The prehistoric cultures of Mesopotamia gave rise to literacy, bureaucracy, agriculture, and modern cities. And now a nearly-untouched city in Syria will give us a peek at what urban life was like 7000 years ago in the so-called Ubaid period.
The remains of a city called Tell Zaidan, or just Zaidan, are located in northern Syria on the banks of the Balikh River. A group of archaeologists have just been given permission by the Syrian government to excavate the city, and are already discovering a treasure trove of artifacts - from pottery shards to basement storage rooms - from a poorly-understood era in human history called the Ubaid. The Ubaid stretches roughly from 5500 BC to 4000 BC, and was a time of intense transformation in human civilization.
It was, according to researchers, a period when social classes as we know them today first emerged.
According to the New York Times:
One of the most telling finds was a stone seal depicting a deer, presumably used to stamp a mark on goods to identify ownership in a time before writing. About 2-by 2- 1/2 inches, the seal is unusually large and carved from a red stone not native to the area. In fact, archaeologists said, it was similar in design to a seal found 185 miles to the east, at Tepe Gawra, near Mosul.
To archaeologists, a seal is not just a seal. Dr. [Richard] Zettler said it signifies that "somebody has the authority to restrict access to things - to close and seal jars, bags, doors - and so once you have these seals you must have had social stratification."
The existence of elaborate seals with near-identical motifs at such widely distant sites, Dr. [Gil] Stein said, "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."
Other artifacts attest to the culture's shift from self-sufficient village life to specialized craft production dependent on trade and capable of acquiring luxury goods, the archaeologists reported. Such a transition is assumed to have required some administrative structure and produced a wealthy class. The expedition will be searching for remains of temples and imposing public buildings as confirmation of these political and social changes.
In what appears to be the site's industrial area, archaeologists uncovered eight large kilns for firing pottery, one of the most ubiquitous Ubaid commodities over wide trading areas. They found blades made from the high-quality volcanic glass obsidian. An abundance of obsidian chips showed that the blades were produced at the site, and the material's color and chemical composition indicated that it came from mines in what is now Turkey . . . Zeidan also had a smelting industry for making copper tools, the most advanced technology of the fifth millennium B.C.
It's worth reading the whole article on this dig. The researchers are finding out a lot about how humans learned to live in large groups - and to trade with other large groups across incredible distances.
via New York Times
Images via Gil Stein, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago