Image: Figurine
Gil Stein / Oriental Inst., U. of Chicago
This 7-inch-tall female figurine is from the Ubaid period and is made of baked clay.
updated 4/6/2010 10:19:37 PM ET 2010-04-07T02:19:37

A prehistoric town that had remained untouched beneath the ground near Syria for 6,000 years is now revealing clues about the first cities in the Middle East prior to the invention of the wheel.

The town, called Tell Zeidan, dates from between 6000 B.C. and 4000 B.C., and immediately preceded the world's first urban civilizations in the ancient Middle East. It is one of the largest sites of the Ubaid culture in northern Mesopotamia.

Now archaeologists from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and their Syrian colleagues are studying the town, which sits below a mound in an area of irrigated fields at the junction of the Euphrates and Balikh Rivers in what is now northern Syria.

So far, they have unearthed evidence of the society's trade in obsidian and production and development of copper processing, as well as the existence of a social elite that used stone seals to mark ownership of goods and culturally significant items.

The evidence here supports what archaeologists had long surmised, that the Ubaid people were among the first in the Middle East to experience division of social groups according to power and wealth.

"The project addresses questions not only of how such societies emerged but how they were sustained and flourished," said John Yellen, program director for archaeology at the National Science Foundation, which provided funding for the research.

The town's location was at the crossroads of major, ancient trade routes in Mesopotamia that followed the course of the Euphrates River valley. The Ubaid period lasted from about 5300 B.C. to 4000 B.C.

"This enigmatic period saw the first development of widespread irrigation, agriculture, centralized temples, powerful political leaders and the first emergence of social inequality as communities became divided into wealthy elites and poorer commoners," said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute and a leader of the expedition that uncovered the site.

Stein added that the research "provides insight into how complex societies, based on linkages which extended across hundreds of miles, developed," said Yellen, noting the distance travelled for raw materials needed for many of the Tell Zeidan artifacts.

Gil Stein / Oriental Inst., U. of Chicago
This red stone seal with a deer carved into red stone was unearthed in the prehistoric town of Tell Zeidan. The stone is not native to the area, but the seal is similar to one found 185 miles to the east near Mosul in northern Iraq.
For example, copper ore was carried by workers from sources near modern-day Diyarbakir, Turkey, about 185 to 250 miles (300 to 400 kilometers) away, then smelted at Tell Zeidan to produce metal tools and other implements.

One of the most remarkable finds was a stone stamp sealdepicting a deer that was carved from a red stone not native to the area, Stein said. A similar seal design was found 185 miles (300 km) to the east near Mosul in northern Iraq.

"The existence of very elaborate seals with near-identical motifs at such widely distant sites suggests that in this period, high-ranking elites were assuming leadership positions across a very broad region, and those dispersed elites shared a common set of symbols and perhaps even a common ideology of superior social status," said Stein.

Stein said the location's potential for further discoveries is so great the project is likely to last for decades.

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