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Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 7 (2016) 900–904

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Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/jasrep

The Uruk Expansion and Beyond: Archaeometric and Social Perspectives


on Exchange in the IVth Millennium BCE
Henry T. Wright
The University of Michigan and the Santa Fe Institute

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: This review of papers on the contribution of archaeometry to the understanding of the Uruk Expansion shows
Received 21 April 2016 that there is very little evidence for the exchange of pottery among the widely scattered Uruk settlement enclaves
Accepted 22 April 2016 of IVth millennium Mesopotamia or the similarly scattered settlements of the later Proto-Elamite expansion. The
Available online 27 May 2016
limited evidence of the transport of ceramics indicates that only a few examples of a few forms were carried to
distant places. The widespread similarities of ceramics in the Uruk world and it successor seem more likely to
Keywords:
Ancient Near East
have been created by itinerant potters than by the transport of pots. Likewise, the wide similarity of both Uruk
Uruk and Proto-Elamite administrative technology such as numerical counters and tablets, seals, and sealings seems
Proto-Elamite to be a result of itinerant officials, who with few exceptions recorded and sealed on local clays. Where we have
ceramic provenance some indication of what was administered, as at Godin and Yahya, it seems to be small scale and local production,
bitumen rather than long-range exchange. However, some materials, most definitely bitumen, were moved in substantial
seals and sealings amounts over hundreds of kilometers. However, we do not yet have any direct evidence of how such distant ma-
terial transport was administered or regulated.
© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Cultural Dynamics in the Uruk World and Beyond Helwing, 2013; Petrie, 2015) in a seemingly rapid expansion similar in
scale to the Uruk Expansion. This expansion has also been explained in
By the middle of the IVth millennium BCE, the distinctive Uruk ar- terms of the procurement of raw materials. However, the displacement
chitecture, ceramics, seals and sealings, and other technologies were of Uruk sites from the Southern Zagros and the establishment of Proto-
widely used in Lower Mesopotamia and the nearby plains in the pied- Elamite sites nearby (Wright, 1987, 2013) argue for population move-
mont of the Zagros Mountains to the north and east. During the span ments or even conflicts and political expansion.
from 3600 to 3100 BCE, these material elements appeared in regions As current conditions in the Near East severely limit fieldwork, we
distant from this homeland. Assembling the scattered qualitative evi- have time to think about the evidence recovered during the past half
dence of early to mid-20th century excavations, Algaze (1989, 1993) century and to consider new ideas about the economic and political or-
explained this in terms of an “Uruk Expansion”, which, he argued, ganization of the earliest Mesopotamian states, using new analytical ap-
could be understood as a network of Uruk colonies and outposts in proaches on extant material in museums to evaluate some of the many
Upper Mesopotamia and beyond, emplaced to facilitate the procure- propositions regarding the “Uruk expansion”. Archaeometric ap-
ment of material resources. This seminal work inspired much additional proaches have greatly improved in recent years, and some methods
research and argument (Rothman, 2001; Postgate, 2002), and many dif- now available were not even dreamed of when the fieldwork was
ferent propositions involving more balanced patterns of trade (Stein, done. Minc (2016–in this volume) provides a very useful summary of
1999), conflict and the movement of refugees (Johnson, 1988-89) and the state of analytical approaches in her paper on provenance determi-
other processes that might have driven the long history of Uruk involve- nations, which is supplemented in the discussions by Sanjurjo Sánchez
ment in lands far from Lower Mesopotamia (see the brief review in et al. (2016–in this volume); Mutin et al. (2016–in this volume), and
Emberling and Minc, 2016–in this volume). Schwartz and Hollander (2016–in this volume). These discussions
What is termed the “Proto-Elamite” phenomenon developed in the stand on their own and should be read in their entirety. I focus my com-
high valleys of the Southern Zagros during the mid-IVth Millennium ments on the substantive results of the use of new perspectives and
BCE (Alden, 1979, 1982, 2013). At the end of the IVth millennium, the dis- methods on materials of the Uruk and Proto-Elamite expansions. I first
tinctive architecture, ceramics, writing, administrative artifacts, and other discuss the contributions on single sites or small areas, the building
technologies of this cultural phenomenon appear to the northwest, north- blocks of trans-regional systems; I then discuss the studies of larger
east and southeast of the southern highlands of Iran (Desset, 2011; samples from many sites in different regions.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2016.04.010
2352-409X/© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
H.T. Wright / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 7 (2016) 900–904 901

