Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER 5

BIRTH OF A CIVILIZATION

During the fourth millennium B.C. the cultural development already perceptible during the Ubaid period proceeded at a quicker pace and the Sumerian civilization finally blossomed. This, however, took place only in the southern half of Iraq, the northern half following a somewhat different course and lagging behind in many respects. Much attention has been paid in recent years to the reasons that concurred to endow the south with such a privilege,1 and an oversimplified, though plausible, sequence of events is described below. The reader must be warned, however, that all such ‘explanations’ are largely conjectural and that we shall probably never know what really happened.

In the middle of the fourth millennium B.C. the climate of the Near East, which for some two thousand years had been warm and humid, slowly began to change and became increasingly cooler and drier. Irrigation agriculture had by then proved so successful in southern Iraq that immigrants from the dry-farming plains and hills of northern Mesopotamia moved into the lower Euphrates valley, where archaeological surface surveys have detected a sharp increase in the number of village-size settlements for that period.2The new villages, like the old ones, were situated on river banks, but they tended to cluster around those Ubaid period settlements which were both the abodes of the great gods upon whom all prosperity depended and the centres of sizeable agricultural communities. The need to feed a much increased and fast-growing population challenged man's natural ingenuity: the plough was invented, and also the sled for dragging grain, the chariot for carrying goods and the sail for travelling faster on waterways. These technical improvements generated a large surplus of food that could be stored, redistributed or exchanged for imported raw materials and luxuries, while other inventions – such as the potter's wheel and the casting of copper alloys – opened the era of industrial production.

This went on for three or four centuries, but towards the end of the millennium the effects of desiccation started to be felt in southern Mesopotamia. As the Euphrates carried less and less water, many of its tributaries dried up. The hitherto familiar landscape of anastomotic watercourses and extensive marshes was gradually replaced by a new landscape not very different from the present one: bands of palm-groves, fields and orchards along the few remaining streams and, in between, patches of steppe or even desert. Many villages disappeared, their inhabitants regrouping themselves within and around the larger centres, which rapidly grew to the size of towns. To extend the areas of cultivable land artificial irrigation was developed, but the enormous common effort required to dig and maintain big canals and the need for an equitable distribution of water considerably reinforced the authority of the traditional town chiefs, the high priests. This, together with the scarcity of fertile land, led to the concentration of power and wealth in a few hands and in a few places, to further technical progress, to remarkable architectural and artistic achievements, to the invention of writing as a means of recording transactions, but also to armed conflicts. Thus, it would seem, were born the city-states of ancient Sumer, with their fortified cities and well-defined territories, with their population of priests, scribes, architects, artists, overseers, merchants, factory workers, soldiers and peasants and their religious rulers or war leaders.

The five hundred years which saw these developments have been divided, somewhat artificially, by archaeologists into a ‘Uruk period’ (c. 3750 – 3150 B.C.) and a ‘Jemdat Nasr period’ (c. 3150 – 2900 B.C.) but there is little doubt that the people responsible for the urbanization of southern Mesopotamia were closely related to, or had been absorbed by, the Ubaidians, for there is no clear-cut break between the Ubaid culture and the Uruk culture and no sign of armed invasion and destruction. On all the sites excavated, such as Eridu, Uruk and Ur, the new temples are built over old ones, on the same plans and with the same materials, and the distinctive Uruk ware – a wheelmade, mass-produced, unpainted but sometimes highly polished buff, grey or red pottery, which in some of its forms seems to copy the metal vessels now used by the wealthy – very slowly replaces the Ubaid ware. As for the other elements of the Uruk and Jemdat Nasr cultures (cylinder-seals, cone-mosaic wall decoration, reliefs and sculptures in the round, temples on high terraces), they either derive from older Mesopotamian models or can be credited to the inventiveness of local artists and architects. We are therefore confronted here not with a civilization imported ready-made, but with the final stages of an evolution that had begun with the foundation of Eridu and possibly even earlier in northern Iraq.

