Searching for relics from the dawn of urban life
By William Harms
This is a remarkable opportunity to learn about a culture that really laid the groundwork for urban civilization”
director, Oriental Institute
Archaeologists longed to study the mounds in northeastern Syria, knowing they could hold clues to the origins of writing and specialized crafts. The opportunity was apparent to Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute and an expert on early Mesopotamian cultures. In 2008 the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities approved the start of a joint Syrian-American excavation project at Tell Zeidan, led by Stein.
The complex project already is yielding discoveries, including stone seals that hint at a sophisticated system of trade and a hierarchy of social status.
“This is a remarkable opportunity to learn about a culture that really laid the groundwork for urban civilization,” Stein says. “We hope our joint team will conduct long-term excavations and expose the full range of neighborhoods, activities, and public and private architecture on the site.”
The site was at a critical junction of the Balikh and Euphrates rivers in ancient Mesopotamia, home to a people who began organizing communal life and inventing technology before full urban civilization emerged. Smaller sites exist from this culture, known as the Ubaid, but because the area was unoccupied starting about 4000 B.C., the prehistoric strata of Tell Zeidan are immediately accessible beneath the modern-day ground surface.
Among the first scholars to recognize the site’s potential importance was the famed British archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, the husband of writer Agatha Christie. Now, researchers around the world are watching with keen interest as the international team begins to reveal millennia worth of mystery.
“Because of its size and depositional history, Zeidan offers a historical opportunity to learn more about the Ubaid period than has been heretofore possible,” says Guillermo Algaze, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, and a specialist on the emergence of urban centers in the Middle East. “Accordingly, Stein’s work at this unique site has the potential to revolutionize current interpretations of how civilization in the Near East came about.”
Thirty-one acres in extent, Tell Zeidan lay at the crossroads of major trade routes across ancient Mesopotamia that followed the course of the Euphrates River valley.
Stein says Tell Zeidan may have been one of the largest Ubaid temple towns in northern Mesopotamia, and that it was as large or larger than any previously known contemporary Ubaid towns in the southern alluvial lowlands of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day southern Iraq.
“This enigmatic period saw the first development of widespread irrigation agriculture, of centralized temples, powerful political leaders, and the first emergence of social inequality as communities became divided into wealthy elites and poorer commoners,” says Stein.
The era when Tell Zeidan flourished is known as the “Copper-Stone age,” since it was when people first invented metallurgy. The copper artifacts being found at Tell Zeidan provide a window into how the people there obtained raw materials and used them in everyday life.
“Understanding developments that took place in ancient Mesopotamia during the Ubaid period is absolutely essential if we are to gauge the magnitude and tempo of the social transformations that eventually culminated in the origins of cities and states in the ancient Near East in the fourth millennium B.C.,” says Algaze, who is an outside expert not involved in the project.
Stein is the American co-director of the Joint Syrian-American Archaeological Research Project at Tell Zeidan, and Muhammad Sarhan from the Raqqa Museum in the nearby provincial capital of Raqqa is the Syrian co-director. Stein says the two-millennium-long occupation at Tell Zeidan spans four key periods: two phases of the late Copper Age on top, the Ubaid period in the middle, and the Halaf period at the bottom.
The new excavations reveal the emergence of an elite that possessed the political power necessary for communities to move from self-sufficient village life to societies dependent on trade and capable of acquiring luxury goods, Stein says. The wealth of the community came from irrigation-based agriculture, trade, and manufacturing.
“One of our most remarkable finds was a stone stamp seal depicting a deer,” he adds. The seal was unusually large, about two inches by two-and-a-half inches and was carved from a red stone not native to the area, but was similar in design to a seal found 185 miles to the east near Mosul in northern Iraq. The seals were used as stamps to indicate possession of goods in the period before writing.
“The existence of very elaborate seals with near-identical motifs at such widely distant sites suggests that in this period, high-ranking elites were assuming leadership positions across a very broad region, and those dispersed elites shared a common set of symbols and perhaps even a common ideology of superior social status,” Stein says.