Mesopotamia in the Era of State Formation: Aiming for Consensus

Advanced Seminar

March 1–5, 1998

The earliest state-level society developed in Mesopotamia. By 3500 B.C., true states are thought to have evolved in the southern region of modern Iraq and southwestern Iran. Urban systems emerged, a process of commodification began, social stratification arose, and writing developed. States in the south began to experience cultural and economic contact outside their local orbit, possibly causing the population movements of the so-called “Uruk expansion”—sometimes suggested to be an early world system or economic empire.

Although explaining the origins of complex societies has been a core issue of anthropological research for many years, basic agreement on some essential issues has remained elusive. The March 1998 advanced seminar “Mesopotamia in the Era of State Formation” included participants chosen for their expertise on each subregion of Mesopotamia. Terry D’Altroy, an Andeanist, presented a contrasting case of cultural development and provided an “outsider’s” perspective on Mesopotamian state formation.

The seminar made clear progress on two fronts—first and foremost, agreement on a common chronological framework for the fourth millennium B.C. “Our first task was to put all the new excavations and surveys into a single framework with older research in order to understand the temporal steps in the development within each subregion and for the region as a whole,” said seminar organizer Mitchell Rothman of Widener University. “We agreed on a scheme that appears to fit carbon-14 dates and relative chronologies based on pottery and on stamps and cylinder seals, known as the earliest evidence of administrative elaboration and control mechanisms.”

Second, participants reviewed current interpretive and theoretical models and assumptions for this period over the Greater Mesopotamian region, which encompasses varying ecological zones, unevenly distributed natural resources, and different trajectories of societal change. After revisiting some broadly accepted interpretations of contact in fourth-millennium-B.C. Mesopotamia, participants agreed that the northern Mesopotamian societies were far more complex than previously recognized. Earlier theories had proposed that the south was substantially more complex economically, administratively, and socially than the north.

“After our discussions, despite much new agreement, we continued to disagree” about a number of issues, Rothman said. Among them were whether trade was a significant reason for founding sites and being in the north, the degree to which southern-style cultural artifacts meant the physical presence of southerners in the north, and the importance of long-distance trade as a cause of change.

In the end, participants identified a series of steps for continuing the leaps in interpretation begun by their week of discussion, from publishing more complete samples of dated artifacts and building plans from Syrian and eastern Turkish sites to researching the preceding third-millennium Kurban V period. 

Mitchell S. Rothman, Chair Social Science Division, Widener University Re-examining the Uruk Expansion and Collapse from the Northern Piedmont and Foothills
Guillermo Algaze Department of Anthropology, University of California at San Diego The Prehistory of Imperialism: The Case of Uruk Period Mesopotamia
Terence N. D'Altroy Department of Anthropology, Columbia University A View of the Plains from the Mountains: Comments on Uruk by an Andeanist
Marcella Frangipane Department of Historical Science, Archaeology and Anthropology of Antiquities, University of Rome The Development of a Powerful Early State Center North of Taurus: Continuity and Discontinuity of Greater Mesopotamia
Hans J. Nissen Free University of Berlin Cultural and Political Networks of the 4th and 3rd Millennia B.C.
Holly Pittman Department of Art History, University of Pennsylvania Greater Mesopotamian Interregional Relations as Reflected through Glyptic Evidence: Preliminary Thoughts on Chronology, Identity, Emulation, Regional Styles
Susan Pollock Department of Anthropology, State University of New York at Binghamton The Uruk Period in Southern Mesopotamia
Glenn M. Schwartz Department of Near Eastern Studies, The Johns Hopkins University Syria and the Uruk Expansion
Gil J. Stein Department of Anthropology, Northwestern University Uruk Expansion and Interaction with Indigenous Complex Societies of Southeast Anatolia: Evidence from Hacnebi, Turkey
Henry T. Wright Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan Cultural Action in the Uruk World / Calibrated Radiocarbon Age Determinations of Uruk-related Assemblages

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