Uruk Period Mesopotamia: The Rise of Sumer

The Rise of the First Great Cities of the World

The Blau Monuments - Late Uruk? Period Mesopotamia
The Blau Monuments are two slabs of schist owned by a Turkish doctor named Blau, who reported that he bought them near Uruk about 1901. Thought to be fake at first, but iconography suggests they may date to the Late Uruk period of Mesopotamia. CM Dixon / Hulton Archive /Getty Images

The Uruk period (4000–3000 BCE) of Mesopotamia is known as the Sumerian state, and it was the time of the first great blossoming of civilization in the Fertile Crescent of modern-day Iraq and Syria. Then, the earliest cities in the world such as Uruk in the south, and Tell Brak and Hamoukar in the north expanded into the world's first metropolises.

First Urban Communities

Sumerian Ruins at Uruk
Sumerian Ruins at Uruk. Nik Wheeler / Corbis NX / Getty Images Plus

The earliest ancient cities in Mesopotamia are buried within tells, great mounds of earth built up from centuries or millennia of building and rebuilding on the same place. Further, much of southern Mesopotamia is alluvial in nature: lots of the earliest sites and occupations at later cities are currently buried under hundreds of feet of soil and/or building rubble, making it difficult to say with absolute certainty where the location of first or earliest occupations occurred. Traditionally, the first rise of ancient cities is attributed to southern Mesopotamia, in the alluvial marshes above the Persian Gulf.

However, some fairly recent evidence at Tell Brak in Syria suggests that its urban roots are somewhat older than those in the South. The initial phase of urbanism at Brak occurred in the late fifth to early fourth millennium BCE, when the site already covered 135 acres (about 35 ha). The history, or rather prehistory of Tell Brak is similar to the south: an abrupt variation from the earlier small settlements of the preceding Ubaid period (6500–4200 BCE). It is undoubtedly the south which still currently shows the bulk of the growth in the early Uruk period, but the first flush of urbanism seems to have come from northern Mesopotamia.

Early Uruk (4000–3500 BCE)

The Early Uruk period is signaled by an abrupt change in settlement pattern from the preceding Ubaid period. During the Ubaid period, people lived primarily in small hamlets or one or two largish towns, across an enormous chunk of western Asia: but at the end of it, a handful of communities began to enlarge.

The settlement pattern developed from a simple system with large and small towns to a multi-modal settlement configuration, with urban centers, cities, towns, and hamlets by 3500 BCE. At the same time, there was a sharp increase in the total number of communities overall, and several individual centers swelled to urban proportions. By 3700 Uruk itself was already between 175–250 ac (70–100 ha), and several others, including Eridu and Tell al-Hayyad, covered 100 ac (40 ha) or more.

Late Uruk beveled rim bowl
Late Uruk beveled rim bowl, ca. 3300–3100 BCE from Nippur. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund, 1962: 62.70.25 

Pottery of the Uruk period included undecorated, plain wheel-thrown pots, in contrast to the early Ubaid hand-made painted ceramics, which likely represents a new form of craft specialization. One type of ceramic vessel form that first shows up in Mesopotamian sites during the Early Uruk is the bevel-rimmed-bowl, a distinctive, coarse, thick-walled and conical vessel. Low-fired, and made of organic temper and local clay pressed into molds, these were clearly utilitarian in nature. Several theories about what they were used for include yogurt or soft cheese manufacture, or possibly ​salt making. On the basis of some experimental archaeology, Goulder argues these are bread-making bowls, easily mass-produced but also made by home bakers on an ad hoc basis.

Late Uruk (3500–3000 BCE)

Uruk Cylinder Seal Rollout
Illustration of roll-out impression of cylinder seal, Uruk Civilization, Mesopotamia. Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Mesopotamia diverged sharply about 3500 BCE when the southern polities became the most influential, colonizing Iran and sending small groups into northern Mesopotamia. One strong piece of evidence for social turmoil at this time is the evidence of a huge organized battle at Hamoukar in Syria.

By 3500 BC, Tell Brak was a 130-hectare metropolis; by 3100 BCE, Uruk covered 250 hectares. Fully 60–70% of the population lived in towns (24–37 ac, 10–15 ha), small cities (60 ac, 25 ha), such as Nippur) and larger cities (123 ac, 50 ha, such as Umma and Tello).

