"Uruk Mesopotamia..."


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Posted by Lilly from ? (160.129.27.22) on Friday, June 07, 2002 at 12:56PM :

I just stumbled across this in the most recent issue of Science, Jun 7 2002: 1809-1810. It's a book review. What does anyone think of this?

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ANTHROPOLOGY:
At the Dawn of Tyranny
A review by Elizabeth Carter*

Uruk Mesopotamia & Its Neighbors Cross-Cultural Interactions in the Era of State Formation
Mitchell S. Rothman, Ed.
School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, NM, 2001. 578 pp. $60. ISBN 1-930618-02-6. Paper, $24.95. ISBN 1-930618-03-4. James Currey, Oxford, 2002. 45. ISBN 0-85255-461-3. Paper, 16.95. ISBN 0-85255-460-5.

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Mesopotamia has long served as a model case for understanding the origins of cities and states. Fieldwork in southern Iraq by Robert McC. Adams, which began in 1957, led to mapping the ancient settlements on the plains created by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Adams's The Evolution of Urban Society (Aldine, Chicago, 1966) set the agenda for contemporary research into early urbanism in the region. Uruk Mesopotamia & Its Neighbors, edited by Mitchell Rothman, pays tribute to that pioneering work with 15 articles that build on Adams's data and his rich intellectual legacy.
Nonspecialists will find Henry Wright's essay, "Cultural Action in the Uruk World," the most accessible chapter in the book. Wright places the early Mesopotamian world of the fourth millennium B.C. and its capital city, Uruk-Warka, in historical perspective. He reminds the reader that "at the dawn of tyranny, the critical dynamic is that between would-be rulers and those whom they sought to dominate."

Susan Pollock uses a reanalysis of data from Adams's archaeological survey to challenge earlier conclusions that shared material culture equals political coalition. At the time, the Mesopotamian heartland was by no means a unified entity. Pollock identifies a relatively stable region in the northern alluvial plains, which was characterized by competing polities of comparable extent and scale. In the south, a larger and less stable polity was centered at the site of Uruk-Warka.

All of the contributors comment on the spread of Uruk material culture and establishment of the new settlements to the north and east of southern Mesopotamia during the fourth millennium. Was it accidental that the dispersal of material culture and possibly settlers coincided with the birth of cities and the origin of the state in ancient Sumer? In Pollock's interpretation, Uruk settlements (sites that have yielded Uruk-style artifacts) outside the Mesopotamian heartland were settled by the displaced and disaffected from the repressive Uruk state in the south.

Gil Stein's analysis of the site of Hacinebi, some 1000 km north of Uruk on the Euphrates, suggests that "Mesopotamians lived there as an economically autonomous diaspora community." He attributes the symmetrical nature of political and economic relations between the immigrant and native communities to the inability of the Uruk folk to control the locals at such a great distance from the Uruk center. But Stein does not explain why the local people, with their already relatively complex society, let the foreigners settle amidst their town in the first place.

For Guillermo Algaze the answer is clear: both parties benefited, at least at the beginning of the process. Eventually, cross-fertilization spurred the growth of local societies so that they became competitors, not partners. The Mesopotamian elites were able to convert their surplus agricultural production into woods, metals, and stones from the Zagros and Taurus ranges. These materials were shipped south through a series of strategically located emplacements along the main riverine and overland trade routes. The profits of long-distance trade are visible in the archaeological record. The Mesopotamian polities built monumental public buildings and furnished them luxuriously. Their reinvestment reinforced the political control of the elites, whose access to distant lands and exotic commodities augmented their internal prestige. For Algaze, technological superiority in record-keeping, transport, and politics are indicators of a successful "informal economic empire."

Algaze had previously, in his book The Uruk World System (University of Chicago Press, 1993), seen the Uruk period as a "cultural explosion." Wright and E. S. A. Rupley now present a chronology, based on recalibrated carbon-14 dates, that indicates the Uruk period lasted a minimum of 700 to 800 years. What formerly appeared as a short-lived episode of internal growth with subsequent expansion and domination is now recognized as a much longer and far more intricate relation between highlands and lowlands.

In Hans Nissen's description, Uruk-Warka at the time Mesopotamian civilization first emerged was a walled city of 20,000 people with an impressive skyline of public buildings visible from afar on the flat Mesopotamian plain. Nissen points out that Uruk-Warka was at the apex of a local settlement hierarchy, but that there were no doubt similar developments at other Mesopotamian cities--such as Kish, Nippur, Umma, Girsu (Telloh), and Ur--if only we knew more about the deeply buried layers at those locales.

Holly Pittman traces the long history of the use of seal-impressed clay masses in different parts of Greater Mesopotamia. In the highland portions of the ancient Near East (now within Iran and Turkey), stamps--not the Mesopotamian cylinder seals--were used before, during, and after the Uruk Period. Pittman shows that in these areas the changes in the "administrative tool kit and the symbolic technology" that took place in the south in the context of the newly urbanized state societies occur only where there is additional clear evidence for the presence of southern influence.

The early Mesopotamians exported their religious and symbolic systems and, of course, their writing. But was their "cultural capital" an expression of political dominance? Was it an attempt by the diaspora to keep their traditions alive? Or both? The issue remains unresolved because none of the authors investigate the assimilation or acculturation of the transplanted Mesopotamian population in Syro-Anatolia. Similarly, none examine the cultural innovations of the highlands that were adopted and adapted in the Mesopotamian heartland. These shortcomings point clearly to avenues for future research, but they do not detract from the value of the volume. Uruk Mesopotamia & Its Neighbors offers readers important new data and compelling interpretations of the era of state formation in Greater Mesopotamia.

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The author is in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, 376 Kinsey Hall, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA. E-mail: carter@humnet.ucla.edu


-- Lilly
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