Ain Ghazal, an archeological site in Amman, Jordan was one of the largest population centers in the Middle East (three times larger than Jericho) from 7200 to 5000 B.C., a period in human history when sem-nomadic hunters and gathers were adapting to farming and animals herding and organizing themselves into cities. Ain Ghazal means

Ain Ghazal covers about 30 acres. The people were farmers and hunters and gatherers. They used stone tools and weapons and made clay figures and vessels. They lived in multi-room houses with stone walls and timber roof beams and cooking hearths. Plaster with decorations covered the walls and floors. They are meat and milk products from goats, grew wheat barely, lentils, peas and chickpeas, hunted wild cattle, boar and gazelles and gathered wild plants, almonds, figs and pistachios.

Mysterious human figures unearthed at Ain Ghazal, are among the oldest human statues ever found. Made of lime plaster and dating back to 7000 B.C., the figures were about 3½ feet tall and have bitumen accented eyes and look like aliens from outerspace. Scholars believe they played a ceremonial role and may have been images of gods or heros.

The figures were discovered 1985 by the driver of a bulldozers clearing the way for a road. The statues were made of delicate materials---so delicate they whole site was unearthed and shipped to a Smithsonian laboratory where the figures it took ten years to assemble the figures.

The figures come in two types: full figures and busts. Both types were made by forming plaster over a skeleton made of bundles of reed wrapped in twine. Facial features were probably made by hand with simple tools made of bone, wood or stone. The plaster technology that was used was fairly advanced and required heating limestone to temperatures if 600̊ to 900̊C

Archeologists working in Ain Ghazal found what they say may be the world’s oldest known game. The game board, a limestone slab, has two sets of circular depressions and bears a striking resemblance to games played in the Middle East today with counting stones. The slab was found in a house, and because it seemed to serve no utilitarian or ceremonial function archeologists concluded it most likely was a game board. [National Geographic Geographica, February 1990].

See First Villages, Early Agriculture

Books: Sumerian Dictionary of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania edited by Ake W. Sjoberg (University of Pennsylvania, 1984); The Sumerians, Their History, Culture and Character by Samuel Noah Kramer (University of Chicago Press, 1963); The Ancient Near East By William Hallo and William Kelly Simpson (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971); Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture by William H. Stiebing Jr. Experts and Sources: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; John Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston; Irene Winter, professor of art history at Harvard; McGuire Gibson of Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; Jeremy Black, Oriental Institute at Oxford University; Piotr Michalowski, University of Michigan.

Websites and Resources: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu ; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Interent Ancient History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/ancient ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia


Arslantepe, a remote site near the town of Malatya and the source of the Euphrates River in southeastern Turkey, is regarded as one of the world’s oldest large towns. It was first settled around 4,250 B.C.. Among the firsts found found there the first known palace, the first known sword (cast from an alloy of copper and arsenic) and the first toothed locks opened with a key (similar to locks still used in parts of Africa and the Middle East). There are also tombs with evidence of what seems to be human sacrifice.

The palace at Arslantepe contains some of the world’s oldest and best preserved ancient wall paintings. They were made on plastered walls and consist of stylized representations of humans and animals. An ancient painters palette consisting of a flat stone with hollowed-out depressions for paint was found here. The evidence for human sacrifice is grave for a man in his 30s of 40s who was buried with three girls and boy in their teens who showed signs of being treated violently.

When Arslantepe was first settled in 4250 B.C., the social system seemed to be fairly egalitarian in that all the dwellings dated to this period seemed pretty much the same. In 4000 B.C. a fairly large temple was built. It also seemed to play a role in storing grain and distributing food. Thousand of storage jar and some measuring tools have been found inside. Later the first locks were used to lock storage rooms containing grain. As society developed, labor became more specialized and stratified with an elite class that ruled over the others. The first palace was built around 2500 B.C.

Tell Hamoukar

Tell Hamoukar is an interesting site, dated to 3500 B.C., in eastern Syria near the border of Iraq and Turkey. With a central city covering 16 hectares, it is as highly developed as sites in southern Iraq such as Uruk and Nippur and seems to debunk the theories that ancient civilization developed in southern Iraq and spread northward and westward. Instead Tell Hamoukar is offered as proof that several advanced ancient civilizations developed simultaneously in different parts of the Middle East. [Source: Natural History magazine, Clemens Reichel of the Oriental Institute of Chicago]

Excavations indicate that Tell Hamoukar was first inhabited around 4000 B.C. perhaps as early as 4500 B.C. By around 3700 B.C. is covered at least 13 hectares and displayed signs of an advanced civilization: a 2.5-meter-high, 3.4 -meter-wide defensive wall, large scale bread making and meat cooking, a wide array of cylinder seals, presumably used to mark goods. Many seals were used to secure baskets and other containers of commodities.

