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Guide to Ancient Mesopotamia

Timeline and Definition

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Borsippa Ziggurat (Iraq)

Young Iraqis stand atop ancient ruins in the shadow of a Mesopotamian ziggurat, June 8, 2003 in Borsippa, Iraq.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

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.

Mesopotamian Chronology

Dates after ca 1500 BC are generally agreed upon; important sites are listed in parentheses after each period.

Mesopotamian Advances

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.

Mesopotamian Sites

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

Sources

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

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