Uruk time

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The old Orient
The city gate of Nimrud
Timeline based on calibrated C 14 data
Epipalaeolithic 12000-9500 BC Chr.
Pre-ceramic Neolithic 9500-6400 BC Chr.
PPNA 9500-8800 BC Chr.
PPNB 8800-7000 BC Chr.
PPNC 7000-6400 BC Chr.
Ceramic Neolithic 6400-5800 BC Chr.
Umm Dabaghiyah culture 6000-5800 BC Chr.
Hassuna culture 5800-5260 BC Chr.
Samarra culture 5500-5000 BC Chr.
Transition to the Chalcolithic 5800-4500 BC Chr.
Halaf culture 5500-5000 BC Chr.
Chalcolithic 4500-3600 BC Chr.
Obed time 5000-4000 BC Chr.
Uruk time 4000-3100 / 3000 BC Chr.
Early Bronze Age 3000-2000 BC Chr.
Jemdet Nasr time 3000-2800 BC Chr.
Early dynasty 2900 / 2800-2340 BC Chr.
Battery life 2340-2200 BC Chr.
New Sumerian / Ur-III period 2340-2000 BC Chr.
Middle Bronze Age 2000-1550 BC Chr.
Isin Larsa Period / Ancient Assyrian Period 2000–1800 BC Chr.
Old Babylonian time 1800–1595 BC Chr.
Late Bronze Age 1550-1150 BC Chr.
Checkout time 1580-1200 BC Chr.
Central Assyrian Period 1400-1000 BC Chr.
Iron age 1150-600 BC Chr.
Isin II time 1160-1026 BC Chr.
Neo-Assyrian time 1000-600 BC Chr.
New Babylonian Period 1025-627 BC Chr.
Late Babylonian Period 626-539 BC Chr.
Achaemenid period 539-330 BC Chr.
Years according to the middle chronology (rounded)

The Uruk period is a prehistoric era in Mesopotamia . Depending on the periodization, it covers the period from around 3900/3700 ​​to 3100/2900 BC and thus follows the Obed period . It is named after the Uruk culture. This originally referred to a ceramic assemblage that was initially widespread in southern Mesopotamia. However, their influences can also be demonstrated in other regions of the Middle East . That is why the term of the Uruk period is also applied to Syria , Southeast Anatolia and western Iran . This archaeological culture was named after the Uruk / Warka site in southern Iraq . Its dimensions exceeded all other sites of this epoch and was therefore understood as the dominant center.

Knowledge from the Uruk period has been in constant flux since the early 1980s. The political situation in the Middle East contributed significantly to this. The Near East Archeology initially concentrated its research on the core area of ​​the Uruk culture in today's Iraq. From the First Gulf War , she was forced to move to other regions. Syria in particular moved into the center of attention. In the meantime, thanks to improved research methods, much more is known from there about the Uruk period than from its eponymous core region. However, the Syrian civil war ended the excavation activity here as well from 2011.

The special scientific interest in the Uruk period is fed by its importance as a turning point in human history. According to the current state of knowledge, urban and state societies emerged here for the first time. Its basis was an economy based on the division of labor, which was geared towards mass production. At the same time, many groundbreaking technologies were created; this also includes the invention of writing . The close ties between southern Mesopotamia and its neighboring regions are also a focus of research. Its nature, how it came about and its consequences are sometimes heavily debated under the term Uruk expansion .


The chronology of the Uruk period is controversial. There is agreement that it covers large parts of the fourth millennium BC. However, agreement could not be reached regarding their beginning, their end or their subdivision. So far, however, it has not been possible to establish a relative chronology of the various sites of the Uruk period.

This is partly due to the fact that a stratigraphy developed in the 1930s, but outdated, still serves as a reference system today. It is based on the sequence of layers in the Eanna district of Uruk. The layers XIX to XIII there (4000 - 3700 BC) still belong to the late Obed period. Only then, in layers XIV and XII, can the transition to the Uruk period be traced through its characteristic ceramic inventory. Layers XII to IX are assigned to the early, layers VIII to VI to the middle Uruk period. Little is known about them, so their boundaries and subdivision are very controversial. The beginning of the late Uruk period is set in the middle of the fourth millennium BC. It is much better studied. Layers VI to IV of the Eanna district belong to it, the end of which is between 3200 and 3100 BC. Most civilizational developments took place during this time. In Layer IV in particular, the urbanization of Uruk and the emergence of an administration are documented in the archaeological findings . The Uruk period ends with Layer III or the Jemdet Nasr Period (3100 to 2900 BC). The two names indicate that some researchers still attribute it to the end Uruk period, while others treat it as a separate section in history.

Overview of the different approaches to a chronology

Corresponding periodization systems also exist for the other regions of the Middle East. These are based on the local sites. They often only partially record the Uruk period. In Susa , for example, the assignment of shifts XXVII to XXII to the late Obed period is assured. However, the chronology is unclear up to layers XVIII and XVII, which can be assigned to the late Uruk period. However, more detailed and continuous stratigraphies exist from Tell Brak in northern Syria and from Tappa Gaura in northern Iraq. However, they can only partly be related to the stratification of the Eanna district.

