One of the attractions of historical archaeology is the possibility to combine textual data with the archaeological record. In the world of Near Eastern archaeology, however, often the evidence of texts is taken to be the more reliable source, and elaborate historical reconstructions are occasionally made with little or no archaeological input. Such an imbalanced scenario is particularly dangerous with regard to ancient water systems, but the most successful attempts for Mesopotamia have been multidisciplinary collaborations, often incorporating ethnographic or ethnohistoric data.
Despite the perceived limitations of archaeological data, the most successful irrigation studies have involved them, for several reasons. The written sources on irrigation derive mostly from royal inscriptions. These texts reflect the priorities of the royal households that commissioned them, priorities that emphasize the legitimization of existing power structures. They describe not an objective reality (if such a thing is ever possible), but rather an idealized situation that supports the political agendas of the text-producing elite. Rarely do the political interests of the text producers correspond to the academic interests of modern scholars. For instance, royal inscriptions will emphasize the agency of the king in creating water systems (often acting with the blessing of the gods), but will fail to mention the preexisting systems that the king expanded, or the local systems of water sharing that brought water to individual fields.
Very often, the empirical elements of water systems were not considered significant enough to be mentioned. Yet for archaeologists, the physical dimensions of those systems are important for conclusions about economy and society. Elements of system scale (e.g., width and depth of canals, length of system, volume of water, irrigated area) are rarely described. Yet these elements are critical for assessing the extent of political authority, whether through control of land, or through the ability to mobilize the labor necessary for system construction. The absolute scale of an irrigation system could help archaeologists determine whether it was a critical element of the subsistence economy or a vanity project. When done on a regional scale, archaeological evidence can overturn major theories of social evolution; for example, the once-influential hydraulic hypothesis of Karl Wittfogel (1957) is largely out of favor, since Robert McCormick Adams demonstrated that urban settlement patterns preceded major irrigation systems by a millennium.
The study of preindustrial cities is in a phase of great dynamism.For a long time, early cities were viewed narrowly through the lenses of Classical and ancient Near Eastern urbanism. In archaeology, this situation emerged largely as a result of the great influence of V. Gordon Childe. His books and articles established a broad model of what an early city was supposed to look like; his seminal article on “The Urban Revolution” is the most heavily cited article in the history of the Town Planning Review. His vision of cities emphasized the “revolutionary” appearance of relatively (for their time) large and dense settlements that housed a ruling class (and its monuments) that extracted the production of the rural hinterland. These new urban places were further characterized by writing systems, art and science, long-distance trade, and the abandonment of kinship as a source of social cohesion.At this point, the critiques of Childe have largely been accepted. First and foremost, his characterization in “The Urban Revolution” is one of an early centralized polity— that is, a political form rather than a settlement form. More importantly, recent scholarship has convincingly demonstrated the remarkable diversity of early urban form, and it has argued, also convincingly, for a definition of “urbanism” that can accommodate such diversity. Indeed, for many current scholars, Childe’s “classic” formulation of the early city only really applies to the ancient Near East and the Mesopotamian examples that inspired him.In fact, Childe’s model does not even apply to Mesopotamian urbanism, at least not in its early stages. The diversity of urban form now recognized globally can also be found in the earliest cities of the Tigris and Euphrates region. “The Urban Revolution” model is not, however, useless, as it describes mature Mesopotamian cities of the third millennium Bce, and many subsequent urban places, quite well. But these cities came about with at least a millennium of previous urban development already behind them. They represent the end of a developmental process, not the start.
This study will illustrate three early Mesopotamian urban structures. They appeared sequentially, but not necessarily in an evolutionary sequence, from the late fifth to the middle of the third millennium Bce. The first, which appears to be unique in Mesopotamian history, seems to be a Near Eastern manifestation of a “megasite,” very large and low-density anomalies in the archaeological record, which in many parts of the world appeared prior to the appearance of less ambiguous urban forms. The second is a candidate for a Mesopotamian “low-density” city, a structure increasingly recognized globally but not yet in the Near East. Finally, at the time of the great Mesopotamian city-states, this study will argue that even the most geometric of settlement forms can be explained through the concept of emergence, as opposed to top-down planning.
