Dawn of the City

Excavations prompt a revolution in thinking about the earliest cities

A massive earthen mound rises majestically and rather mysteriously above agricultural fields in northeastern Syria. From a distance, the more than 130-foot-tall protrusion looks like a jagged set of desolate hills. But up close, broken pottery from a time long past litters the mound’s surface. The widespread debris vividly testifies to the large number of people, perhaps as many as 10,000, who once congregated on and around this raised ground.

CITY RISING. In northeastern Syria, the earthen mound of Tell Brak ascends above fields where suburbs of the ancient city once stood. A. McMahon/Tell Brak Project
ANCIENT ROAR. A large artisans’ workshop at Tell Brak yielded this clay seal depicting a lion, a Mesopotamian symbol of a powerful ruler. A. McMahon/Tell Brak Project
BIG DRINK. Tell Brak investigators found this obsidian and white marble chalice in one structure, indicating that the city included socially elite citizens. A. McMahon/Tell Brak Project
WAR VICTIMS. Excavations on the edge of Tell Brak revealed skeletal remains of people thrown into two burial pits after dying in some sort of battle. A. McMahon/Tell Brak Project

Known as Tell Brak, the mound and its surrounding fields contain the remnants of the world’s oldest known city. The word tell refers to an ancient Near Eastern settlement consisting of numerous layers of mud-brick construction. Generation after generation of residents cut down, leveled, and replaced each layer with new buildings, eventually creating an enormous mound.

At the city of Brak, the first tell layers were built more than 6,000 years ago. At that time, the settlement emerged as an urban center with massive public structures, mass-produced crafts and daily goods, and specially made prestige items for socially elite citizens.

Surprisingly, the evidence for Brak’s rise as a major city predates, by as many as 1,000 years, evidence for comparable urban centers hundreds of miles to the south, in what’s now southern Iraq. Like those southern cities, Brak lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the ancient land of Mesopotamia. But scholars have long assumed that southern Mesopotamia’s fertile crescent, blessed with rich soil and copious water, represented the “cradle of civilization.” In the traditional scenario, fast-growing southern cities established colonies that led to a civilization of the north. Southern immigrants sought timber, metal, and other resources that were absent in their homeland.

Excavations at Tell Brak and at the nearby remains of a comparably ancient city, Hamoukar, may turn that model on its head. New discoveries indicate that the world’s first cities either arose in northern Mesopotamia or developed independently and at roughly the same time in the region’s northern and southern sectors. The idea that urbanites radiated out of the south and triggered the construction of major northern settlements now rests on shaky ground.

“As yet, no other large site, indeed no other Near Eastern site, has yielded evidence of early urban growth comparable to that at Tell Brak,” says archaeologist Augusta McMahon of the University of Cambridge in England. McMahon directs excavations at the Syrian site.

Researchers have also discovered dramatic signs of ancient warfare at Brak and Hamoukar. Further analysis of these discoveries may illuminate the nature of contacts and conflict between northern and southern Mesopotamians.

“Excavations at Brak and Hamoukar are the biggest thing to happen in Mesopotamian research in a long time,” comments archaeologist Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego.

Urban sprawl

Excavations at Tell Brak started modestly enough about 70 years ago. Archaeologist Max Mallowan, husband of author Agatha Christie, led a team that uncovered the ruins of a religious temple. Thousands of small stone idols depicting eyes littered its floor. The investigators dubbed the poorly dated structure the Eye Temple.

A husband-and-wife team from Cambridge, David Oates and Joan Oates, initiated a new series of Tell Brak excavations in 1976. At the time, they suspected that the site held remnants of urban development from perhaps as early as 5,000 years ago, when, evidence suggested, the Eye Temple had been built.

But as years of field work accumulated, unexpectedly deep tell levels came to light. By 2006, the investigators realized that they were digging into something special. Sediment from 6,000 years ago or more, when the earliest known southern Mesopotamian cities had not yet been built, started to surrender the remains of huge public buildings.

In the September 2007 Antiquity, McMahon, Joan Oates, and their colleagues describe these discoveries. (David Oates is now deceased.)

The oldest structure found so far, dating to about 6,400 years ago, featured a massive entrance framed by two towers and an enormous doorsill made of a single piece of basalt. Excavations revealed parts of two large rooms inside, a group of small rooms near the front, and a pair of guard rooms just outside the entrance. Despite its size, it was likely not a temple, but rather an administrative center, McMahon says. With a central room and several satellite areas, its layout is not that of a standard Mesopotamian temple.

“Whatever its formal functions, this is the earliest Mesopotamian example of a genuinely secular monumental building,” McMahon says.

A second ancient structure, with red mud-brick walls surrounding three floors, housed potters and other artisans. These workers had access to several large, clay ovens inside the building.

Pottery finds include large, open bowls, small bowls with incised craftsman’s marks, and a basic type of mass-produced bowl.

The scientists also uncovered huge piles of raw flint, obsidian, and a variety of colored stones used to make beads and other stone objects. Some areas contained caches of clay spindle whorls situated near the bones of sheep or possibly goats. These finds resulted from wool weaving, according to the investigators.

To their surprise, this building also yielded an unusual obsidian and white marble chalice. A piece of obsidian had been hollowed out to form a drinking vessel and attached with sticky bitumen to a white marble base. This fancy cup contrasts with mass-produced bowls found throughout the building and points to the presence of at least a small number of social elites in ancient Brak, McMahon holds.

