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Lecture notes


The spectacular development scheme of the Eridu temple is actually is a very valuable set of evidence, not only telling us about archietctural achievements of the Ubaid period in the southern Mesopotamia, but also we will see that it will form some sort of a bridge that connects the architectural and cultic traditions of the Ubaid period, that is the 4th millennium to the 3rd millennium, the following period, called Uruk period, after the massive type site of famous Uruk, in southern Mesopotamian plain, a little bit upstream than Eridu, but still on the ancient course of the Euphrates. But perhaps even more important than these two: the Eridu temple points out to a socio-economic phenomenon of the Early Mesopotamian civilization: the powerful role of the temple-household. It points out from early on as we will see in the Uruk period urbanizaton, how the temple becomes the symbolic center of the society, but also the symbolic monumental center of the human landscape. On the other hand, as a social institution, it eventaully gained an economic role, becoming the most significant component of the economic activity, as you read in Nicholas Postgate. Simply the temple came around to own lands and flocks and became perhaps the largest economical organization, initiating not only agricultural production but trade as well by accommodating its own merchants. So we have to start to see the temple a rather large economic entity than simply being a symbolic religious center.

Rituals, temples and ceremonial space of the early Mesopotamian city

When we speak about rituals, we are referring to a very large set of activities that are related to cult practices or religious activities that may be ceremonies performed individually or in small or large groups, ranging from individual offerings to certain divinities at the temple, libation ceremonies, sacred processions, rites of passage marking transitional periods in life such as birth, puberty, marriage, death etc; funerals, veneration of ancestor cults, banquets and feasting etc.

Rituals are usually understood as a performance that involves gestures, words, and objects, and they are usually performative, and they become social spectacles, and they are often repeated. This is the way that ancient societies’ everyday life is structured and made meaningful. It is an existential strategy to cope with the difficulties of dwelling on earth, surviving the catastrophes, the unknowns of the world that you have to face living on earth, such as poor harvest, absence of rain, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods etc. Therefore it is understood that to maintain the well-being of the society, rituals were an essential component of social life and they had to be repeated regularly. That is how actually the ancient mesopotamians conceived the concept of time, every impotant transitional moment in the agicultural year cycle is marked with festivals. Now festivals are periodically recurrent social activities that involve a variety of ceremonies and rituals in various forms, a series of coordinated event in which pretty much the whole society participates. For this reason festivals become these social spectacle where ideologies become expressed, and cultural identities are defined. It is easily manipulated and a very effective politics of religion can be put into practice by the ruling elite, since it is the only way of relating themselves to the entire society and to impose power for the constructionof a sense of collectivity, communality among populations.

In Mesopotamia, each city had a major patron deity and the fate of that city was determined by that deity. As we saw last week Eridu was associated with Ea/Enki, the god of subterrannean freshwater ocean and source of life. The toponyms for certain cities in Early Mesopotamia, as attested in economic and lexical texts, consisted of the writing of the name of the main deity of the city. For instance, Nibruki (Nippur) was written DINGIR.EN.LÍL.KI. Through the distribution of the cities to particular deities, by definition the urban centers are made to be sacred places, while the localized divinities contribute to the formation of an intricate sacred landscape of cult-centers across Mesopotamian geography. The ruler and the people of each city was responsible to maintaining the cult complex of their own deity for the well-being of the city, and festivals dedicated to these deities were the most important social occasions when extensive offering were made to the cults.

Because it is a large undertaking it is also a very productive occasion because it has to involve citations of shared myths in the form of poetry and also cult objects usually produced for that very particular occasion, like the Uruk vase we will talk about in a minute. So texts are being written and artisanal objects are being produced, all of which calls the societies identity in question, and the shared common history of the society is referenced. What is more important for us is that these monumental ceremonial activity that involve large groups of people does end up creating its monumental ceremonial space: and that is how societies relate themselves with particular geographies. The production of this kind of cultic space and the process of its making is in our interest.

4th millennium BC in Southern Mesopotamia

The 4th millennium is the Uruk period, that runs from 4000 BC-3500 BC Early Uruk, 3500-3100 BC Late Uruk and 3100-2900 BC Jemdet Nasr periods.

