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Uruk (modern Warka)


The site of Uruk, modern Warka, is located in southern Iraq about 35 kilometers east of the modern course of the Euphrates river. Settlement at the site began in the Ubaid period (5th millennium BC). In the Uruk period (4000-3000 BC) the site was the largest in Mesopotamia at 100 hectares. Uruk continued to grow in the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 BC), reaching a size of about 400 hectares. After the end of the Early Dynastic period, the city declined in size and significance until the Ur III period (2100-2000 BC), when the ruling dynasty pursued new building projects in the Eanna precinct. It is to this period that the massive ziggurat still visible today dates. Uruk declined again after the Ur III period, and was resettled in the Neo-Assyrian (883-612 BC) and Neo-Babylonian periods (612-539 BC). Occupation continued at Uruk in the Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian periods. Settlement at Uruk finally came to an end during the Sassanian period (224-633 AD).

Plan of Uruk, showing excavations in the Eanna precinct (from Englund 1998)

History of Excavation

W. K. Loftus was the first archaeologist to visit Uruk in 1850 and 1854. During his excavations, he uncovered several small items, including a numerical tablet, and prepared a map of the site. R. Koldewey and W. Andrae, who would later excavate Babylon and Assur, each visited the site in the early years of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1912 that large scale excavations began under J. Jordan. After only one season of work, however WW I put an abrupt halt to work at Uruk. Jordan returned to the site in 1928, with A. Falkenstein serving as epigrapher. Jordon’s excavation set a precedent by concentrating primarily in the Eanna district of the site, the main religious complex in the center of Uruk. When Jordan became Director of Antiquities in Baghdad in 1931, German excavations continued under A. Nöldeke, E. Heinrich, and H. J. Lenzen until WW II forced a halt in 1939. Lenzen continued to direct excavations for the German Archaeological Institute after the war from 1953 to 1967. He was succeed by H. J. Schmidt until 1977, and R. M. Boehmer after 1980. The 39 campaigns of German excavations came to a halt in 1989 and in 2001, a team direected by M. van Ess returned to Uruk to begin mapping the site using subsurface magnetometry.

The Eanna Precinct in the Late Uruk Period

The Late Uruk period (3600-3200 BC) saw an explosion of Mesopotamian cultural development. Construction activities expanded, writing developed, pottery technology advanced, and great works of monumental art were produced. At Uruk, levels VIII to IV correspond to the Late Uruk period, though the greatest achievements are apparent in levels V and IV. The most prominent area of Uruk during the Uruk period was the sacred Eanna (“House of Heaven”) precinct dedicated to the goddess Inanna. Excavations there uncovered several monumental cult, administrative, and other public buildings, each rebuilt and reused over several occupation phases.

Uruk V

Uruk temples continued the architectural tradition of the preceding Ubaid period. Tripartite temple plans (i.e., a long central hall with rows of smaller rooms on either side) and niched and buttressed facades were characteristic of the earliest levels of the Uruk period. In Level V, the Limestone Temple, so called because the wall foundations (and possibly the entire building) were constructed of large slabs of limestone quarried from a site 80km from Uruk on the west side of the Euphrates, exhibited both of these classical Mesopotamian features.

Outside of the Eanna precinct, the earliest phases of the White Temple dedicated to the god Anu also probably date to the end of Level V. The niched and buttressed walls of the White Temple were covered with white gypsum plaster. The whole building was set upon a platform 13 meters high, a clear precursor to the ziggurat (a temple set on top of several stacked platforms) that would become so ubiquitous in later periods of Mesopotamian history.

Uruk IVb

Plan of the Eanna Precinct (from Englund, 1998) In this level, the sacred precinct was entered from the south through the Mosaic Court. This building and its columns were made of small mud bricks, which were then faced with a layer of mud plaster. Red, white, or black baked clay cones were then pushed into the mud plaster walls, creating colorful geometric patterns along the pillars and walls.

To the southwest of the Mosaic Court, the Square Building had a large square courtyard with a long rectangular hall on each side. Both the interior courtyard and exterior facade of the building had the niching characteristic of Uruk temples, but the plan of the building was unique, and its function is not certain.

Northwest of the Mosaic Court, several buildings with tripartite plans may have been temples. Three other buildings may have been the residences of the officials in charge of the temples in the Eanna precinct.

The Stone Cone Mosaic Temple was constructed to the west, apart from the complex of temples and ceremonial buildings attached to the Mosaic Court. A buttressed wall surrounded the tripartite temple building, and the temple itself was decorated with colored stone cones which formed geometric patterns on the walls in the same fashion as the Mosaic Court.

Uruk IVa

In level IVa, the new buildings were constructed over the level IVb Eanna complex. The large Temple D (80x50 meters) stood on the filled-in courtyard of the building below it. Slightly smaller, Temple C lay to the northwest of Temple D, and exhibited a clear tripartite plan. Northwest of this building, the Pillared Hall was decorated with another stone cone mosaic. Just west of the Pillared Hall, the Great Court may have been a sunken area surrounded by benches.