In all of these cases, large settlements in early Mesopotamia were largely self-organized. Childe’s model may have emphasized new forms of centralized government in early cities, but a critical look at the archaeological data set of sites and landscapes suggests that bottom-up processes were dominant. It would be incorrect to call them “unplanned,” since all urban phenomena are planned at some scale; rather the issue is the locus of decision-making about planning. Traditional scholarship on Mesopotamian cities assigns most agency to kings and other elites, who often claim such influence in propagandistic royal inscriptions. In the case studies presented here, emphasis has been placed on households and neighborhoods, and the ways in which decision-making at those lower levels might result in the emergent forms of the earliest Mesopotamian cities.
Jason A. Ur. 2017. “The Birth of Cities in Ancient West Asia.” In Ancient West Asian Civilization: Geoenvironment and Society in the Pre-Islamic Middle East, edited by Akira Tsuneki, Shigeo Yamada, and Kenichiro Hisada, Pp. 133-147. Singapore: Springer.
Jason A. Ur. 2014. “Urban Form at Tell Brak Across Three Millennia.” In Preludes to Urbanism: Studies in the Late Chalcolithic of Mesopotamia in Honour of Joan Oates, edited by Augusta McMahon and Harriet Crawford, Pp. 49-62. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research and the British School of Archaeology in Iraq.Abstract
A common but implicitly held idea in Mesopotamian archaeology is that once urbanism appeared, Mesopotamia was thereafter an urban civilization. Despite various ups and downs through the millennia, which saw individual settlements wax and wane, the city as a settlement form was the defining characteristic of its cultural tradition. It is understood that not all Mesopotamian cities were alike, but there exists an idea that there was a durable essence to its particular type of urbanism. This study will consider one urban place, Tell Brak in northeastern Syria, over a span of almost 3000 years. In particular, it will consider variation in urban form at Brak in its initial incarnation in the fourth millennium bc, its later third-millennium BC reincarnation as Nagar, and finally its mid second millennium BC form. Rather than being one city that experienced phases of expansion and contraction, the mound at Tell Brak holds the remains of three qualitatively different cities. The differences in urban form were not insignificant variations around an essential theme but were rather manifestations of evolving social and political structures and institutions. This study will describe the various spatial configurations at Brak, their sociopolitical implications, and their places in broader patterns of urbanism in Mesopotamia.
The landscapes of the Near East show both the first settlements and the longest trajectories of settlement systems. Mounding is a characteristic property of these settlement sites, resulting from millennia of continuing settlement activity at distinguished places. So far, however, this defining feature of ancient settlements has not received much attention, or even been subject of systematic evaluation. We propose a remote sensing approach for comprehensively mapping the pattern of human settlement at large scale and establish the largest archaeological record for a landscape in Mesopotamia, mapping about 14,000 settlement sites – spanning eight millennia – at 15 m resolution in a 23,000 km2 area in north-eastern Syria. To map both low-and high-mounded places – the latter of which are often referred to as “tells” – we develop a strategy for detecting anthrosols in time series of multi-spectral satellite images and measure the volume of settlement sites in a digital elevation model. Using this volume as a proxy to continued occupation, we find a dependency of the long-term attractiveness of a site on local water availability, but also a strong relation to the relevance within a basin-wide exchange network that we can infer from our record and 3rd millennium BC inter-site routes visible on the ground until recent times. We believe it is possible to establish a nearly comprehensive map of human settlements in the fluvial plains of northern Mesopotamia and beyond, and site volume may be a key quantity to uncover long-term trends in human settlement activity from such a record.
The 2003–2006 Suburban Survey at Tell Brak investigated the spatial dimensions of the city’s urban origins and evolution via intensive systematic surface survey. This report places this research in the broader context of research on Near Eastern urban origins and development, describes the survey and remote sensing methods and summarises the results, which challenge several long-held models for the timing and geographical origins of urbanism in the Near East. Urbanism at Brak coalesced over the course of several centuries in the late fifth and early fourth millennia BC, when it evolved from a series of spatially discrete settlement zones into a 130-hectare city, without the benefit of irrigated agriculture. Other urban phases occurred in the late third millennium (70 hectare) and in the Late Bronze Age (45 hectare), all with different urban morphologies. Brak’s final settlement occurred in the Abbasid period, when a 14-hectare town grew around the Castellum. In addition to the timing, growth and variability of urban form at the site, the Suburban Survey also documented well preserved off-site ancient landscapes of tracks, field systems and irrigation canals.