The Uruk Period

The site which gave its name to that period is Uruk (biblical Erech, modern Warka), whose large and impressive ruins lie in a non-desert area about half-way between Baghdad and Basrah, not far from the small town of Samawa. It is one of the most important sites of the Near East, not only by its huge size (four hundred hectares), but also by its virtually uninterrupted occupation from Ubaidian to Parthian times and by the rich archaeological and epigraphic material it has yielded.3

The city of Uruk was born of the coalescence of two towns 800 metres apart: Kullaba, devoted to the sky-god An (or Anu), the supreme god of the Mesopotamians, and E-Anna (‘House of Heaven’), the main abode of the love goddess Inanna (called Ishtar by the Semites). In the centre of E-Anna can still be seen the remains of a mud-brick stage tower (ziqqurat) built by the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu (c. 2112 – 2095 B.C.) over a large temple raised on a platform and dating to the Jemdat Nasr period. It is in this area that the German archaeologists, who since 1912 have been digging on and off at Warka for about fifty years, have unearthed at least seven adjacent or superimposed temples and various other cultic installations dating to the second half of the Uruk period. It is also there that they sunk a twenty metre deep well reaching the virgin soil and obtained a stratigraphic section of the site, apparently founded during the Ubaid period.

The archaic temples of Uruk were very similar in plan to those of the Ubaid period at Eridu already described: the buttressed façade, the long cella surrounded by small rooms, the doors on the long side testify to the persistence of architectural traditions as well, probably, as of belief and cult. In E-Anna, they were arranged in pairs, a fact that led Professor H. Lenzen to suggest that they were dedicated not only to Inanna but also to her lover the fertility-god Dumuzi.4 Particularly remarkable were the lowermost levels with their enormous temples – one of them, built on limestone foundations, measured 87 by 33 metres – and their extraordinary ‘mosaic building’. The latter consisted of a large courtyard extending between two sanctuaries, with a raised portico of eight massive mud-brick columns, three metres in diameter, arranged in two rows. The side walls of the courtyard, the columns themselves and the platform on which they rested were entirely clad in a coloured pattern of geometrical design formed by the flat end of terracotta cones, seven to ten centimetres long, which had been painted in black, red or white and then stuck into the mud plaster. This original and very effective type of decoration was widely used during the Uruk and Jemdat Nasr periods, and loose clay cones can still be picked up by the thousand in the ruins of Warka. The colour, when preserved, has lost its brightness, but little effort is required to imagine what a fresh cone-mosaic faade must have looked like in the glaring oriental sunlight. This taste for colour is also manifest in the use of wall painting. One of the archaic temples of E-Anna, the so-called ‘Red Temple’, owes its name to the pink wash which covered its walls, and at Tell ‘Uqair, eighty kilometres south of Baghdad, the Iraqis excavated in 1940 a temple of the Uruk period decorated with frescoes which, when discovered, were ‘as bright as the day they were applied’:5 human figures, unfortunately damaged, formed a procession, and two crouching leopards guarded the throne of an unknown god. All these temples, it must be noted, rested on low brick platforms, as did the temples of the Ubaid period at Eridu; but with time the platform became higher, tending to be more important in size than the building itself. Here in all probability is the origin of the ziqqurat, the stage-tower topped by a shrine so typical of the Mesopotamian civilization in historical times. This evolution is illustrated by the Anu temple of Uruk, where six temples built in succession were finally included in a truly monumental platform rising some fifteen metres above the plain. At the top of this platform are the amazingly well-preserved remains of a sanctuary dating to the late Uruk period, the so-called ‘White Temple‘, and to stand between these walls, at the very place where officiated, five thousand years ago, the priests of the sky-god, is an experience which no visitor will easily forget.

Domestic architecture is poorly represented in southern Iraq, but we may catch a glimpse of it on other, distant sites – for the Uruk culture progressively spread throughout Mesopotamia and covered roughly the same area as the Ubaid culture. Near Erbil, for instance, at Tell Qalinj Agha,6 two large residential quarters were separated by a main street, 2 to 3 metres wide, intersected by smaller streets at a right angle, and the same regular plan can be seen at Habuba Kabira, on the great bend of the Euphrates, a city which covered not less than 22 hectares and was surrounded by a wall with square towers.7 In both places the houses, carefully built of oblong bricks, consisted of three buildings of two to four spacious rooms each, around a large hall or courtyard.