At a conference in Santa Fe in 2001 an attempt was made to work out a new chronological framework. It is mainly based on excavation results from the neighboring regions of southern Mesopotamia. The nomenclature here is based on the assignment of the Uruk period to the late Chalcolithic period (Copper Age ). This is divided into five phases, LC-1 to LC-5 (LC for late chalcolithic ). LC-1 corresponds to the end of the Obed period. LC-2, the early Uruk period, is divided into two sub-phases. The older one covers the period from 4200 to 4000 BC, the younger the period up to 3800 BC. The phases LC-3 to about 3400 BC and LC-4 are assigned to the middle Uruk period. LC-5 finally corresponds to the late Uruk period, the end of which is estimated at 3000 BC.

Climate development

Approximate coastlines in the Uruk period

The life of the people in the Uruk period was also significantly shaped by the natural conditions of the Middle East. Their habitat was the extensive alluvial plain of Mesopotamia. It is very flat, with differences in altitude of often no more than one to two meters per 100 kilometers. A reconstruction of the climatic conditions at that time is possible, particularly from drill core examinations in the Persian Gulf . According to this, global warming occurred as early as the Obed period, which continued until the middle of the Uruk period. This was accompanied by higher precipitation in Mesopotamia and a rise in the level of the Gulf of around two meters. In the flat plain of Mesopotamia this meant an expansion of the gulf far inland. One can therefore assume that places like Ur and Eridu were seaports at that time. The resulting humidity offered optimal conditions for efficient agriculture. This could generate a surplus, which in turn provided the basis for population growth.


The material culture of the Uruk period is known differently in different regions for the reasons given in the introduction. For southern Mesopotamia in particular, findings are almost exclusively available from earlier studies. These concentrate primarily on the Uruk site itself. Studies in recent years, on the other hand, have focused primarily on regions bordering to the north. Overall, they deal with a larger number of sites.

South Mesopotamia

Clay tablet from Uruk (approx. 3200-3000 BC); Documentation of beer deliveries; British Museum , London

The southern part of Mesopotamia is the core area of ​​the Uruk culture. According to traditional doctrine, it was also the cultural center of the Middle East at that time. From the second half of the fourth millennium BC there are clear indications of an urban society. On the one hand, this includes monumental buildings . On the other hand, finds such as cylinder seals , clay tablets and the like indicate an established bureaucracy . It could be associated with an early state. Nevertheless, the finds from this region are generally rather sparse. They are essentially limited to the Warka site itself. This is especially true for remains of monumental architecture. Therefore it is ultimately unclear whether Uruk is to be regarded as a singularity or whether further such sites were simply not discovered due to a lack of research.

In any case, southern Mesopotamia had achieved considerable economic wealth in the Uruk period. The country had almost no natural resources . However, the wide alluvial areas of the Tigris and especially the Euphrates offered large areas for agriculture. Intensive irrigation field management has been practiced here since the 6th millennium . Considerable yields of barley and, since the Uruk period, also dates were achieved. In addition, the keeping of woolen sheep was an important economic factor. The two large rivers enabled trade contacts to more distant regions. On this basis, a densely populated cultural landscape was created , in which the first multi-part settlement systems could develop. There was a differentiation of a social hierarchy. The company became a division of labor. Sales markets may have been opened up through early forms of long-distance trading. The surveys by Robert McCormick Adams and Hans J. Nissen in particular made it possible to follow this development. They were able to clearly show that in the fourth millennium BC a trend towards life in cities began for the first time. Uruk seemed to have been the most important supra-regional center.

Little is known about the ethnic composition of the southern Mesopotamian population during the Uruk period. To this day it is unclear where the home of the Sumerians was. Their language is linguistically isolated and the archaeological evidence gives no evidence of migration. If they immigrated to Mesopotamia, this point in time can no longer be determined. Conclusions about their presence in the Uruk period are therefore not possible. Some scholars try to see an early form of Sumerian in the text finds from the Uruk period . However, this is not certain. The previously common designation "early Sumerian time" is therefore now outdated. It is also unclear whether other population groups - such as the ancestors of the later Semitic peoples - were then resident in southern Mesopotamia.

Uruk / Warka

Reconstruction of a pen mosaic facade from Uruk in VAM, Berlin

As far as we know today, the Iraqi Warka is by far the largest and most important site of the Uruk period. At the time of its greatest expansion, it occupied 500 hectares of land and offered space for 25,000 to 50,000 people. Archaeological excavations took place between 1912 and 2003. They mainly focused on the Eanna cult district and the ANU district . They are about half a kilometer apart. Probably there were two isolated places in the 5th millennium, which then grew together into one city. Monumental structures could be found on both.

The Eanna, named after the temple attested there in later texts, is the better known of the two areas. An extensive construction program can be seen there from shift IV. A considerable monumental building had already stood there before with the so-called limestone temple. However, the structures erected here were much larger than their predecessors and were based on new technologies and ideas. In the western area, the so-called stone pen temple was built , the reconstructed facade of which is partly on display in Berlin today. On him that followed Riemchengebäude . To the east of it, the Great Court, the hall , the monastery mosaic building , the building E , the pillar hall and the round pillar hall as well as the temples C and D , as well as the poorly preserved Red Temple. The temples were each built in a central hall construction. With a footprint of 50 by 80 meters, Temple D was the largest known building from the Uruk period. In Layer III, the Eanna was completely reorganized. The monumental buildings of Layer IV were leveled and replaced by a large terrace. The so-called collective find was uncovered at its foot . The works of art found in it are among the most important of the Uruk period. The following overview plans give an impression of the architectural development of the late Uruk period Eanna:

ANU district corresponding to Eanna III layer

There is evidence that the main god ANU was worshiped in the ANU district from 3000 BC to the turn of the century . This gave this district its name. In the Uruk period, several temples were built here on a high terrace. This itself came from the Obed period. The most famous of these temples was the White Temple . It got its name from the color of its plastering . In terms of time it corresponds to Eanna Layer IV. The so-called stone building was built next to the raised terrace . Its function has been the subject of some controversy.

