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Ubaid Culture - 5900-3800 BC

The first farmers in southern Mesopotamia are known as the Ubaid culture. The earliest cities in the Middle East were far to the south of the Golden Crescent, at the Sumerian sites of Uruk and Ur near the mouth of the Euphrates, and usually dated to the Ubaid culture some time in the fifth millennium BC. The 'Ubaid culture is characterized by particular styles of painted pottery. The Ubaid culture was the first agricultural settlers who moved into the region that became Sumer. Ubaid Culture is characterised by large village settlements and the appearance of the first temples in Mesopotamia. The Ubaid Culture developed as a result of increasing sophistication in irrigation techniques. Early Ubaid culture is characterized by the development of new techniques for growing crops in a comparatively arid area. Late Ubaid culture saw the beginnings and rapid northward spread of urbanization.

The earliest settlement of the southern alluvial flood plain in the late 6th millenium was by a non-Semitic people called proto-Euphrateans. This Ubaid culture developed between 5900-5500 and 4300-3800 BC from the site at Ubaid. From there, it expanded to the west. Settlements in southern Mesopotamia dating from possibly as early as 4800 to 3500 BC are assigned collectively to the Ubaid culture, although similar pottery remains in Turkey extend the Ubaid people to as far back as 6200 BC. This prehistoric Ubaid Culture had a long duration beginning before 5000 BC and lasting until the beginning of the Uruk Period around 3800 BC.

The Ubaid culture received its name from a small site near Ur, Tell Al Ubaid, where it was first identified by Woolley in the 1920s. One of the oldest cities in the world, the excavations of Fuad Safar and Seton Lloyd between 1946 and 1950 revealed some 14 m of occupation dating to the Ubaid Culture (i. 5000-3800 BC).

Ubaid-culture potters were the first to turn out their products en masse. The technical perfection of Ubaid culture potters enabled them to supply some clay products which could replace those parts of the contemporary tool kit. Not only does its pottery clearly distinguish the 'Ubaid culture from its predecessors, but also the use of bent clay nails for decorating mud walls, the beginnings of cylinder seal glyptic art, and simplified female figurines.

Terracotta figurines occur in all periods from the Neolithic through the Sasanian. Chalcolithic figurines include Halaf style, characterized by seated naked females (usually headless), with bulging, rounded legs, arms, and breasts, and occasionally with painted decorations on their bodies; and Ubaid style of elongated, standing, nude male and female figures with tall, conical heads, ``coffee-bean''-shaped eyes, and applied body ornaments.

The ceramic tradition in Iraq is among the oldest in the world, extending back some 9000 years and encompassing a tremendous variety of shapes, fabrics, and decorative treatments. Chalcolithic vessels are unglazed bichrome pottery having a buff body decorated with dark paint, and polychrome pottery having a buff body decorated with red, black, and white paint. Decoration consists of geometric patterns, sometimes including motifs from nature.

Halaf: Hand-made polychrome pottery, often polished to a high sheen. Complex compositions of geometric and natural motifs in red, orange, brown/black, and white reminiscent of textiles, sometimes incorporating dense patterns of tiny black dots. Forms include plates, shallow bowls, footed goblets, and jars with flaring necks and oval mouth. Approximately 20-30 cm in diameter.

Earlier Ubaid: Hand-made wares, including fine buff or cream-slipped fabric decorated with thick dark paint with zones of geometric designs such as parallel lines in different directions, zigzags, and chevrons. Forms include bowls with and without ring bases, large dishes, sauceboats, beakers, and globular jars. Approximately 10-30 cm in diameter.

Later Ubaid: Wheel-made pottery often of a greenish hue, decorated with fine monochrome dark paint, used sparingly in broad black horizontal lines and simple curving shapes. Forms include large globular jars, shallow flaring bowls, round-bottomed bowls, and cups with flat bases. Approximately 4-20 cm in diameter.

Uruk: Burnished or polished monochrome (red-slipped or grey) wares, typically undecorated and mass-produced (wheel-made). Jars of this period often have bulging bellies, large mouths, short necks, and occasionally tubular spouts on the shoulder. A standardized, small, hand-made coarse ware bowl with a beveled rim also appears commonly. Approximately 5-20 cm in diameter and 5-40 cm high.

Around 4500, this Ubaid culture spread into northern Mesopotamia and replaced the Halaf in the north and in the Zagros mountains. Ubaid pottery was more austere in form and decoration than that of the Halaf. In general, Ubaid ceramics are modestly decorated, often, in the later phases, with dark painted patterns rapidly applied, showing none of the glossy polychromy of Halaf ware. Thus the distinctive types of pottery serve to delineate stratigraphic layers and cultures as well. The earliest known settlement in Sumer however has been excavated at the small site Tell (mound) Oueili. The lowest levels of this hamlet are earlier than the hitherto attested phases of the Ubaid Culture.

The most remarkable aspects of these cultures are their wide geographical spread and their long-distance contacts. The Late Ubaid Culture is thought to have flourished in southern Mesopotamia before spreading to the north. The Ubaid culture of southern Iraq was the first to expand into the north and into the Syrian Euphrates region. Various Syrian sites have Ubaid-period remains. When Ubaid material culture makes its earliest appearance in Syria in the final centuries of the sixth millennium, it co-existed with diverse stylistic traditions in different regions. After about 5000 BCE, the focus of development moved farther south into the lower alluvial plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the area that became known as Sumer.

A team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, along with a team of Syrian colleagues, uncovered new clues in 2010 about a prehistoric society that formed the foundation of urban life in the Middle East prior to invention of the wheel. The mound of Tell Zeidan in the Euphrates River Valley near Raqqa, Syria, which had not been built upon or excavated for 6,000 years, revealing a society rich in trade, copper metallurgy and pottery production. The Tell Zeidan site is about 48 feet high at its tallest point and covers about 30 acres. It sits in an area of irrigated fields at the junction of the Euphrates and Balikh Rivers in what is now northern Syria. The location was at the crossroads of major, ancient trade routes in Mesopotamia that followed the course of the Euphrates River valley.

Artifacts found there provide more support for the view that Tell Zeidan was among the first societies in the Middle East to develop social classes according to power and wealth. Tell Zeidan dates from between 6000 and 4000 BC, and immediately preceded the world's first urban civilizations in the ancient Middle East. It is one of the largest sites of the Ubaid culture in northern Mesopotamia. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of this society's trade in obsidian and production and development of copper processing, as well as the existence of a social elite that used stone seals to mark ownership of goods and culturally significant items.

One of the most remarkable finds was a stone stamp seal depicting a deer. The seal was about two inches by two-and-a-half inches and was carved from a red stone not native to the area. A similar seal design was found 185 miles to the east near Mosul in northern Iraq. 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.

The research is important because it provides insight into how complex societies developed, based on linkages which extended across hundreds of miles, the distance travelled for raw materials needed for many of the Tell Zeidan artifacts. For example, copper ore was carried by workers from sources near modern-day Diyarbakir, Turkey, about 185 to 250 miles away, then smelted at Tell Zeidan to produce metal tools and other implements.

It may be premature to refer to the Ubaid culture as Sumerian, but it certainly must have prepared the ground for the principal developments of the Sumerian civilization. They developed a more pronounced hierarchy, so that the most recent phases of the Ubaid culture (Ubaid 4-5) may be conceived as "chiefdoms," in which decision-making was taken over by a few lineage heads.



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