2. Establishing Local Baselines in Ceramic Archaeometry resources such as chlorite schist (Lamberg-Karlovsky, 1972). A variety of
evidence indicates this phase of occupation lasts from only 3100 and
Archaeology is fundamentally local. Without solid studies of locali- 2900 BCE. Subsequent detailed analyses, summarized in a key monograph
ties, sites, and particular classes of artifacts, studies of far-ranging rela- (Mutin, 2013; Potts, 2001), and much important work in adjacent areas,
tions and trans-regional processes are unconvincing. This volume have confirmed many aspects of this early paper, but show that mineral
presents four local studies, three of which (Humeida, Godin, and resource procurement and processing was a minor endeavor at this
Yahya) focus on particular sites in context and two of which focus on time. Both the Proto-Elamite tablets (Damerow and Englund, 1989) and
key classes of artifacts (beveled rim bowls from Tell Humeida and near- the artifactual remains indicate that local farming and herding were the
by sites, and ring scrapers from Tal-i Kureh and related sites). primary focus of the community during this period. The study of Mutin
In the Middle Euphrates region, several Uruk sites have been investi- et al. (2016–in this volume) of a large sample of Yahya IVC sherds (as
gated by Syrian, Spanish, and French teams. A large assemblage of beveled well as mid-third millennium Yahya IVB ceramics, not of concern in this
rim bowls from Tell Humeida date between 3800 and 3500 BCE during review), shows that most of the “Proto-Elamite”-related IVC vessels, in-
Middle Uruk times; a similar assemblage is known from Tell Ramadi far- cluding grit-tempered plain ad painted jars and bowls, as well as fiber-
ther downstream. Like the great majority of beveled rim bowls, these are tempered beveled rim bowls and trays, were made of clays found near
made from a vegetal-tempered clay similar to those used for mud bricks, the site. The fiber-tempered forms, shared with Uruk assemblages, are
using a simple press-molding technique, and fired at a low temperature; thought to have been used for a particular cuisine, perhaps bread-
their uses are discussed below. The fragility of this common form suggests making (Potts, 2009; Goulder, 2010). In contrast, a number of grit-
that they were made not far from where they were broken, and would tempered vessels with stylistically local painted designs have clays appar-
therefore be useful indicators of local clays. The Middle Euphrates bowls ently from nearby valleys in Kerman. Finally, a few vessels with visually
were intensively studied by the Spanish-Portuguese team of Sanjurjo distinctive fabrics and painted design are made with clays from the
Sánchez et al. (2016–in this volume). After a relatively detailed presenta- lower arid basins of Seistan and Baluchistan to the south and east of Ker-
tion of the difficulties and results of various different analytical methods, man. None of the analyzed sherds were made from clays known to orig-
which account for the few significant elemental differences between the inate in the Southern Zagros to the west, and specifically not from the
geochemical compositions of the bowls, they conclude that the clays clays of the relatively well known Kur River Basin with its major Proto-
used to make these bowls were very similar in sites stretched along Elamite center of Malyan. In addition, the sherds of the burnished ware
170 km of the Euphrates Valley. The authors suggest two possible expla- typical of Northern Iran found at Yahya are made of locally available
nations for this homogeneity: either one settlement using one clay source clays. This suggests that potters from distant regions came to Kerman
may be producing the bowls for the others, or alternatively, each settle- and made their characteristic products on site. As with Godin, while the
ment may be producing its own bowls, but the sediments of the Euphra- ceramic fabrics do not inform us about whether either intra-regional pro-
tes alluvium may be particularly homogenous. This possibility is curement of vessels among the valleys of Kerman or the limited transport
supported by another paper in this volume, in which it was noted that from Baluchistan to Susiana was institutionally mediated, they clearly
the ceramics of Jebel Aruda are quite similar to those of the Lower Euphra- show that intra-regional transport was limited and inter-regional trans-