The function of the entire complex and the individual monumental structures has not been finally clarified. The excavators referred to most of the buildings as temples. This attribution was influenced on the one hand by the well-known later function of the districts. On the other hand, this also corresponded to the theoretical approaches of the interwar period . Today it is more likely that the buildings served different functions. Overall, the Eanna could be a palatial complex . The individual structures could then have served not only as temples, but also, for example, as residences and administrative buildings. It is largely undisputed that the elaborate structures are to be understood as a clear display of power by local or regional elites of the time.

The importance of Warka is not only due to its architecture. After all, the oldest described clay tablets that were definitely identified as such were also found here. They were found in the area of ​​Temple C. Here, however, they were in the rubble between layers IV and III. It is therefore unknown in which archaeological context they were created.

The hinterland of Uruk

In order to supply the population of a city like Uruk, a larger catchment area had to participate. According to estimates, it must have taken up at least the area within six kilometers of the city. Here, the Adams and Nissen surveys were able to show a sharp increase in the number of smaller settlements from the middle of the fourth millennium BC. It corresponded to an increase in the total settlement area from 60 to 440 hectares. It is unclear whether this sudden increase in population density could be borne by the local population alone. Migration into the Mesopotamian alluvial plane is therefore particularly suitable. Due to the uncertain chronology, however, a less volatile event and thus an overall longer lasting development is conceivable.

A hierarchical settlement system clearly developed in the Uruk area. This was aimed at Uruk as the central location. Here Uruk took over certain central functions. This included in particular that of a place of worship, the administration and political leadership. Subordinate centers emerged in the surrounding area, which in turn performed certain central tasks for the villages. Some authors see this as an early form of a state .

Further South Mesopotamian sites

Uruk period marble club head from the Telloh site , Louvre Paris

Outside of Uruk, only a few southern Mesopotamian sites have uncovered Uruk-era layers. Only one monumental structure was discovered in Tell Uqair . It dates to the Ğemdet-Nasr period. Surveys have shown, however, that the great Mesopotamian cities were also populated in the Uruk period. Here the deep-lying layers of the Uruk period were mostly not (yet) reached. Settlements in Kiš , Girsu , Nippur and Ur are proven. Šuruppak and Larsa were possibly also settled. From Eridu as an important site where the Ubaid period nothing is almost known. In particular, there is hardly any evidence of any successor buildings to the monumental architecture of the Obed period.

Uruk period settlements can also be detected in the region of Diyala and Ǧabal Ḫamrin . Tell Asmar and Ḫafāǧī , which were important in later times, were settled there. Only in the recent past has a settlement layer been reached in Abū Ṣalābīḫ that can be assigned to the Uruk period. With an area of ​​about ten hectares, however, this place was relatively small at the time. A platform was uncovered within this settlement, on which a monumental building may have stood. However, nothing is left of him.

Finally, the location Ǧemdet Nasr is of some importance . He was named after the transition phase between the Uruk period and the early dynasty . Two public buildings were found there. In one of them there was an archive with about 200 clay tablets.

Neighboring regions of southern Mesopotamia

Archaeological finds from the Uruk period were discovered in the rest of the Middle East in addition to southern Mesopotamia. The Uruk culture is defined by a characteristic ceramic assemblage from the southern Mesopotamian sites. However, it can also be found outside the Uruk heartland. This is especially true for so-called Uruk colonies . Their range of finds corresponds almost exactly to that of southern Mesopotamian sites. This could be the result of migration movements from the south to neighboring regions. But other places also show differently intense influences of the Uruk culture.

Corresponding finds come from the coast of the Persian Gulf, which has hardly been investigated so far. The relationship between Egypt and the Uruk culture has been discussed for a long time. An influence of the Uruk culture can also be expected in the Levant . However, it is difficult to pin down in previous archaeological finds. There are very clear influences in Syria, Southeast Anatolia and Iran. There was a development of cities and larger political units parallel to that of southern Mesopotamia. They were under strong southern Mesopotamian influence, especially in the late Uruk period. It ends abruptly with the transition to the 3rd millennium. Then there were separate developments in southern and northern Mesopotamia.

The details of the spread of the Uruk culture from its core area into neighboring regions are difficult to understand. It represents a focus of research activity. Over the course of time, several theoretical models were created that were intended to explain this process. So far none of them has been able to prevail.

