Did Mesopotamians wear makeup

In the landscape between the Euphrates and Tigris in the south of today's Iraq, in which otherwise only desert stretches alternate with steppe zones and fields, are the tells (Arabic hills): artificial elevations made up of layers of ruins and adobe rubble. Developed over the course of five and a half millennia of changing settlements, they contain the remains of the oldest city complexes. Some tells rise up to 30 meters above the plain and can reach a diameter of more than one and a half kilometers.

For almost two centuries, archaeologists have been unraveling at least parts of this jigsaw puzzle of walls built inside and on top of each other and interpreting them on the basis of other found artifacts. At now famous excavation sites such as Babylon, Borsippa, Kisch, Nippur, Uruk and Ur, rich evidence of the material culture of the inhabitants of that time was found. Thanks to their cuneiform texts on clay tablets, a relatively permanent and practically imperishable material when burned, detailed information about the institutions of their political, economic, religious and social life has been preserved at the same time.

Nevertheless, our knowledge of the social structure and the structural organization of these oldest urban settlements is still poor for a variety of reasons. One of them is the wealth of finds, no matter how paradoxical this may seem. The sheer size of most of the tells alone does not allow even excavation teams with a generous budget to uncover more than tiny sections of every city down to the ground and to record all relics in the process. It is even more important, however, that the arrangement of the foundations, remains of walls and streets in general does not reflect any structure that would have existed at a certain time. As is still the case today, the former city dwellers had partly built over, partly changed or completely leveled out.

Archaeologists would be faced with a similar problem if they had to interpret what would remain of what is now London in a few millennia and if they could not orientate themselves on any descriptions, plans or illustrations: From the jumble of remains of modern skyscrapers, Victorian buildings, Norman castles and Reconstructing the city center of even a Roman fort as it looked during one epoch would be almost impossible.

It has long been known from social science studies that the layout of our contemporary cities also reflects our social order. According to our own investigations, the same can be deduced from early urban settlement patterns outside of Mesopotamia.

In social structures with pronounced central authority, the architectural centers of administration, religion, handicrafts and trade are crowded together, framed by properties belonging to the upper class of society. However, little or no signs of such spatial concentration can be seen in communities in which different groups share power and in which decisions are made at different levels of the social hierarchy. The close links between the ruling classes and the rest of the population in these decentralized cities are evident in the coexistence of rich and poor households in all neighborhoods.

Where in this spectrum are the first cities of mankind, the Mesopotamian ones, to be classified? So far, archaeologists have usually emphasized evidence of centralization. But a closer look at their argumentation as well as at the more recent finds from our excavation site Maschkan-schapir (official spelling Ma`´skan -`sapir) reveals that this view must be revised.

The early excavations in Mesopotamia focused primarily on temples and palaces as the seats of spiritual authority, power, and wealth, and then, from a similarly narrow perspective, reconstructed the structure of the society that built these structures. The monuments, which have been examined with preference because of their former size and which show the high status of certain groups, have distracted from the fact that the Mesopotamian written sources do not record clearly different social classes, but the importance of general assemblies for decisions about the entire community.

Another, more subtle one-sidedness of the view may also play a role. It is recognized by historians that industrialization and capitalism have changed the world so decisively that there are no modern counterparts for ancient cities. But instead of considering a wide range of possible urban forms of organization, some experts - perhaps prematurely - set up a unified model of the pre-industrial city par excellence, which is based on a few well-studied examples with a centralistic character. Her field of vision rarely went beyond ancient Greece and sometimes not even beyond medieval Europe (compare, however, "The city in antiquity" by Frank Kolb, Spectrum of Science, November 1987, page 62).

As a result, it was practically taken for granted that the former Mesopotamian cities were shaped by the same factors as the later communities in Europe. For example, it was assumed that there was a permanent agricultural base and that each plot of land had a fixed value. In reality, however, the economic basis in Mesopotamia was anything but stable in the literal sense, which can already be seen from the meaning of nomadic pastoralism. Even cultivated land was not permanent: Annual floods as well as high evaporation rates and correspondingly rapid soil salinization during irrigation resulted in a constantly shifting mosaic of productive fields and orchards on the one hand, desert-like stretches, fallow and marshland on the other. Under such conditions, power and wealth had little to do with generational property ownership.

Detailed descriptions of many pre-industrial urban civilizations, such as existed in West Africa and the Islamic Middle East, and in the New World up to the Spanish conquest, document considerable variability in the form of internal organization. They also suggest a connection between the persistence of arable land and the degree of social and political agglomeration of power. So there is no reason to assume from the outset that Mesopotamian cities were particularly centralized.

