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ANTH 335   Old World Prehistory
Dr. Darlene Applegate
Spring 2008
 Near East:  Early Civilizations

Introduction       Warka/Uruk       Sumeria       Akkad       Hittite       Phoenicia


Near East had some of the earliest civilizations in the world, as early as 3500 (2900?) BC

development of early civilizations represents continuation of previous trends to increasing sedentism and complexity

development occurred first and most rapidly in Mesopotamia, within 2000 years of earliest sedentary settlements

by some estimates we only have knowledge of 5% of the Near Eastern sites dated 6000 BC to 0 AD

early cities included Warka, also known as ancient Uruk

city-states included Sumeria and Phoenicia

nations included Proto-Elamite and Elamite

empires included Hittite, Akkad, Babylon, Assyria, Persia (Acheamenid)

this web page provides only a sampling of the many early Near Eastern civilizations

Map showing locations of some early Near Eastern civilizations.

First Mesopotamian City  
3600-2900 BC


southern Mesopotamia, delta area, on Euphrates River


gained city status by Uruk period (3600-3100 BC), with population estimated at 10,000

became autonomous city-state during Early Dynastic period, with peak population of 50,000 about 2700 BC


farming and herding, irrigation


other Early Dynastic city-states included Ur

growth of urban center accompanied by rural depopulation

satellite settlements associated with city-states but fewer in number than during previous periods

during peak occupation, population estimated at 50,000 and satellites for 6 square miles


excavations limited primarily to religious precincts of site

uruk tel
Tel at Warka/Uruk, Iraq.

14 levels of occupation

don't know much about domestic habitations; domestic area not excavated

Anu Ziggurat with White Temple is earliest evidence of monumental architecture

Ruins of White Temple at Uruk, Iraq.

Eanna temple precinct constructed with limestone from 60 km away

massive wall with gates: credited to King Gilgamesh, defensive function, 9 km long, mud brick


social hierarchy beginning in Uruk period

elite priest class with control based at temples/ziggurats

craft specialization

ls head
Limestone sculpture from Warka/Uruk.


developed from chiefdom to state to city-state

power held by religious class as well as king

city ruled by leader with religious and secular power


center of Anu and Inanna cults


absorbed by Sumerian state

First State-Level Society

Sumeria:  2900-2350 BC
Neo-Sumeria or Ur III:  2100-2000 BC


southern Mesopotamia, lower delta of Tigris and Euphrates rivers


based on Uruk urban center

Sumerian-speaking people


farming, herding, plow, intensive irrigation


mud-brick houses, multiroom houses, houses built against each other

stone and mud-brick public public works

cities and towns: three largest about 50,000 people, but most other cities about 20-25,000

urban centers included Sumer, Ur, Kish, Mari, Eridu, Lagash, Umma, Erech, Warka (Uruk)

example of urban center is Ur

Map of portion of Sumerian Ur, including royal cemetery.

royal burials at Ur are clear indication of social stratification

more than 2500 burials, most are Early Dynastic period

most elaborate graves are subterranean vaulted chambers of king and queen

sacrificial attendants and animals (cult of human sacrifice begins but soon disappears)

elaborate burial goods (precious metals, jewels, metal objects)

Ram in thicket or tree from Ur royal cemetery.

Reconstructed lyre from tomb of Queen Pu-Ab, Ur royal cemetery.

lyre head
Closeup of bull head on Queen Pu-Ab's lyre.

ur std
Standard of Ur, banquet scene, royal cemetery.

two explanations for royal burials:

(1) funerary rites of rulers and elites, whose wealth was buried to maintain survivor's status

(2) primitive fertility cult with burials of religious personnel representing deities

opulent burials took place when power was shifting from temple to palace

elaborate burials tapered off as power was institutionalized
Nanna Ziggurat at Ur, constructed during Ur III dynasty, is classic example of Mesopotamian architecture

Nanna Ziggurat prior to restoration.

Partially restored Nanna Ziggurat at Ur.

advances in metallurgy; may have invented bronze technology (imported copper from Oman, tin from Iran, Asia Minor, Syria, or perhaps Europe?); bronze tools and weapons common

wheel for transportation and animal-drawn carts

cuneiform developed here

elaborate burials compared to earlier times

flounced skirt, clean shaven and short hair in artwork

brick columns representing date palm trunk, made of plano-convex or pincushion-shaped bricks and adorn entrances to important buildings


class system based on economic or occupational position rather than kinship

first time in Near East that population was large enough for diseases (typhoid, cholera) to be epidemic


13 city-states, each with a king

constant warfare among city-states for hegemony and control

use of army, wagons, chariots, boats in warfare

king is commander-and-chief

conquest through subjugation and slavery; instill own government in conquered cities

also fought with other states like Akkad and Elamite

Ur III (Neo-Sumeria) was a centralized state governed by absolute monarch, integrated Sumerian and Semite groups


trade very important; traded food surpluses for metal, timber, skin, ivory, stone


pantheon of 3000-4000 deities

major deities:

head of gods was Anu, King of Heaven, worshipped at Anu Ziggurat at Warka (ancient Uruk)

Enlil was King of Earth, national god of Sumer, cult centered at Nippur

Enki was King of Water and Subterranean, cult centered at Eridu

Anu, Enlil and Enki seen as a triad

Eanna was Lady of Heaven, cult centered at Temple of Eanna at Warka (ancient Uruk); Ishtar in Semitic religion; gained importance over Anu over third millennium

secondary deities included:

Utu (sun, justice)

Nanna (moon, omens, calendar, cult at Ur)

Inanna (war and love)

early representations of deities were symbolic (Anu=horned cap, Inanna=bundle of reeds) and associated with nature but became more anthropomorphic over time and concerned about humans

creation myth, flood epic, parables, temples run by full-time religious specialists, behavioral guidelines, and ideals of humaneness became foundation of many subsequent religions

fatalistic view of the world


initial decline due to conflict; conquered by Akkadians about 2340 BC

resurgence with Ur III (Neo-Sumeria) with economic motivations about 2100-2000 BC

Ur III decline due to combination of factors, including weak central control, rebellions in territories, and pressures from seminomadic peoples like the Martu from north-northeast; Ur eventually sacked by Elam

First Nation State and Empire
2340-2159 BC

most evidence about Akkad comes from texts, seals, provincial towns


centered in middle-northern drainages of Mesopotamia

empire spanned Persian Gulf to Mediterranean and perhaps into Anatolia


Semite nation state established by Sargon in his competition with city-states of Sumeria

seminomadic Semites probably in Mesopotamia before Sumerians but didn't hold positions of power --> then assume positions of power in ruling class --> then took complete control in middle-northern Mesopotamia

Sargon conquered Kish, then Uruk, and rest of Sumeria; then moved northwest to conquer Mari and Hit and into Anatolia
King Sargon of the Akkad civilization.

Khorsabad Palace of Sargon II.


new language of Akkadian was developed for state affairs

Akkadian replaced Sumerian as international language throughout Near East  

first documentation of private ownership of land

beards and long hair in art work


first nation state and first empire

Sargon represents military monarchy

large bureaucracy to administer empire

empire administered by military force that was not efficient and didn't last long

subjugated areas are provinces ruled by governors with military forts

governors' main focus was economic and was related to trading interests

capital at Agade, which has not been identified archaeologically yet


system of trade is more integrated

overland and sea trade as far as Indus Valley

conquests resulted in booty and tribute


empire administered by military means alone was difficult to maintain; no means of integration

independence asserted by conquered peoples (some city-states reassert themselves) and external forces (especially the Gutians in Zagros Mtns to northwest) lead to decline

Agade sacked in 2159 BC

city-states regain autonomy (Uruk, Lagash)

2000-1200 BC


center of empire in Anatolia (central plateau of Turkey)

empire from Aegean to Euphrates, Black Sea to southern Syria

Map of central Hittite civilization.

Map of Hittite empire.



may have come south from Europe or sw Russia

homeland may be Caucasus Mtns

came south through Balkans

don’t know why moved south


farm and herd; grapes, fig, olive, barley, wheat, onion, lentil, chickpeas, lettuce, beans, flax, bees, partridge, duck, oxen, goat, sheep, horse, ass, mule, pig

branding, plow and fences used

made wine, oil, cheese, flour


cities and villages

vassal states

multiroom houses common

stone construction differed from mud-brick construction in Mesopotamia


metallurgy very significant: iron very valuable, earliest advances in iron smelting in Old World, use of copper and bronze also, accurate records of locations of iron ore, accurate records of gifts of iron received, blacksmiths highly regarded and respected; traded iron with Egypt, Syria, Iran and Lebanon (Phoenicians)

Bronze arrowheads from the Hittite empire.

writing: had own pictographic system (1500 symbols) plus altered cuneiform adopted from Babylonia; used for record keeping, history, rights/laws, treaties

Hittite cuneiform text.

religious calendar

deep respect for the law; law more humane than Babylonians; 200 statutes plus common (unwritten law) concerning social conduct, business, wages, prices, rights, retributions for crimes; elders ran local courts

standardized artform or emblem of the state: double-headed (heraldic) bird (often an eagle or other raptorial bird)


may have invented three-man chariot

Bas relief sculture of Hittite chariot (though not three person!).

boots with upcurled toes commonly depicted in artwork

Typical Hittite footgear.


little is known about social organization other than it was stratified


1700 to 1400 was period of empire building

empire existed between 1400-1200 BC

Hattusa was capital for over 400 years, from 1620 to 1200 BC

administrative and religious center

400 acre site with fortress on hilltop with double wall, arches, five main gates

underground vaulted tunnels, towers, palaces and temples

largest and most strongly fortified city of its time

hattusa tel
Tel Hattusa, capital of the Hittite civilization.

hattusa map
Plan view map of Hattusa, Turkey. Lion gate at #2.

lion gate
Lion gate at Hattusa.

