Chapter 1

Builders and Organizers

Around 3500 BCE a huge change began to take place in southern Mesopotamia, one that had ramifications for the rest of human history: large numbers of people began to live in densely packed communities with thousands of other people, namely, cities. And once they began to live in cities, a whole lot of changes followed, in the ways people interacted with one another, the ways they were governed, the types of technology they used, and any number of other aspects of life.

By this time, humans had been living on the planet for millions of years, modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) for around 200,000 years. They had been speaking fully developed languages for at least tens of thousands of years. They had migrated and settled across the planet. Throughout all these millennia, people were on the move, seasonally following their sources of food as animals migrated and plants ripened in different areas. Archaeologists find burials, cave paintings, intricate stone and bone tools, and small sculptures—tantalizing evidence of people with sophisticated technologies and ideas, and certainly with religious beliefs and explanations of the world they saw around them.

These hunters and gatherers sometimes created extraordinary monuments that would challenge people of any era to build, especially without modern technology. The best known is at Göbekli Tepe in southeast Anatolia (now Turkey), but there must have been others like it. Twelve thousand years ago, hundreds of people gathered at Göbekli Tepe to create a series of circles of engraved T-shaped standing stones, the largest of which weighed 16 tons. The incised images are of animals of prey, such as lions, scorpions, vultures, and snakes. This must have been a place of great importance for the people who built and visited it. But because writing didn’t develop until 7,000 years after it was built, we can only guess at its meaning.

Around the same time as the construction of the monument at Göbekli Tepe, humans in a few places in the Near East first settled in small communities that they occupied year-round. Initially, people living in these communities supported themselves by hunting wild animals and gathering plants that were available locally. It was no coincidence that in the Near East early villages were often located near stands of wild wheat and barley that, after being harvested, could be stored over long periods to feed a settled population. Only after they had settled did people begin to farm. This transformation has sometimes been called the “agricultural revolution,” but people living through it would have experienced nothing revolutionary. Farming and herding seem to have crept into the economy, only very gradually coming to replace hunting and gathering. This period is called the Neolithic, and in the Near East it lasted from around 10000 BCE to around 5300 BCE.

During the Neolithic, people in the Near East traded for goods they needed, and luxury goods they wanted, over vast areas and for a very long time. Shells spread out from the Red Sea, passing from person to person and being treasured in many places. Obsidian, a volcanic glass that was particularly sharp and useful for stone tools, spread from central Anatolia—modern Turkey. Other beautiful stones were transported all the way from Afghanistan to Mesopotamia—modern Iraq.

By 6500 BCE, some of the finest pottery in all of history was already being manufactured by specialists. People lived in neatly built rectangular brick or stone houses with plaster floors. Most Neolithic communities were small—just a few dozen people—but a few grew to considerable size. Çatalhöyük, in what is now Turkey, boasted a remarkably large population of between 3,500 and 8,000 people in the mid-seventh millennium BCE.1 Its population seems to have been egalitarian, with an equal distribution of wealth, and the city was not dominated by monumental buildings like later cities. Although Çatalhöyük can be described as a city, based on its population size, it didn’t give rise to an urban culture in its region.

As the Neolithic came to an end, people had moved into southern Mesopotamia. The coast of the Persian Gulf was considerably farther north than it is now (though scholars disagree about where it was actually located),2 and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, with their origins in what is now Turkey, took their separate winding courses across the hot, almost rainless flood plain of southern Iraq, eventually reaching marshland and spilling into the Gulf. People settled there in the fifth millennium BCE, north of the marshlands, in an area that was ideal for their needs—the soil was rich from the silt carried down by the rivers; the water was fresh, not salty, and it spread out across the landscape in fans of small channels.3 These fans could be managed so that the land they passed through could hold on to floodwater for longer. People began to construct banks and dams to create basins to achieve this.4 This is called basin irrigation, and it provided enough water for annual crops of barley and wheat. The communities in which the people settled grew larger than villages, larger than towns.

All of which is to say that, by the mid-fourth millennium BCE, the world was already a sophisticated place with plenty of history and tradition, and, in spite of the hot, dry climate, southern Mesopotamia was an excellent place to live.

People at the time had interests and skills, they no doubt talked about fascinating things, they loved their families, they worried about the crops, and they had expertise that most of us have long since lost. They knew how to store their grain so that it would be safe from vermin and insects. They knew how to spin flax into linen thread using a spindle whorl and how to weave the thread into fabric. They knew how to create a perfect blade by chipping a flint block just so.

