Tell Brak (Syria)

Urban Origins at Tell Brak, NE Syria (2003-2006)

Until recently, the idea of urbanism in northern Mesopotamia was thought to be a southern Mesopotamian export which only became prevalent toward the end of the 3rd millennium BC (ca. 2600 BC).  Excavation and intensive surface survey at Tell Brak now presents a challenge to this narrative. The archaeological settlement complex at Brak consists of a large (40 m high) central mound, with extensive low “suburbs” around it, covering a total of almost 300 hectares.  Urban growth at Brak began at the end of the 5th millennium BC (ca. 4300 BC).

To describe and understand spatial and demographic aspects of the initial urban growth at Tell Brak, a systematic intensive surface collection was carried out between 2003 and 2006, as part of the Tell Brak Expedition of the British School of Archaeology and the University of Cambridge, directed by Dr. Joan Oates. This research was a component of a survey of Brak’s hinterland under the field direction of Henry Wright of the University of Michigan. The “suburban survey” was coordinated by Jason Ur (Harvard University) and Philip Karsgaard (Edinburgh University) with the assistance of Fahid Juma’a and Shilan Ramadan (University of Damascus).

Survey Methods. Using handheld GPS receivers, team members collected artifacts from units positioned variously at 50, 100, and 200 m intervals, which were adjusted to surface visibility and ground conditions. Within a 10x10m square, all artifacts were collected from a 2x2 m subarea and only diagnostics were retained from the rest of the unit. Potsherds were roughly classified by fabric and diagnostic forms (rim and base sherds, decorated sherds) were classified according to a survey typology. Quantified sherd and other artifact tallies were placed into a relational database and integrated with spatial data (collection unit position, land use, topography, etc.) in a GIS framework.

Survey Results. Before 4200 BC, a settlement of unknown dimensions existed in the center of the complex, but it is deeply buried beneath later occupations. The earliest urban settlement at Brak dates to between 4200-3800 BC (LC 2 period), when the entire central mound was settled, and small satellite communities appeared around it, covering 55 hectares. Between 3800-3400 BC (LC 3-4 periods), these satellite communities grew together and inward to form a near-continuous band of settlement around the central mound, spread over 130 hectares.  Urban settlement returned to Brak during the later 3rd millennium BC when Nagar (Brak’s ancient name at that time) covered an area of approximately 70 hectares. In the Mitanni period (Late Bronze Age), Brak again grew to urban proportions, now covering roughly 45 hectares.  The results of the surburban survey are currently being prepared for a monograph in the Tell Brak Excavations series, published by the McDonald Institute.

Project Acknowledgements. We are grateful to  the Directorate General of Antiquities and Monuments of the Syrian Arab Republic (especially the Director General Bassam Jamous and the Director of Excavations Michel al-Maqdissi), David and Joan Oates, Henry Wright, former excavation field director Geoff Emberling for permission to undertake this research and their enthusiastic encouragement and advice.

Click here for a list of publications related to Tell Brak.

In the Media

Lawler, Andrew, “Out of Eden.” Discover Magazine, December 2009, pp. 64-68 [web]

Lawler, Andrew, “66. Great Ancient City Unearthed in Syria,” in “Top 100 Science Stories of 2007,” Discover Magazine January 2008. [web]

“Outside-In Ur-banism,” by Paul Gleason.  Harvard Magazine, May-June 2008. [web] [pdf] [web extra]

“Tell Brak, Syria,” by Heather Pringle, in “Top Ten Discoveries of 2008.” Archaeology Magazine, January/February 2008, p. 25. [web]

“Outskirts may have preceded early city,” by Thomas H. Maugh.  Los Angeles Times, September 1, 2007. [web]

“New research challenges previous knowledge about the origins of urbanization,” by Amy Lavoie.  Harvard University Gazette Online, August 31, 2007. [web]

“Ancient Squatters May Have Been the World's First Suburbanites,” by David Biello.  Scientific American, August 30, 2007. [web]

“Mesopotamian city grew from merging settlements,” by Roxanne Khamsi.  New Scientist, August 30, 2007. [web]

“Ancient Syria: The Anti-Sprawl Solution?” by David Tenenbaum.  The Why Files, August 30, 2007. [web]

Elsewhere on the Web

Tell Brak Project at the University of Cambridge [web]

Tell Brak on Google Maps [web]