II. Prehistory in Mesopotamia

A bird's eye view: important time periods, famous city names, dynasties, terminology, as an invitation to see the literature on the Ancient Near East.

Contents of this section

  1. Prehistory in Mesopotamia, introduction
    1. Stone Age (Neolithic)
      1. Isolated settlements from 9000 BCE onwards
      2. Village communities (6000-3000 BCE)
      3. Neolithic cities exceptional
    2. Copper-Stone Age (Chalcolithic)
      1. Early use of metals
      2. Metallurgy


Around 3000 BCE -at the dawn of history- first civilizations originate in the basins of great rivers in Mesopotamia, along the Nile in Egypt and along the Ganges in India. This section gives a bird's eye view on how civilizations came into being: Civilization in the literal sense < Lat. civitas 'city': the development of city-states, called the urban revolution.

The Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) is a well defined cultural epoch, that coincides with a geological period, the Pleistocene. It covers the era of glacial periods lasting about 500000 year until 8500 BCE. It is divided into several subperiods with less well defined boundaries, called Early Paleolithic (until ~75000 BCE), Middle Paleolithic (until ~40000 BCE), Late Paleolithic (until ~15000 BCE), so far with human habitat in camps and caves and with an economy based an forage, wild species and tracking wild heards. The last part is called Epi-Paleolithic (until ~8500 BCE) in which early settlements (round huts) are found together with first signs of selection of species and some control over wild heards is attested. The artifacts now include pestles and mortars to grind grasses, acorns and red ocre.

The Neolithic (New Stone Age) is a cultural epoch. It doesn't coincide with a geological era. It starts and ends at different times from place to place. This remark also applies to other cultural periods such as Bronze Age and Iron Age. These era are defined by the use of certain tools and materials, but even for a given place there is no sharp beginning or ending.

The ill defined transition between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic is sometimes called the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age).


2. Neolithic (New Stone Age)

During the Neolithic a ''revolution'' takes place, called the Neolithic revolution (the term was first used by V.G. Childe in 1936). Despite its name it is a very slow and gradual change from food collection to food production, that takes several millennia. Methods of collecting food by hunting, fishing and gathering plants/fruits were gradually replaced by animal husbandry and agriculture. It goes hand in hand with a change from a nomadic way of life to a sedentary lifestyle, initially half-sedentary: using regular campsites repeatedly every year, but only during certain seasons.

The Neolithic is seen as a relatively peaceful era, inferred from the absence of fortifications around villages.


Isolated settlements from 9000 BCE onwards

The Neolithic in Mesopotamia is characterized by the change in location, distribution and size of human settlements: from scattered campsites in areas where game is present (mountains slopes, in general very differentiated terrain), via repeatedly occupied campsites near valleys to larger but still isolated settlements, never located in the middle of the alluvial plains.

The first proofs for domestication of plants and animals come from such temporary campsites and are sporadically already seen from 9000 BCE. E.g. the distribution in the bones over male and female animals could not be explained by hunting alone.

Other Web texts:
New Perspectives on Agricultural Origins in the Ancient Near East
Archaeobotany at the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology

The principle of agriculture: sowing and harvesting is probably discovered in many places and in many time periods independently. Even nowadays in the Near East one can collect at suitable spots two liters of wild grains per day per person. First grain species are barley and wild spelt. The knowledge that grains of corn will grow to new grain plants must have been known for a long time. The selection for the breeding of new varieties initially occurred almost automatically. Loose grains falls off while cutting. They are a waste, but the ones brought home and sowed again suffer less from this disadvantage. Simply sowing into fertile soil also stimulates different and better varieties. Natural barley has a flat spike in two rows, but in fertile soil a mutant is going to dominate automatically having a spike of six rows, resulting in an important increase of harvest yield.

The food storage problem. Despite the simple principle, a good and guaranteed harvest every year requires the solution of many practical problems. Growing crops and raising animals proceed at different rates at various times and places, each region emphasizing its own combination of cereals and animals. The problems are e.g.: residence on the same location for a long time and the storage and preservation of food. Roasting grain -as is evident from excavations- was done often. It prevents premature germination and facilitates winnowing (separation of the wheat from the chaff). A technical innovation (ceramics) was needed to protect against the damage by rats and other animals: the production of storage vessels. There is evidence that the first actual buildings are made for the purpose of food storage: they are often too small or too low to live in.