North Mesopotamia / Syria

Reconstruction of a house from Habuba Kabira in the VAM, Berlin
Eye idols from Tappa Gaura and Tell Brak in the Ebnöther collection, Schaffhausen

Several Uruk-era settlements were discovered in the area of ​​the Euphrates knee through emergency excavations in the area of ​​the Tabqa Dam . The most famous of these sites is Habuba Kabira . It was excavated by a team of German archaeologists. It is a port city fortified with a city ​​wall . About ten percent of this 22 hectare settlement was exposed. This showed that the location was planned on the drawing board . Its material culture was identical to that of the Uruks. It is therefore obvious that the place was re-established by settlers from Uruk. 22 Uruk-era houses were also examined here. Like the monumental buildings, they were all built in a central hall construction. Large buildings were mainly found in the area of ​​a hill, the Tell Qannas . Several buildings referred to as temples were located on an artificial terrace. The place was abandoned and abandoned at the end of the 4th millennium. Not far from Habuba Kabira, Ğebel Aruda lies on a rocky ridge. As in Habuba Kabira, there are also residential houses and large buildings. Just like there, it is probably a settlement of immigrants from southern Mesopotamia. Other such Uruk colonies with Tell Sheikh Hassan , Qraya and El Kowm 2 Caracol are also in the vicinity. Their function is unclear. It has been suggested that they should show presence and secure important trade routes.

In the Ḫābūr region , too , the first large urban centers emerged no later than the Uruk period. Tell Brak has been researched most extensively of them so far . There was a 110-hectare settlement with a spacious lower town. Typical Uruk ceramics were found in residential complexes. However, special attention has been paid to a series of successive structures, the most recent of which is called the Eye Temple . It was decorated with stone peg mosaics and equipped with a richly decorated altar. It got its name from around 200 eye idols , presumably votive offerings, that were found there. There were also clay tablets that may have been provided with characters . This would indicate an invention of writing in Syria that ran parallel to southern Mesopotamia. Tell Hamoukar , another urban settlement, is located near Tell Brak. The excavations there have been taking place since 1999. Research results to date indicate a settlement area of ​​up to 750 hectares, which even Uruk would clearly exceed. A Uruk colony may have been located within Tell Hamoukar. However, the site was best known for archaeological evidence of organized violence. This was the oldest known theater of war mankind. The extension of this site and of Tell Brak suggest an urbanization independent of southern Mesopotamia, which may have already started in the Obed period. Nevertheless, from the late Uruk period onwards, clear southern Mesopotamian influences can be found there.

Such influences are also detectable in different intensities in other sites. These include Tell el-Hawa , Tell Hamam et-Turkman , Grai Reš , Tell Mašnaqa . Slight influences have also been demonstrated in the Amuq level and in Hama am Orontes, and also in Tell Bderi and Tell Ziyadeh . Due to the low density of finds, it cannot be assumed that these are settlements of the Uruk culture. Rather, these places are likely to represent settlements with local people who may have had contact with the Uruk culture through trade.

Influences of the Uruk culture are much more difficult to detect on the upper Tigris than along the Euphrates. One of the most important sites in the region is Nineveh . Layer 4 there contained bell pots, counting stones and numerical clay tablets that can be assigned to a settlement from the Uruk period. This settlement probably occupied the entire Tell Kujundschik. It would therefore have an area of ​​around 40 hectares, but is hardly known. This is mainly due to the representative Assyrian buildings , which are worth preserving and therefore prevent further excavations. Not far from there is Tappa Gaura . This place went through a remarkable development already in the Obed period. He was named after a development in northern Mesopotamia that was largely parallel to the Uruk period . This also produced an urban culture, but remained largely unaffected by the Uruk culture. Instead, the material culture suggests links to other locations in northern Mesopotamia and Syria. In particular, richly decorated graves led to the assumption that even regional elites created a center in Tappa Gaura.

Southeast Anatolia

Drawing of a seal roll from Arslantepe

An influence of the Uruk culture can also be proven in archaeological sites along the Euphrates in Southeast Anatolia. In particular, Hacınebi near Birecik was researched in more detail here. This settlement was at the intersection of two major trade routes. Even in the B1 shift there, the 37th / 38th Century BC, bell pots appear. In layer B2 there are further typical South Mesopotamian forms. In addition, however, the local pottery not only persists, but also remains the dominant form. This is possibly due to the fact that South Mesopotamian traders lived here together with the local population. Another possible settlement from the Uruk period was discovered during an emergency excavation in Samsat . This is indicated in particular by clay pens, such as those required for typical pen mosaics. Connections to the Uruk culture can also be demonstrated at Kurban Höyük in the form of Uruk ceramics and at Hassek Höyük in the form of a central hall house.

Further north near Malatya is the Arslantepe . As early as the first half of the fourth millennium BC, a monumental building, the so-called Temple C, was built there . It was abandoned around 3500 BC and replaced by another monumental complex. From this point on, cylinder seals can also be found there, which have typical southern Mesopotamian style features. Here, too, these indicate an influence by the Uruk culture. It ends with the destruction of the place by a fire around 3000 BC. After this, the large buildings were not renewed. The material culture corresponds to the Kura Araxes culture of the southern Caucasus .


Counting stones from Susa; Louvre, Paris

From the 5th millennium BC onwards, there was an increasing cultural interaction between the neighboring regions of Susiana in present-day Iran and southern Mesopotamia. It can be understood in the cultural horizons Susa I and Susa II , which document Susa's growth into a city. Susa II corresponds mainly to the Uruk period. From the middle of the 4th millennium, the Susiana can generally be described as part of the Uruk horizon. At that time, a mighty terrace with an area of ​​60 by 45 meters was built there. Structures erected on it are poorly preserved. However, a large number of small finds come from the Susa II layer, which have significantly shaped the image of Uruk-era art. These include counting stones and seal unrolling, each of which shows a rich iconography . They are the product of a complex administration. It is also one of the oldest clay tablet finds. In addition to Susa herself, a settlement from the Uruk period has also been proven in the sites of Jaffarabad and Chogha Misch .