We spoke about the development of social complexity in Southern Mesopotamia last week following the Ubaid period, and throughout the Uruk period. But looking at the Neolithic societies, we saw that it didn’t happen at a particular moment. Especially the mid to late -4th and early 3rd millennia witnessed significant changes in the Southern Mesopotamia, where we see the appearance of large cities and the rise of urbanization in the Mesopotamian landscape, where the writing is invented by the impetus of the intensive commercial activity, and architectural traditions became ever more sophisticated with proper fortifications, even more massive temple complexes. Most of the monumental figurative imagery we have from the Uruk period points out to some sort of a priest-king, so even the earliest kingship ideology originated from the temple.

You read all about this in Postgate: At the origin of the cities in ancient Mesopotamia, one extensively argued model as the city forming around the purpose of a ceremonial, commercial and the redistributive center, that is basicly the temple for almost all of these functions. Let us talk about each. As religion was the primary social activity in the pre-urban society, a conglomeration around their symbolic center, the center for the ritual conglomoration. Then this coming together of communities is always associated with some commercial activity which is even true for several religious festivals. The establishment of a settled urban society however always needed a strong agricultural base to support the dense population. An authority is then required for the collecting the agricultural resources from the peasants, the agricultural surplus that is the excess production of the countryside, on which the urban population can rely on and develop its own specailized activities like metalworking, sculpture, trade, textile making, and all other crafts, and the city can support full-time craftsmen who did not necessarily take part in the subsistence production. As the craftsmen grew in number, the desire for more raw materials for the craftsmen initited the increase in the long-distance trade, which was also institutionalized by the temple-household.

It was the temple institution who had this authority to collect the surplus from the countryside and also control the long-distance trade, so the temple became the central economic institution. The society has now abandoend its older kin-based social structure: but introduced to the idea of social status and they were now divided in a hierarchy of urban social classes, and they were ruled by religious, military or the political elite, who accumulated wealth through the imposition of tribute and taxes and erected monumental buildings.

Recently scholars have showed some critical insight to this idea of the temple-city model for the early Mesopotamian urbanization; decalaring the fact that not the entire economic activity was in the hands of the temple personnel, but there was a considerable portion of unrecorded private enterprise as well. Because of the lack of written documants it is hard to comment on this. But a fascinating topic.

So what happens in the 4th millennium is that there is a massive increase in the size of the settlements as well as the number of the settlements in the southern alluvium:

Settlement and architecture:

Site of Uruk/Warka, increases its size enormously to 250 ha, while there is a massive increase in the number of settlements. Increased metal production, stone-working for vessels. In the Late Uruk period some of these settlements were walled. Techniques of irrigation agriculture and the exploitation of the supplemeantary food supplies (dates, fish, willow), successfully achieved, along with the outcomes of subtantial surplus that is put into building activities. Articulated social structure with the ruler of each city; and the temple gaining a considerable economic power. There is also evidence for the developing households, evidence for the habitation of extended large families. From seal and relief iconography, evidence for political-territorial dispute and the crystallization of rituals.

Long distance trade and Uruk expansion

Urbanization presumably brings a substantial re-organization of the community and the economy, with specialized craft production (elaborate architectural craftsmenship of the temples -esp. mosaic cones, stone vessels, cylinder seals). Procurement of exotic materials, through trade, and perhaps “gift exchange”? The establishment of the trade routes is evident with the wide-scale geographical spread of Uruk techno-culture (so- called “enclaves”) along the Euphrates and Tigris and the Zagros mountains, as well as the emulation of Uruk administrative tools, e.g. cylinder seals and their iconographic repertoire, by these peripheral communities.