The magnificence of the Uruk temples and the near-luxurious aspect of private houses tend to dwarf the other forms of art. Yet the seal impressions of the Uruk period are little masterpieces. At that time the stamp-seal of earlier periods was almost entirely superseded by the cylinder-seal. This was a small

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Diagrammatic section through the archaic layers of Uruk (E-Anna) Successive temples on 3 levels. Note the temple on platform (Jemdat Nasr period ) under the ziqqurat built by Ur-Nammu (Ur III period) and the test pit with models of pottery, going down to the Ubaid period. Reconstruction by the author based on H. Lenzen's plans in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, XLIX, 1949

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Cylinder-seals of the Uruk period.
A. Parrot, Archéologie Mésopotamienne, II, 1953.

cylinder of ordinary or semi-precious stone, varying in length from 2.5 to 8 centimetres, as thick as the thumb or as thin as a pencil, and pierced lengthwise throughout, so that it could be worn on a string around the neck. On its surface was engraved a design which, when rolled on clay, could be repeated ad infinitum. These early cylinder-seals were already made with great skill, and the designs – which ranged from friezes of animals or plants to scenes of daily life or mythological subjects – were composed and arranged with considerable ingenuity. Their interest, however, goes far beyond their artistic value, for they are the only objects of the Uruk period that are alive with people and give us an inkling of their occupations. For instance, a cylinder-seal representing a massacre of prisoners bespeaks war, while the frequent occurrence of cattle walking in herds, gathered around their pens or attacked by lions evokes the farmers' main preoccupation. Mysterious ceremonies performed by naked priests are also frequently represented. We have here for the first time, besides an art in miniature, a source of information which at all periods will prove useful to the historian of ancient Mesopotamia.8

But the Uruk period witnessed another novelty immensely more important than the wheel, the cylinder-seal or the cone mosaic decoration, an epoch-making invention comparable only to the invention of agriculture in Neolithic times. It is towards the end of the period, c. 3300 B.C. in the archaic temples of E-Anna in Uruk, that writing appears for the first time in the form of pictographic tablets.9

The writing used in Mesopotamia throughout history and known as ‘cuneiform’ was originally – as all primitive writings, past or present – a collection of small, simplified drawings, or pictograms. The earliest texts from Uruk and elsewhere are already too complex to represent the first attempt made by men to preserve their thoughts, and in all probability the first pictograms were engraved on wood or painted on skins or leaves, but such media must have disintegrated long ago in the humid subsoil of Iraq, and the only documents that have survived are written on clay. The process of writing was in itself very simple: the scribe took a lump of fine, well-washed clay and shaped it as a small, smooth cushion, a few centimetres square. Then, with the end of a reed stalk cut obliquely he drew lines dividing each face of the cushion into squares and filled each square with incised drawings. The ‘tablet’ was then either baked or left unbaked. Baked tablets are nearly as hard as stone; old, unbaked tablets crumble into dust between the fingers, but if they are collected with care, allowed to dry slowly in the shade and hardened in an oven they become almost indestructible. It must be added, however, that a number of archaic inscriptions were engraved in stone, at first with a bronze point, then with a cold chisel.

In the course of time the Mesopotamian script gradually lost its pictographic character. The signs were laid down in horizontal lines rather than in squares or in vertical bands. They

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Examples of changes in cuneiform signs throughout centuries. Beside their phonetic value in the Akkadian language, most signs have one of several logographic values. Thus, SHU (in Sumerian the hand) can be read in Akkadian qâtu, hand; emûqu, strength;gamâlu, protection, etc.

became smaller, more compact, more rigid, more ‘abstract’, finally bearing no resemblance to the objects they represented. The awkward curves disappeared and were replaced by straight lines, at first, of equal width, then – as the prismatic stylus was forced into the clay prior to being drawn on its surface – vaguely triangular or wedge-shaped. Towards the middle of the third millennium B.C. this evolution was completed and the true ‘cuneiform’ writing (from Latin cuneus: wedge, nail) was born, though minor changes never ceased to occur thereafter, enabling the specialists to date a text as surely as archaeologists date a piece of pottery.10