An eventful history

It made sense to examine the early urban organization of the region as an example at a location that had only been inhabited for a short period. Its ruins would provide a kind of snapshot of an urban complex and thus also provide certain information about how it had taken shape: through planning and pressure from priests and kings or through mutual agreement of different population groups.

So we were looking for a Mesopotamian settlement with urban dimensions that, unlike the previously archaeologically developed metropolises, was abandoned after a short time and - what is just as important - has remained relatively untouched since then. To do this, we looked at the information that other researchers had gathered about the overall distribution of old settlements in Iraq. Our choice fell on an as yet unnamed site, the Robert McC. Adams, who was then working at the University of Chicago, discovered it in the mid-1970s and only registered it under one number.

Our first visit there in January 1987 coincided with the beginning of Iran's "last offensive" in the war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988. At least we were able to explore the area for three weeks. It was almost littered with traces of settlement: on an area of ​​more than 800 meters in diameter, the remains of walls and graves, and even of old canals, were clearly visible. In between lay shards of pottery; most of them can be dated to the first quarter of the second millennium BC. As can be seen from the quantity and quality of the finds, the only modern visitors to this now desolate place (picture 1, photo) - Bedouins with their camels - left it largely undisturbed.

But which historical city was hidden behind this nameless place? We had to wait for an answer for two years preparing to return. Shortly after resuming our explorations, we happened upon a piece of cuneiform baked clay near the remains of a city gate. In quick succession we picked up 150 similar fragments and brushed them clean; put together they resulted in several identical memorial inscriptions for the erection of the city wall. Already on the third shard, three of the four characters to be combined could be clearly deciphered for the name of a city that - even if only for a short time - had been one of the most important in the world: Mashkan-schapir.

Historical sources record the place for the first time towards the end of the third millennium BC as a small shepherd's village on the edge of the Mesopotamian heartland (Fig. 2). Without the political entanglements of the early second millennium, it would have been completely insignificant. Shortly before 2000 BC, however, the Sumerian city of Ur fell, the center of a kingdom that had controlled the entire floodplain. In the following two centuries, various city-states vied for supremacy, especially Isin and Larsa. Although Larsa was probably the more powerful, Isin was able - thanks to a more favorable strategic location further up on the old course of the Euphrates - to cut off the import route for important raw materials such as wood, metal and stone from the northwest. In return, Larsa was preparing to take control of the eastern part of the river valley and secure access to the Tigris. As their northern outpost, Mashkan-schapir quickly assumed urban proportions and eventually became the kingdom's second metropolis.

The city initially retained its role even after the suppression of Isin, as the rise of Babylon under the leadership of its ruler Hammurabi, who was then also an important legislator (he held the throne from 1792 to 1750 BC), sparked a similar rivalry for control of trade routes. Soon, however, Hammurabi's conquests, through which he united most of southern Mesopotamia, made the strategic location of Mashkan-schapir irrelevant. The city was abandoned around 1720 BC and the water channels that served to supply it fell into disrepair. Mashkan-schapir sank into the desert.

There is an abundance of historical evidence as to how it should be imagined at the time of its brief flowering. As the second capital after Larsa, it had political importance and was the site of numerous diplomatic activities. It was also the gateway to the trade route up tigris and the seat of a main shrine to Nergal, god of death, one of the most powerful deities of the Mesopotamian pantheon. Since administration, religion and trade were the determining elements, as in other large Mesopotamian cities, the organizational structure of Mashkan-schapir, which we were concerned with, suggests that of other urban centers.


The possibilities for archaeological recording of the site turned out to be limited, on the one hand by the uncertain political situation in this region, on the other hand by the time-consuming acquisition of funds for extensive field studies. We first explored the terrain in 1987 and 1989 in two three-week campaigns. From January to May 1990 - thanks to support from the American National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Geographic Society and the American Schools of Oriental Research - we were able to carry out the first phase of the project: It included a systematic site visit and Careful aerial survey to identify and map the main features of the site, as well as modest excavations, particularly to determine the relationship between surface traces of settlement and remains in the ground; We also used satellite imagery to understand local geology.

Shortly after returning to the USA, the second Gulf War with the invasion of Kuwait put a temporary end to all archaeological work by foreign scientists in Iraq. We hope that one day we will be able to start excavations at places in the old city which, to our knowledge so far, promise most information about its internal organization.

Field research with kites and on foot

Mapping Mashkan-schapir turned out to be not easy, especially since the cultural debris hardly forms a hill of ruins in the traditional sense. The place has been so badly eroded by the wind that the youngest buildings have been removed to the ground and heavy, massive relics are exposed on the surface. Only in a few places does the find layer rise more than two meters above the surrounding plain.

