA, and Philip G, editors. Beyond the Ubaid: Transformation and integration in the late prehistoric societies of the Middle East. Chicago: Oriental Institute.

Connan J, Carter R, Crawford H, Tobey M, Charrié-Duhaut A, Jarvie D, Albrecht P, and Norman K. 2005. A comparative geochemical study of bituminous boat remains from H3, As-Sabiyah (Kuwait), and RJ-2, Ra's al-Jinz (Oman). Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 16(1):21-66.

Graham PJ, and Smith A. 2013. A day in the life of an Ubaid household: archaeobotanical investigations at Kenan Tepe, south-eastern Turkey. Antiquity 87(336):405-417.

Kennedy JR. 2012. Commensality and labor in terminal Ubaid northern Mesopotamia. Journal for Ancient Studies 2:125-156.

Pollock S. 2010. Practices of daily life in fifth millennium BC Iran and Mesopotamia. In: Carter RA, and Philip G, editors. Beyond the Ubaid: transformation and integration in the late prehistoric societies of the Middle East. Chicago: Oriental Institute. p 93-112.

Stein GJ. 2011. Tell Zeiden 2010. Oriental Institute Annual Report. p 122-139.

Stein G. 2010. Local identities and interaction spheres: Modeling regional variation in the Ubaid horizon. In: Carter RA, and Philip G, editors. Beyond the Ubaid: transformation and integration in the late prehistoric societies of the Middle East. Chicago: Oriental Institute. p 23-44.

Stein G. 1994. Economy, ritual, and power in 'Ubaid Mesopotamia. In: Stein G, and Rothman MS, editors. Chiefdoms and Early States in the Near East: The Organizational Dynamics of Complexity. Madison, WI: Prehistory Press.