Origin. One doesn't know where ceramics originated, but it occurred probably around 6000 BCE. By 5000 BCE the use was generally fashionable. Until that time the Neolithic is called the Aceramic Neolithic, or also the Pre-pottery Neolithic. Type of clay or mud, additions, shape, finishing tough and decoration are fashion-dependent characteristics. These features are used extensively in archeology for dating and geographical distribution. The distribution indicates trade over large distances, even in the earliest times.
Other Web texts references:
Archaeological Ceramics and Chemistry at the Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology

Potsherds.. Because potsherds are useless, the archeologist nowadays finds them in large quantities. Potsherds found near or on top of tells help to identify and date the settlements without actually do any (time consuming and costly) excavation. And most of all: this type of research does not destroy the evidence. In such a way the geographic distribution of settlements has been found as a function of time.
Hans J. Nissen, 'The early history of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 BCE'

Halaf ceramics (called after the first site where it is found Tell Halaf (or Tell Halif) in the north of Syria) is one of the first recognizable fashions. It passes its name to the Halaf period around 4000 BCE. It is a delicate ceramic and indicates for the first time an important feature in the development of human kind: specialization, craftsmen that do not have to work in the fields. The low number of Halaf ceramics indicates they are still considered luxury goods.
See Halaf culture pottery and the study of social and economic complexity

Potter's wheel. At the end of the Halaf-period an invention of an early stage of the potter's wheel (with no bearing yet for free rotation) makes mass production easier.
Web-page reference:
a (Late Bronze Age) picture of a potter's wheel.
References on Tell halif are:
Halif of The Cobb Institute of Archaeology

The Ubaid-period (4000-3500 BCE) is a ceramic period called after the site Tell el-Ubaid in the south of Irak with a characteristic concentric and wave-like decoration pattern. The quick spread over a larger area (the Ubaid-horizon) indicates a similar economy and a high degree of professionalism in that area. The real potter's wheel (introduced in the transition to the so called Uruk-period is technically complicated and the spread is limited to highly developed areas. It requires a workable, kneadable clay which is obtained by special additions (e.g. Iron oxyde, giving the characteristic red-brown color).


Village communities (6000-3000 BCE)

Using the previously described raw dating by potsherds on a large number of Tells in the Near East it is possible to get a global distribution of village communities. It appears that the character changes significantly, first gradually starting 6000 BCE, but specially to the end of the 4th millennium. Early isolated settlements are mainly found in the valleys of smaller rivers in the Zagros mountains and in the smaller plains of valleys. New settlements are more like village communities, closer to each other and on locations where rivers stream into large valleys and where water streams may be easier to control. The dryer climate (starting from 3500 BCE) makes it plausible that irrigation starts playing a role in the agricultural methods.

Because of larger control over the harvest and animal husbandry, smaller and more intensively used agricultural fields cause an increased food production. These can supply the larger communities. The proximity of villages makes communication and interaction easier. It stimulates the cultural and economic exchange on the one hand, but enlarges the possibility of conflicts on the other hand. Making rules and agreements to avoid and solve conflicts is seen as an important factor in the process of civilization and considered as more important than the administrative necessity for cooperation in the irrigation works. The latter process is well known from later times.

Habitation of the great plains in the extreme south of Mesopotamia occurs in later times. The irrigation of these plains as we know it from later Babylonian texts --with its long supply channels and its eternal lack of sufficient water-- indeed requires an extensive administration system, but they belong to a later development.


Neolithic cities exceptional

The above described development of village communities in large parts of the Near East seem to have been the rule, There are, however, a few remarkable exceptions: the Neolithic cities dated in the 6th and 5th millennium BCE, like Jericho (in the Jordan valley) and Catal Höyük in Turkey, which show the great diversity of forms of inhabitation. Because of the long time span between the building of these cities and the bloom of the city-states around 3000 BCE, it is not assumed that the Neolithic cities stood model for the later development of cities.

