The Ancient City of Uruk

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The city of Uruk was at its most influential from 4000-3000 BCE, and its rise and expansion can be partially attributed to the absence of prestige materials in the southern alluvium (Joffe 1994, 512). Low access to these materials led to the desire for trade and the formation of extensive relationships with other cities, which, along with other factors, led to the expansion of Uruk, an event which can be displayed by a rapid population increase and drastic social change.

Previously, the belief that Uruk had low access to raw materials was widespread, but this belief is unfounded, as Uruk had almost everything it needed but lumber. It has been observed that most local trees and reeds may have served for Uruk’s need for wood, excepting the building of large, monumental public architecture (Joffe 1994, 514). Though the alluvial plain was fertile and rich, a prime place for agriculture, and so had most resources needed for survival, Uruk’s access to luxury materials was extremely low. It has been argued that a main material that drove the need for trade was lumber, but this has been disputed by the fact that most monumental buildings in Uruk are composed of gypsum, which was a locally sourced stone, as well as the aforementioned source of local trees and reeds (Joffe 1994, 513). The central drive for trade was most likely the desire for luxury items such as semi-precious stones and metals, objects which have been found within Uruk though they were sourced from quite far away. Evidence of this long-distance trade is found within burials of a style which moved away from that of the Ubaid period with the addition of grave goods; objects such as mirrors and copper axes were found within graves in Susa, the copper imported from the mountains approximately 200 kilometres away (Jennings 2010, 59). Trade would have initially been instituted close by, with settlements in close proximity to Uruk, before moving further out to places with more exotic goods. These areas, along with providing materials to another city, would have had a desire for the specialty items being produced in Uruk with the increase of materials available. Artefacts of Uruk style have been found from Egypt to places as distant as Pakistan, with advanced pottery from Uruk traded for precious stones, gold, and other such materials (Jennings 2010, 67). As Uruk’s influence, as the trade centre of the period, increased over time, the desire to maintain the flow of goods into the city precipitated the expansion of Mesopotamian settlings along the trade route with the establishment of trading outposts; this development allowed goods to be ferried between settlements rather than over long distances, many of these outposts walled and providing a safer route for the prestige items (Jennings 2010, 68). The prevalence of trade made immediate the issue of travel between these outposts, and so along with the usual means of transport – by foot – more efficient means were discovered and put to use, such as boats and sledges; donkeys were introduced to the profession of trade, as were wheeled vehicles (Jennings 2010, 69; Joffe 1994, 515). As well as a more efficient means of travel, the first form of writing was developed in Uruk; this was economic, and developed because of the increasing prevalence of trade.

In response to the dominance of trade, Uruk underwent a massive expansion of its borders. Many settlements that have been identified by several historians as trading colonies were set up along common Uruk trading routes, and architecture characteristic to Uruk has been found in small communities along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, on the outskirts of Mesopotamia (Algaze 1989, 571-608; Surenhagen 1986). Some colonial outposts had become more than simple stop-overs for travelling traders, and had accumulated enough wealth to warrant protection by tall stone walls (Jennings 2010, 68). A main cause of expansion in Uruk was increased specialisation in the production of goods. The increased availability of prestige materials due to success in trade led to an influx of people, both temporary residents – from trading settlements – and permanent residents – from settlements that were incorporated into the city of Uruk, under command of the new-found elite. As well as external settlements, people were likely moving into the city with the hopes of prospering in their particular trade and catering to increased demand for luxury items. The change in the manufacturing of textiles, from flax to wool, is an example of the specialisation that occurred, and is perhaps one of the more significant instances: woolly sheep were introduced from the north, and woollen fabrics had many advantages, including the ease with which they took dye (Jennings 2010, 65). The colouring of fabric was especially important in this new age of increasing social stratification, and wool was also far more convenient as it took far less effort for labourers to produce (Jennings 2010, 65). Another root of the rapidly increasing population of Uruk, unrelated to materials, is an influx of refugees from collapsing city-states in Sumer, but this can also be attributed to the rise in power and influence of Uruk, its wealth and prosperity keeping it afloat where other cities failed (Jennings 2010, 69).