The simplest seals had only simple markings. More elaborate ones had kissing bears, ducks and a leopard with 13 spots. Scholars believed that more elaborate seals were used by people of high status and indicate a hierarchically-ordered society. But as advanced as Tell Hamoukar and other places in the area were they are not regarded as advanced as those in southern Iraq, where writing developed.

Tell Hamoukar contains a 500-acre site with buildings with huge ovens, which offer evidence that people were making food for other people. The city seems to have been a manufacturing center for tools and blades that utilized obsidian supplies further north and supplied the tools throughout Mesopotamia to the south. Other sites being excavated in northern Syria include Tell Brak and Habuba Kabira, both of which appear ro be much larger than previously thought.

A team led by Clemens Reichel of the Oriental Institute of Chicago and Syrian Department of Antiquities have been excavating Tell Hamoukar since 1999.. Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego is an archaeologist that specialize in north-south relations in Mesopotamia.

Warfare at Tell Hamoukar

The oldest known example of large scale warfare is from a fierce battle that took place at Tell Hamoukar around 3500 B.C. Evidence of intense fighting include collapsed mud walls that had undergone heavy bombardment; the presence of 1,200 oval-sapped “bullets” flung from slings and 120 large round balls. Graves held skeletons of likely battle victims. Reichel told the New York Times the clash appeared to have been a swift, rapid attack: “buildings collapse, burning out of control, burying everything in them under a vast pile of rubble.”

No one knows who the attacker of Tell Hamoukar was but circumstantial evidence points to Mesopotamia cultures to the south. The battle may have been between northern and southern Near Eastern cultures when the two cultures were relative equally, with the victory by the south giving them an edge and paving the way for them to dominate the region. Large amount of Uruk pottery was found on layers just above the battle. Reichel told the New York Times, “If the Uruk people weren’t the ones firing the sling bullets, they certainly benefitted from it. They are all over this place right after its destruction.’

Discoveries at Tell Hamoukar have changed thinking about the evolution of civilization in Mesopotamia. It was previously though that civilization developed in Sumerian cities like Ur and Uruk and radiated outward in the form of trade, conquest and colonization. But findings in Tell Hamoukar show that many indicators of civilization were present in northern places like Tell Hamoukar as well as in Mesopotamia and around 4000 B.C. to 3000 B.C. the two placed were pretty equal.


Tell Umm el-Marra

Tell Umm el-Marra was a small Bronze Age city in the Jabbul Plain of northen Syria. Founded around 2800 B.C., it may be Tuba, a city mentioned in texts from Ebla. Tell Umm el-Marra’s location between the Euphrates and agricultural area around Aleppo suggest it may have been a regional trade center.

The mound at Tell Umm el-Marra is about nine meters high and covers an area of 20 hectares. Tombs contain evidence of animal and possibly human sacrifice. Excavations of a burial site called Tomb 1, dated to 2300 B.C., revealed the bones of two young women and two infants along with pottery and various ornaments in an upper layer of the tomb and the skeleton of two adult males and an infant buried in a middle layer of the same tomb. Beneath the skeletons of the two adult males were found the older remains of another adult.

The fact that people buried there were buried with valuable objects suggests they were members of the upper classes. In adjacent chambers are the remains headless bodies of equines (likely donkeys) and two sets of the puppies believed to be animal sacrifices. Swartz, who is the main archaeologist at the site, has theorized that the maybe the women and infants mentioned above were human sacrifices for the buried men.

Among the objects that were found were a gold pendant with rows of circles interspersed with lines; silver bracelets; gold and silver pins; a bronze torque (neck ornaments); bronze daggers; silver headbands; clay cylinders with unknown writing; silver vessels similar to those found in Ur; and scores of ceramic vessels. More valuable items tended to be found in graves of women rather then men.

Turkish and Syrian Sites Shows Early Spread of Culture

John Noble Wilford wrote in New York Times, “New discoveries in Turkey and northern Syria, two buried cities and intriguing clay tablets with cuneiform writing, are expanding the known horizons of early urban civilization and literacy well beyond the Sumerian city-states of southern Mesopotamia. Archeologists say the discoveries are among the most exciting in Mesopotamian studies in recent decades. They are confident that further excavations at the sites will provide answers to one of the most important questions in archeology: how and when did the phenomena of urban living and the first writing spread from their place of origin more than 5,000 years ago in the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers far into adjacent regions” [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 9, 1993]

Working in the Balikh River valley of southern Turkey, near the Syrian border, a team of American and Turkish archeologists found traces of a large city that apparently flourished in 2600 B.C. A single tablet with cuneiform inscriptions, the earliest known writing system, was found lying on the surface. Dr. Patricia Wattenmaker, an archeologist at the University of Virginia and director of the excavations, told the New York Times the discovery should overturn conventional thinking that confined the development of large urban centers of the period to southern Mesopotamia and dismissed the cultures to the north and west as mere backwaters. Further research, she said, could extend the known range of early literacy.