North of the Susiana, in the Zāgros Mountains , lies Godin Tepe . There the stratum V corresponds to the Uruk period. This assignment is confirmed by the material culture, which has references to ceramics of the late Uruk period and to Susa II goods. An oval plant was exposed in this layer. Within it, several buildings stood around a central courtyard. To the north of him there was also a larger building, probably of a public nature. This led to the assumption that the plant represented a post of traders from Susa or Uruk. It could have served to secure the trade routes to Afghanistan . Goods such as lapis lazuli and pewter were traded through them .

Further inland there are hardly any influences from the Uruk culture. Bell pots can still be found on Tepe Ghabristan in Elburs and as far as the Kerman region . However, sites like Tappe Sialk show a completely independent material culture.

The relationship between southern Mesopotamia and its neighboring regions

Since the discovery of Habuba Kabira and Ğebel Aruda in the 1970s, attempts have been made to explain the connections between southern Mesopotamia and its neighboring regions. The wide spread of material culture as well as the existence of possible colonies led to the assumption of an expansion of the Uruk culture. It was assumed that the south dominated its neighboring regions. The imbalance in the available research results also contributed to this view. More recent studies have mainly focused on sites outside of the Uruk heartland. They investigated connections between these sites and southern Mesopotamia.

The ongoing theoretical discussions have led to the development of general models to explain these connections. These models are often based on knowledge from other epochs as well as knowledge from other sciences. Difficulties in connecting these models with the archaeological evidence prevented any of them from gaining acceptance in specialist science.

Uruk expansion

Overview of localities of the Uruk culture

Numerous approaches tried to explain the spread of the Uruk culture. The most prominent of these is that of Guillermo Algaze . He combined the model of a world system borrowed from Immanuel Wallerstein with theoretical approaches from international trade and applied it to the Uruk period. So he came to the conclusion that people from Uruk established colonies in Upper Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Iran . With these an economic imperialism was pursued. The places are therefore trade hubs with which the South Mesopotamian population striving for goods controlled an extensive trade network. The need for this arose from the lack of raw materials in southern Mesopotamia. However, they were necessary for his civilizational development. In this respect, the Uruk expansion is comparable to the Greek colonization . Here, southern Mesopotamia assumed a dominant position compared to its neighboring regions. The basis for this was a productive agriculture, the complex society and already existing state structures. It was only then that the Uruk population was able to set up long-distance trading networks, influence their neighbors and, if necessary, defeat them militarily. Other approaches see the cause of the Uruk expansion in a land shortage in the south. This forced the farmers to move north. A central administration sees a similar approach at work. They have arranged the grazing necessary for textile production in northern Mesopotamia, at a safe distance from the areas in the south necessary for food production. Larger migration movements were also considered. They could have been triggered by natural disasters or political crises.

These theories have repeatedly been massively criticized. To a large extent, they are based purely on assumptions. As shown, knowledge of southern Mesopotamia is essentially derived from the two excavation areas in Uruk. Therefore, little is known about the conditions there. Then there are the chronological uncertainties. They also include the possibility that the Uruk expansion was a long drawn out process. In this respect, it is extremely difficult to determine at all the influence that southern Mesopotamia has exerted on neighboring regions. In addition, these theories are often at best compatible with the emergence of real Uruk colonies. The cultural influence of the Uruk culture on the surrounding regions remains unexplained.

Other approaches try to understand the Uruk expansion primarily as a cultural phenomenon. Some of them consciously oppose an explanation based on political or economic factors. Based on the phenomenon of the Koine , representatives of these theories see processes of acculturation, hybridization and cultural mixing at work. Some have argued that local elites used objects in the South Mesopotamian style to strengthen and legitimize their own position of power. Pascal Butterlin's model of a "world culture" points in a similar direction . He assumed that the Uruk culture served as a model for imitation in neighboring regions. Individual elements of the same have been adapted. In fact, there are significant differences in archaeological culture between the individual sites. Typical find genres of the Uruk culture appear together on them and have been worked out as their characteristics. This applies in particular to the key fossil, the bell pot . With this in mind, different types of Uruk settlements were stratified in a recent study - real Uruk colonies, Uruk enclaves within regional settlements as well as local settlements with only influences of the Uruk culture.

Uruk collapse

Just as the sudden spread of the Uruk culture is the cause of technical controversy, so is its almost sudden disappearance outside of its heartland. So the sites classified as Uruk colonies were abandoned, but not destroyed. Settlements with Uruk enclaves continued to exist, but their material culture no longer showed any southern Mesopotamian influences. According to current knowledge, the only exception to this is Tell Brak.