As well as trade and subsequent expansion blossoming from the desire for raw materials, a profound change in social circumstances occurred. With a flourishing economy within Uruk, as the centre of trade during this period, social stratification began to occur, with levels being distinguished between the elite and the working class. The distribution of wealth was a major factor, those with the most holding positions of power within the trading centre. The development of writing further separated the classes, as learning to write would have been something that was restricted to the elite, but what was most important, as Algaze says, was economic differentiation, as economic differentiation leads to social differentiation (2001, 204). There are many examples of differences between social classes, one being a list of professions found widely, from Uruk to Ebla, ordered according to the rank of titles held by the elite (Nissen 1986, 329). This list names leaders of particular groups, from chairmen, courtiers, and ambassadors, to priests, gardeners, bakers and potters (Nissen 1986,329). Through this list and others like it – as it is the most highly reproduced list from the period – it is possible to see the strict hierarchy that developed in Uruk with rising wealth status. Another indicator of status can be seen in the grave goods, mentioned above. With the Uruk period came a move away from the previous Ubaid period-style of burials, and the inclusion of grave goods began, which was another distinct symbol of status. With a more wealthy culture, more elaborate burials became common, and the more elaborate the grave goods included, the higher the status of the occupant of the grave. Another new idea displayed in this period was that of the individual, and individual ownership displayed by clay seals; these were used to track traded goods and mark ownership, and this idea was not contained to Uruk. A wide variety of seals have been found within Uruk and without, later conforming to other societal styles, their appearance changing minutely but maintaining the original Uruk ideals (Nissen 1986, 320).

A city can only expand to a certain extent, and this applies to Uruk. The drive for trade through the desire for access to raw materials created the opportunity for Uruk to expand its influence, its population rising with its wealth and complexity. Over time, the lower classes in society were pushed to expand agriculture, which intensified to support the rising population of specialists who did not produce their own food. This led to over-irrigation, and the once fertile, rich land of the southern alluvial plain was subjected to environmental deterioration, which eventually led to the collapse of agriculture (Algaze 2001, 218). As well as the severe overburdening of the land, Uruk’s decrease in influence can be attributed to a supposed increase in hostility in Mesopotamia as settlements fought for connections to the trading network; hostility in the area can be seen in the abundance of walled settlements, such as Habuba Kabira and Sheikh Hassan (Jennings 2010, 60). Even as Uruk declined, other areas had been influenced by Uruk’s ideas, which travelled along with trade materials, and small settlements became involved in widespread trade, competing with each other for the more successful trading partner with high access to critical materials and creating rising violence. As well as hostility, it appears that Uruk decided to turn away from its dependence on an early global economy based on trade and external variables, from long distance relationships jeopardised by violence and competition from and between other states, and towards the local economy. Uruk’s local economy was able to be managed in a much more efficient fashion since the invention of the writing system, and so settlements were able to distance themselves from trading and the city, and develop as their own entities (Jennings 2010, 71). But even as Uruk’s methods were embraced by some, other areas such as Tepe Gawra rejected many of the principles which other places were so eager to take up, and this is displayed by the low amount of Uruk-style pottery that was found in the area, while at the same time in many other regions these types of goods were rapidly circulating; this region also maintained their own distinct style of burial, not conforming to the new Uruk style (Jennings 2010, 72).

Uruk was an area with low access to raw materials, and it displayed an amazing ability to adapt to its circumstances and define a new way of life which would spread across Mesopotamia. Trade provided it access to the luxury materials it required, and this gave birth to a rapid period of expansion and wealth, which created the first known evidence of societal stratification. The limited access to critical materials, though not the only variable, was the trigger for the rise and eventual fall of the city of Uruk.