A significant change in ceramic culture, separates the Uruk period from the Ubaid cultures, wheel-made plain ware replaces painted Ubaid pottery. Fast potter’s wheel introduced. Mass production of undecorated and utilitarian ceramics is introduced. Tall spoted bottles, large jars with horizontally pierced nose lugs applied to shoulders for suspending them, vessels with reserved slip (oblique radial lines.
Uploaded Image Most pervasive: Beveled rim bowls, rough and undecorated pottery, produced apparently in moulds, found in large heaps of discard. Ubiquitous in the uruk enclaves across the Upper Mesopotamia as well. Function: several scholars argue that it is for rationing of barley to people dependant on public institutions like the temple and the palace. This is supported by the idea that the Sumerian logogram NINDA for ration looks like a beveled rim bowl. Based on Egyptian parallel, some scholars argued that they are for baking bread which could also be rationed and distributed with the container.

Seals, relief, sculpture, writing:

writing was invented with the use of pictograms, primarily as a tool for economic transactions, accounting and recording. Cylinder seals are introduced with ritual and everyday life scenes on them, the pig-tail lady occupied with daily activities, manufacture; the appearance of Inanna or her priestess, with Inanna’s reed bundle, receiving offerings from genderless individuals and the “priest-king”; the priest king who appears both in statuettes in one specific kind of pose of veneration, as well as stelae is the major actor of pictorial repertoire of the artistic production. Bearded individual with a long hair and net skirt. Cylinder seals are large, finely worked.

Summary: Uruk period in Southern Mesopotamia

Nippur and Uruk as important regions of urbanization. Late Uruk Period, culmination of a series of cultural processes leading to marked increase in social complexity with the appearance of cities as ceremonial centers, at the center of a gradually hierarchized settlement system. The settlement system in the region of Uruk and that of Nippur are slightly different. The growth of the site of Uruk by the end of the Late Uruk period to 210 ha is in comparable.

Writing as an urban administrative tool in that urban context, a tool of the control of production and exchange (more on this later), along with the appearance of the cylinder seals which opens up a huge representational repertory (in shell, bone, faiance, carnelian, lapis lazuli, crystal)- important in the discussion of social and cultural identities, marking of gender differences, cultural performance. Appearance of the temple as a socio-economic institution that fosters agricultural production, animal husbandary, trade, interregional trade. In the cities monumental architecture with distinctive symbolically charged architectural technologies, city walls, major innovations such as clay and stone cones and cut stone. Also monumental ceremonial artifacts such as the carved alabaster vases. The massive production of pottery, to cope with large populations; bevelled-rim bowls- a ubiquitous feature of the Uruk period, undecorated. Archaeologists hypothesized that they were produced for the rationing of food. Craft specialization in the newly emerging urban centers is a crucial factor: metal production, stone carving (seals, stone vases, architecture), textiles, pottery,

The site of Warka: ancient Uruk

Uruk lies today about 35 km south of the modern course of the Euphrates, its name is an Akkadian rendering of the pre-Sumerian toponym UNUG, and the modern name for the site is Warka.

Excavations. Uruk is famous German site, and in discussing the techniques of excavation in the first half of the 20th century, I had discussed how Germans contributed, developed the study of the architectural history of the monuments unlike French who always went for the artifacts, not caring a little about architecture. This being a German excavation at Uruk, we are well informed about its architecture: very famous leading architectural historians and archaeologists of the Near east worked at the site, starting with Koldewey who inititaed the first large scientific project at the site in 1912, then Lenzen and even E. Heinrich between WW1 and 2 and after, after 1970s Schmidt and Boehmer. The architectural history of Uruk is so complicated and so rich that it is hard to deal within a lecture, so any sort of summery is an immense simplification of the architectural problems here.

Like Eridu, Uruk lay also in a well-watered alluvial and marshy land, covered with a dense network of Euphrates tributaries. For thousands of years reed and mud constituted the most important building materials for the settlements in the area, while whenever needed, stone, every piece of stone had to be imported from elsewhere. I feel the need to mention this because as you will see, enormous quantities of stone was used in the monumental structures of Uruk, perhaps on a scale which did not happen again for a very very long time, and the skill and technological innovations, that the Uruk artisans, craftsmen came up with was unrivalled for several hundred years.

The settlement was founded at the very end of the Ubaid period, in the 5th millennium. We are not well informed about the Ubaid period of the city, but the archaeologists did find Ubaid temples just contemporary to the Eridu temple complex, but not perhaps as monumental and as elaborate as that of Eridu.