Why Uruk Blossomed: The Sumerian Takeoff

There are several theories about why and how the great cities grew to such a large and truly peculiar size and complexity compared to the rest of the world. Uruk society is typically seen as a successful adaptation to changes in the local environment—what had been a marshland in southern Iraq was now arable lands suitable for agriculture. During the first half of the fourth millennium, the southern Mesopotamian alluvial plains had substantial rainfall; populations may have flocked there for the great agriculture.

In turn, the growth and centralization of population led to the need for specialized administrative bodies to keep it organized. The cities might have been the result of a tributary economy, with the temples the recipients of tributes from self-sufficient households. Economic trade might have encouraged the specialized production of goods and a chain of competition. Waterborne transportation made possibly by reed boats in southern Mesopotamia would have enabled social responses that drove the "Sumerian Takeoff."

Offices and Officers

Increasing social stratification is also a piece of this puzzle, including the rise of a new class of elites who may have derived their authority from their perceived closeness to the gods. The importance of family relationships (kinship) declined, at least some scholars argue, allowing new interactions outside the family. These changes may have been driven by the sheer population density in the cities.

Archaeologist Jason Ur has recently pointed out that although the traditional theory has that bureaucracy developed as a result of the need to handle all the trade and commerce, there are no words for "state" or "office" or "officer" in either language of the time, Sumerian or Akkadian. Instead, specific rulers and elite individuals are mentioned, by titles or personal names. He believes that local rules established the kings and the structure of the household paralleled the structure of the Uruk state: the king was master of his household in the same way that the patriarch was master of his house.

Uruk Expansion

Limestone Libation Vase from Uruk, Late Uruk Period, 3300-3000 BC
Limestone Libation Vase from Uruk, Late Uruk Period, 3300-3000 BC. From the British Museum's collection. CM Dixon / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

When the headwaters of the Persian Gulf receded southwards during the Late Uruk, it lengthened the courses of the rivers, shrank the marshes and made irrigation a more pressing need. It might very well have been difficult to feed such an enormous population, which in turn led to the colonization of other areas in the region. The courses of the rivers shrank the marshes and made irrigation a more pressing need. It might very well have been difficult to feed such an enormous population, which in turn led to the colonization of other areas in the region.

The earliest expansion of southern Uruk people outside of the Mesopotamian alluvial plain took place during the Uruk period into the neighboring Susiana plain in southwestern Iran. That was evidently wholesale colonization of the region: all the artifactual, architectural and symbolic elements of southern Mesopotamia culture has been identified on the Susiana Plain between 3700–3400 BCE. At the same time, some of the southern Mesopotamian communities began to make contacts with the northern Mesopotamia, including the establishment of what appears to be colonies.

In the north, the colonies were small groups of Uruk colonists living in the middle of existing local communities (like Hacinebi Tepe, Godin Tepe) or in small settlements on the edges of larger Late Chalcolithic centers like Tell Brak and Hamoukar. These settlements were obviously southern Mesopotamian Uruk enclaves, but their role within the large northern Mesopotamian society is not clear. Connan and Van de Velde suggest these were primarily nodes on an extensive pan-Mesopotamian trade network, moving bitumen and copper among other things throughout the region.

Continuing research has demonstrated that the expansion was not entirely driven from the center, but rather that administrative centers around the region had some control over administrative and manufacture of objects. Evidence from cylinder seals, and laboratory identification of the source locations for bitumen, pottery, and other materials suggests that many although the trading colonies in Anatolia, Syria, and Iran did share administrative functionality, symbolism and pottery styles, the artifacts themselves were made locally.

End of Uruk (3200–3000 BCE)

After the Uruk period between 3200–3000 BCE (called the Jemdet Nasr period), an abrupt change occurred that, while dramatic, is perhaps better described as a hiatus, because Mesopotamia's cities roared back into prominence within a couple of centuries. The Uruk colonies in the north were abandoned, and the large cities in the north and south saw a sharp decrease in population and an increase in the number of small rural settlements.

Based on investigations at the larger communities, particularly Tell Brak, climate change is the culprit. A drought, including a sharp rise in temperature and aridity over the region, with widespread drought which taxed the irrigation systems which were sustaining the urban communities.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Uruk Period Mesopotamia: The Rise of Sumer." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/uruk-period-mesopotamia-rise-of-sumer-171676. Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 16). Uruk Period Mesopotamia: The Rise of Sumer. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/uruk-period-mesopotamia-rise-of-sumer-171676 Hirst, K. Kris. "Uruk Period Mesopotamia: The Rise of Sumer." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/uruk-period-mesopotamia-rise-of-sumer-171676 (accessed March 26, 2023).