Cities developed independently in other regions of the globe, of course, but, as far as we can tell, in 3500 BCE the largest city on Earth, and one of the earliest, was in southern Mesopotamia. The city’s name was Uruk. It was situated by the Euphrates River, right in that ideal area where basin irrigation produced abundant crops, around 120 kilometers (75 miles) from what was then the coast of the Gulf.5

For this first chapter I can provide you with no names for the inhabitants of Uruk whose lives interest us. The people of the middle of the fourth millennium BCE certainly had them, each one a phrase or sentence that had meaning in their language, but they are all lost to us. In later periods, scribes wrote letters, lists, inscriptions, contracts, and many other types of documents that provide us with evidence about the people who lived at the time. But until the late fourth millennium BCE, writing had not yet developed. We face much more of a challenge to see the world through their eyes without more detailed texts to help us. So, as we begin to look at what life was like in Uruk, before writing came along, we will explore other types of evidence of individuals who lived around 3500 BCE and experienced some of the biggest changes in all of human history as they accustomed themselves to urban life.

At that time, perhaps as many as 40,000 of the newly urbanized people lived in Uruk. A gathering of that many people today at a football stadium would be unremarkable, and a town of 40,000 is not a big place in the modern world. But for the fourth millennium BCE, it was astounding. The world had never seen anything like it. In fact, a city that big continued to be a rarity for millennia. Uruk was 2.5 square kilometers (a square mile) in extent, and was on a completely different scale from its neighbors: ten times the size, in fact, of the next biggest city in the region.6 Uruk was already the same size as Athens in 500 BCE, 3,000 years later.7

Uruk in the fourth millennium BCE was altogether a remarkable place to be. People living there experienced a style of life that had never existed before. It created the mold for all Mesopotamian cities to come.8 This period also saw the creation of the artistic style of the Mesopotamians. It saw the development of a system of accounting and of weights and measures that placed subsequent Mesopotamian economies on a sound footing. It saw the invention of a writing system that allowed information about their culture to pass down through the ages. Incredibly, after this abrupt and almost uncanny start, these institutions and others continued for thousands of years and had an impact on the surrounding cultures as well.

Uruk had existed as a smaller community for at least a thousand years before this,9 but now that it had grown so large, its people faced new challenges. For one thing, the city needed organizing. We tend to assume that any large group of people in premodern times must have had a powerful man in charge. After all, once monarchy developed in any region, that system of government tended to become deeply established and pretty much unassailable. Uruk had no clear royal palace at this time, however, and no names of kings are preserved once they began to write, and yet some person—or some group of people—must have been running the place. Archaeologists and historians of this era have gone in search of these individuals. Who were they?

Excavations at Uruk

When the first archaeologists came to dig at Uruk in 1913, they encountered a site that was vast and unexplored. Not much was known about the beginnings of urban culture back then; the discoveries at Uruk and those of other archaeologists in southern Iraq vastly expanded the world’s knowledge of early cities. Over the decades, the German team heading the excavation returned year after year (with interruptions for world wars and local conflicts) and they discovered temples, palaces, and walls that had been built over about a 5,000-year period, from the fifth millennium BCE to the fifth century CE. Imagine: one city stood on exactly the same spot for 5,000 years, at the end of which the Roman Empire was still around. What we lump together as ancient history lasted for a very, very long time.

In fact, Uruk lasted long enough that, over centuries, the city had grown higher and higher in elevation above the floodplain. This was true of all ancient cities in the Near East. The debris that was generated just by living—the broken walls and abandoned floors and forgotten trash—was rarely swept away. The debris just stayed where it was and, time and again, was incorporated into new floors and streets as new buildings were constructed. The giant mounds that formed are now, and were then, called “tells.” Even the word is ancient.

The German archaeologists at Uruk dug down through many layers of occupation; the city remained important long after the fourth millennium. In 1928 they began to excavate the levels that were laid down during the fourth millennium BCE, and what they found were buildings and artifacts of unanticipated and stunning sophistication. The archaeologists assigned Roman numerals to these levels of occupation, starting at I for the top, most recent, level, then II, III, and so on for the earlier levels; these level numbers are still in use. A little confusingly, the numbers therefore get smaller as one moves forward in time, so that the city of Uruk level VI existed before Uruk V, which existed before Uruk IV, which existed before Uruk III.10 Together these levels (VI through III) constitute what is called the Uruk period, named for the city because Uruk seems to have taken the lead in technological and social innovation, providing a model for other cities across the Near East.

A Visitor to the Stone Cone Temple

Two great temple complexes dominated the city in the Uruk period. We know from later eras that one was dedicated to the god An, the god of the heavens (the sky), and the other to the goddess Inana, who controlled love and warfare. Inana’s temple complex was called the Eanna, the “house of the heavens.”

Within the Eanna stood a truly remarkable building. We often describe things offhandedly as “unique” while knowing that it’s not really true, but this building was exactly that. Nothing remotely like it has ever been found. It was constructed during what the excavators called Level VI, around perhaps 3500 BCE. The archaeologists discovered only its foundations and the layers of debris from when it was abandoned, but it’s possible to reconstruct what it would have looked like when newly built and to explore some of the extraordinary innovations that the architect or architects introduced into it.