The earliest texts in our possession were probably written in Sumerian. This language being largely monosyllabic, writing was based, as in Chinese, on the principle: one object or idea equals one sound equals one sign. The first pictograms were therefore extremely numerous (more than two thousand). Some of them represent objects that are easy to identify, such as agricultural tools, vases, boats, heads of animals or parts of the human body, while others appear to be purely conventional. But because it is very difficult to represent abstract ideas graphically, one pictogram was often used to express several words and could be read in several ways. For instance, a foot would not only mean ‘foot’ (pronounced du in Sumerian) but also ideas related to the foot such as ‘to stand’ (gub), ‘to go’ (gin), ‘to come’ or ‘to bring’ (tum). Reciprocally, some concepts totally unrelated but pronounced with the same sound were grouped under the same sign. Thus the sign of the bow was used for ‘arrow’ (ti), but also for ‘to live’ (ti or til). In classical Sumerian, the correct reading of a sign is normally indicated either by the context or by other signs called ‘phonetic complements’, ‘determinatives’ or ‘grammatical particles‘; but the archaic texts had nothing of this kind. Moreover, the signs were laid down in apparent disorder, and some of them, used only in the earliest periods, were later abandoned so that their phonetic value (or values) is unknown. For these reasons we cannot read the pictographic tablets. All we can say is that they have all the characteristics of economic documents (lists of workmen, lists of goods, receipts, etc.). This is not surprising since writing was invented purely for accounting purposes. As early as the seventh millennium, there appeared on several sites in Iraq and Iran small balls, cubes and cones of baked clay which were first thought to be toys but were later recognized as token or ‘calculi’ the size and shape of which indicated units and subunits or undetermined goods that were exchanged. In about 3500 B.C. these calculi were found in envelopes of clay bearing drawings of their contents.11 Simple tablets with nothing but numerals (circles and short lines) were also found in illiterate places such as Khafaje, in the Diyala valley, Tell Brak and Habuba Kabira.12 It is remarkable that from such humble beginnings writing developed in southern Mesopotamia within a relatively short time into an extremely sophisticated system which was used to express all mental activities, including a vast and admirable literature.

The Jemdat Nasr Period

In 1925 a distinctive pottery consisting, in the main, of large thick jars decorated with geometrical or naturalistic designs in black and/or red paint applied directly on the buff clay was discovered at Jemdat Nasr, between Baghdad and Babylon.13 Later, the ‘Jemdat Nasr ware’ was found, usually in small quantities, on other Mesopotamian sites and was taken as the hallmark of a cultural period immediately preceding history, the so-called ‘Jemdat Nasr period‘. It must be borne in mind, however, that between the cultural elements of that period and those of the Uruk period there is no fundamental difference, but simple variations in style and quality. Architectural remains are rare but sufficient to prove the absence of drastic changes in the plan and decoration of temples, though emphasis is now laid on their platforms, and the cone-mosaic decoration is generally applied in panels instead of covering every inch of the walls. Cylinder-seals carry the same religious and secular scenes, though these tend to become stereotyped and conventional. Writing is more and more in use, but the pictograms are less numerous, less ‘realistic’ and often used for their phonetic value alone. The bulk of the ceramic is identical with the plain Uruk pottery and the rare ‘Jemdat Nasr ware‘, perhaps of Iranian inspiration, may represent nothing more than a transient local fashion. All things considered, sculpture is perhaps the only original contribution of the new period to the progress of the arts.

