May 25, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 17

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    Expedition reveals beginnings of urban civilization

    By Williams Harms
    News Office

    In a joint expedition of the Syrian Directorate General of [area b]Antiquities and the Oriental Institute, a team of archaeologists have unearthed a large settlement in northeastern Syria. The discovery challenges conventional notions of the development of civilization because the site––Tell Hamoukar––emerged contemporaneously, yet independently, of other early cities in Mesopotamia.

    The find questions a traditional view that urban civilization first flourished in such Sumerian city-states as Uruk, located in southern Iraq, and then spread through the region during the Late Uruk period around 3500 to 3100 B.C. The Syrian discovery suggests that the emergence of civilization was underway earlier than that time in Syria, as well as in southern Mesopotamia.

    “We need to reconsider our ideas about the beginnings of civilization, pushing the time further back,” said McGuire Gibson, Professor in the Oriental Institute and expedition co-director with Muhammad Maktash of the Syrian-American Investigations at Hamoukar.

    “This would mean that the development of kingdoms or early states occurred before writing was invented and perhaps before the appearance of one or two other criteria that we think of as marking civilization. We may have to look to an earlier period, the Ubaid (c. 4500 B.C.), to find the earliest states. During that time, large parts of the ancient Near East had already been linked by trade.”

    [mcguire gibson]Besides writing, the division of labor and the establishment of an organized, respected hierarchy are other indicators of civilization. Those characteristics help societies develop order and defend themselves and provide opportunities for wealth to grow and arts to flourish. Apparently, those elements were in place at Tell Hamoukar shortly after the Ubaid period and before the arrival of the Uruk people from the south. The level of organization and cultural accomplishment of Tell Hamoukar at the time was surprisingly high, according to Gibson.

    In the earliest period of occupation at the site from 4000 to 3700 B.C., Tell Hamoukar was spread out over 500 acres, which would make it comparable in size to some of the Middle East’s largest ancient cities. “But the entire 500 acres were probably not inhabited at any one time,” Gibson said. “Most probably, in this early phase, there was a village or a couple of villages that shifted location within that acreage through those 300 years.”

    During the next phase of habitation around 3700 to 3500 B.C., still before any evidence of Uruk colonists or the introduction of writing, Tell Hamoukar was a well-organized prosperous town of about 30 acres, apparently enclosed by a defensive wall that was 10 feet tall and 13 feet wide.

    There is evidence of food preparation on an institutional scale, with large ovens capable of producing bread, beer and meal. Archaeologists found pieces of large cooking pots and ash with evidence of wheat, barley, oats and animal bones.

    “The ability of the local potters was extraordinary; some of the fine wares are as thin as the shell of an ostrich egg,” Gibson said.

    [seal]The key to understanding the level of organization that the people of Tell Hamoukar reached comes from a discovery of animal-shaped seals, which mark containers that apparently stored food and other goods. Some of the seals are small and have only a simple incision or cross-hatching on the stamping surface, while others are larger and have stamping surfaces with animal scenes.

    “We would propose that the larger, more elaborate seals with figurative scenes on the stamping surface were held only by the few people who had greater authority, while the smaller, simply incised seals were used by many more people with less authority. The difference would be something like the signature of the regional director of customs of Chicago as compared to the rubber stamps that read U.S. Customs.’”

    The sealing stamps recovered in the dig include one particularly fine piece in the form of a leopard with 13 spots and others in the shapes of deer, bears and ducks.

    In addition to the seals, the team found an art form called “eye idols,” a kind of bone figurine that has been found in one other site in the region. The eye idols resemble stick figures with large eyes and sometimes were included in burials. They also may have had religious significance.

    The team also found wells that were dug to provide water for the residents of the ancient settlement. Other ancient cities usually were built along rivers, but Tell Hamoukar probably flourished because it was along a trade route and was in an area that produced abundant grain and grass for animal fodder, Gibson said.

    The modern village of Hamoukar now dominates the mound in which the ancient settlement was discovered. Although modern buildings cover nearly 40 percent of the area, ancient pottery pieces are widely distributed throughout the entire site. Surface indications and excavations show that the area was occupied at various times with interruptions into the early Islamic period.