<-- 5000-4000 BC
--> 3200-3000 BC

Name for the period of Mesopotamia from roughly 4000 to 3200 BC, named for Uruk, the most important city in southern Mesopotamia at the time. Though relatively little has been found from the early Uruk, and explanations for any shifts are uncertain at best, there seems to have been no dramatic change from the previous Ubaid period, though there are suggestions of certain shifts in the patterns of settlement. Uruk itself, which begins the period covering an area of roughly 70 hectares, requiring a corn supply calculated to 6 kilometers radius, to over 100 hectars, with a corn supply of 16 kilometers in radius.

The Uruk period marks the most important cultural introductions in Mesopotamia, the beginning of monumental architecture, public art and political propaganda, the standardization of industrial production, and, most importantly, the beginning of writing. One of the most recognized cultural artifacts of Mesopotamian culture, the cylinder seal, first appears during this period; often, these seals depict men standing before kneeling prisoners or offering to deities, artistic representations which must be explained within a particular historical or political context.

The first writings found in the world were discovered in the Uruk period strata at the Temple Complex of Eanna, dedicated to the goddess Inanna (lated identified with Ishtar). In general, the development of writing during the period can be divided into three phases:

  • Stage I. Bulla with Tokens: Clay balls, bullae, are found, sometimes attached as seals to the lids of containers, enclosing small conical tokens. Often the outsides are covered in seal impressions, representing origin and ownership. Similar types of bullae were found in the late Ubaid period, though their use as accounting documents is doubtful.
  • Stage II. Bulla with Tokens and Impressed Numerals: These clay balls are now found with numerals impressed on the outer surface, sometimes roughly corresponding to the number of tokens contained within. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, in her famous work on the development of writing in the ancient Near East, Before Writing, asserts that these markers are somehow meant to be assurances of the container's content; that the encased tokens are meant to prove against forgery of the external markings. This is, to say the least, unproven, and based on rather wishful thinking. Often, the tokens and the marks neither correspond, nor match the contents of accompanying containers. Any purpose assigned to these, asside from a vague connection with accounting procedures, are conjectural.
  • Stage III. Tablets: This stage is divided into two separate trends:
    • IIIa. Rectangular tablets, impressed with simple numeric markings. Often, these are simple impressions, though we sometimes already recognize the ancestors of the later cuneiform signs for certain numerals.
    • IIIb. Tablets impressed with numeric markings and accompanied by pictographic signs representing the objects being counted. Over 2000 signs are already recognizable from the period, with a remarkable uniformity across various cities. The words for head (SAG), bread (NINDA), to eat (GU7), cow (ÁB), and plough (APIN) are already distinct, and can be read in rudimentary form, and, most importantly, identified as Sumerian.

These are also the earliest coherent texts found, administrative documents and accounts of commodities which can be read as a unified whole, expressing a continuous idea. There is no evidence yet that these texts were used for any purposes other than economic. Soon, however, these appear outside Uruk as well, with only slight variations, first at the nearby settlements at Jemdet Nasr and Tell Uqair. As the period progresses, these words begin to appear on cylinder seals and as labels on artistic representations; on the famous Warka Vase, depicting a temple offering or tribute to the goddess Inanna, a figure clearly differentiated from others on the vase by a cap and long skirt is labeled by a sign recognized as the later EN, the Sumerian word for a high priest. Nevertheless, the depiction of true narratives is still confined to figurative art.

Other technological and cultural advances occur in the Uruk period. Major developments take place in metallurgy, and though sickles and other agricultural implements are still formed from clay (most likely due to convenience of mass-production), smelted copper tools and weapons, cast by the lost wax method, are found in ever-increasing numbers. Ploughs appear for the first time alongside carts and sledges drawn by oxen, reflections of the ever-increasing need for efficiency and higher yields in agriculture. The limited availability of arable land and the problem of salinization from over-use lead to the practice of crop rotation.

Perhaps the most curious development is the creation of numerous trading settlements and colonies, developed as far as Susa in the east and Syria in the north. While the previous period saw a wide-spread distribution of the Ubaid pottery-type, the Ubaid culture was limited to a narrow strip of the southern Euphrates. Now, these colonies formed permanent outposts to ferry stone and wood, both unavailable in large quantities on the southern plain, traded for the red and grey burnished pottery produced in the south and brought back to Uruk to support massive building projects; texts from a later period mention the importance of foreign sources for both materials, and the wonder expressed in finding dense forests during foreign military campaigns. A colony in Syria provides the earliest evidence for city walls in the Near East, indicating the need for protection, the the historic record is too broken to provide further evidence for raids or campaigns.

By the end of the Uruk period, most of the the trading colonies had disappeared, and the great political and administrative power of Uruk had shifted to the city of Ur, at the beginning of the Jemdet Nasr period. Nevertheless, even centuries later, the great innovation begun here left its mark in literary, religious, and mythological texts. The earliest myth, about a local king and an evil magician, referring to Uruk as the City of Rainbows, and collected on 30 tablets written in Sumerian and dated to the late 3rd century BC, takes place here. The famous Gilgamesh is listed in the Sumerian King Lists as a ruler of Uruk, and was said to have built the city walls. Though Uruk never again rose to political prominence in southern Mesopotamia, it was continually occupied until the 3rd century, AD. Nevertheless, an increased centralization of authority in local city-states as well as developing complexity of administration necessary to feed, govern, and protect large populations are the hallmarks of this period, and the first indications of the later genius of Mesopotamian civilization.