That is why it is difficult to make out larger architectural connections from the ground. The course of the city wall can largely only be seen from the air and in places not even that. Accordingly, aerial photographs were essential for our work. Taking advantage of the often strong wind, we let a kite fly with a camera. Because its altitude fluctuated with the strength of the wind, the recorded section varied considerably; We tried to compensate for this to the best of our ability with many overlapping recordings.

The around 1,600 photos from the bird's eye view would have been of little use for the mapping, however, if we had not had a software program available that should make it easier for city planners and geographers to evaluate satellite images and create maps. As usual, we marked the corners of the 50 by 50 meter grid squares of our examination area with horizontal crosses so that the photos can be correctly aligned with one another and distortions that can occur when the camera is tilted can be compensated for. Digitized versions of the images were corrected, brought to a uniform scale and put together to form a mosaic that is detailed enough to determine the position of each individual tile on the surface.

During the additional site inspection, one member of our team walked strip by strip along a grid square and marked special features and objects with land surveyors' flags. The countless scattered remains of bricks, ceramic vessels, kilns, copper slag, false fires and bitumen (earth pitch) were only able to be noted on our map as a concentration and no longer individually - there were simply too many. According to the extrapolated sample counts, there are at least 30 million ceramic shards larger than a fingernail on the surface alone.

Graves, platforms made of burned and air-dried mud bricks as well as embankments of canals and traces of the city walls were also recorded (Fig. 3). We discovered more than 1200 particularly informative objects: tools, weapons and jewelry, parts of statues, statuettes, clay tablets, small models of chariots as well as intact vessels. Their different distribution testifies to the complex structure of this rather short-lived city.

For a larger geographical overview, we used a picture from 1988 that a French SPOT satellite had taken for remote sensing of the area around Maschkan-schapir (Fig. 2 right). It clearly shows a dry bed of the Tigris near the city, which explains why it was built more than 30 kilometers from what is today. In addition, the routes of some artificial waterways can be seen that ran through the city area from the old river.

A city of canals

On the basis of these findings a lot can be said about life in Mashkan-schapir. Like all Mesopotamian cities of its time, it was surrounded by a wall of unfired adobe bricks with several gates. We located a total of three: two for road traffic were located near the main canals; Probably then, as now, roads accompanied the waterways that were important for the transport of people and goods. The side pillars of the third gate were on both sides of a canal. Perhaps it was used to regulate the flow or the boat traffic.

Surprisingly, the city wall did not adjoin the area of ​​dense development everywhere. In particular, there was an almost empty area in the southeast with only six individual buildings that had apparently been storage facilities. Many Mesopotamian texts indicate that the exchange of goods took place near the city gates, and therefore this open space behind one of the street gates could have served as a kind of marketplace.

Another apparently undeveloped area, located near a canal, was possibly a garden area.That there was such a thing within the enclosure of Mesopotamian cities is attested by a map of Nippur that was carved into a clay tablet a few centuries later: it shows a large plantation in a corner of this former religious center.

Maschkan-schapir was divided into five districts separated by canals (Fig. 3). The two largest districts, those to the north and east, were themselves again subdivided by narrow canals. Broad inland ports at two connecting points of the waterways must have been centers of trade.

Dense peripheral development turned the canals into integral structures of the urban fabric. Mashkan-schapir is not the only Mesopotamian city laid out in this way, even if in others the expansion of the canals under massive debris deposits is no longer clearly visible. Roads, also hidden under rubble elsewhere, are barely visible in Mashkan-schapir. As I said, some follow the course of the canals, others cross the city districts. At the intersection of such a road with a canal, we found bridge foundations made of burnt bricks (but perhaps it is also the remains of two quays). According to excavations in other Mesopotamian cities, a network of alleys leading to the individual houses must have branched off the main streets.

The aerial photographs revealed two further delimitations: a wall ran straight through the southern half of the central district, another along that of the western area. Both are reminiscent of the inner wall of Ur, which bounded the sacred area around the main temples of the city.

Where in this structure of streets, canals and walls were the political, religious, economic and social activities of Mashkan-schapir to be located? We can read it from the ruins.

The main temple dedicated to the god of death Nergal must have been the eye-catcher. Built on a platform or a stepped tower (a ziggurat), it was likely to be seen for miles and - similar to a medieval cathedral - represented a symbol of power. The remains of such platforms made of burned and air-dried adobe bricks, on which the most important sanctuaries were apparently built , are located in the southern part of the city. The 70 found fragments of life-size terracotta statues of people, lions, dogs and horses attest to the religious character of these terraces. While lion figures often adorned the entrances of smaller Mesopotamian temples of this time, sculptures of more complex human and animal figures have only been found in larger cities like Isin.