conquered peoples become vassal states with some freedom, ruled by local princes with allegiance to king

empire built through warfare, threat, negotiation, absorption, and marriage

relatively small but very accomplished army plus charioteers

king had secular and sacred functions, acting as head of national faith, high priest, chief judge, chief foreign diplomat and commander-and-chief

at beginning it was the first constitutional monarchy in world, with king subject to laws and assembly of nobles (pankus) but later became absolute ruler due to contacts with absolute rulers in other parts of Old World


pantheon of local and adopted foreign gods


reasons uncertain

sudden collapse at 1200 BC, with Hattusa sacked and burned

invaders may have been internal rebels, Assyrians, Kaskans from north, Ahhiyawa to west, or Sea Peoples

don’t know where the people went

15 petty "neo-Hittite" kingdoms existed for 500 more years after collapse

Phoenicia East:  1200 BC to 330 BC
Phoenicia West: 1200 BC to 145 BC

not very well known because few historical records, civic records, and folklore due to poor preservation of artifacts in Lebanon (very wet climate) and to destruction of sites by other cultures who desired to control the Levant area


divided into two zones: Phoenicia East and Phoenicia West

Phoenicia East was based along Mediterranean coast of Lebanon

Phoenicia West involved trading ports along north and south Mediterranean coasts

Map of Phoenicia East and Phoenicia West plus examples of sites.


group of Canannites, Semitic-speaking people who spread through Near East

probably spread from semi-desert herders of northern Arabia


lots of fish, gardens, farms (cereals, grapes, olives, figs, dates)

most farms located on coasts


stone and mud-brick houses

most cities in defensible locations on islands or coastal promontories

most cities walled for defense

multistory palaces and shrines common in large cities


five principal cities in Phoenicia East:  Tyre, Sidon, Berytus (Beirut), Byblos, Aradus

Tyre and Sidon were dyeing centers

Artist reconstruction of Sidon, Lebanon.

Artist reconstruction of Tyre, Lebanon.

Byblos was cedar lumber center

Ruins at Byblos, Lebanon. Modern city in background.

other sites in Phoenicia East include Sarepta, Ugarit

Tel at Ugarit, Lebanon.

many port cities in Phoenicia West, best known is Carthage (a trading colony)

View of ruins at Carthage, Tunisia.


actively engaged in sea trade throughout the Mediterranean (and beyond)

established first links from Near East to west

first to discover Atlantic Ocean

first to sail around Africa (2 trips)

three major markets: Mesopotamia, Egypt and Mediterranean

traded with Africans, Egyptians, Greeks, Assyrians, Babylonians, Spanish, British, and others

most of what we know about ships comes from pictures of them in different cultures (like the Assyrians)

few wrecks found (Sicily and Turkey)

cargo vessel characteristics:  30 to 80' long, rounded hull, broad, square sail, short mast, steering oars, covered with pitch

Phoenician vessel.

major exports: cedar, fir, purple cloth, jewelry, ivory artwork

major imports: metal ores (copper, gold, silver, tin), papyrus, ivory

also served as "middlemen" in trade of Egyptian faience (glass), Greek ceramics, Minoan pottery

craft production of purple dye and dyed cloth

deep royal purple to pale pink dye

dye produced from glands of Murex sp. snail


soak glands in seawater for two weeks in tin or iron pan in sunlight

took 60,000 snails to make one pound of dye

dyed wool and silk cloth

very expensive commodity as one pound of dyed silk would be worth $36,000 today

major dyeing centers at Tyre and Sidon


writing system involved an alphabet

did not "invent" alphabet but made big steps toward it

circles, crosses, slanting lines were used to represent 22 consonants (sounds)

no vowels - these were added by the Greeks

did use cuneiform too but clay tablets do not preserve well in Lebanon

extensive use of papyrus for writing


ritual practice of human sacrifice

very pervasive ritual practice

referred to in Bible and other cultures' records

mostly infants and young children

typical practice involved slitting the throat and burning the body

thousands of sacrifical burials in urns at many sites around Mediterranean



ranked society of (1) nobility and priests, (2) craftsmen, dealers, shopkeepers, merchants, (3) menial laborers, and (4) slaves

skilled craft workers in ivory, metallurgy, jewelry, glass, carpentry, cabinetmaking; also dentistry


independent city-states, each ruled by a hereditary king

merchant princes ruled smaller cities

not really a unified "state"


very devoted to religious beliefs

pantheon of deities

main god El (father of gods, creator)

mother goddess Asherah

god of storms Baal also important

priests held much power

gods of environmental aspects (ie. storms) and also specific activities (ie. plague, wheat, healing)


Phoenicia East fell about 336 BC to Alexander the Great of Macedonia

Phoenicia West fell in 146 BC to Romans


Redman, The Rise of Civilization  (1978)
Fagan, People of the Earth  (2002)
Edey, The Sea Traders (1974)
Hicks, The Empire Builders (1974)
Hamblin, The First Cities (1974)

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Page composed by Darlene Applegate, darlene.applegate@wku.edu
Last updated on March 6, 2008
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