THE PHYSICAL REMAINS OF ANCIENT SOCIAL SYSTEMS

THE ORGANISATION OF A SUMERIAN
TOWN: THE PHYSICAL REMAINS OF
ANCIENT SOCIAL SYSTEMS

Elizabeth C. Stone
This chapter looks not at the details of the archaeological data from the Sumerian
period, but rather on how cities, towns, and villages were put together and what
the spatial organization of settlements tells about Sumerian society writ large. Space is
important. When major political and religious centers–palaces and temples–are located
next to each other in the middle of a settlement, this indicates a concentration of both
religious and political power; but when they are located in quite different parts of town,
it suggests that they each have their own spheres of influence. In a similar fashion, these
days it is possible to use Google Earth to identify where the rich and poor live in most
modern cities–the houses of the poor are simply smaller and more crowded than those
of the rich. These differences are diagnostic of modern societies where variations in
wealth and status are reinforced by the spatial segregation of neighborhoods. However,
if no differences can be perceived between the house sizes in different parts of a settlement, this indicates that principles other than the social segregation of classes is at
work. Finally, the degree of similarity and dissimilarity between the organization of
large urban centers and smaller towns and villages reflect the presence or absence of differences in wealth and occupation between those living in settlements of different sizes.
This chapter, therefore, will focus on the locations of Sumerian temples and palaces,
the organization of the residential neighborhoods, the role played by city walls, canals,
harbors and the like to link or separate people and institutions, and will provide a
comparison between these features in the major cities with those in the smaller settlements that surround them.
There are, however, problems to be overcome. One is how one assigns a function
to public buildings, especially those of a residential nature. Since the relative location
of centers of religion and secular power are crucial for understanding the political
dynamics within the city, it is important that one distinguish between a large residence
designed to house a king as opposed to one occupied by a high priest, but this is not
always easy. The second issue is that almost all of our evidence for the organization
of Sumerian settlements comes from the middle of the third millennium, the later
Early Dynastic, with more ambiguous data on earlier periods. We also have almost no
relevant data from the latter part of the third millennium, the Akkadian and Ur III
periods, but similarities in the organization of urban space between mid-third
millennium settlements and those dating to the early second millennium suggest that
156
The Sumerian World, edited by Harriet Crawford, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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Created from uoregon on 2021-03-28 11:24:05. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.
Mesopotamian settlement organization was established by the later Early Dynastic and
remained quite stable after that time.
Moreover, this chapter could not be written based on excavated data alone since no
small or even medium-sized Sumerian sites have been excavated. However, the high
resolution of modern satellite imagery means that we can recover sub-surface architectural traces over much larger areas and for a much more varied inventory of sites
than is the case with architectural data. The project to analyze these sources of
settlement data is still in its infancy and here too, there are little data for the early stages
of urban growth or for the latter part of the third millennium,1 and the process of
digitizing the traces we see has barely begun.
URBAN BEGINNINGS
Unlike the later Early Dynastic period, the available excavated data from the earliest
stages of Mesopotamian urbanism remain limited, and the only fourth millennium BC
buildings excavated in Iraq are temples. Fortunately, data relating to the Uruk period
from beyond Iraq, as well as data from high-resolution satellite imagery, can be used
to flesh out a view of Mesopotamia’s earliest centers.
The key Mesopotamian institution of the temple goes back to Neolithic times. At
Eridu a small shrine grew into a large temple built on a platform during the course of
the fifth millennium. By the end of this sequence, the Eridu temple did not differ from
later temples found at other cities, and although no associated settlement has been
found at Eridu, there is an extensive cemetery, suggesting perhaps that the residents
of neighboring villages chose to be buried close to the temple (Safar, Mustafa and Lloyd
1981). Beyond Eridu, other ‘Ubaid sites tend to be very small and made up of loosely
spaced tripartite houses with rows of rooms on each side of a large central space (Roaf
1989), though some have more complicated T-shaped structures (Jasim 1985, 1989).
For the crucial Protoliterate and Early Dynastic I periods, the data are more
equivocal. We do know quite a bit about Protoliterate temples, but have no excavated
houses.
2The temples were found in two dense clusters at Uruk itself, and another such
temple has been uncovered at Tell ‘Uqair (Lloyd and Safar 1943). All Protoliterate