A man from another ancient town, let’s say the town of Ur to the south, might have come to visit the Eanna during Level VI, arriving in Uruk at a southern gate in the wall of the city. Turning around to survey the countryside before entering, the visitor would have been struck by the flatness of the landscape. The Euphrates River flowed next to the city, a wide band of water heading for the Lower Sea (the Persian Gulf, to us) beyond the horizon. Reed boats with high prows sailed southward, following the current. Boats going north could be seen being towed with ropes by people walking along a riverside path. As far as his eye could see and beyond—the whole of southern Mesopotamia—was a wide river valley. Off to the east, though not visible from Uruk, flowed the Euphrates’s twin river, the Tigris. Between them, these two great rivers had laid down a vast landscape of silt. This dominating feature provided the origin of the name given to the region by the ancient Greeks. It was “between”—meso—“the rivers”—potamia.

Fields surrounded by banks stretched out along natural channels around the base of the tell on which Uruk stood, and farmers would have been at work everywhere. Their towns and villages dotted the landscape as well, the bigger towns raised from the plain on tells of their own. In the region around Uruk, archaeologists have found the remains of many smaller communities, which would have been dependent on the city. Next to the riverbank and the riverside path stood orchards of date palms, planted slightly higher than the fields, growing on the natural levees that had built up on the edge of the Euphrates.

The visitor entered Uruk and made his way toward the city center. It was a very different experience to live in a city than in a village or small town. People on the streets were mostly strangers, even to other residents of Uruk. Any given person could have been acquainted with only a small fraction of the city’s population. Living in such proximity to so many strangers was an unusual experience at this point in human history, though in any given neighborhood people probably lived close to family members. This was true throughout Mesopotamian history; family bonds were very tight.

The visitor walked on along the dusty streets, which were lined with windowless mudbrick houses, without breaks between them. (The excavators didn’t explore the neighborhoods of Uruk, but we have a sense of what they would have been like from excavations of other towns and cities of the same era.) Some houses opened onto pleasant internal courtyards, others had long central halls with rooms opening off them, but every house kept its secrets from people in the street. There were no front yards or spaces between houses—adjoining houses shared walls.11 The man visiting from Ur probably kept close to the walls to take advantage of their shade; the weather in southern Mesopotamia was hot for most of the year, and the sun unforgiving.

We moderns take living in cities for granted—we expect services like trucks that haul away our trash, pipes that bring clean water, sewerage systems that whisk away our waste, grocery stores that provide fresh food, and hospitals that help us when we’re ill, all of which make life in a densely packed community manageable. The people of Uruk shared with us many of the same needs but had none of the conveniences. They needed water and food, along with oil to light their homes, wool to make their clothing, bricks and clay to repair their houses. All these had to be carried into the city. Meanwhile, they produced all kinds of waste and trash, which they either threw into the street or dropped from the edge of the tell. They must have been annoyed by the loud noises of animals and people in the street, and they must have been vulnerable to diseases that could have spread easily in such a close community. Altogether you might imagine life there to have been a sort of bedlam. Old village hierarchies based on families, which would have kept the peace in villages, wouldn’t have worked to contain the whims, plans, and passions of tens of thousands of people. So, was living in Uruk dangerous and chaotic? It seems not. The evidence suggests that it was a well-run place and that people lived there not under duress but voluntarily. Studies of skeletal remains have shown that, not just in Uruk but throughout Mesopotamia at this time, people were less likely to be struck in the head than in surrounding regions.12 It was not an especially violent place.

From a distance, the visitor would have spotted the most prominent feature on the Uruk skyline: a temple raised on a platform. It was probably dedicated to the god of the heavens, known as An, who was worshiped in a temple on that spot for many centuries to follow. The platform and temple had been built and rebuilt over centuries, and the temple itself was plastered and would have gleamed a bright white in the sunshine. The excavators called it the White Temple.13

The visitor chose not to go there—his destination was the Eanna temple to the goddess Inana (Fig. 1.1). As he approached he would have noticed a long, plastered wall that seemed, from a distance, to have been painted with dark vertical stripes. On drawing closer it would have become clear that the stripes were the shadows of dozens of vertical buttresses, evenly spaced along the walls surrounding a rectangular enclosure. He would not have been able to tell (because of the plaster coating), but this wall was built from limestone, not the usual mudbrick that had been used in construction for centuries.14



Fig. 1.1 A reconstruction proposal of the Stone Cone Temple with close-up showing the mosaic pattern of stone cones on the walls c. 3500 bce. This image was made in 2012. (©; Material: German Archaeological Institute)

For most Urukians, this was probably the extent of their access to this sacred spot, but let us say that our visitor was a high-ranking person who was allowed inside the wall. There he encountered a dazzling courtyard space gleaming with bright colors in regular geometric patterns. The inside face of the enclosure wall, and the walls of the impressive temple that it surrounded, were all decorated in mosaics (Fig. 1.1). Various geometric, symmetrical, blue and yellow-green patterns appeared on the surrounding wall,15 while red, white, and black mosaic diamond shapes decorated the walls of the building inside the enclosure.16