Above the Stone Cone Mosaic Temple of Level IVb, and odd building named the Riemchengebäude was constructed. It was given its name by the excavators because of the 'riemchen' bricks characteristic of Late Uruk architecture. These are small compact bricks with a square section. The building consisted of a long corridor surrounding a central chamber with a separate room to the southeast. The function of the building is unclear, but it may have been the site of a religious ritual.

The City Wall

In the Early Dynastic I period in the first half of the third millennium BC, the citizens of Uruk probably first contructed the 9km long mud brick wall that enclosed the city. Although it has not been thoroughly excavated, this early date for the construction of the wall is inferred based on evidence from a cylinder seal impression. Throughout the history of occupation of the city, the wall underwent many repairs, the last of which dates to the 18h century BC.

The Development of Writing in the Uruk Period

Among the other technological advances that the Uruk period witnessed was the advent of pictographic representations on clay tablets and the development in stages of written language. From the Eanna complex of Uruk itself, nearly 5000 tablets from this earliest phase of writing were excavated primarily from rubbish dumps. Other more complete tablets from the same period have been found at sites in both in the northern and southern extents of southern Mesopotamia (see also proto-cuneiform).

These archaic tablets were used to fill in pits left by the levelling the Uruk IV buildings in order to build foundations for level III buildings. The tablets themselves, therefore, must date to a period prior to level III. The earliest phases of writing then dates to Uruk level IV, and more specifically, it probably dates to the latest subphase of that level, IVa. A second phase of writing is dated to Uruk level III, also called the Jemdet Nasr period because a large number of texts from this date were found at the site of Jemdet Nasr, just south of modern day Baghdad.

Sealed bulla with tokens [ (P235737) Although the first written tablets that appear in the Uruk IV period are quite underdeveloped in relation to the fully formed cuneiform systems of later periods, they did not appear spontaneously. Precursors to the Uruk tablets took the form of clay “tokens” sealed in “bullae” and clay tablets impressed with numerical notations. Tokens were simply lumps of clay fashioned into standardized shapes. Each shape represented a numerical unit (i.e., 1 or 10, etc.), and some may have represented a type of object (i.e., sheep or cloth). Often tokens were encased in bullae, hollow clay balls that were officially sealed by means of an incised cylinder seal which, when rolled over the surface of the bullae would leave a unique impression.

The second precursor to Uruk IV writing were simple clay tablets, sometimes with cylinder seal impressions, with rounded impressions representing numbers. These are very difficult to date and to interpret, as the shape of the impressions and the units of counting do not always correspond to what is know about counting systems in later periods.

In the Uruk IV phase, written documents come in three varieties:

p001183.jpg (1) Clay “tags” with incised drawings that probably corresponded to the person receiving or selling the item(s) to which the tag was attached.

p000813.jpg (2) Small tablets that combine impressed rounded numerical signs with incised pictographs representing objects or personal names.

(3) Larger tablets divided into sections, each containing impressions of numerical signs and incised pictographs representing objects or personal names. Sometimes, the numerical signs are added together and the total is incised on the back of the tablet.

In the Jemdet Nasr period, the majority of the texts fall into the third category, lists of numbers and associated commodities. A new category of texts also develops during the Jemdet Nasr period, though they may be a continuation of a type which has not been discovered in Uruk IV contexts. This lexical category continues into the following periods.

It is important to note that the purpose of all of these early forms of writing, including the Uruk IV and Jemdet Nasr period texts, along with their precursors, was to record economic transactions. Writing itself developed out of a need to remember exchanges of large numbers of goods among the inhabitants of those cities whose population had increased throughout the Uruk period so that face-to-face contact was no longer the norm. It was a tool of economic administration, not a means to record literature, history, or sacred ideas.


p001972.jpg It took several centuries for the written language to develop so that it could represent the complexities of grammar and syntax. The earliest signs used in the Uruk texts, which were either pictographic representations of objects, symbols representing deities, abstract images, or numerical signs, eventually developed into the more abstract cuneiform signs characterized by horizontal and vertical wedges. In the Uruk IV and Jemdet Nasr phases, signs represented concepts or nouns, and perhaps simple verbs, but there is no grammatical relationship between those ideas represented on the texts. Sometimes signs were combined to form ideas related to both signs (such as the sign for disbursement which combines the sign for head with the sign for ration), and other times signs were combined to form words that sounded like those signs. In this way, signs which originally had a pictographically assigned meaning became associated with abstract concepts that sounded similar. For example, the Sumerian word for “life” is pronounced “til,” and the word for “arrow” is pronounced “ti.” In writing, the same sign, TI, is used for both ideas presumably because it is easier to draw an arrow than it is to draw the more abstract notion of life.

