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Studying the Sumerian city state of Uruk, Oriental Institute archaeologist McGuire Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68, uncovers artifacts that suggest new ways to define "civilization."

McGuire Gibson, AM'64, PhD'68:
U of C archaeologist finds telling evidence of early city life

In 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.

Despite 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.

Scientists 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 3700 B.C.

Gibson, 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.

"We 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 societies."

In 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."

The 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.

Thus 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."

Another 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.

Explains 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.

"The 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.'"

Other 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.

This 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. --C.S.

  AUGUST 2000

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Daylilies of the field

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