tes alluvium (Emberling and Minc, 2016–in this volume). The Spanish port was uncommon.
team proposes a method of determining sources of Euphrates clays One local study takes advantage of the fact that Uruk and Proto-
using clasts of materials from rocks brought by different tributaries enter- Elamite potters used a distinctive tool made of clay. In an insightful
ing the river. Clearly more fieldwork on available raw materials is needed, paper, John Alden (1988) demonstrated that small ceramic rings wide-
when that is possible. spread in the Uruk Period were used to scrape excess clay from the inte-
Godin Tepe was initially presented as a “colony” of lowland mer- riors and exteriors of leather-hard vessels, thus thinning them down
chants on the “high road” threading between the Central and Northern before firing. These would be made by potters with clays found near
Zagros to connect Mesopotamia with the resource-rich Iranian Plateau their workshops, but might be carried to other localities by itinerant pot-
(Weiss and Young, 1975). The oval compound on the high point of the ters, as documented for ethnographic potters in Afghanistan (Matson,
local town dates from about 3300 to 3100 BCE, firmly in the Late Uruk 1965) and suggested for early Kerman-area potters of burnished ware
Period. It yielded discarded ceramics with affinities to local traditions by Mutin et al. (2016–in this volume). Archaeometric studies of Kur
of the Central Zagros, lowland Uruk traditions, and traditions elsewhere River Basin clays and ceramics were initiated several decades ago by
in the Iranian plateau and perhaps even in Anatolia. Decades of careful Blackman (1981), and have recently been expanded with additional char-
restudy of many aspects of the Godin evidence, summarized in an out- acterizations by Minc (Alden and Minc, in preparation.). Geochemical
standing final report (Gopnik and Rothman, 2011), have expanded characterization of rings from the one area with a larger sample from a
this understanding. The detailed ceramic studies presented by Gopnik workshop site—Early Proto-Elamite Tal-e Kureh in the Kur River Basin
et al. (2016–in this volume) show that Godin was a small center in a val- in the southern Zagros—and examples from other sites, including a possi-
ley of the Zagros concerned primarily with local production and con- ble Uruk production site on the Susiana Plain, was undertaken to test
sumption and secondarily with mediating the movement of goods these ideas (Alden and Minc, 2016–in this volume). The geochemistry
between Zagros valleys. This is supported by the numerical tablets, shows that the ring scrapers on production sites were made from diverse
which use a numbering system commonly used for recording amounts clays, rarely the local clays used for pottery production at the site. This im-
of presumably local grain (Englund, 2006, 26; Hallo, 2011, 116-118). plies that some Uruk and Early Proto-Elamite potters were itinerant
The ceramics are almost exclusively made from clays local to Godin or (Wright, 2001). As we turn now from local studies to studies of the
from nearby valleys with a similar geology. Even the ubiquitous beveled trans-regional movement of ceramics and other materials, we need to
rim bowl, thought by Godin researchers to be used for serving liquid ra- keep in mind that it may often have been craft workers rather than craft
tions to workers, are locally made. Only one vessel definitely came from products that moved.
the lowlands: a large jar from the area of Susa. While the ceramic fabrics
do not inform us about whether either intra-regional procurement of ves- 3. Using Archaeometry to Assess Trans-regional Relations in Greater
sels among the Zagros valleys or the limited contact with Susiana was in- Mesopotamia
stitutionally mediated, they clearly show that intra-regional transport
was limited and inter-regional transport was rare. Having developed an understanding of local variability in Uruk and
Tepe Yahya IVC was initially presented as a distant outpost of the Post- Proto-Elamite ceramics, one can now consider broader relations and is-
Uruk Proto-Elamite civilization in a high mountain valley of southeastern sues relevant to hypotheses about the Uruk expansion and the subse-
Iran in Kerman province, close to sources of widely traded scarce quent Proto-Elamite expansion. This can be done by examining a wide
902 H.T. Wright / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 7 (2016) 900–904