Guillermo Algaze sees the origin of this apparent collapse in the intensive agriculture in southern Mesopotamia. The associated irrigation led to the salinization of agricultural areas. This resulted in the first anthropogenic environmental disaster in human history. After all, agriculture was no longer able to feed the South Mesopotamian population. This would have resulted in famines and ultimately uprisings, which decisively weakened the position of the elites. This weakness was then exploited by local authorities in northern Mesopotamia to free themselves from dominance by the south. The validity of this theory depends to a large extent on the role of Uruk in the Uruk expansion. It presupposes the existence of an empire, which cannot be proven in this way. After all, at the end of the Uruk period, crises can also be documented for southern Mesopotamia. The surveys by Nissen and Adams indicated a significant decline in the population and the abandonment of numerous settlements. The demolition of the large buildings in the Eanna district and the subsequent construction of new buildings with a completely different character could also be the product of a political crisis.

In contrast, Dietrich Sürenhagen assumes that the causes of the collapse are to be found in northern Mesopotamia itself. Habuba Kabira was said to have been dependent on food supplies from the surrounding area to feed its population. Flared hostilities would have dried up this source of food. This forced the population to give up the city. However, the region around Habuba Kabira is very fertile. This could have played a role in the choice of location . Local settlements in the vicinity of the colony are hardly known. It is therefore more likely that the city was self-sufficient. In any case, it is noticeable that both Habuba Kabira and Sheikh Hassan were provided with a city wall shortly after they were founded. A fortification was also uncovered in Tell Mašnaqa . Fire horizons in Sheikh Hassan and Ğebel Aruda indicate possible military conflicts . However, it is not clear whether and against whom a war was waged.

Overall, therefore, even less is known about the if and how of a possible Uruk collapse than about the Uruk expansion.

Historical meaning

The Uruk period marks the threshold between prehistory and history in the Middle East. During this phase, innovations appeared that were groundbreaking for the following millennia. Particularly noteworthy is the invention of writing. But the emergence of the first states and numerous technical innovations also fall into the Uruk period. It is therefore considered to be a temporary high point in the development of society, which began in the Neolithic . These findings are based in particular on Anglo-American archeology, which has been oriented towards cultural anthropology since the 1970s . As far as we know today, most of these developments took place in the late Uruk period. Only then did the typical characteristics of the later Mesopotamian civilizations emerge.

so-called " Bearded Man from Warka "; presumably ruler representation; Louvre, Paris

Social history

An increasingly complex society has developed in the Middle East since the Neolithic. This development accelerated massively in the Uruk period. For the first time a political power appeared in an archaeologically comprehensible way, which was presented in spatial planning and pictorial program. It was related to better organization of society and centralization of certain functions in cities. As a result of this development, the first state emerged at the end of the Uruk period .


From the Uruk period onwards, it is possible to clearly differentiate between urban and rural areas. This differentiation comes from the modern world of thought; people at the time need not have been aware of it. The urban areas include in particular sites such as Uruk, Susa and Tell Brak. This is already evident from their spatial extent and settlement density. Monumental structures and archaeological remains of administrative activities point to a centralization of political power. This enabled these places to rise to the top of a hierarchical settlement system.

This phenomenon was recognized by Gordon Childe back in the 1950s . Based on the Neolithic Revolution , he introduced the term urban revolution . His model has been discussed and revised many times since then. However, the factors that led to the formation of cities are still not clear. All major Mesopotamian cities were also cult centers. Their religious significance may have played a crucial role in the urbanization process. Typically, however, they also served as markets for long-distance trade. The prosperity associated with the centralization of power may also have contributed.

Overall, research into urban development is currently in a state of upheaval. For a long time it was assumed that the urbanization process began in southern Mesopotamia. Only later, i.e. with the Uruk expansion , would cities have formed in neighboring regions. This idea is up for discussion today based on the findings from Tell Brak and Tell Hamoukar . Voices are increasing that assume that northern Mesopotamia will develop as a city in its own right.

The layout of these early cities according to an overall urban planning concept remained the exception. This phenomenon can be clearly seen in northern Mesopotamia at sites such as Habuba Kabira . Most of the other settlements, especially the older ones in southern Mesopotamia, grew more organically. Along with urbanization, social classes also differentiated. House sizes now vary considerably between 400 and 1000 square meters in their area. If the so-called temples of Tell Qannas were houses, the differences would be even greater. Changes in the social environment can also be seen in the architecture of the houses themselves. The houses show a clear differentiation between public and private areas. The central hall, which was probably used as a reception room, was more public. The adjoining room groups, on the other hand, formed the private area.

State formation

Cylinder seal with depictions of the "man in a net skirt" and his unwinding; Louvre, Paris

The emergence of the first states is also related to urbanization. For the first time in the Uruk period, it was possible to clearly identify political elites who separated themselves from the poorer classes. They presented their power in large buildings that clearly surpassed the corresponding architecture of the Obed period. Large differences in the grave equipment suggest an increasingly widening social gap. Their better position enabled the elites to gain access to long-distance trade and thus to prestige goods. They could also make use of other people's paid labor. That city and state emerged in a coevolution was first postulated by Gordon Childe and is now generally recognized. It is unclear, however, whether a territorial state like the later empire of Akkade was formed during the Uruk period . This depends a lot on the interpretation of the Uruk expansion. Instead, the emergence of numerous city-states that were loosely related to one another would be conceivable . An overall model for describing the social development of this time does not exist. Karl August Wittfogel's model of hydraulic societies is rejected by most researchers today.