All the stone for the mosaics on the temple had been carefully carved into innumerable small cones, each about four to five inches long. Only the circular, flat ends of the cones made up the mosaics; their sharp points were set into the wall. They are the earliest known mosaics anywhere. Someone had worked out a way to keep the cones in place: archaeologists found thousands of rectangular clay plaques, each about 21 centimeters (8 inches) long, with curved ends and small holes at each end. They had been set in horizontal rows, sticking out from the walls, between each layer of building material. Perhaps a grid was threaded through the holes, providing a support structure for the small but heavy stone cones and to make sure they were placed accurately, like knots in a giant stone carpet.17

The German archaeologists who excavated the building called this the Steinstifttempel or Stone Cone Temple, but the ancient visitor would not have been aware of the cones, only of the beautiful diamond patterns in brilliant colors that their polished circular ends formed on the walls.18 They gave the whole building the look of a giant jewel box.19

Perhaps the strangest feature of the Stone Cone Temple was the composition of the walls that supported the mosaics. For thousands of years, people in the Near East had been building structures out of reeds and mudbrick, or of stone if they lived near a source of building stone. (Note, though, that until the time of the Stone Cone temple, stone had almost never been used for building in the southern stretches of the Mesopotamian river valley because it didn’t occur there naturally.) In some regions, plaster was often used as a coating on the walls and floors. It was created by burning limestone at around 600 degrees C (more than 1100 degrees F) to turn it into a dry powder. As with modern plaster of Paris, water was then added to the dry powder, which made it malleable or spreadable. Once the plaster dried, it became hard and water-resistant.

People had been making lime plaster this way for more than 4,000 years before the Stone Cone Temple was constructed; it even predated the invention of pottery. In the eighth and seventh millennia BCE in regions of the Levant, plaster had briefly been tried as a medium for vessels and sculpture,20 but clay had proved to make superior pots (the plaster ones disintegrated over a fire), and stone made longer-lasting sculptures, so their plaster equivalents had long since gone out of fashion.

Nevertheless, someone involved in the planning of the Stone Cone Temple had a bright idea about plaster. Perhaps, this person thought, burned lime combined with crushed bricks might make a new and sturdy building material.21 It could be poured into molds in layers and would set hard.22 The archaeologists who dug up the temple recognized the walls as being made of a form of concrete, used in a confoundingly early historical context.

Most ancient innovations can be traced over a long period of development and they continued to be perfected, so it’s hard to imagine a single mind behind them; there are almost no ancient Thomas Edisons. But the walls of the Stone Cone Temple are so strange that they suggest the existence of an anonymous inventor trying a new experimental building technique.

The architects must have been aware of the structural complications of the weight of the concrete walls of the Stone Cone Temple, along with the weight of the cones themselves.23 The building has a much more substantial limestone and clay foundation than was normal, and this seems to have been added specifically in order to support the extra weight of the building.24 Scholars have also calculated that the Stone Cone Temple was much more costly, in terms of the effort involved to construct it, than any other comparable monumental building of the Uruk period, even though it wasn’t the largest.25

Our visitor to the temple would not, however, have been aware of the deep foundations or the concrete walls, which were invisible under the stone mosaics. Inside the temple, in the relative cool of the high-ceilinged rooms, the diamond-shaped mosaic patterns continued on the walls. The core of the temple was a long room flanked by smaller rooms on both its long sides. This three-part design has been dubbed the “tripartite temple” form, and it became the classic template for temples in the Uruk period (though subsequent tripartite temples were built of mudbrick).

Yet again, though, the Stone Cone Temple broke the mold and was unlike any other tripartite temple. This is because it contained a large L-shaped pool that was 13.7 meters (45 feet) long and 0.8 meters (2.5 feet) deep and took up an entire room.26 The pool had been created to be watertight, and it was not the only room for which this was true. The floors of the whole temple were waterproofed with imported bitumen. In the long central room, the bitumen was, in turn, coated with a waterproof lime plaster, and a channel crossed its floor diagonally to allow water to flow.27 In fact, everything about the Stone Cone Temple was designed to be waterproof—even the stone cones themselves would not have been affected by long exposure to water.28 So perhaps water was not confined to the pool; it could have covered the floor and flowed from the doors into the courtyard during some rites or festivals.29 Unlike clay cones, stone ones would not have eroded in water, and the concrete walls would have fared much better than mudbrick.

