the Sumerian city state of Uruk, Oriental Institute archaeologist
McGuire Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68, uncovers artifacts that suggest
new ways to define "civilization."
Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68:
U of C archaeologist finds telling evidence of early city life
April 1999, archaeologist McGuire
Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68, rented a car and took a road
from Damascus to scout northeastern Syria for possible dig sites.
He surveyed nearly ten tells-mounds composed of the remains of
successive Middle Eastern settlements--before asking his guide
if he could visit one that he had been told was not an option
for excavation. About five miles from the Iraqi border, the site
was known for its relatively large size and strategic location
along a major traffic artery linking the ancient strongholds of
Nineveh in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria. At the top of the mound,
called Tell Hamoukar, Gibson's attention was caught by a small,
modern cemetery; contemporary mudbrick houses along two slopes,
and pottery shards on the ground. Before be could examine the
pieces more closely, a surprise downpour cut his visit short,
and sent him scurrying under the porch of a nearby house and soon
off the tell directly.
the ban on Tell Hamoukar, he wrote a letter to Syria's director
general of antiquities and museums mentioning his concerns that
the area was in danger of overdevelopment. To his surprise, his
dig team from the University's Oriental Institute and a group
of Syrian colleagues were granted permission to explore the ancient
mound. Just a few months later, after work began in September
1999, they discovered evidence that challenges conventional notions
of how civilization developed.
have long held the view that urban civilization first flourished
in the ancient region of Mesopotamia's Sumerian city-states, such
as Uruk-which would now be found in modern-day southern Iraq-and
then spread through the ancient Near East during the Late Uruk
period of 3500-3100 B.C. The findings of Gibson's team, officially
named the Syrian-American Investigations at Hamoukar expedition,
suggest that urban activity was actually under way in northeastern
Syria at about the same time, or even earlier between 4000 and
a professor at the Oriental Institute, explains that several characteristics
of civilization, other than writing, appear to have been in place
at Tell Hamoukar before the arrival of the Uruk people from the
south. For example, he says, certain recovered artifacts indicate
settlers at Tell Hamoukar had established a division of labor
and an organized and respected hierarchy-traits needed to help
societies develop order, defend themselves, and provide opportunities
for wealth to grow and arts to flourish.
need to reconsider our ideas about the beginnings of civilization,
pushing the time further back," says Gibson. "This would mean
that the development of kingdoms or early states occurred before
writing was invented and before the appearance of several other
criteria that we think of as marking 'civilization.' The movement
of people and objects from the south of Mesopotamia to the neighboring
areas sets up vital linkages between people hundreds of miles
distant from one another. These linkages made possible the transmission
of ideas and people that underlay the joint development of complex
its earliest period of occupation, from 4000 to 3700 B.C., Tell
Hamoukar was an atypically large settlement of about 500 acres,
which would make it comparable in size to some of the Middle East's
largest ancient cities. "But the entire site was probably not
inhabited at the same time," notes Gibson. "Most probably there
was a village or a couple of villages that shifted location through
those 300 years."
site's next incarnation, around 3700-3500 B.C., was a well-organized,
prosperous town of some 30 acres, apparently enclosed by a defensive
wall ten feet tall and 13 feet wide. Though ancient cities usually
were built along rivers, Gibson surmises that Tell Hamoukar flourished
because it was on a trade route and in an area that produced abundant
grain and grass for animal fodder.
far, the archaeologists have unearthed evidence of food preparation
on an institutional scale, identifying large ovens capable of
producing bread, beer, and meal. They've also turned up ash with
traces of wheat, barley, oats, and animal bones, and collected
remnants of large cooking pots. "The ability of the local potters
was extraordinary," notes Gibson. "Some of the fine wares are
as thin as the shell of an ostrich egg."
key to understanding the organizational level achieved by the
settlers of Tell Hamoukar comes from the discovery of seals that
apparently marked containers of food and other goods. While some
seals are small, with only a simple incision or cross-hatching,
others are larger and in the form of animals, such as deer, bears,
and ducks. The sealing stamps recovered include a particularly
fine piece in the form of a leopard with 13 spots.
Gibson: "We would propose that the larger, more elaborate seals
with figurative scenes on the stamping surface were held only
by the few people who had greater authority, while the smaller,
simply incised seals were used by many more people who were sealing
as members of a large group with less authority.
difference would be something like the signature of the Regional
Director of Customs of Chicago as compared to the rubber stamps
that say only 'U.S. Customs.'"
finds include water wells and signs of the art form called "eye
idols." A kind of bone stick figure with large eyes, it was sometimes
included in burials, suggesting it may carry a religious significance.
fall, Gibson plans return to Tell Hamoukar, where he looks forward
to taking tea under the shaded porches of a new dig house-and
to continuing to sift through the ancient origins of modern civilization.