range of ceramics from all the component regions of Greater Mesopota- We owe our understanding of ancient bitumen exploitation to
mia and the Iranian Plateau. Fortunately, ceramics from a variety of sur- the curiosity of petroleum chemists concerning the early history of their
veys and excavations are available in museums and research institutes material (Forbes, 1936; Marschner et al., 1978; Connan and Deschesne,
in regions far from the conflicts of the Near East today. It was possible 1992) and to the improved characterization of petroleum sources in gen-
to initiate a comprehensive overview study of Uruk ceramics using the eral, motivated by the need to identify modern petroleum spills near
most developed methods in Oregon State University’s archaeometry re- coastlines, ports, and sea lanes. Fortunately, bitumen has been found on
search center (Emberling and Minc, 2016–in this volume). Knowing, many sites of the Uruk Period. Because bitumen can be re-cycled, mixing
given the site-focused studies exemplified above, that local ceramics material from several sources, and because it can be altered by
constituted a substantial proportion of any settlements repertoire of weathering, source identification is not easy. However, building on
vessels, Emberling selected sherds representing a limited set of stylisti- these earlier studies, Schwartz and Hollander (2016–in this volume)
cally distinctive Uruk vessels often said to be ‘identical’ to those from have undertaken a study of Uruk bitumen transport. They undertook
Lower Mesopotamia. If any vessels were transported between regions, “whole sample bulk isotope studies” which can broadly differentiate
it would be these. The archaeometric evidence is complex, but after “southern” or Lower Mesopotamian sources (including both Hit on the
due consideration, the authors report limited evidence of transport. Middle Euphrates and the geographically distant southwest Iranian
There are no definite imported exotics among the 198 sherds analyzed sources) from “northern” or Upper Mesopotamian sources (including
from the Susiana Plain (Ghazal et al., 2008 and reexamined here). sources near Kirkuk and probably other sources in the Middle Tigris re-
There is only one possible import of uncertain origin among 90 exam- gion). Their best-dated Uruk samples are from northwestern or Upper
ined sherds from Lower Mesopotamia. There are only four possible im- Mesopotamia. The uses of bitumen attested in this region are as cakes
ports among 88 examined sherds from the Middle Euphrates, of which or ingots prepared for transport, adhesives for tools such as the fixing of
one is an incised jar fragment probably from Lower Mesopotamia; and sickle blades and other tools into hafts, and for the waterproofing of
three are of unknown origins, perhaps from farther west in the Levant. reed bundle boats. Many kilograms of bitumen are found discarded at
The more interesting results relate to Lower Mesopotamia, Nineveh some sites. Schwartz and Hollander observe that sites of the local Late
in the Middle Tigris, and Tell Brak in the Khabur valley, a tributary of the Chalcolithic (ca. 4000-3700 BCE, i.e., before Uruk contacts) use bitumen
Middle Euphrates. Among the 33 sherds examined from Nineveh, three from the Middle Tigris, while sites of the period of Middle Uruk contact
small four-lug jars are from Lower Mesopotamia and one is from Brak. use mostly Lower Mesopotamian sources (probably from Hit on the Mid-
Among the 95 sherds examined from Brak, two are imported, one a dle Euphrates). Late Uruk sites (ca. 3300-3100 BCE) in Upper Mesopota-
small cross-hatched incised jar from Nineveh and the other a bottle mia return to Kirkuk and other sources in Upper Mesopotamia. Note
base perhaps from Lower Mesopotamia. Considering that these exam- that some of these sites and sources are only a few hundred kilometers
ined sherds were selected to emphasize types that might be exported, apart, and this massive transport of an important technological material
even this reciprocal distribution through the rich plains at the foot of is properly ‘intraregional’ or ‘interregional’, but not demonstrably trans-
the Zagros and Anti-Taurus—which textual evidence shows was a regional. The report of stacks of cakes of matt-impressed bitumen from
major transport route from the Late IIIrd millennium BCE until Hellenis- a storeroom at Middle Uruk Sheikh Hassan (Boese, 1995) indicates insti-
tic times—cannot be taken to indicate a major exchange. These small tutional control, but nothing about how the movement was mediated.
jars and bottles could have carried precious commodities, but they Thus far, this overview has dealt with objects such as ceramics and
could as well have been the household possessions of families, groups, bitumen, which might provide indices of social and economic inter-
or official entourages moving between regions. It is worth noting that course. More than once there has been cause to remark that though
the bottles and incised jars in question do appear in Uruk representa- there is some evidence for transport, there is none for how the move-