The floor of the central hall was imprinted with postholes into which two-meter-tall bronze rods would have been placed. Perhaps they supported a canopy under which a statue of the god (or a priest) would have been seated.30 These rods were later preserved—buried all together in a brick hut in the courtyard, with lime plaster from the floor of the hall still stuck to their ends.31

Had our visitor arrived on a festival day, he might have witnessed a ceremony in which the whole complex became a giant reflecting pool, mirroring the bright mosaics of the walls and the blue of the sky. Bronze standards stood at the doorway to the structure,32 and the god himself (in the form of his statue) could perhaps have been seen under a canopy in the central hall. The god of water, named Enki, was often portrayed in just this way on cylinder seals.33

What, though, was the use of the L-shaped pool? No one knows, but water certainly played a big role in the life of the temple. The goddess Inana, to whom this temple complex was dedicated in later historic times, wasn’t a water deity, so this building probably wasn’t hers.

About a century later, the Stone Cone Temple was ritually destroyed,34 and then, as though it had been an important person, it was, in a way, buried in a brick monument.35 This was a square, subterranean, doorless structure built right into a corner of the ruins of the Stone Cone Temple.36 It looks like a tomb, but no body was found inside.37 This smaller, newer structure, conservatively built of mudbricks rather than concrete, was filled with all manner of treasures, from copper and stone vessels to jewelry, weapons, furniture, and storage jars, and also with animal bones.38 These had been piled more than two feet high in a corridor, and covered in matting. The “burial” of the Stone Cone Temple was then completed as the remaining spaces in the rooms of the newer building were filled with debris from the earlier structure. A fire that torched and discolored the walls of the central chamber of the tomb might have been accidental or it might have been ceremonial. Robbers looted some sections of the “tomb” in ancient times, but many of the rich goods that had been interred were untouched. One wonders who left them there and why the Stone Cone Temple was so important as to deserve this treatment.

Construction of the Stone Cone Temple

Although so much is mysterious, the planning behind the Stone Cone Temple can be guessed at; it proves to be remarkable and tells us a lot about this earliest of cities. The very existence of the structure shows that innovation was supported by whoever was in charge and also shows that people of Uruk worked (by the thousands) to create truly glorious monuments for their gods. The temples, in turn, may have attracted more residents to Uruk, the presence of the deities providing divine protection to the population. The workers were almost certainly called up from among the free population, as a labor duty to the state, known as corvée labor. Just as a man might be drafted to serve in the military, so he might be drafted to construct a building. Corvée workers toiled on state projects throughout ancient Near Eastern history.

Once plans had been finalized and workers enlisted (by whoever had this authority), the construction materials had to be obtained, and most of these came from regions far from Uruk. Had it been a normal mudbrick temple like the ones that had come before it, or like the contemporary temple to the god An in a nearby neighborhood, the brick making could have commenced right there in the city, but the builders of the Stone Cone Temple were more ambitious. Fortunately, the Urukians didn’t live in isolation from the world beyond their city—they knew where to find the building materials they needed.

The limestone for the enclosure wall and the foundations, and to burn for the concrete, could be imported from relatively close by; there was a source about 50 kilometers (31 miles) away to the west.39 Scholars have calculated the quantities of every material used in the temple,40 and they estimated that the walls required about 1,400 cubic meters (almost 49,500 cubic feet) of concrete and the foundations and enclosure wall used almost 1,300 cubic meters (46,000 cubic feet) of limestone. Each cubic meter of limestone weighs 2,711 kilograms (5,977 pounds), so the weight of stone in the walls and foundations can be estimated to have been 3,795,400 kilograms (7,770,100 pounds or 3,886 tons). That doesn’t include the limestone for the concrete walls.

The transportation of such a large amount of limestone overland was no simple matter. Wagons may not have been in use yet—the wheel had been invented and was used in Mesopotamia by the Uruk period, but there’s a lot to building a successful cart and it’s unlikely that they had one yet, let alone one that could support the weight of large amounts of building stone. So the limestone may have been dragged on sleds, and 50 kilometers is a long way when you’re dragging heavy stones. Thousands of workmen were probably involved in the quarrying and transport.

The source for the bitumen was about 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Uruk on the Euphrates,41 and the colored stones for the decorative cones and the long timbers necessary for roofing the interior spaces had to travel much farther, all the way from the mountains far to the north.42 The bitumen and stone would have been transported on boats, and the logs could be floated downstream, tied together as rafts, but someone first had to travel to the places where they were available and negotiate for the large quantities required. These natural resources lay in settled areas and were certainly not free for the taking to anyone who showed up. Once the deal had been struck, an official probably also oversaw the quarrying and logging, and watched to see that everything was loaded properly. It has been estimated that the Stone Cone building required around 50 cubic meters (1,766 cubic feet) of bitumen, 40 cubic meters (1,413 cubic feet) of fine colored stone for the cones, and more than 100 cubic meters (more than 3,500 cubic feet) of timber.43

After the materials arrived, the corvée laborers (almost certainly men, who formed the workforce for hard labor in all later eras of Mesopotamian history) must have burned limestone in kilns, mixed in crushed bricks, and waited to add water until just the right time so that it set when it was supposed to. Others manufactured and fired the terracotta plaques that were to be laid between layers of concrete. Still others spent their days carving and polishing colored stones to create the thousands of cones (Fig. 1.2).