Almost forgotten since the Samarra period, sculpture suddenly reappears, soon reaches a high degree of perfection and is applied with passion to a large variety of objects. Lions attacking bulls, heroes mastering lions, sullen boars, peaceful ewes and rams are carved in relief or in the round on stone vases and bowls, on troughs, on mural plaques and on the back of the rare stamp-seals that have survived. Also from that time date numerous statuettes of worshippers offered as ex-votos, and a rather crude basalt stele found at Warka, which represents two bearded men killing lions with spear and arrows, is the oldest known ancestor of the famous Assyrian hunting scenes. If all this is not always of excellent quality, two objects – both found at Uruk – are as yet without rival in the whole world for that period.14 One is a one-metre-high alabaster vase carved in low relief with perfect skill, where the goddess Inanna is shown receiving gifts from a man of high rank, perhaps a priest, a chief or even a god. This vase was already regarded as a valuableobjet d'art in antiquity, for it had been repaired with metal clips. The other masterpiece is an almost life-size mask of a woman made of marble. The eyes are unfortunately missing, but the face is modelled with a mixture of realism and sensitivity rarely found before the classical period of Greek sculpture.

Progress in techniques, achievements in art, writing, all these are the symptoms of a fully mature civilization which should be called without hesitation ‘Sumerian’ since it is practically certain that the tablets from Jemdat Nasr and the contemporary levels of Ur and Tell ‘Uqair are written in that language. Born and bred in southern Iraq, this civilization radiated over the entire Near East and exerted a deep influence on the other oriental cultures. We may well imagine that the as yet undeciphered ‘Proto-Elamite’ script on clay, which appears about that time in near-by Elam (south-west Persia), was inspired by the archaic Sumerian writing or invented by a people related to the Sumerians, but it is more difficult to understand through which channel and in what circumstances Egypt borrowed from Mesopotamia.15 Yet the late prehistoric graves of Naqadah have yielded typical Jemdat Nasr cylinder-seals, and the object itself was adopted by the Egyptians, who engraved it with their own traditional designs and, having no clay tablets on which to roll it, used it for centuries as an amulet. Similarly, favourite Mesopotamian motifs, such as hunting scenes, lions devouring cattle or beasts with long, intertwined necks were copied by Egyptian sculptors just as the Egyptian architects of the First Dynasty built their royal tombs with the recessed façades of the Mesopotamian temples. Indeed, some authorities believe that the Sumerian pictograms antedate the earliest hieroglyphs and may well have inspired their inventors. This one-way influence is the more remarkable, since contacts between the two great focuses of civilization in the Near East have always been surprisingly rare and superficial throughout ancient history.

Less unexpected, though no less striking, was the Sumerian influence over northern Syria. Little is known so far of the first settlement at Ebla, but when that great city flourished, in the third millennium, much of its architecture and art had a strong Sumerian flavour, and the library of its royal palace contained both Sumerian and Semitic texts in standard cuneiform writing, which suggests close previous contacts with southern Iraq. The same can be said of Mari, on the middle Euphrates, where art and script in the Early Dynastic period are purely Sumerian, though here again the people are Semites. Furthermore, the finding of Mesopotamian cylinder-seals in Iran (Susa, Tepe Sialk, Tepe Hissar), as well as in Turkey (Ali_ar, Troy), Lebanon and Palestine, and the discovery of typical Jemdat Nasr pottery in Oman bear witness to extensive commercial relations between lower Mesopotamia and its neighbours.

Strangely enough, in Mesopotamia proper the archaic Sumerian civilization remained confined for a long time to the southern half of the country. Whilst traces of the Uruk culture are almost omnipresent in the north, traces of the Jemdat Nasr culture are limited to a few sites, thought to be Sumerian colonies, such as Tell Brak, in the Khabur basin, and Grai Resh,16 in the Sinjar area, where temples on platform with clay-cone mosaic and small southern-type idols – some with staring eyes, others spectacle-shaped – were found in the late thirties, or again Tell Asmar and Khafaje, in the Diyala valley, where soundings brought to light Jemdat Nasr pottery, sculptures, cylinder-seals and tablets.17 It therefore looks as though, for some obscure reason, most of Jazirah and the entire upper Tigris valley had been impervious to the cultural developments that had taken place some 300 kilometres to the south. The only important site in future Assyria at that time is Tepe Gawra; yet throughout the Uruk and Jemdat Nasr periods the inhabitants of Tepe Gawra fought with maces and slings, continued to use stamp-seals, made their pottery by hand and ignored writing, though they drove in four-wheeled chariots and buried their chiefs with a wealth of grave furniture unequalled in the south at that time. The ‘Gawra culture’ was eventually replaced by the ‘Nineveh 5 culture’ (level 5 of the deep sounding at Nineveh) characterized by a wheel-made, rather attractive, painted or incised pottery and by Sumerian weapons and seals. But by that time Sumer had already entered history, and the whole of the Early Dynastic period (c. 2900 – 2334 B.C.) was to elapse before the first written documents appeared in the north in the wake of the Akkadian conquerors.