Web pages for some information on
recent excavations of Catal Höyük and
FOCUS on CATAL HOYUK in FOCUS index of civilizations


3. Chalcolithic

The first half of the 4th millennium (4000-3500 BCE) is sometimes called the Chalcolithic (Copper-Stone age).

Texts on the Web:
Archaeometallurgy at Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology

Early use of metals

Metals and metal ore are already collected and used in the Neolithic period, predominantly as a curiosity. Metal ore is simply attractive and has aesthetic properties: they are rare and beautiful. Like other precious stones, metal ore has been found in the Neolithic far outside the sites where they naturally occur, also as burial gifts. They were desirable objects, who give the owner a higher status or who emphasize the current status of the owner. Particularly aesthetic are silver and gold.

Some ore contains unadulterated metals. The pure, native metal is in the form of little pieces or runs in veins through the stone. They are sometimes found on the earth surface and may be isolated by hammering.

Mining industry is known from the end of the Paleolithic and is a well developed industry in Neolithic times. Digging for minerals is a side activity in the flint stone industry.

Copper is soft and can be rolled and flattened. It is easier to shape than stone. Hammering can make copper harder than mild steel, but pushed to far it becomes brittle and it will eventually crack. If heated the original properties are restored and hammering may be continued.

Simple copper artifacts (pins) have been found in a Neolithic village in Turkey and dated shortly before 7000 BCE. The object is shaped by hammering. It is the earliest siting of this metal. There is yet no question of metallurgy: the treatment of metals by melting, smelting, casting or alloying. The earliest findings of molted copper dates back to the beginning of the 4th millennium and become more numerous to the end of the 4th millennium.


The melting point of pure copper is 1083 degree C, but to remove stone and slag a temperature of 1200 is needed. Chemically bound copper is also found in ores. It is green or black and doesn't look like a metal. To make copper it should me heated to a temperature of 700-800 C mixed with wood or charcoal. The chemical process is called reduction and the production method smelting. The temperature in wood fire does not exceed 600-700 C. In special campfires the maximum attainable temperature is 800 C. Copper melting cannot have been discovered by accident in a campfire ('campfire hypothesis'). Larger temperatures require kilns and still larger temperatures (in the Iron age) can be made with a forced air stream (bellows). How was copper melting discovered? Many hypothesis exist. It is possible that the discovery of changing properties of copper with heating, higher and higher temperatures are tried. An other plausible theory starts with lead as the first metal to be melted and with silver as next intermediate step.

Lead. Lead has a melting point of only 327 degree Celsius. Lead ore (called galena) glitters metal like, but has to be roasted with wood or charcoal (reduced to lead) to get the metal. Native lead is not found in nature. All findings of pure lead thus indicate the process of melting. Lead beads have been found in Catal Hüyük in Turkey and dated to 6500 BCE. Other findings of lead in the 6th millennium are in Yarim Tepe (Irak). The findings of lead are thus almost three millennia earlier than that of copper. Ones confronted with the possibility of melted metals, the next steps are now at least intuitively better understood.

Silver. The next step must have been silver. Pure silver does occur in nature, but is rare. Most silver is obtained as byproducts, in particularly from lead ore. Silver comes with the melting of lead, while other products (like iron) remain in the slag. Silver may be extracted by oxidizing the lead with a hot air stream (at temperatures of 1100 degree). The lead compound becomes solid. Silver doesn't oxidize and is fluid. The process can be recognized by the remaining percentage of lead in silver. It is indeed attested in silver artifacts dated about 3600 BCE. One could even identify the lead-silver mines from the ratio of lead-isotopes, that are characteristic for each mine.

Bronze. Physical properties of metals change dramatically when mixed with even small amounts of other metals. Mixtures (alloys) of copper with other metals are called bronze. Several types exists, called Arsenic-bronze, tin-bronze etc. The melting point of the alloy is considerably lower than native copper and even more important: it may be cast from molds. The invention and spread of tin-bronze took place in historical times. The Archeological period is called the Bronze Age.