Fig. 1.2 Stone cones used for mosaics in the Uruk period, mid-fourth millennium bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

When construction started, each phase of the process must have been carefully planned. The materials had to be at the building site and available to the workmen who needed them. The concrete had to be poured in the wall molds and allowed to set at just the right moment; the cones had to be placed in meticulous arrangements before the concrete dried, presumably following a grid marked into the wall.

All the workmen employed on the project also needed plenty of water to drink in the hot climate, along with food to eat. These must have been provided by the administration that enlisted them. It seems likely that there was nothing about this whole operation that was unplanned. The obvious conclusion from all of this must be that someone, or some group of people, was in charge.

Organizing the Workforce

The excavators at Uruk estimated that the construction of a mudbrick terrace in the Eanna precinct involved 1,500 men laboring ten hours a day for five years.44 But many more structures were being built than just a single terrace. The demands for labor must have been fairly constant. How were the workers paid? Who paid them? Who organized their work shifts and how? All of this took place before writing was invented, so how did anyone keep track of all the materials, crew, building schedules, and provisions? For these questions, happily, we have more than guesswork. Scholars have taken fragments of evidence and pieced together a picture of how it all worked.

In the ruins of the Stone Cone Temple, archaeologists found some rather prosaic objects that helped provide answers: clay balls, clay tokens, and broken pottery.45 The clay balls, often called bullae, might be unimpressive to look at, but they represented an ingenious way of keeping track of commodities and perhaps people (Fig. 1.3).


Fig. 1.3 Clay bulla with tokens from Susa, c. 3300 bce. (© RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY/Art Resource)

Suppose someone wanted to record a quantity of bitumen that was being sent to Uruk, and to make sure that all the bitumen arrived, with no theft along the way. The shipper made small clay tokens in a shape that was agreed upon to represent jars of bitumen (the tokens look a little like game pieces), and then placed them inside a ball made of clay that had not set hard. He sealed the ball, baked it in the sun, and sent it along with the shipment. When everything arrived, the official in Uruk could count the number of jars in the shipment and check it against the number of tokens. If they matched up, all was well. If not, he would have had questions for the shipping agent. There were plenty of other uses for the tokens and bullae, for record-keeping and to aid in remembering numbers of commodities and people; they had been in wide use right across the Near East long before Level VI at Uruk. In fact, sixteen bullae were found under the foundations of the Stone Cone Temple—those had been used and discarded before it was even constructed.46 Other tokens were found in the debris of the ruined temple, and in the memorial structure that was built for it. They represented a very useful administrative tool.

The outsides of the bullae were not necessarily blank. Some of the ones under the Stone Cone temple had been sealed.47 Perhaps the agent shipping bitumen from the region to the north wanted to make sure that no one cheated by breaking the bulla, taking out a couple of tokens so as to hide his theft of jars, and making a new one enclosing fewer tokens. The shipping agent could ensure against such tampering by rolling his cylinder seal across the surface of the original bulla. As long as the receiving agent in Uruk recognized the seal impression, he could be sure that the shipment had arrived intact.

Whereas bullae and clay tokens were old news by 3500 BCE, cylinder seals were relatively new. Stamp seals had existed for thousands of years,48 so the concept of sealing was a familiar one, but a cylinder seal had the advantage that it could seal the whole surface of a bulla. To make such a seal, an artisan carved a scene or intricate pattern in reverse relief onto the surface of a cylindrical bead so that, when it was rolled on clay, the impression could be as long as needed, repeating over and over. At this time, each cylinder seal seems to have been controlled either by a particular person or, more likely, by an office,49 so that the sealing could be “read,” identifying who had sealed the bulla and enclosed the tokens and therefore was responsible for the shipment.

People started sealing other things as well, rooms and jars in particular. Clay was ubiquitous, so it was easy enough to place a lump of it on a closed jar or on a closed door-latch and to roll a cylinder seal across the clay. Anyone could see if the seal was broken, and the seal impression identified who had last been in the room, or who had sealed the jar. Like the bullae and tokens, the sealings created a message that could be understood later, and by people who didn’t have to speak directly to the original sealer.

