By K. Kris Hirst, About.com Guide
Guide to Ancient Mesopotamia
Timeline and Definition
Mesopotamia is an ancient civilization that took up pretty much everything that today is modern Iraq and Syria, a triangular patch wedged between the Tigris River, the Zagros Mountains, and the Lesser Zab River. Mesopotamia is considered the first urban civilization, that is to say, it was the first society which has provided evidence of people deliberately living in close proximity to one another, with attendant social and economic structures to allow that to occur peaceably.
Generally, people speak of north and south Mesopotamia, most prominently during the Sumer (south) and Akkad (north) periods between about 3000-2000 BC. However, the histories of the north and south dating back to the sixth millennium BC are divergent; and later the Assyrian kings did their best to unite the two halves.
Dates after ca 1500 BC are generally agreed upon; important sites are listed in parentheses after each period.
Ubaid 5800-3700 BC (Telloh, Ur, Ubaid, Oueili, Eridu, Tepe Gawra, H3 As-Sabiyah)
Early Northern Uruk 4400-3600 BC (Brak, Hamoukar)
Uruk 3800-3200 BC (Girsu/Telloh,
Umma, Lagash, Eridu, Ur, Hacinebi Tepe, Turkey, Chogha Mish, Iran)
Jemdet Nasr 3200-3000 BC (Uruk)
Early Dynastic Period 3000-2350 BC (Kish, Uruk, Ur, Lagash, Asmar, Mari, Umma, Al-Rawda)
Akkadian 2350-2200 BC (Agade, Sumer, Lagash, Uruk, Titris Hoyuk)
Neo-Sumerian (2100-2000 BC) (Ur, Elam, Tappeh Sialk
Old Babylonian and Old Assyrian Periods (2000-1600 BC) (Mari, Ebla Babylon, Isin, Larsa, Asssur)
Middle Assyrian (1600-1000 BC)
Neo-Assyrian (1000-605 BC) (Nineveh)
Neo-Babylonian (625-539 BC) (Babylon)
Mesopotamia was first home to villages in the Neolithic period of around 6,000 BC. Permanent mudbrick residential structures were being constructed before the Ubaid period at southern sites such as Tell el-Oueili, as well as Ur, Eridu, Telloh, and Ubaid. At Tell Brak in northern Mesopotamia, architecture began appearing at least as early as 4400 BC. Temples were also in evidence by the sixth millennium, in particular at Eridu.
The first urban settlements have been identified at Uruk, about 3900 BC, along with mass-produced wheel-thrown pottery, the introduction of writing, and cylinder seals.
Assyrian records written in cuneiform have been found and deciphered, allowing us much more information about the political and economic pieces of latter Mesopotamian society. In the north part was the kingdom of Assyria; to the south was the Sumerians and Akkadian in the alluvial plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Mesopotamia continued as a definable civilization right through the fall of Babylon (about 1595 BC).
Of most concern today are the ongoing issues associated with the continuing war in Iraq, which have gravely damaged much of the archaeological sites and allowed looting to occur, as described in a recent article by archaeologist Zainab Bahrani.
Important Mesopotamian sites include: Tell el-Ubaid, Uruk, Ur, Eridu, Tell Brak, Tell el-Oueili, Nineveh, Pasargardae, Babylon, Tepe Gawra, Telloh, Hacinebi Tepe, Khorsabad, Nimrud, H3, As Sabiyah, Failaka, Ugarit, Uluburun
Ömür Harmansah at the Joukowsky Institute at Brown University is in the process of developing a course on Mesopotamia, which looks really useful.
Bernbeck, Reinhard 1995 Lasting alliances and emerging competition: Economic developments in early Mesopotamia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 14(1):1-25.
Bertman, Stephen. 2004. Handbook to Life in Mesopotamia. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Brusasco, Paolo 2004 Theory and practice in the study of Mesopotamian domestic space. Antiquity 78(299):142-157.
De Ryck, I., A. Adriaens, and F. Adams 2005 An overview of Mesopotamian bronze metallurgy during the 3rd millennium BC. Journal of Cultural Heritage 6261–268. Free download
Jahjah, Munzer, Carlo Ulivieri, Antonio Invernizzi, and Roberto Parapetti 2007 Archaeological remote sensing application pre-postwar situation of Babylon archaeological site—Iraq. Acta Astronautica 61:121–130.
Luby, Edward M. 1997 The Ur-Archaeologist: Leonard Woolley and the treasures of Mesopotamia. Biblical Archaeology Review 22(2):60-61.
Rothman, Mitchell 2004 Studying the development of complex society: Mesopotamia in the late fifth and fourth millennia BC. Journal of Archaeological Research 12(1):75-119.
Wright, Henry T. 2006 Early state dynamics as political experiment. Journal of Anthropological Research 62(3):305-319.