In the Uruk period, political power was concentrated in a single possibly monarchical person. This appears new in iconography . It is a bearded man with a headband. He wears a so-called net skirt or is completely undressed. Images of him can be found on steles and seals. In these representations he often fights animals or enemies; for example in the lion hunt stele . He also appears frequently in triumph and cult scenes. The latter seem to have a relationship with the goddess Inanna . The Warka vase also belongs to this group of representations . Occasionally he is also shown as a shepherd. Sometimes this figure was called the Priest King EN. This seems justified because at the Uruk period no separation between secular and religious power can be established. In archeology, because of the characteristic costume, one often speaks of a man in a net skirt when depicting this .

In addition to this person, institutions appear for the first time as decisive political actors. They come across especially in the early clay tablet texts. It has not yet been clarified whether they should be viewed more as a palace or a temple. In the following historical epochs both were politically active. These institutions already had control over the movement of goods in the Uruk period. Presumably they organized the redistribution of produced goods, the irrigation of the land and the deployment of workers. It cannot be proven whether they operated as independent commercial enterprises. In any case, the basis of the economic system in the Uruk period was still the individual household. However, it was also suspected that households could join forces to form higher-level units.


sealed clay bull with counting stones; Louvre, Paris

The emergence of larger institutions with economic potential also made administration and accounting more important. This used new tools, especially for storing data. The writing and the seals were of the greatest importance. Over time, the writing profession emerged . They formed their own social class and promoted the development of a bureaucracy. Various text finds seem to have been made during her training. This applies in particular to so-called word lists with which the meaning of characters may have been learned, practiced or checked.

Seals were used in the Middle East at least since the seventh millennium BC. They were used to secure magazine rooms, containers and consignments of goods against unauthorized opening. For this purpose, so-called stamp seals were used up to the Uruk period , which were pressed into the sealing compound. In the course of the Uruk period they were replaced by cylinder seals . These are cylinders made of often valuable material. The outside was engraved with a negative . By rolling on damp clay, a positive of the engraving was transferred into the clay. In the millennia that followed, cylinder seals were the typical seal shape in Southwest Asia.

Another previously used aids for data storage were counting stones (also called tokens) and clay bulls . Counting stones came in numerous sizes and shapes. Each represented a particular material or value. Enclosed in sealed clay bulbs, they were used to prove the completeness of a delivery at the destination. In the course of time, the counting stones contained in a bull were imprinted on its surface. It no longer had to be destroyed in order to determine its content. At present, research assumes that these counting stones were used to develop the first characters, and from the bullae the clay tablets. In any case, there are characters that closely resemble the associated counting stone, but not the object they represent. The different value of the counting stones probably also contributed to the fact that different number systems were used side by side in the Uruk period . They depended on the type of property. The sexagesimal system , which later became established, as well as the decimal system and a bisexagesimal system were in use .

Technology history

In the fourth millennium BC, there was also a significant change in the economy. New resources were developed, new tools were invented and existing tools were further developed. In part, this made the production of surpluses possible, which is necessary to release workers from agriculture. However, this release is essential for a society based on the division of labor and the emergence of a state.


Burned clay sickle; around 3000 BC Chr .; Field Museum, Chicago

There were significant changes in agriculture from the Obed to the Uruk period. They were collectively referred to as the secondary products revolution . This upheaval is characterized by the fact that cattle in particular were no longer kept solely as meat suppliers. Rather, it was recognized that other animal products could also be used. This typically includes their labor, their milk and, in the case of sheep, their wool . Part of this is the invention of new devices. At the end of the 4th millennium at the latest, the ox / donkey pulled plow appeared. He replaced the hoe and enabled much more effective land management. The sickle probably appeared as a new harvesting device as early as the Obed period .

Agricultural yields could be increased by the systematically operated irrigation at the latest from the Uruk period. As a result, the overall landscape was also changed. Plots were given a long rectangular shape that was easier to work with a plow. Each parcel was also connected to an irrigation canal. This was connected to the major rivers via a complex canal system. The date palm appeared as a new product from the end of the fifth millennium BC, alongside barley cultivation . The donkey was also newly domesticated. This made it possible to breed mules and mules shortly afterwards . The first equids tamed in the Orient served as important pack animals from then on. The dromedary only became usable much later.

The changes in agriculture were not without social consequences. In particular, livestock was raised as part of extensive pasture management in the foothills of the Zagros. It was mainly operated by transhumant population groups. Agriculture, on the other hand, was the responsibility of sedentary farmers. The family formed the central economic unit here. However, generated surpluses made it possible to pay for work. This meant that the entire population no longer had to work in food production. As in later times, barley rations or wool were the usual means of payment.


Uruk period ceramics; bell pots on the left; VAM, Berlin

Partly related to the changes in agriculture, partly independent of them, there were also numerous innovations in the field of handicrafts. Textile production developed into an important economic factor in the Uruk period. This is also reflected in the representations on numerous cylinder seals. This development was mainly possible after sheep's wool had been made usable. This replaced the flax fiber used as the basic product up until then . The areas freed up as a result were then mainly used to cultivate sesame as an oil plant.

The pottery was in the Uruk period by the invention of the potter's wheel revolutionized. It took place in two steps. First the slowly rotating disk appeared. It was then replaced by the rapidly rotating Tournette . It enabled the faster production of ceramics, which was also promoted by improved kilns. From then on, pottery was mass- produced. This also led to a decline in overall vessel decor . Ceramic was usually only provided with a slip coating. If ceramic was decorated, this was usually limited to simple scratches. Presumably the demand for ceramics increased mainly to store large agricultural yields. It was made in specialized workshops. Since the local potters could no longer operate agriculture for subsistence , they were dependent on payment in barley rations. In this way the first professions developed. The most characteristic ceramic form of the Uruk period is the bell pot . It was standardized in size and made in a mold. Its function is not finally clarified. It is believed, however, that it was used to allocate rations.