The pottery fragments found in the ruins of the Stone Cone Temple hint at how workers in the Eanna precinct, including all the workers constructing the temple itself, were provided for. Pots in the Uruk period were mostly of two kinds. About one-fifth of the potsherds found in the Uruk period levels came from wheel-made ceramics. These marked a significant technological advance in that they could be made more quickly than the carefully coiled handmade pots of previous eras; a type of mass-production of good quality ceramics had become possible. The other four-fifths of the potsherds—the vast majority—were from coarse, shallow, cone-shaped bowls with thick walls and a beveled rim, which could be made even more quickly than those created on a pottery wheel (Fig. 1.4).50 They were manufactured simply by pressing clay into a mold and baking the resulting bowl,51 and each held approximately a liter of a dry substance.52 (They were porous so would have been useless to hold liquids.) Unlike so many objects from the Uruk period, these beveled-rim bowls were not made carefully or neatly. On the other hand, they are so ubiquitous in Uruk period sites across the Near East that it’s clear that they were both essential and disposable—the Starbucks cups of their era. One scholar calculated that a single family could have thrown away as many as 280 such bowls a year.53


Fig. 1.4 Beveled-rim bowl from Nippur, late fourth millennium bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Scholars disagree about whether the beveled-rim bowls were containers for daily grain rations for workers54 or were bread molds.55 Either way, they were associated with food. We know this because the symbol for bread and food in the later cuneiform writing system was exactly the shape of this type of bowl,56 and the symbol for “to eat” was a head with just such a bowl to its lips. Whether they were for grain or for bread, an institution (almost certainly a temple) seems to have made the bowls and used them to distribute rations to workers, including those who labored in all the construction jobs on the Stone Cone Temple. This system predated the temple—the bowls were already found hundreds of years earlier, in level X at Uruk57—and for all that time, large numbers of people had been provided with food both fairly and efficiently.

The trash found in the ruins of the temple therefore tells us a great deal: that workers were provided with food in cheap, standardized bowls; that records of materials being used were kept using clay tokens sealed in bullae; and that accountability for stores and shipments was improved with cylinder seals impressed on clay.

On the whole, though, and in spite of efforts at understanding its construction, the Stone Cone Temple is a glorious enigma. We don’t know what happened inside it, why it had its unique features, and why it later warranted its own tomb, but it obviously meant a lot to the people. It also seems ultimately to have been judged to have been an engineering failure. For one thing, it’s clear that the beautiful stone cone mosaics were not securely held by the lime plaster, and whole sections of them fell off the wall.58 And the people of Uruk don’t seem to have tried building with this type of concrete again.59 There’s really nothing else like Stone Cone Temple anywhere.

The Priest-King of Uruk

The cylinder seals also have another story to tell that goes beyond their administrative applications. The scenes engraved on them provide miniature windows into life in Uruk more than 5,000 years ago. With surprising naturalism (especially given the tiny scale of the seals), the artisans who made them revealed quotidian details, such as scenes of animals grazing in pastures, and people farming, irrigating their fields, fishing, and weaving.60 The choice of design may not have been arbitrary; it may have reflected the office or person for whom the seal was made.61 So, for example, a number of seals show women lined up together, weaving on looms, apparently working in some kind of a textile workshop.62 The owner of this seal might have been the supervisor of such a workshop.

In later eras, inscriptions on the seals identified the owners, but in this era, before writing, it makes sense that the figures and activities depicted were expected to do the same thing. If so, the seals could represent a form of recorded communication.

Some of the most intricate seals found in early levels at Uruk were carved with ritual scenes, and in these you can often pick out a particular object that had a deep symbolic significance to the Urukians: a tall reed bundle with a ring at the top and a streamer hanging down. This was the symbol of the great goddess of the land, Inana. A drawing of the reed bundle became the way to write her name. The Eanna, as we have seen, was Inana’s temple complex.

The ritual scenes on seals also often show a man who seems to have held an important position. He was generally portrayed the same way each time, wearing specific clothes. We are getting closer here to being able to create a mental image of a leader who may have managed the complicated machinery of administration at Uruk.

You can see this man on a cylinder seal that is currently in the British Museum63 and another in the collection at Yale (Fig. 1.5).64 He is bearded and wears a headband and a robe made of some sort of open netting that falls almost to his ankles.65 The artist has managed to depict the delicate weave of the net over the man’s legs and body. In this seal he holds out two branches to a group of animals and, in the scene on the British Museum seal, the artist also included three of the reed bundles representing Inana.


Fig. 1.5 Uruk period cylinder seal showing a priest-king of Uruk wearing a net skirt, accompanied by animals. (Yale University, Peabody Museum)

In a group of five other cylinder seals that were found together at Uruk, the same figure, again in the net robe, is shown with the goddess herself (recognizable again by the reed bundles). Between the two figures stand two tall conical baskets filled with offerings.66 One way or another, the man in the net robe is often shown with some association with Inana;67 when a ritual offering is taking place, he provides food to the goddess.