Uruk, later in Mesopotamian history, has become a city of great historical importance, that later Mesopotamian kings tried to relate themselves to the mythical kings of Uruk. The most famous one of these is of course Gilgamesh that came down to us through its Late Babylonian copies, which talks about Gilgamesh the king of Uruk. and his accomplishments.

Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet I: Line 9

He had the wall of Uruk built, the sheepfold (Uruk-the-Sheepfold)
Of holiest Eanna, the pure treasury (sacred storehouse)
See if its wall is not (as straight) as the (craftsman’s) string (like a strand of wool),
Inspect its ...wall (battlements?), the likes of which noone can equal,
Touch the threshold stone (Take the stairway)-it dates from ancient times.
Approach the Eanna Temple, the dwelling of Ištar,
such as no later king or man will ever equal.
Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
Examine its foundation inspect its brickwork thoroughly
Is not its masonry of baked brick,
did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?
One square mile city, one square mile palm groves,
one square mile is brick-pits, and the open ground? of Ištar’s temple
Three square miles and the open ground of Uruk it encloses.

STANDARD GILGAMEŠ EPIC, Tablets I and XI (Translation adopted from A. George, see bibliography below)

The earliest settlement in Uruk was centered on two separate sacred precincts.

On both areas, a series of monumental sacred structures and platforms have been built one on top of another accumulating to a monumental ziqqurat form on each case, but in a very sophisticated design, and accumulative through the urban history of Uruk. Especially in the course of the Late Uruk period, the construction activity was intense and one temple after another was built on different levels. Since both complexes involve various levels, its stratigraphy was very complicated, but the Germans managed to solve and understand it to some extent.

The residential neighborhoods that surrounded these two complexes grew really large and by 2900 BC it was almost 600 hectares (1500 acres), a very large city for the Near East, and it was surrounded by a city wall.

The building remain that we will investigate today from Uruk is the so-called Late Uruk period: ca 4000 onwards Early Uruk

3600-3200 Late Uruk period, when the building activity was rather intense,
3200-2900 Jemdet Nasr period, named after a particular ceramic and seal tradition.

Late Uruk period is chronologically divided in itself as
Late Uruk V, ca 3600-3500 BC
Late Uruk IVc
Late Uruk IV b
Late Uruk IVa.

Eanna precinct

The earliest monumental building we have evidence for on the Eanna precinct is the called ‘the KalksteinTempel: Limestone Temple” by the archaeologists, because it was built almost entirely of limestone, probably quarried about 80 km (50 miles) West of the Euphrates, but the building must have been quite exceptional considering the amount of labour put into the quarrying and the transport of the stone. It was a massive structure measuring 76 by 30 meters (230 by 90 feet). To give you a sense of the scale this temple is larger than the Parthenon in Athens. This was the main building of Level V, but continued on two levels.

It was basically cut onto earlier small scale Ubaid period temples on a mud bedding. The foundation blocks were roughly cut and irregularly shaped 27x30 cm stone blocks. T-shaped central, very elongated hall, and elaborate niching suggests that it was a temple but the absence of the artifactual assamblage from the building, made this hard to say for sure. Compare with Eridu. The T-shaped central hall was as wide as 12 m. (ca 37 feet) which would have been very difficult to span. The interior of the main hall is also niched suggesting an articulation of the interior, it may not have been roofed. The symmetry of the plan arrangement is striking and I want to take your attention to the double staircase that led to the roof. A part of the ritual practices which we will see in ED period was involved with the flat rooftop of the temple. The two gateways to the s were probably the main approach to the cult room.

Archaeologists also cannot decide whether the building was built entirely of stone or only on the foundations with a mudbrick superstructure. But this I would like to make note that was one of the very rare attempts in the southern Mesopotamian architecture to build in stone even on the foundation level.

Limestone temple was probably the sole building for a period of time on top of this terrace, even though it was contemporary with other buildings on the Anu complex, and buildings inbetween. Since all these buildings were originally built at different levels and since they were cleaned and demolished ritually before anything built on top of them, it is very hard to tell which buildings were contemporary with which.