tions of rituals (Heinrich, 1936: Tafel 2 right, 38; Lindemeyer and ment of people and goods could have been mediated or regulated. We
Martin, 1993: Tafel 9, 24), and could have been viewed as necessary do, however, have classes of artifacts that were used in control activities.
for cultic observances in the Uruk world. Thanks to a long and fruitful collaboration between art historians and
One might dismiss the limited evidence of Uruk pottery transport by archaeometricians, we can consider trans-regional variability in Uruk
asserting that one would not expect fragile ceramic vessels to be Administrative technology. In a paper which draws together many
transported anyway, that the stylistic similarities could better be ex- strands of evidence (Pittman and Blackman, 2016–in this volume) we
plained by the movement of potters. It is therefore important to look are given evidence to begin answering questions about social and eco-
at other materials. This is not as easy as it seems. One needs a material nomic mediation. The paper begins with a clear summary of Uruk
from known sources, exhibiting distinctive chemical or physical attri- seals and their iconography and the uses to which seals were put.
butes commonly preserved on archaeological sites, and commonly Then previously published work on local assemblages of seals and
retained in archaeological collections. Obsidian, a felsic volcanic glass sealings which have both iconographic and archaeometric studies is
formed in lava flows, is such a material and it is no accident that it summarized. This includes both pre-Uruk local Late Chalcolithic sealing
was the first material studied with quantitative archaeometry in order assemblages from Tepe Gawra and Hacınebi in Upper Mesopotamia
to document long-range procurement in the Near East (Renfrew and (Rothman, 2002), and post-Uruk Proto-Elamite sealings from Malyan
Dixon, 1976). Alas, obsidian was not commonly transported outside of in the Kur River Basin in the southern Zagros and Susa in lowland south-
its Anatolian and Caucasian source regions after the poorly known western Iran (Pittman, 2013) and the large sample of mostly local Post-
Early Uruk Period. Flints, which were transported, are common and lo- Uruk seals and sealings from Arslantepe in the Upper Euphrates valley
cally highly variable (Wright, 2000), and the immense task of source in the Anti-Taurus mountains (Frangipane, 2007). Of greater relevance
characterization in the Near East has only begun (Borrell, 2010). The to the present concern is the small Late Uruk sealing assemblage from
materials of stone bowls, such as calcites (including marbles), gypsums Hacınebi of only nine sealings which had a homogenous Uruk style
(including alabasters) and sandstones, are also common and difficult to with close iconographic relations to Susa. These seals are mostly
source. Other stones are rare in Uruk sites. Metals, particularly copper or impressed on local clays, but a few were on Susiana Plain clays, includ-
copper alloys (Helwing, 2013; Vatandoust et al., 2011) and silver, were ing sealings on small jars or bottles, medium-sized jars, and a clay tablet
first widely smelted and transported during the Uruk Period, but were or docket without numbers. After these summaries, new evidence from
commonly re-cycled and are therefore rare in the archaeological sites. Tell Brak is presented in detail. Thirty-five sealings were studied, all of
In addition, their sources were often heavily exploited in later periods which share a generalized Late Uruk iconography that shows no specific
and their original ores are difficult to characterize. One material that affiliation with other sites. Of these, neutron activation analysis shows
can be studied and sourced is bitumen, which seeped to the surface in that eight are from outside the region, but have not yet been linked to
several parts of Greater Mesopotamia. any center in Lower Mesopotamia. Thus the Brak sealing assemblage
H.T. Wright / Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 7 (2016) 900–904 903

has a similar minor but significant component of exotic clays like that processes. Because complex societies manifest many different kinds of ex-
from Hacınebi, but we cannot say more without making geo-chemical change, with the same people engaging in different kinds of exchange
or stylistic linkages to Mesopotamian sites as Pittman and Blackman from day-to-day, and because such constructs will necessarily involve so-
(2016–in this volume) have done for Hacınebi. In general, all of the cial movement and conflicts as well as exchange, they will necessarily be
Upper Mesopotamian Uruk sealing assemblages appear to be predomi- agent-based models involving many actors in complex spatial and tempo-
nantly on local clays and used to seal relatively small vessels, baskets, ral frameworks. The construction and testing of such models is difficult
etc., indicating that the sealing technology was used primarily to control but manifestly worthwhile (Wilkinson et al., 2007, 2013).
local transactions and local storage.

4. Summary and Future Directions References


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