Only a few finds exist as study objects on primeval metallurgy . The value of metal in the raw material-poor Mesopotamia is likely to be partly responsible for this. Instead of throwing away defective metal objects, they were melted down and the material reused. However, it is clear that the Uruk period stands at the transition between the Copper Age and the Bronze Age . In Frühdynastikum a sophisticated metal crafts already existed. It is therefore obvious to look for its origins in the Uruk period. The processed metal must have been brought in via extensive trading networks.


Part of a clay pen mosaic; typical decorative element for buildings in the Uruk period; VAM Berlin

Changes in the architecture are particularly noticeable in the Eanna district in Uruk. This is how the clay bricks that had long been used in the Middle East were perfected. In particular, they were burned into bricks . In the large buildings, they were used in standardized sizes. The smaller and easily manageable brick slips were used for towering parts of the building . In the terraces, however, the larger so-called puddles were built. Waterproof bitumen from natural sources in southern Iraq was used as the mortar . Sandstone and limestone were also used as building materials. They had to be brought over greater distances.

In addition to clay, stone was also the basis of the pen mosaics . This is a form of building decor that is characteristic of the Uruk period. For this purpose, partly painted stone or clay pens are pressed into the still soft plaster. The use of half-columns to decorate building facades is also new . The introduction of the pillar niche decor was groundbreaking for the coming epochs . It was used on public buildings and realized with straps. In contrast to the Obed period, these structures were not only built in a central hall construction . Instead, experiments were also carried out with new designs that were not continued after the Uruk period.

Invention of the wheel?

Whether the wheel was also invented in Mesopotamia during the Uruk period is debatable. Indeed, at the end of the Uruk period, depictions of sledges were increasingly disappearing from iconography. At the same time, the number of depictions of other vehicles is increasing. However, it is not certain whether these are wheeled vehicles. However, the wheel was probably invented further north between Central Europe and the Caucasus. This is what archaeological finds made there suggest at least. It cannot be ruled out that the appearance of wheels in the Middle East occurred in the Uruk period. In any case, cars already existed there early in the 3rd millennium. They did not use spoked wheels yet , which made them cumbersome. As a means of transport, however, the reed boat is likely to have become more important overall.

History of ideas

The serious changes of the Uruk period must also have affected the imagination of people at that time. This is partly reflected in their cultural language. To draw conclusions about the world of imagination is only possible to a limited extent and methodologically difficult.


Statuette of a seated ox from Uruk (approx. 3000 BC); Louvre, Paris

In terms of art history, there were significant innovations in the Uruk period. As already described, ceramics as an object of art lost its importance overall. Rather, it became mass-produced. On the other hand, however, new genres appeared. Not least, they were used by the elites to communicate their self-image. From the Uruk period onwards, more and more sculptures were made. Steles appeared as a completely new genre . With their larger surface, cylinder seals enabled completely new forms of representation. They often show complex narrative scenes, sometimes also endless representations.

Compared to the previous epochs, the Uruk period art is much more realistic . People are often at the center of the presentation. This is by no means always the monarch. Ordinary people can also often be seen in everyday situations. The Uruk period marked a turning point in the Mesopotamian style development. While representations of nature were previously very present, humans now played a prominent role. Even gods were depicted anthropomorphically from the end of the Uruk period . This was maintained throughout the historical epochs of the Ancient Near East. Theriomorphic representations also lived on.

The scenery and motifs of the glyptics can also be found in the round and flat screen. Uruk period statues are mostly small. These are fully plastic representations. They show animals, gods or the man in the net skirt. The most important works of art of the Uruk period came from the aforementioned collection. These include the lion hunt stele and the Warka vase. Other important finds are the little man from Warka and the woman's mask from Uruk .


Copy of Warka's vase ; Berlin, VAM

The religion of the Uruk period is difficult to pin down. Even the identification of places of worship is often not reliably possible using archaeological methods. Many buildings categorized as temples may have served other purposes as well. This is especially true of the Eanna district of Uruk. It is true that cult institutions could be clearly identified in some of the buildings there. However, this did not succeed in numerous other buildings. From the finds and the following epochs it can be concluded that deities were worshiped mainly in temples .

The goddess Inanna was probably of particular importance . It is most often represented and mentioned in texts. Even AN is probably mentioned in texts. However, the sign DINGIR is used for him . This also serves as a determinative for god names. It is therefore unclear in individual cases whether AN is mentioned in a text. Many early clay tablets document sacrifices made to the gods. Accordingly, the gods received gifts from the population on a daily basis, especially at public ceremonies. The same process is likely to be depicted on Warka's vase.

It also provides information on the cosmology of the Uruk period society. The representation on it in several registers constructs a clearly hierarchically organized society. At their head are the goddess Inanna, the man in the net skirt and her servants. Only in the second register do the rest of the people who deliver gifts follow. Among them are the animals that serve as food sources. The freshwater ocean and the flora form the basis .


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Web links

Commons : Uruk time  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

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This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on April 22, 2016 .