On the Eanna terrace, in Level V to IVb an impressive section was built immediately to its SW of the Limestone temple, an L-shaped terrace created by means of a massive colonnade on one of the wings and a certain North-South terrace complex.

A number of new brick types were also introduced at this period time:

For the first time in the Uruk period, in mid 4th millennium these bricks were also started to be fired in kilns, so they became increasingly durable, and it saved a lot of time. But it was an expensive process so these baked bricks were only used for water basins and channels to make them water-proof.

Colonaded terrace:

Anyway, to return to our complex. What is really interesting about this newly constructed terrace is the impressive colonnade. The colonnade was probably designed to serve as a monumental entrance to this sacred area which was essentially a large mosaic courtyard, all of which has not survived, but a set of staircases connected the colonnade to the courtyard. The SE end of the courtyard is defined by yet another temple Temple A, which was added to the complex in Level IVb.

The columns were two rows of huge pillar shaped supports, which were made of mudbrick and bundles of reed to make the mudbrick masses stable, and they each had a diameter of ca 2 m (more than 6 feet). The interesting aspect is their finishing, the casing, enveloping of these columns. On a clay bed thousands of nail shaped clay cones were set closely, and the cones had flat tops which were painted in black, white or red, and they were arranged to form a geometric mosaic pattern. They were basicly nail shaped clay elements inserted into the wall tightly to protect the wall from deterioration.

Cone mosaics:

Issues of weathering In terms of the protection of mudbrick walls and columns from the environmental effects like wind and rain, humidity, this solution of covering them with baked clay cones was a major breakthrough in terms of the architectonic aesthetics of monumental buildings. It is exactly what I wished to illustrate in terms of construction aesthetics where a practical architectural solution comes up with an innovatiive construction technique, which then takes on its aesthetic and symbolic character. It illustartes the intimate architectonic relation between protection of architectural surfaces and their decoration.

Uploaded Image

Stone-cone temple

Another building on a separate terrace of its own, that also probably dates to the same period as our colonnade is the so-called Steinstifttempel: the Stone-cone Temple or variously also called the Mosaic temple, where similar cone mosaics were used, this time to decorate walls with buttresses and recesses. The building was located somewhere between the Eanna precinct and the Anu ziqqurat, immediately to the West of the Eanna precinct in more relation with the Eanna precinct. Recently it was linked stratigraphically to Eanna precinct as well. This building was also founded in Level V, along with Limestone Temple.

It was a walled complex within itself. It had very elaborate foundations structure cut ino 2.5 m of virgin soil. It has remarkable features. Its court wall was built of limestone with very elaborate niching and buttressing. The walls are clad with stone cones in red, black and white, set in gypsum. In the recent excavations, Boehmer restudied this building and suggested that it was probably the earliest temple we know from Mesopotamia fo water cult.

Reimhen Gebäude: Reimhen building.

Later In the period IVb, another building was built on top of the Stone-Cone temple, that the Germans called Riemchen gebaude, just because it was built of Riemchen type square section bricks. It is a very strange building, rather unidentified in function: it had an outer room, a corridor around an inner room. When they excavated the building was packed with artifacts, animal bones, vessels, wooden furniture, cult objects as well. According to the excavator Lenzen, it was filled and ritually burned: ritually destroyed.

Uruk Level IVa buildings

For the Eanna precinct, let us finally have a quick look at the developments in the final phase of the late Uruk period, Uruk IVa. What happens is that the sanctuary is totally transformed. It is actually in this level IVa where first evidence for writing appears, so it is an incredibly important phase in Uruk history, Mesopotamian history and world history.

Main Temple D, Temple C

The site of Limestone temple is now taken up by a large administrative and storage building marked as the Main Temple D, and another temple immediately to the NW and in line with it: Temple C. Temple C was primarily a building of about the same type as the Limestone temple, but it had a distictive element, which the Germans called Kopfbau, a separate distinguished space, from the rest of the building. Anton Moortgat suggested that since only this small section was elaborately niched and decorated, may be this was the part sed for ritual purposes while the rest of tne building had a more administrative purpose. This building is important because 7 archaic tablets bearing the earliest writing was recovered from this building.