Excavations indicate that the site, known as Kazane Hoyuk, holds the remains of a city that spread over at least 250 acres, large for its time and place. One tentative hypothesis is that these are the ruins of Urshu, a northern city mentioned in some Sumerian texts. "Kazane's a huge place," said Dr. Glenn Schwartz, an archeologist at Johns Hopkins University who is familiar with the discovery, "and has to have been one of the most important political and economic centers of its region."

The other discovery that excited archeologists is the buried ruins of a smaller city of the third millennium B.C. at Tell Beidar in northern Syria. There European and Syrian archeologists have found a well-preserved temple, administrative buildings and a collection of as many as 70 clay tablets with Sumerian writing and Semitic names, as well as many other tablet fragments. And they have only begun to dig. "It's the most spectacular find this year in Syria," said Dr. Marc Lebeau, the leader of the discovery team, who is president of the European Center for Upper Mesopotamian Studies in Brussels. Dating of Tablets

Preliminary analysis places the time of the tablets and other artifacts at about 2400 B.C., during the Sumerian ascendancy in southern Mesopotamia and just before the rise of the Akkadian empire under Sargon the Great. The tablets that have been deciphered appear to be bureaucratic records of a robust economy, including lists of donkeys, oxen and sheep and the names of towns and villages.

The discoveries, Dr. Weiss said, were further evidence for the sudden rise beginning around 2600 B. C. of cities in nearly all directions beyond the bounds of southern Mesopotamia and may help account for this expansion. Was this the consequence of trade among independent people or incipient colonialism and imperialism? If these burning questions in Mesopotamian archeology can be answered, scholars will still be left to ponder the bigger question of how state societies and urban civilization happened to begin then and there in the first place.

Presence of a Strong Culture in Northern Mesopotamia (Southern Turkey)

Dr. Harvey Weiss, a Yale University archeologist, visited Tell Beidar and told the New York Times that it and Kazane Hoyuk "prove everything we've been saying about northern Mesopotamia for many years," namely that the cuneiform archive discovered in 1974 at Ebla, also in Syria, was not an anomaly but strong evidence of the widespread expansion of Sumerian urban civilization, beginning as early as 2600 B.C. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 9, 1993]

If Ebla, near the city of Aleppo, revealed the civilization's western progression, excavations by Dr. Weiss at Tell Leilan, begun in 1979, produced the first strong evidence of its northern reach. Tell Leilan, identified as the ancient walled city of Shubat Enlil that experienced sudden growth in 2500, lies on the fertile plains of Syria near the borders of Turkey and Iraq. Nearby is the European dig site of Tell Beidar. Farther north is Kazane Hoyuk, at least twice as large as Tell Beidar and the same size as Tell Leilan or larger. Other scholars had previously failed to recognize this expansion phenomenon mainly because the most thorough excavations had until recently been confined to the Sumerian heartland in the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley. "People used to think of ancient Mesopotamia as small and restricted, but not any longer," said Dr. Elizabeth Stone, an archeologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Since early writing was associated with official record-keeping related to the collection and distribution of grain and goods and since Kazane Hoyuk was a city on known trade routes, Dr. Michalowski said: "I will stick my neck out and say it had to be a literate society. Other tablets may be found there. I've always thought Ebla was only a symptom of a much more widespread literacy in this period."

Mesopotamian-Era Cultures in Southern Turkey

Wilford wrote in New York Times “Dr. Wattenmaker was driving on the road south of the modern Turkish city of Urfa when she saw a prominent mound in the fields near an irrigation canal. In her initial survey last year, pottery shards were found scattered over the ground. Some were as much as 7,000 years old. Others were at least 4,500 years old and in the Sumerian style. This and other evidence gathered this year indicated that the site had been occupied almost continuously since 5000 B.C., and so should provide evidence of the transition from a simple farming society to an urban culture. It grew to be a large city about 2600 B.C. and was abandoned for an unknown reason around 1800 B.C. Wattenmaker’s research team included archeologists from the Universities of Chicago and Virginia, Istanbul University and the Urfa Museum. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 9, 1993]

A worker found the baked clay tablet lying on the surface. It is 22 inches by 22, and encrusted in dirt. Cleaning away some of the dirt, archeologists saw the wedge-shaped cuneiform inscriptions typical of early writing, which was first developed by Mesopotamians about 5,000 years ago. Scholars are especially cautious in their assessment of the tablet because it was a "stray find." It was picked up on the ground, out of context with archeological ruins and in an area that had been disturbed by construction of the canal. Still, they said it appeared to be genuine and from the third millennium B.C.