Later, the TI sign might be combined with other signs, whose sounds would act as the syllables that make up a longer word. Although it is generally agreed that the language represented on the archaic texts is Sumerian, it is only once the syllabic function of the signs was applied that language could truly be represented in a permanent medium.

development.jpg p005987.jpg The form of the signs also changed over time. Originally, pictographs were incised in clay using a sharp stylus. By the Jemdet Nasr phase, the sharp stylus was replaced by an angled stylus with a triangular tip. The result of pushing a stylus of this shape into wet clay is a wedge with a triangular shaped “head” and a long straight “tail.” The shape of these wedges provide the name we use for the writing system of Mesopotamia, “cuneiform,” Latin for wedge-shaped. As the use of the triangular stylus continued, the signs themselves became more and more abstracted into combinations of horizontal and vertical wedges that no longer bore much resemblance to their original forms. The range of sign forms used also decreased as the number of similar-looking signs reduced. <br>

The Spread of Uruk Culture

The name Uruk is also applied to the archaeological period corresponding to the fourth millennium BC (Uruk levels VIII-IVa). Not only did the written documents appear in this period, but the Uruk period also saw the rise of the first cities, monumental art and complex political structures. Prior to the Uruk period, maps of settlement in southern Mesopotamia show several sites of a small size, mostly under 10 hectares (0.1 km2). These sites are evenly distributed over the landscape, and some may have been economic or religious centers. At the start of the Uruk period, the number and size of sites increased dramatically. Uruk itself swelled to 70 hectares (0.7 km2). The reasons for such an extraordinary change are unclear. There may have been a sudden influx of new population groups or favorable changes in climate, but the trend continued into the Late Uruk period. By the end of the Uruk period, the site of Uruk occupied about 100 hectares (1 km2), and more than half of the settled area of southern Mesopotamia was located in its vicinity.

seal1.jpg warkavase.jpg The rapid increase in the size of the settled area of Uruk meant that new developments in the social structure of society were inevitable. The archaic texts, cylinder seals and monumental art all provide information about these changes. In the cylinder seals and seal impressions on tablets of levels IV and III, a bearded figure wearing a netted skirt and hat appears in religious, agricultural, or military scenes. This figure is generally understood to represent the ruler of Uruk, whose role as priest, provider, and protector is emphasized. The same figure also appears on the Lion Hunt Stela,seal2.jpg a basalt stone monument which shows him attacking lions with a spear and with a bow and arrow. On the Warka Vase, an alabaster vessel over a meter tall, he is depicted in relief presenting an offering to Inanna. Below him runs a row of naked servants or priests carry offerings, and below them is a row of domestic animals and a row of plants growing from a river. The remarkable vessel clearly shows the shared view of a social hierarchy, at the bottom of which were the plants an animals that sustained society, and at the top of which were the ruler and the god, who managed and distributed those staples. The Uruk period marks the first instance when these roles were expressed in figurative art, and this type of royal propaganda is a theme that continues in the millennia of Near Eastern history that follow.

The types of artifacts found in Uruk levels V-IVa have been found at sites from the same period throughout the entire Near East. The most easily recognizable identifier of this period is the bevelled-rim bowl, a crude, handmade, mass-produced ceramic type with a distinctive rim. This type of pottery has been found in fourth millennium sites in southwest Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Egypt. Other aspects of Uruk culture, such as the tripartite temple plan and niched and buttressed facades of the Eanna precinct buildings are found in northern and southern Mesopotamian contexts. Cylinder seals of a type that was developed in Uruk also spread throughout the Near East. The convergence of these artifact classes at sites outside of Uruk has prompted theories of the expansion of Uruk political control over Mesopotamia by the establishment of merchant colonies north and east of Uruk itself. Now archaeologists recognize the unique cultural development of northern Mesopotamia that can be seen at sites alongside or in place of Uruk culture, which suggests that the methods by which Uruk influence expanded are much more complicated than originally thought. There is no doubt, however, that the Uruk period, which saw innovations including writing, the cylinder seal, the plow, and wheeled vehicles constituted a crucial phase in the history of the Near East.


Ausgrabungen der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft in Uruk-Warka. Berlin: Mann. 17 volumes. 1946-2001

Ausgrabungen in Uruk-Warka, Endberichte. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern GmbH. 25 volumes. 1987-2003.

Boehmer, R. M. Uruk-Warka In Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 5, 294-298. New York: Oxford University, 1997.

Crawford, H. Sumer and the Sumerians. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1991.

Englund, R. K. Texts From the Late Uruk Period In Mesopotamien 1: Späturuk-Zeit und Frühdynastische Zeit. OBO 160, 15-233. Freiburg and Göttingen: Universitätsverlag and Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998.

Nissen, H., P. Damerow, and R. K. Englund. Archaic Bookkeeping: Writing and Techniques of Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East. P. Larsen, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993

Postgate, J. N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. London: Routledge, 1992.

Roaf, M. The Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. Oxford and New York: Facts on File, 1990.

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