Palace E

Immediately south of these buildings an partly destroying the walls of the Temple D, a spectacular square building was built at the same time range afterwards, and the archaeologists often call the building Palace E or Building with 4 halls. It had a huge sunken court in the middle of it. The overall court measured 45 by 45 m. with built-in benches around it. It must have been a major publica gathering space, but again no certainity about its function.

Pillared hall Contemporary with these buildings was a building called pillared hall, another very articulate building with stone cone mosaics.

Kullaba : Anu complex

Now turning to the Anu ziqqurat complex, about 500 m. West of the Eanna precinct. Certain terraces of the Eanna complex actually approached the Anu mound quite a bit. Even though it is often referred in the scholarship to as a ziqqurat, it is not a ziqqurat in the sense that we understand it thinking of the later ziqqurats, the artificial terrace buildings of Ur III period and later, but here we are talking about also an accumulation of building debris, throghout the long architectural history of the complex.

It was dedicated to An or Anu, both the Sumerian name for the heaven, but also denotes the sky god. He was believed to be the prime mover in the genesis, the creation of the humankind, and he was the father of all Sumerian gods and Inana herself. In the Sumerian mythology, the heaven is conceived as a three tiered space, and Anu occupied the top one. So this associaton with the heavens, makes a ziqqurat much more understandable locating the god’s house the god’s temple on the highest ground. Innanna was his daugter acc to Sumerian myth, the most important female deity of the time period, the Lady of Heaven.

Talking about the Anu temple, we are actually talking about a series of temples starting with the Ubaid period, down to Uruk, Late Uruk and Jemdet Nasr. Contemporary to what was happening in the Eanna temple precinct, was a well preserved temple culminating on the high terrace, and it was called White Temple by the archaeologists. It was named White temple because its walls were coated with very fine thin white gypsum plaster. In terms of building plan type it was very similar to the temples at Eridu.

The late Uruk temple was set on a terrace which had sloping edges, 13 m above the plain, which must have increased its monumentality greatly. It was approached by a long series ofa staircase and ramp. The temple building itself had a central hall with an offering table in the middle and a platform altar at one end. One fascinating thing about these temples is that the articulation of the façade and the inner façade with the same traetment, which is a quite telling feature that, both the exterior face of the building and the intrior face acted as a stage a docarated backgroung façade for the rites performed. The temple measures 18 by 23 m roughly.

Temple at Tell al Uqair

Further North in Southern Mesopotamia, a contemporaneous building to the Uruk structures was excavated at the site of Tell al Uqair. The Late Uruk temple also stood on a high platform, which was an accumulation of earlier buildings. The platform was approached by monumental stairs. The edge of the platform was on two stages and had been decorated with stone cone mosaics just as it was in the Uruk complex. The upper stage was covered with bitumen and the wall of the temple had been built directly on this. The temple had a tri-partite plan similar to White Temple with an altar and an offering table. The walls were covered with paintings which were exceptionally well preserved because the building was filled up with mudbrick piles to form a platform for later buildings. The paintings consited of geometric and figurative designs. The altar decoration included the figures of a leopard, a bull and possibly a lion.

Bibliograhy for the curious

J Bottéro, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, trans. T L Fagan, Chicago 2001.

A R George (trans. and intro.), The epic of Gilgamesh: the Babylonian epic poem and other texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. London 1999.

R Eichmann, Uruk, die Stratigraphie:Grabungen 1912-1977 in den Bereichen 'Eanna' und 'Anu-Ziqqurrat’. Mainz am Rhein 1989.

H Pittman, “Pictures of an administration: The Late Uruk scribe at work,” in Between the rivers and over the mountains, M. Frangipane (eds), Rome 1993: 235-246.

M S Rothman (ed.), Uruk Mesopotamia & its neighbors: cross-cultural interactions in the era of state formation. Santa Fe 2001.

G J Stein, Rethinking world-systems: diasporas, colonies and interaction in Uruk Mesopotamia. Tucson 1999.

Powerpoint presentation:

Document IconUruk.ppt

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