In other seals, however, a man with the same characteristics is shown hunting, sometimes with no sign of the goddess at all. A few fighting scenes on seals represent him with a long spear, accompanied by victorious soldiers, who are standing, along with vanquished soldiers, who are naked and cowering on the ground, their hands tied.68 This suggests that warfare was already an organized pursuit, led by the same man who had a priestly role. He has, therefore, been dubbed the “priest-king” of Uruk.69

The priest-king doesn’t just appear on cylinder seals. One of the most remarkable works of art found by archaeologists in the Eanna temple complex was a narrow alabaster vase, more than a meter tall, which was carved with scenes that wrap right around it, almost as though it had been impressed with enormous cylinder seals. It’s known as the Uruk Vase (Fig. 1.6). The priest-king appeared here too. The uppermost scene, just below the rim, bears a strong resemblance to the ritual scenes on cylinder seals.


Fig. 1.6 The Uruk vase showing offerings to the goddess Inana, Uruk period. (bpk Bildagentur/Vorderasiatisches Museum/Staatliche Museen/Berlin/Germany/Art Resource, NY)

Just as on the seals, Inana is shown on the right-hand side of the scene, next to her reed-bundle symbol. She has the same long hair and plain robe with a band along the bottom that is seen in the cylinder seals. In front of her, again, you see a conical basket full of offerings, as on the seals, but this time it’s carried by a naked male figure (Fig. 1.7). On the left, the priest-king in his net skirt stands facing toward Inana, just as he does on the ritual cylinder seals. Unfortunately, on the vase, most of the figure of the priest-king is broken—his image may have been cut out of the vase on purpose. All that is left are his feet and the bottom of his net skirt. But it’s clearly him. In the vase he even has a long-haired attendant behind him, holding up what seems to be a sash to his net skirt.


Fig. 1.7 Close-up of Inana and her symbols on the Uruk vase, Uruk period. (bpk Bildagentur/Vorderasiatisches Museum/Staatliche Museen/Berlin/Germany/Art Resource, NY)

This top register of the vase includes some details, on the right, that aren’t found on cylinder seals: behind Inana and the two reed bundles, which would have marked the entrance to the sanctuary of the goddess, are some items that would have been found inside. These include two more conical baskets, two tall vases (much the same shape as the Uruk Vase itself, in fact), and two small animals.

The strangest objects in this group, though, are two small figures standing on pedestals, which are, in turn, set on the backs of bearded rams. The figure at the back is accompanied by Inana’s reed bundle symbol, whereas the one in front carries a flat box with a stack of what look like beveled-rim bowls. And here’s the most striking thing about those piles of bowls: they became a sign in the early pictographic writing system that looked exactly the same. It was read “en,” which meant “lord” or “priest.” It’s almost as though the artist of the Uruk Vase was giving us captions for his two main characters. One was Inana, identified by her pictogram (the reed bundle) and the other was the en priest-king, identified by his pictogram (the pile of bowls).

Three more scenes adorn the Uruk Vase, in registers below the one showing the en priest-king and Inana. Water, in the bottom register, is represented by two wavy lines. When writing was invented, the word for water—“a”—came to be expressed by two wavy lines.70 Above the water comes a row of plants: date palms and flax.71 The date palm—as you might have guessed—looks very much like the later written symbol for “date palm.” It’s unclear whether early writers borrowed their symbols from artworks like the Uruk Vase, or whether the artist of the vase was using signs already in the writing system to “caption” the scenes. We will come back to the writing system in the next chapter.

One more level up on the Uruk Vase you find a procession of ewes and bearded rams, walking toward the right. Here are the products of the land in simplified form—animals that produced meat and wool, plants that produced dates and linen. Right below the scene of the en priest-king and Inana, a procession of identical naked men walk to the left, each carrying an offering such as a conical basket of food, or a vase. The raw materials from the animals and plants shown below have, in this register, been turned into products for the goddess to consume. The men carrying them are not only naked, they are bald and beardless. This was a sign of ritual purity and they may represent men who were employed in the temple.72 The naked figure carrying the basket on the top row, between the en and Inana, is clearly at the head of the procession of gift-givers.

The artist has told a story, just as though this were a picture book. Later Mesopotamian artists often did the same, using horizontal registers full of images that are to be read from the bottom to the top. It’s a story about the wealth of Uruk, the authority of the en and his nurturing relationship to the goddess, and the glory of Inana. Other images of the en priest, or priest-king, a few war scenes notwithstanding, are mostly peaceful and ritualistic, as here on the Uruk Vase. Perhaps this reflects that his role was not that of an oppressive tyrant but of an organizer of the economy and the population, and an intermediary with the gods. Uruk in this era may, therefore, not yet have transcended the structures of kinship and household that bound earlier, smaller communities together; it was not run by an impersonal bureaucratic administration.73 The en was simply the head of a household—the household of the goddess—and a father to his population. But Uruk was a city. Just because it doesn’t match some of our modern expectations for what a city should be, it was no less extraordinary as a development.

These early Urukians have told us so much about their world without, at this point, having written a word. Almost everything they did, in the end, was for Inana and the other gods. In the next chapter we’ll see how things changed as writing came into wide use.

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