The gap opened at the end of the fourth millennium between the north and the south was never entirely filled in ancient history. After the Akkadians, successively the Sumerian kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur and Hammurabi of Babylon held under their sway the Upper Tigris and the foothills of Kurdistan. Yet from their inscriptions one forms the impression that these districts were considered somewhat foreign and culturally inferior. The Hittite raid on Babylon (1595 B.C.) and the long period of semi-anarchy that followed the Kassite domination put an end to the political supremacy of the south. The north then took its revenge and the kings of Assur and Nineveh ruled over the whole of Mesopotamia. But the Babylonians never willingly accepted government by these ‘barbarians’ and repeatedly tried to shake off the yoke, while the mighty monarchs of Assyria themselves, who piously collected the old Sumerian texts and regularly took part in the New Year Festival of Babylon, implicitly acknowledged their debt to a very ancient and venerable civilization.

The Sumerian Problem

Who are these Sumerians, whose name can now be pronounced for the first time and who are going to occupy the stage of history for the next thousand years? Do they represent a very ancient layer of population in prehistoric Mesopotamia, or did they come from some other country, and if so, when did they come and whence? This important problem has been debated again and again ever since the first relics of the Sumerian civilization were brought to light more than a century ago, and is still with us. The most recent discoveries, far from offering a solution, have made it even more difficult to answer, but at least they have supplied fresh and solid arguments to an old debate and it is in this new light that the ‘Sumerian problem’ should be examined.18

The word ‘Sumerian’ comes from the ancient name of the southern part of Iraq: Sumer or, more exactly, Shumer, usually written in cuneiform texts with the signs KI.EN.GI.19 At the beginning of historical times three ethnic groups lived in close contact within that region: the Sumerians, predominant in the extreme south from approximately Nippur (near Diwaniyah) to the Gulf, the Semites, predominant in central Mesopotamia (the region called Akkad after 2400 B.C.), and a small, diffuse minority of uncertain origin to which no definite label can be attached. From the point of view of the modern historian, the line of demarcation between these three components of the first historical population of Mesopotamia is neither political nor cultural but linguistic. All of them had the same institutions; all of them shared the way of life, the techniques, the artistic traditions, the religious beliefs, in a word the civilization which had originated in the extreme south and is rightly attributed to the Sumerians. The only reliable criterion by which we can separate and identify these three peoples is therefore their language. Stricto sensu, the appellation ‘Sumerians’ should be taken as meaning ‘Sumerian-speaking people’ and nothing else; similarly, the ‘Semites’ were those who spoke a Semitic dialect; and indeed we would be unaware of the existence of the third ethnic element were it not for a few strange, non-Sumerian and non-Semitic personal and geographical names which occur here and there in ancient texts. This, incidentally, explains why all efforts to define and to assess the relations between Sumerians and Semites in other fields than philology are doomed to failure.20 Another point should be made quite clear: there is no such thing as a Sumerian ‘race’ neither in the scientific nor in the ordinary sense of the term. The skulls from Sumerian graves that have been examined are either dolicho- or brachycephalic and indicate a mixture of the so-called Armenoid and Mediterranean races, the latter being somewhat predominant.21 As for the physical features depicted on monuments, they are largely conventional and have therefore no real value. The big, fleshy nose, the enormous eyes, the thick neck and flat occiput long considered to be typical of the Sumerians also belong to the statues of individuals bearing genuine Semitic names found in the almost exclusively Semitic district of Mari, while more realistic portraits, such as those of Gudea, the Sumerian governor of Sumerian Lagash, show a short, straight nose and a long head.