Workshop rooms also contained numerous clay stamp seals, including one bearing the impression of a lion and another showing a lion caught in a net. Such seals signified a ruler’s total ownership or control in southern Mesopotamian cities, and probably meant much the same at Brak.

The researchers refer to a third huge structure from roughly 6,000 years ago as “the feasting hall.” It contained several large ovens for grilling or baking huge amounts of meat. The bones of goats and other medium-sized game, as well as pieces of mass-produced plates, littered the floors of adjacent rooms.

Either this building was designed for feasting or it served as a kind of ancient cafeteria for nearby workers and bureaucrats, the scientists speculate.

One of the most intriguing insights at Tell Brak came not from excavations but from an analysis of how pottery fragments accumulated across the entire site, from the city center to adjacent suburbs. Brak’s urban expansion began more than 6,000 years ago in a set of small settlements that now surround the central mound, according to the pottery study (SN: 9/15/07, p. 174). As these villages ballooned in size, they expanded inward. Construction of the city center’s massive buildings followed.

In other words, Brak’s urban ascent was not planned and directed by a ruling class that first built an imposing group of core structures, as happened at southern Mesopotamian sites. McMahon’s team argues that decentralized growth characterized the northern city, as inhabitants of nearby settlements interacted to cultivate a metropolis without necessarily planning to do so.

Brak attack

Sometimes archaeologists make major finds serendipitously. In 2006, local residents bulldozed a grain-storage trench along the mound’s border. The shocked farmers dug into a pit crammed with human skeletons, pottery, and animal bones. They had uncovered a mass grave.

Last year, McMahon’s team excavated the area and found two mass graves containing parts of at least 70 bodies.

Radiocarbon measurements and assessments of pottery scattered among the bones place their age at about 5,800 years, a time of intense growth at Brak.

These graves probably held the victims of warfare, McMahon says. The bodies primarily come from young and middle-aged adults who apparently died at the same time. Many individuals lack hands and feet, possibly due to scavenging of the dead by rats and dogs on the battlefield.

Skirmish survivors apparently dumped dead bodies of their comrades, or perhaps of their enemies, into the pits. It wasn’t an entirely haphazard operation, however. In one cavity, a pile of human skulls rises from the skeletal carnage.

Animal bones that held choice pieces of meat were thrown into one burial pit after ancient residents held some sort of ceremonial feast on top of it, McMahon adds.

“It’s a little bit gruesome, but very exciting,” she says. “It’s also frustrating that we don’t yet know anything about normal ways of death at Brak.”

The unearthing of mass burials at Brak follows the 2005 discovery of an ancient war zone at Hamoukar. A major battle destroyed the city around 5,500 years ago, says archaeologist and excavation codirector Clemens Reichel of the University of Chicago.

Reichel’s team noted extensive destruction of a 10-foot-high mud-brick wall that protected Hamoukar. Bombardment by thousands of inch-long clay bullets shot out of slings weakened the wall, which then collapsed in a fire.

Southerners likely contributed to the attack on Hamoukar, Reichel says. Destruction debris strewn across the site contains numerous large pits stocked with southern Mesopotamian pottery. Southerners either led the charge against the northern city or assumed control of it afterward, in Reichel’s view.

Investigators have also discovered a site for making obsidian tools on Hamoukar’s outskirts, dating to more than 6,000 years ago. The nearly 800-acre site roughly equals the size of Uruk, the largest known southern Mesopotamian city.

Hamoukar residents built this enormous workshop primarily to export tools, Reichel proposes. It sits on an ancient trade route that led to southern Mesopotamia.

“Urbanism in northern Mesopotamia started much earlier than we previously realized and wasn’t imposed by the south,” Reichel says.

Southern secrets

Ironically, new insights into northern Mesopotamian cities gleaned from work at Brak and Hamoukar highlight huge gaps in what researchers know about urban origins in the south.

No archaeological projects have occurred in southern Iraq for nearly 20 years because of political instability and war. Moreover, periodic flooding in that region has covered ancient sites in layers of river sediment.

“I don’t believe we’re seeing earlier urban development in the north than in the south,” Reichel remarks. “We don’t know what happened in the south at the time of Brak and Hamoukar.”

UCSD’s Algaze agrees. He formerly advanced the view that urbanism spread from southern Mesopotamia to the rest of the Near East, but he has changed his mind in light of the new northern discoveries.

Ancient urban centers in the north and south likely developed at roughly the same time, Algaze theorizes. For now, much more data exist for early northern cities, making regional comparisons difficult.

“Tell Brak is an archaeological gold mine,” Algaze says. “The picture of Mesopotamian urbanism is now more complex and interesting than ever.”

Consider the puzzle of the decline of northern cities such as Brak beginning around 5,000 years ago, accompanied by continued growth of southern settlements. No one knows why urbanism initially reached massive heights in both regions only to wither in the north and flower in the south.

For that matter, it remains a mystery why northern Mesopotamian cities emerged in the first place, Reichel adds.

New hypotheses for when and how Brak transformed into a major city need to be tested in further work, including excavations of additional northern and southern Mesopotamian cities, according to Algaze.

“We need to go back to the drawing board,” Algaze remarks, “and rethink how urbanism originated in the Near East.”

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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