"It's a tease," said Dr. Piotr Michalowski, a specialist in Sumerian and Babylonian languages at the University of Michigan, who is examining photographs of the tablet inscriptions. "It doesn't tell you much. It is not a connected narrative of any sort, just signs and not very good ones. Somebody might have been practicing writing, and wasn't good at it." Speculation of Literacy

Although archeologists said they could not yet determine the ancient name of this city, Dr. Michalowski said there was a "good degree of probability" that it was Urshu, which Sumerian inscriptions of 2100 B.C. refer to as a city in the highlands of Ebla; that would put it at some distance to the northwest. The site of Urshu has never been identified. But confirmation of this surmise will have to await the discovery of more and better tablets.

Preliminary study of the tablets at Tell Beidar, Dr. Lebeau said, showed that they are approximately the same age as the Ebla archive, probably a century or two later than the Kazane Hoyuk fluorescence, and that they provide a clear link between this ancient city, Ebla in the west and southern Mesopotamia. These are the first tablets of this period to be found in northern Syria, and archeologists expect to find more as they dig deeper at the site. The discovery team included archeologists from Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Syria.


Urkesh was a fabled oasis kingdom in present-day Syria mentioned in the Bible and in ancient Egyptian tablets. So many tales sprung about Urkesh that archaeologists began to wonder if it really existed. It was the home of the Hurrians, who were contemporaries of the Sumerians and mentioned in the Old Testament as the Horites and in a clay tablet belonging to the Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhet IV.

Urkesh was found in 1995 in northeastern Syria near the border of Turkey after a goat artifact inscribed with the name "Urkesh" in a lost language was found at the site. Urkesh was at its peak around 2400 B.C. It controlled an important copper trading route in what is now northeastern Syria. Archaeologists working there have found a building they believe is a royal palace. They also found animal figurines and copper daggers and spearheads and cuneiform tablets that identified rulers.

20120207-Mari Cylinder_seal_battle_Louvre.jpg
Mari cylinder seal of a battle


Arrata is a mysterious Bronze Age city that is said to have existed around 2700 B.C. French-Iranian archaeologist Yousef Madjidzadeh thinks he found it near the town Jiroft in a desolate corner of Iran and thinks it may predate Mesopotamia. Arrata was celebrated in one of the world’s oldest stories: a 4,000 years old epic about a clash between Arrata and the Mesopotamian city of Uruk. Arrata is described as a city of colorful architecture and excellent craftsmanship. “Arrata’s battlements are of green lapis lazuli, it walls and its towering brickwork are bright red, their brick clay is made of tinstone dug out in the mountains where the cypress grows.” [Source: Andrew Lawler, Smithsonian magazine, May 2004]

The site near Jirof, known as Konar Sandal, was discovered in 2000. Thus far archaeologists have uncovered a huge temple or fort, that resembled a ziggurat, made of four million mud bricks. Impressions made by cylindrical seals shows the people that lived there were probably literate. The site first came to the attention of archeologists in 2001 when a flash flood on the Hali River exposed thousands of ancient graves that were quickly plundered by looters. Stone vessels, carved with images of animals and decorated with semi-precious stones confiscated from tomb looters also turned up vessels found as far west as Syria and as far east as the Indus valley that have been dated to be 4,500 years old. A bronze goat head has been dated to possibly be 5,000 years old. Among the more beautiful objects are vessels made from green chlorite carved with bulls.

Overall though the archaeology for the various claims is rather weak. Many scholars doubt whether Aratta even existed and those that do believe it existed place it in western Iran or Armenia. There are no definite links between Arrata and the site near Jiroft and it is difficult to date most of the objects found there because nearly all the graves in the where they were found have been looted. Madjidzadeh estimates that 10,000 holes were dug by looters over a 1½ -year period and 100,000 objects were taken. Looters continued to work at night while archaeologists worked during the day.

Other Old Sites in Iran

Many of the oldest sites in Iran are tappehs (ancient burial mounds). Among these are Tappeh Sialk, near Kashan, where 6,000-year-old pottery has been found; Tappeh Hesar, near Damghan, and Tappeh Turnag, near Astar Abad, both of which have been dated to be 7,500 years old; and Tappeh Median, which revealed silver bars, cut silver and silver ring money dated to 760 B.C.