Philology alone is often a good index of ethnic relationship. Thus the Greeks, the Hittites and the Indo-Aryans, though dispersed over a wide area, were related to each other through the Indo-European languages they spoke and probably came from a common homeland in south-eastern Europe. But in the case of the Sumerians philology is of no help. The Sumerian language is ‘agglutinative’, which means that it is formed of verbal radicals modified or inter-connected by the apposition of grammatical particles. As such, it belongs to the same category as numerous dialects spoken from Hungary to Polynesia, though it bears no close resemblance to any known language, dead or living. The Sumerian literature presents us with the picture of a highly intelligent, industrious, argumentative and deeply religious people, but offers no clue as to its origins. Sumerian myths and legends are almost invariably drawn against a background of rivers and marshes, of reeds, tamarisks and palm-trees – a typical southern Iraqi background – as though the Sumerians had always lived in that country, and there is nothing in them to indicate clearly an ancestral homeland different from Mesopotamia.

We are therefore obliged to fall back on archaeology, that is to say on the material elements of the Sumerian civilization. The question here is: which of the various ethnic groups responsible for the successive proto-historic cultures of Mesopotamia can be identified with the Sumerian-speaking people of history? Put in this way the problem is of course insoluble, since we do not know what languages were spoken in Mesopotamia before the Uruk period. Whatever answer is given can only rest on broad generalization, intuitive thinking or mere guesswork. On this question scholars in general are divided into two groups: for some the Sumerians came to Mesopotamia during the Uruk period; for others they were already there in Ubaid times at the latest. We cannot enter here into a detailed discussion, but we are personally rather inclined to agree with the tenets of the second theory. True, the Sumerian writing appears for the first time at the end of the Uruk period, but this does not imply that the Sumerian language was not spoken before. Again, there are in ancient Mesopotamian literature place names that are neither Sumerian nor Semitic, but do they necessarily represent the traces of an older and exclusive population? As for the change in pottery style which marks the beginning of the Uruk period, we have seen that it was probably due to mass production rather than to foreign invasion or influence. In fact, in all respects the Uruk culture appears as the development of conditions that existed during the Ubaid period. In any case, if we assume that the Sumerians were invaders where did they come from? Some authors have sought their origin in the mountainous countries to the east of Mesopotamia where they arrived by land or by sea, while others believe that they came from Anatolia following the Euphrates down to its mouth; but the arguments afforded in favour of these theories are not very convincing. Furthermore, since the Second World War numerous archaeological excavations have been conducted in Turkey, Iran, Baluchistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, and none of them has revealed anything resembling, even vaguely, the Uruk and Jemdat Nasr cultures; nor have they produced any inscription written in Sumerian which of course would be the only decisive evidence. In these circumstances, why not turn to Mesopotamia itself?

It has been shown in Chapter 4 that many material elements of the Sumerian civilization – mud-brick buildings, coloured walls and frescoes, stone vases and statuettes, clay figurines, seals, metal work and even irrigation agriculture – originated in northern Iraq during the sixth and fifth millennia B.C., and the excavations at Choga Mami have established a definite link between the Samarra culture and the partly contemporary Eridu and Hajji Muhammad cultures, now recognized as the early stages of the Ubaid culture. To equate the Samarrans with the Sumerians, or even the Ubaidians, on the sole basis of their pottery and extraordinary statuettes would be unacceptably rash, but there is little doubt that the first settlers in southern Mesopotamia were in some way related to, or at least influenced by, their northern neighbours. And the Samarrans, in turn, might have descended from the Neolithic farmers of Hassuna or Umm Dabaghiya. Thus the more we try to push back the limits of our problem, the more it thins out and vanishes in the mist of prehistory. One is even tempted to wonder whether there is any problem at all. The Sumerians were, as we all are, a mixture of races and probably of peoples; their civilization, like ours, was a blend of foreign and indigenous elements; their language belongs to a linguistic group large enough to have covered the whole of Western Asia and much more. They may therefore represent a branch of the population which occupied the greater part of the Near East in early Neolithic and Chalcolithic times. In other words, they may have ‘always’ been in Iraq, and this is all we can say. As one of the most brilliant orientalists put it: ‘The much discussed problem of the origin of the Sumerians may well turn out to be the chase of a chimera.’22

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