Wider Influence of Early Sumerian Civilization




1.  During the later Uruk and Jemdet Nasr Periods (ca 35-2800 BC) in the context of a coalescing Sumerian socio-political system on the lower Tigris Euphrates alluvial plain, we see central elements of this culture being diffused widely across the wider Middle East.


2.  First (ca 3300-3100 BC) the so-called Uruk Expansion involved the direct colonization of Northern Mesopotamia and Syria and the imposition of purely Sumerian urban enclaves into the existing rural culture.


3.  The second “wave” of expansion in the Jemdet Nasr Period (ca 3100-29/800 BC) derived from the initial  “enculturation” of the societies of the Susiana Plain (Elam) just to the east of Sumer in extreme southwestern Iran.  These societies adopted most aspects of Sumerian culture to their own local uses during the earlier Uruk period then in the Jemdet Nasr extended their own version of southern Mesopotamian culture far across the Iranian Plateau in the Proto-Elamite expansion.


4.  Neither of these episodes of Sumerian expansion lasted long.  The Uruk Expansion ended with the abandonment of the colonies by 3100 BC, while the Proto-Elamite expansion terminated by 2800 BC.  They characterize a pattern of attempts by early southern Mesopotamian societies to expand their influence.  Initially these were successful.  Ultimately they failed, but created precedents for later expansion.



A. The Uruk Expansion


1.  In the Uruk Period (ca 34-3100 BC) we see expansion of Sumerian urban society throughout Mesopotamia along the courses and tributaries of the Upper Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  There may have even been contact with predynastic Egypt with Mesopotamian artifacts being transported to Upper Egypt and the Delta.  Recent work now indicates that this Egyptian contact may have occurred in two waves: an early wave dating as early as 34-3300 BC, prior to the Uruk Expansion proper, that brought various ideas to the coalescing polities of Upper Egypt and a later one towards the end of the period that occurred in the context of the unification of the Pharaonic polity and northward expansion of Sumerian civilization.


2.  The Uruk Expansion or 3300-3100 brought complete intrusive Sumerian towns into Upper Mesopotamia, Syria, southern Anatolia and adjacent areas of Western Iran with cylinder seals and writing (administrative structure), bevel-rimmed bowls (organization of labor?), Sumerian temples and art.  These towns were intrusive into the otherwise rural northern lands and comprised walled enclaves either freestanding or incorporated into existing settlements.  The walls suggest that tension and conflict may have been part of the process.


3.  This widespread “colonization” has often been ascribed to the need to control trade.  However, some of the Uruk colonies were not strategically placed for this purpose.  Also, it is difficult to believe that, at this early period, centralized administrative institutions sufficient to control a region-wide complex of colonies could have existed.  Thus, economical expansion is probably insufficient by itself to explain the Uruk Expansion.


4.  After about 150 years at most all of the Uruk colonies were abandoned and the north reverted to its non-urban, non-literate status for over 5000 years.


5.  The Uruk Expansion was probably one factor in the emergence of the political processes underlying urban civilization.  While the control over areas outside of Sumer itself did not last long the urban “revolution” succeeded in establishing its priority in the south and was never seriously threatened here.



B. The Proto-Elamite Expansion


1.  The Susiana Plain directly neighboring Sumer to the east is a continuation of the lower alluvial topography, albeit into gradually higher land as it slopes upward toward the Iranian Plateau between the Tigris/Euphrates mouths and the Zagros.  Much of the area is high enough that dry farming is possible.


2.  The region had been settled before the Ubaid with small dry-farming villages.  These developed into a hierarchy of towns and villages centered on the largest – Susa – by the Uruk Period, with their own traits (rural settlement pattern, distinctive Susa-ware pottery, distinctive language).  However, while being in general topographically and culturally part of the process toward urbanism and complex society in the late Ubaid-Uruk Periods, Susiana did not produce a fully urban society with its “city States” and centralized settlement patterns.  This occurred in its western neighbor, Sumer.  Probably this occurred because Susiana did not need the same specialized hydraulic adaptations to a rainless alluvial plain as Sumer.


3.  In the Late Uruk Period Susiana adopted many of the urban cultural characteristics of Sumer – its use of cylinder seals, writing, temple precincts, measuring units (bevel-rimmed bowls), unpainted pottery, architectural style (recessed façade temples forms).  This indicates that Susiana adopted Sumerian features wholesale without direct colonization of the type characterizing the Uruk Expansion.  The resulting Sumer-influenced Susiana society is known as the Proto-Elamite.


4.  Writing was adapted to the Proto-Elamite language and cultural needs – the same forms but different script.  This shows the presence of a distinct, independent Sumer-influenced society.


5.  From this base around 3100 BC the Proto-Elamite “state” sent colonies across the Iranian Plateau as far as Tepe Yayha in southeastern Iran and Shar-I-Sokhta near the Afghanistan border.  Proto-Elamite presence is reflected in well-built rectangular-roomed complexes intruded into local settlements of different form and cultural features.  In these soc-called “administrative centers” the expressions of urban society appear (seals, written texts, bevel-rimmed bowls).  This indicates some form of political connection and probably commercial function.


6.  The Proto-Elamite presence with its connections to Susiana ceases by 2800 BC and local rural, non-literate, society dominates although these Iranian Plateau centers maintain commercial and some minor cultural contact with Mesopotamia and later the Indus Valley and central Asian Civilizations.





1.  The period in which urban civilization was becoming established in Sumer was, for a short period, accompanied by expansive trends that should probably be seen as representing an integral component of the formative process rather than derivative forces of economic and political[GB1]  imperialism.


2.  While economic needs probably played a role in the expansion, the driving force was the need to establish the institutions of legitimated religion, effective administration, coercion, and organizational control over large, extended populations, not just commodities.  This was facilitated by establishing the new order as widely and deeply as possible.  Once so established it could never be totally reversed.


3.  These episodes involved the need for the evolving temple-palace elites to establish their coercive control over populations that were probably, at least initially, resistive of this.  Thus, important kinship groups constructed authority jointly from control of the newly irrigated lands and the legitimacy of city gods whose stewards they became.   An important part of the consolidating process was its manifestation through actual activities that permitted the construction of pragmatic managerial institutions.  Systematic control through colonial expansion of religious and secular control (temple-palace system) to new areas, domination through conflict, maintenance and management of armies, economic networks, maintenance of distant trading centers and expansion of irrigation systems, all fed into the new institutional growth and consolidation of Early Sumerian urban society.


4.  The result was a system that, by the 3rd millennium BC, while unsuccessful in permanently exporting itself to distant areas, used this experience to become unassailable in Sumer and set the course of subsequent history.