Historic Overview of Early Mesopotamian Civilization


Uruk-Jemdet Nasr (3500-2900 BC)


1.   The archaeological/historical evolution of early Mesopotamian civilization is traced by a sequence of chronological “periods” named after significant sites and developmental phases that distinguish the various times spans.


2.  Thus, the Uruk and Jemdet Nasr Periods (3600-2900 BC) marked the appearance of Sumerian Civilization.  These periods saw transition from the small villages of the Ubaid to the pattern of large cities and intensive settlement systems subsisting on the products of irrigation agriculture that typifies the later periods.


3.   The early part of this evolution is best epitomized by the city of Uruk which grew from a small Ubaid town to a city of several thousand during a two-century period in the mid-4th millennium.  This rise in the size of individual cities was accompanied by the emergence of a settlement-size hierarchy with several secondary-level settlements clustered around the central city.  It is this pattern that, with variation, dominated most of the later 4th and the 3rd millennia B.C.


4.  These developments were controlled by progressively more complex administrative systems in which the leaders of “temple” and “palace” organizations and private and corporate forms of ownership vied for supremacy.  This process finally produced the increasingly larger and more centralized “empires” of the late 3rd millennium and later.


5.   In the Uruk Period the rise of urbanism was accompanied by the progressive rise to importance of the temple. From its Ubaid origins the Sumerian temple was elaborated into the early temple-mound/ziggurat dedicated to the city god and located at the center of its precinct. 


6.   The increasing size of the Uruk temple was equaled by its political importance.  The temple combined religious worship, storerooms for agricultural surplus, administrative centers for the redistribution of food from the city (God) fields and subsidiary villages. 


7.   On the social level the Uruk and Jemdet Nasr Periods experienced increasing social status differentiation with elite rulers emerging at the apex of society and a range of officials and wealth groups intervening between them and the common workers - stratified society.


8.   In the economic sphere, the emergence of urbanism was accompanied and maybe consolidated as a new way of life by major expansions into new areas. The “Uruk Expansion” and the Proto-Elamite State” may have had as much to do with the consolidation of a new way of life with its “progressive” qualities, as it did probably with political and economic domination of neighboring areas.


9.   The period marks conclusion of the move from carefully decorated ceramics of the Halaf/Samarran to vessels mass-produced by mold or on the potter’s wheel for utilitarian purposes.  Pottery seen more as an adjunct of economic and utilitarian life, so elite status craft work shifts to stone and metal with impressive sculpture and jewelry.  A mix of formal corporate workshops and specialists who worked from their homes part-time for government and part-time for themselves - “cottage industry.”  In fact private production and property was always an important component of Sumerian society.


10.  The Uruk period saw the beginnings of literacy with writing as a tool to the developing economic systems and long-distance resource distribution networks.  Only later did writing come to serve a significant literary function.



Early Dynastic Period (2900-2350 BC)


1.   This period continues trends seen previously.  The Sumerian pattern of “City States” reached its full development in the southern alluvium.  This involved over 500 years during which individual cities under the divine management of their City Gods existed and jockeyed for economic and political position.


2.   In the E.D period we see growing influence of private landowners over the corporate sector and their co-option of the temple administrative system.  In a context of increasing inter-state competition this led to the rise of the “palace” as the dominant institution.


3.   This led to the appearance of the Mesopotamian form of “kingship” in which the king represented an extension of the earlier ruling position (probably an ensi or temple leader), leading to hereditary dynasties and the consolidation of power under divine auspices.  However, like the earlier rulers these kings still saw themselves, like all men, as servants of the gods – not divinities themselves. 


4.   Late in the period ambitious “kings” conquered large areas of southern Mesopotamia, set the stage for the “empires of later periods. The growing need for, and control over, the resources of rank by these kings further stimulated the expansion of formal economic networks and the development of accomplished specialized craft production.



Akkadian Period (2350-2150) and Later (2150-1900) 


1.  The rise of the Akkadian Dynasty reflects the culmination of     the trend toward political/economic expansion that commenced in    the Early Dynastic Period. It also marks the beginnings of a      shift of central power from the southern City States towards      the north with northern Semitic speakers taking political power    from southern Sumerian speakers.


2.  Sargon, king of Akkad created a centralized state that extended from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. This eclipsed and incorporated the Sumerian City States into a multi-regional polity that transcended and eliminated local competition. 


3.  Narim-Sin, the second Akkadian King took the trappings of divinity for the first time in Mesopotamian history. Became a junior member of the Sumerian pantheon instead of the steward of the gods.  This status did not long last and later Mesopotamian kings reverted to human leaders on behalf of the divine rather that asserted their own divinity.  Reflects the Mesopotamian realization of the inadequacy of human beings when faced with the cosmic forces that were expressed through their fierce environment.


4.  Akkadian divine kinship marks another polarity in Mesopotamian statecraft as applied to the ruler.  This is the contrast in conception between an anonymous steward of the City God versus the assertion of personal identity and power under a divine king.  The latter personality never became permanently established in Mesopotamian kingship.


5.  The Akkadian empire organized and ran a formal network of trading connections that extended from the Indus Valley to the Mediterranean.  


6.   This empire represents one pole of the structural Mesopotamian dichotomy between unification and fragmentation.  Throughout Mesopotamian history from the Uruk Period on there was basic tension between the City States (and later larger regions) wish for political autonomy and the unifying forces of world empire.  These led to repeated contrasting phases of political localization and centralization.


7.  Thus, following the Akkadian dynasty, a short period of traditional City State autonomy was followed by pan-regional supremacy of the Third Dynasty of Ur, then dissolution caused by invasions of the originally-nomadic Guti of the Zagros and ultimate eclipse of Sumer under the Old Babylonian Kingdom of Hammurabi.  At this time political power finally passed to the north at Babylon, and later to Assyria.