Contrary to the assumption that ancient cities always grew outwards from a central point, the urban site of Tell Brak in north-eastern Syria appears to have emerged as several nearby settlements melded together, according to researchers’ analysis of archaeological evidence.
Experts say that the findings lend support to the theory that early Mesopotamian cities developed as a result of grassroots organisation, rather than a mandate from a central authority.
The new study provides important details about Tell Brak, helping to make it "the first early city of which we have a picture about how it formed," comments Geoff Emberling at the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago, Illinois, US, who was not involved in this study but has done archaeological work at Tell Brak.
Located in north-eastern Syria, Tell Brak lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and can therefore be considered as an ancient Mesopotamian site. It is thought to have been settled as early as 6000 BCE, according to Harvard University researcher Jason Ur.
Ur and his colleagues examined the distribution of ancient pottery pieces around Tell Brak to determine a timeline of urban development there. He says this is possible because certain ceramic styles appeared within a specific time period.
For example, pottery that contains sand and bits of fabric for structural reinforcement appeared sometime around 4200 to 3900 BCE. Around 3900 to 3400 BCE people switched to mixing in chaff – the inedible husks of wheat plants – for the same purpose, and created pots with grooves around the top, presumably to hold lids.
The archaeologists determined the presence of six discrete settlements dating back to between 4200 and 3900 BCE about 500 meters from the central site at Tell Brak. Ur says it is still unclear whether these six settlements represented offshoots from the central site, or migrants coming from faraway places to settle.
Either way, the site does not show a pattern suggesting that it spread gradually outwards in concentric circles from a central point, as one might expect, he notes.
Diverse political structures
Ceramic artifacts from the later period, 3900 to 3400 BCE, appear more closely distributed towards the central site, suggesting that the satellite settlements expanded inwards towards the middle.
By this later time period, some 15,000 people likely called Tell Brak home, according to Ur. Some experts put the number even higher. "It’s not just a sleepy village," says Emberling.
Ur believes his new findings contradict the impression given by early written texts that the earliest cities typically emerged under the strict control of kings who liked to keep their people as close as possible.
"Undoubtedly a good deal of early urban development was motivated by the state" and aristocratic rulers in particular, says the archaeologist Michael Shanks at Stanford University in California, US. But, he says, "one of the major things we’ve learned in archaeology over the past 50 years is that there’s no single pattern" when it comes to urban development.
Shanks adds that the different ways in which ancient cities developed point to a diversity in early political structures.
And, says Ur, some of these political structures may have been less autocratic than historians have previously assumed.