An area with a religious orientation was connected in the central district on the other side of the canal. It contains the only platform so far outside of the southern quarter and also traces of numerous burial sites along with an accumulation of grave goods such as jewelry and weapons. The inner wall that crosses the central district separates it from the rest of the settlement. Since most of the graves in other Mesopotamian cities are located in the middle of residential areas (as are many in Mashkan-schapir), this is likely to have been a separate cemetery with an attached temple for a special population group - perhaps those who are the religious or administrative center was connected.

Also unusual is the aforementioned divided area in the western district with very regulated buildings, because the private houses, built at the discretion of the residents, were built rather arbitrarily. In our opinion, there was an administrative center here. The complex is clearly not a palace complex like the one from the same period in Mari (whose extensive tracts arranged around courtyards were looted under Hammurabi), but it could also have fulfilled some administrative functions. Like the palaces elsewhere, it was on the outskirts of the city. We also unearthed numerous revealing seals in their remains in 1990. With these chunks of moist, air-hardening clay, which bear the imprint of a stamp or cylinder seal cut out of stone, cords were sealed, the doors locked, or the material with which storage vessels were closed. Such security measures would not be needed in a household.

To our surprise, this walled area also contained an accumulation of miniature chariots with depictions of the main deities of the city: besides those of Nergal, those of Shamash, the sun god. The function of this little two-wheeled vehicle is difficult to understand; Their predominant occurrence in an official area, however, rules out that they were toys. One possible interpretation is that they stood for the presence of the gods in formal legal acts such as taking oaths.

A community without a concentration of power

Our investigations have not uncovered any other area in Maschkan-schapir that stands out due to its special architecture. In all other places, the found objects and findings can be assigned to the domestic area: statuettes, small tools and weapons, everyday jewelry (such as shell rings) and the remains of houses and burials.

The main streets and canals divided the large urban area, but residents of all classes probably lived next to each other in the individual districts. The fairly even distribution of metal objects and stone bowls, which were laboriously manufactured from imported material, or of cylinder seals as a hallmark of an office and of great value in themselves (Fig. 4 a) speaks against the fact that there were residential areas that were reserved for the upper class.

The same applies to the workshops. Obviously for practical reasons there were furnaces for melting copper and for burning pottery mainly in the south-east, so that the prevailing wind mostly blew smoke out of the city. However, artisans seem to have generally done their work in buildings in the midst of residential buildings, so that we cannot describe any part of the city as a downright commercial district. The coppersmiths, easily recognizable by the accumulation of slag, were for example along the main street in the central district, while most of the decorative stones and the grindstones used can be found in the southeast. Pottery, on the other hand, was mainly produced in the northern and eastern districts, as can be seen from the remains of pottery kilns and false fires; the production facilities crowded around the smaller branch channels that branched off there. In the arrangement of the craft businesses in the urban area, the same predominantly decentralized picture emerges as in the spatial distribution of the buildings and found objects.

Thus, our findings about Mashkan-schapir do not support the model of highly centralized Mesopotamian cities with a corresponding social order. Religious and administrative buildings each concentrated in one area, but they were located in the southern and western districts and thus separated from each other and from the rest by main canals. Moreover, these potential centers of power were also located away from the places where - as at the ports and the well-known city gates - trade was carried out; and the production of goods seems to have been in the hands of artisans who lived within larger residential areas on an equal footing with members of the upper class and the common people.

The entire functional organization of Mashkan-schapir suggests that the Mesopotamian written sources did not deceive us about the broad involvement of the townspeople in the shaping of their inner-local power relations. This conclusion in turn allows plausible assumptions about older social structures: If citizens lived in a system without extreme local power-centering during the ancient Babylonian epoch, the heyday of Mashkan-schapir, it is highly unlikely that authority over the community would previously be in the hands of one small upper class is said to have been. Therefore, the motivation to seek the origins of civilization in the constant pursuit of conquest and domination is anything but convincing.


- Early settlements in the Old and New World. By Helmut Müller-Karpe. Yearbook of the Roman-Germanic Central Museum Mainz, 36th year, volume 1, 1989, pages 1 to 64.

- Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. By Michael Roaf. Facts on File, 1990.

- The Tell Abu Duwari Project, Iraq, 1987. By Elizabeth C. Stone in: Journal of Field Archeology, Volume 17, Issue 2, pages 141 to 162, summer 1990.

- Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. By J. Nicholas Postgate, Routledge, 1992.

- The Tell Abu Duwari Project, 1988-1990. By Elizabeth C. Stone and Paul Zimansky in: Journal of Field Archeology, Volume 21, Issue 4, pages 437 to 455, Winter 1994.

From: Spektrum der Wissenschaft 7/1995, page 80
© Spektrum der Wissenschaft Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

This article is contained in Spectrum of Science 7/1995