Zainab Bahrani. 2004. Lawless in Mesopotamia. Natural History 113(2):44-49
Related Glossary Entries
More on Mesopotamia
Archaeological Sites of Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia on the Internet
Mesopotamia (British Museum)
Mesopotamia (Internet Ancient History Sourcebook)
Mesopotamia: an online course (O. Harmansah)
Babylon – What and Where is Babylon
The Battle for Hamoukar – Evidence for Warfare in Ancient Mesopotamia
Eridu – Mesopotamian City of Eridu
Uruk – Mesopotamian city of Uruk
George (a Professor of Babylonian at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies) suggests that THE IGIGI GODS WERE TASKED WITH GARDENING DUTIES BY THE ANUNNAKI GODS _BEFORE_ MAN”S CREATION: planting, harvesting and preparing crops for the table in addition to making canals and irrigation ditches. Note that the Igigi _TILLED_ the soil in the city gardens of Sumer and Adam is portrayed as TILLING in the Garden of Eden (Emphasis mine):
“We know from many ancient Mesopotamian sources, in Sumerian and in Akkadian, that the Babylonians believed the purpose of the human race to be the service of the gods. BEFORE MANKIND’S CREATION, the myth tells us, the cities of lower Mesopotamia were inhabited by the gods alone and they had to feed and clothe themselves by their own efforts. Under the supervision of Enlil, the lord of the earth, THE LESSER DEITIES GREW AND HARVESTED THE GODS’ FOOD, _TILLED_ THE SOIL and most exhaustingly, dug the rivers and waterways THAT IRRIGATED THE FIELDS…Eventually the labour became too much for them and they mutinied.” (p. xxxvii. “Introduction.” Andrew George. The Epic of Gilgamesh. The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. London. Penguin Books. 1999)
Below, a cylinder seal showing a naked man pouring out a libation into a cult vessel before a god seated on a throne upon the back of a serpent-dragon (?). Behind the naked male is a clothed man with an animal offering for the enthroned god. Flanking the scene are two clothed gods (for the photo cf. p. 175. fig. 454. Briggs Buchanan, William W. Hallo & Ulla Kasten. Early Near Eastern Seals In the Yale Babylonian Collection. New Haven & London. Yale University Press. 1981)
Below, a NAKED Sumerian Priest offers a libation (a vase is held in his left hand and a shallow saucer or drinking cup in his right hand). Behind him is a stand or totem (?). (cf. figure 154. “Sumerian priest with libation vase.” James B. Pritchard. Editor. The Ancient Near East, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton, New Jersey. University of Princeton. 1958)
As earlier stated, it is my conviction that Sumer’s priests WRONGLY ascribed man’s acquistion of civilization to the gods’ bestowing this knowledge on him, denying him the glory of self-discovery and self-improvement and SELF-EVOLUTION from naked beast to a civilized clothes-wearing city dweller. It would be some 6,000 years later that the Sciences of Anthropology, Archaeology and History would realize that man began life as a wild animal not knowing it was wrong to be naked, later clothing himself to protect himself against the elements (rain, sun-burn, heat and cold) of Nature, and _not_ don clothing because he was “embarassed” to discover he was naked (Genesis 2:25; 3:7).
Clifford noted that Sumerian myths understood “civilization” was not of man’s doing, it was of the gods’ doing:
“…the human race was originally created animal-like, with no cities and culture, and only subsequently was it given the arts making life humane and bearable.”
(p. 44. “Rulers of Lagash.” Richard J. Clifford. Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible. Washington D.C. The Catholic Biblical Association of America. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 26. 1994)
“The text begins with An on the hill of heaven and earth generating the gods, who are divided into the great divinities and the lesser gods. The gods are without the sustenance provided by grain and flocks. There were human beings at that time but they were like animals, living without clothing and without the sustenance provided by grain and flocks. The gods discover the advantages of agriculture and animal hubandry for themselves but their human servants, without those means, could not satisfy them. Enki, wishing to increase human efficiency for the ultimate benefit of the gods, persuades Enlil to communicate to the human race the secrets of farming and animal husbandry.”
(p. 46. “Ewe and Wheat.” Richard J. Clifford. Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible. Washington D.C. The Catholic Biblical Association of America. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 26. 1994)
“Upon the Hill of Heaven and Earth
When An had spawned the divine Godlings,
there was NO CLOTH to wear…
THE PEOPLE OF THOSE DISTANT DAYS,
They knew not BREAD to eat;
THEY KNEW NOT CLOTH TO WEAR;
THEY WENT ABOUT WITH NAKED LIMBS in the Land,
And like sheep they ate grass with their mouth,
Drinking water from the ditches.”
(p. 45. “Ewe and Wheat.” Richard J. Clifford. Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and in the Bible. Washington D.C. The Catholic Biblical Association of America. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly Monograph Series 26. 1994)
Middle Assyrian, about 1070-1056 BC
From Nineveh, northern Iraq
Found in the remains of the Temple of Ishtar
Most monumental public art in Mesopotamia was designed to glorify the male king. As a result, images of woman are rare.
This is the only known Assyrian statue of a naked woman.
It is also unusual in being sculpted in the round.
Few statues of this scale survive from ancient Mesopotamia.
Hormuzd Rassam discovered the statue in 1853 while excavating the remains of the Temple of Ishtar at the Assyrian city of Nineveh.
Ishtar, a goddess of sexuality and warfare, was one of the most important deities in Mesopotamia and the city of Nineveh was one of her principal cult centres.
This statue may represent one of the attendants of Ishtar in her role as goddess of love.
A cuneiform inscription on the back states that it was erected by the Assyrian king Ashur-bel-kala (reigned 1073-1056 BC) for the enjoyment of his people.
The inscription ends with a curse on anyone who attempts to remove it, saying that the Sibitti, gods of the West, ‘will afflict him with a snake bite’.