temples are broadly comparable in plan with the early example from Eridu, but differ
in that they were associated with larger settlements. The temple at Uqair is part of a
double-mounded site which now measures some 11 ha. (see below), whereas the
protoliterate sherd scatters at Uruk (Finkbeiner 1991) cover some 225 hectares.3
There is one largely excavated Uruk period town, Habuba Kabira, but it is located
in northern Syria (Strommenger 1980), not southern Iraq. It is associated with the socalled Uruk expansion whereby Uruk-style material is found beside and within local
settlements far from the Mesopotamian heartland. These data are generally understood
as reflecting an effort by the population of the city of Uruk to control trade routes up
the Euphrates and, to a lesser extent, the Tigris rivers (Algaze 2008). Habuba Kabira
(Strommenger 1980) is the one urban-sized excavated settlement associated with this
phenomenon and its material culture is overwhelmingly Uruk in nature.
4
Although a cursory examination of the plan of Habuba Kabira might suggest the
same crowded spaces known from later Mesopotamian cities, the analysis by Vallet
(1996) has shown that this city was both less dense than its later counterparts and that
much of the architecture was likely not used for residence.
5 Habuba Kabira households
–– The organisation of a Sumerian town ––
157
The Sumerian World, edited by Harriet Crawford, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uoregon/detail.action?docID=1366584.
Created from uoregon on 2021-03-28 11:24:05. Copyright © 2013. Taylor & Francis Group. All rights reserved.
continued to occupy tripartite houses of the kind familiar from ‘Ubaid sites like
Madhur (Roaf 1989), but now were grouped around a common courtyard with buildings that probably served non-residential functions. Later third millennium sites
located within the same northern Mesopotamian zone as Habuba Kabira are characterized by radiating “hollow ways” which have been interpreted as the result of
people–and especially animals–moving in and out of the settlements on a daily basis
(Wilkinson 1993), but it remains unclear whether there were also hollow ways at the
earlier Habuba Kabira.
A key issue to be determined is whether Protoliterate settlements were similar in
density to the very crowded cities of the later third millennium houses in southern
Mesopotamia (see below). Although, sadly, we have no faunal studies for fourth
millennium sites in Iraq, our understanding of the environmental conditions prevailing
in southern Iraq (Pournelle 2003, 2007; Algaze 2008: fig. 5), fourth millennium textual
sources (Englund 2008: 155–169) and art (Kawami 2001) all suggest that cattle likely
played a much larger role in the fourth millennium diet than they did in later times
when pig and sheep dominate the faunal records (Desse 1992). If fourth millennium
settlements provided shelter for both people and domestic animals, their human
population densities were likely much lower than their later counterparts.
These various strands of data can be brought together to develop the key questions
which need to be answered regarding settlement in fourth millennium and early third
millennium Mesopotamia: Were tripartite houses still the norm at this time, and if so
did they exist as part of larger, more complex compounds? Were domestic animals–
especially cattle–still kept within the households?
The partial plans of three fourth millennium sites (Figure 8.1), together with one
fourth to early third millennium landscape (Figure 8.2), are visible in the Digital Globe
satellite imagery. Tell Umm al-Fargus (Adams 1981: 272, site 1096) covers some 12 ha.,
spread over three mounds, all of which have surface traces. Toward the northern edge
of the northwestern mound, larger-scale architectural traces are visible which might
indicate the presence of a temple. Beyond this area, although the imagery is not quite
clear enough for us to map a large number of houses, what is clear is that there are no
courtyard houses–since these larger spaces and their regular appearance are always
clearly visible in imagery of similar quality. Some structures seem to reflect tripartite
houses, while others apparently have large open areas surrounded by walls. In one part
of the main mounds there appear to be largish rectangular compounds (ranging from
100 to 300 square meters in size) separated one from the other by narrow alleyways. These are not dissimilar to the households at Habuba Kebira identified by Vallet
(1996: fig. 4).
A second site, similar in organization, is Uruk Survey site 245 (Adams and Nissen
1972: 229). Although at 8 ha. it is somewhat smaller than Tell Umm al-Fargus, it is
similar in having three mounds: two larger ones oriented in a more or less northwest/south-east direction, and a smaller one to the west. Unlike at Tell Umm-al-Fargus,
the best architectural preservation was on the northwest mound. Adams and Nissen
(1972: 229) report the presence of many clay cones, some forming a right angle, located
in the northeastern part of this mound–in an area now, sadly, completely looted. This
suggests the presence of an important fourth millennium temple, a suggestion
reinforced by the traces of domestic structures over the rest of this mound (the only
area where such traces are clear). These houses are scattered and, in orientation, radiate

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