Among the other important pre-Persian sites are Shahr-e-Sukhteh, a 5000-year-old town with evidence of extensive trade; Tappeh Yahya, south of Kerman, a 5000-year-old sites with examples of early writing and trade between East and West; and Tall-e-Malyan, near Persepolis, believed to be the lost Elamite city of Anshan.

Other Ancient Cities from Around 2000 B.C.

Al Rawda is an ancient city---occupied between 2400 and 2100 B.C.---in what is now central Syria whose entire layout was revealed without doing any excavation work using geomagnetic imaging, which measures the Earth’s magnetic force. Al Rawda’s flat topography and lack of modern buildings made it the ideal subject for this kind of imaging, The result is quite stunning in its details, The images show the locations of buildings, streets and alley laid out in a circular pattern within a circular defensive wall. The city was home to several thousand residents who grazed livestock, raised grapes and beans, and worshipped that city’s religious complex.

Dillum and Other Early Persian Gulf Civilizations

The earliest settlements in the Persian Gulf date back to the 4th millennium B.C. The are usually associated with the Umm an-Nar culture, which was centered in the present-day United Arab Emirates. Little is known about them.

Dillum was a city-state on the island of Bahrain thrived from around 3200 B.C. to 1200 B.C. and described in Sumerian literature as the city of the gods. Archeologists have found temples and settlements on Dillum, dated to 2200 B.C.

Many goods that traveled through the Persian Gulf went through the island of Bahrain. There was an early Bronze Age trade network between Mesopotamia, Dilmun (Bahrain), Elam (southwestern Iran), Bactria (Afghanistan) and the Indus Valley.

Arrowheads found in Qatar in 1960 and ash from ancient campfires in Muscat found in 1983, both dated to around 6000 B.C., are the oldest examples of nomadic pastoralists living on the Arabian peninsula. Remains from Neolithic camps seems to indicate that the climate was wetter at that time and there was more food for grazing animals than today. Nomads are thought to have ranged between Iraq and Syria in the north a the Dhofar region of Oman in the south.

Shells and fishbone middens, dated to around 5000 B.C., found near Muscat is the earliest evidence of fishing communities along the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Artifacts found at one of the middens (heaps of shells of marine life remains) included stone net sinkers, a necklace of shell, soapstone and limestone beads, finely-carved shell pendants. Graves contained human skeletons buried on beds of oyster shells or with sea turtle skulls. Analysis of the human remains turned up evidence of malaria and inbreeding. There was little evidence that they ate anything other than what they could take from the sea.

Umm an-Nar and Jabal Hafit

At a site on the Umm an-Nar, on an island off of Abu Dhabi, dated to around 2200 B.C., archeologists found enclosed circular graves, 15 to 40 feet in diameter and often two stories high that contained as many as 30 people. Similar tombs have been found from Ras al-Khaimah in the north to Ras al-Hadd south of Muscat and along the Frankincense Trail oasis settlements.

Tombs, dated to around 3000 B.C., were found near Jabal Hafit at the Oman-United Arab Emirates border. Artifacts included jars with geometric designs, bronze pins, and stone and faience beads. The pottery is similar to pottery produced at that time in Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of human settlement. Similar tombs have been found throughout Oman and the United Arab Emirates.


The ancient Magan culture thrived along the coasts of the Persian Gulf during the early Bronze Age (2500-2000 B.C.) in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Ancient myths from Sumer refer to ships from Magan carrying valued woods, copper and diorite stone. Archeologists refers to people in Magan as the Barbar culture.

Sumerian texts, dated to 2300 B.C., describe Magan ships, with a cargo capacity of 20 tons, sailing up the Gulf of Oman and stopping at Dilum to stock up on fresh water before carrying on to Mesopotamia. The texts also said Magan was south of Sumer and Dillum, was visited by travelers from the Indus Valley, and had high mountains, where diorite, or gabbro, was quarried to use to make black statues.

Based on artifacts found at its archeological site it was involved in trade with Mesopotamia, Iran, Arabia, Afghanistan and the Indus Valley. Objects from the Indus Valley found at Magan sites in Oman include three-sided prism seals and Indus Valley pottery.

The Magan people subsisted on a diet of fish, shellfish, camel and goat meat, barley, wheat, dates and fruit. They made jewelry with beads made of agate, carnelian paste, steatite (sopastone), shell, bone and gold and produced small animal figures made from a lead-silver alloy.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine and New York Times articles, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988. Also from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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