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Date: Sun, 7 Feb 2010 23:22:22 -0500
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Subject: The Dawn of Civilization: Writing, Urban Life, and Warfare

The Dawn of Civilization: Writing, Urban Life, and Warfare
An extraordinary ancient Syrian settlement shines a
light on one of the most important moments in human
history.
by Andrew Lawler
Discover Magazine
From the December 2009 issue
published online February 3, 2010
http://discovermagazine.com/2009/dec/03-dawn-of-civilization-writing-urban-life-warfare

Joan Oates's sharp blue eyes spotted something that was
not right. Standing on the windy summit of a vast,
human-made mound in northeastern Syria, the wiry 81-
year-old archaeologist noticed an ugly scar that had
been left by a backhoe on one of the smaller mounds
ringing the ancient city of Nagar, where she has
excavated for a quarter century. Oates had just arrived
to begin her latest season at the site, and this blemish
on her cherished landscape annoyed her. Two young men on
her team volunteered to investigate the damage. They
returned, shaken. Jumping into the trench, one of them
had come face-to-face with a skull. "Everywhere we
looked, there were human bones," one recalls. "There
were an enormous number of dead people."

More than 100, it turned out, and their remains had
rested there undisturbed for nearly six millennia. What
Oates's team found that hot autumn day in 2006 were the
remnants of a ferocious battle or a brutal mass murder
on a scale unprecedented for such an early date. And the
inadvertent discovery lay within sight of what is
currently our best and oldest evidence of early urban
life. Digging just a few hundred yards away on the main
mound of what today is called Tell Brak, the
archaeologists recently uncovered large buildings and
extensive workshops from the same period-around 3800
B.C.-as well as imported material and fancy tableware.

The dual finds make Brak a unique window into the time
when humans first began to live in cities, trade over
long distances, and, apparently, organize warfare on a
mass scale. The conventional wisdom holds that urban
living began nearly 1,000 years later and nearly 1,000
miles to the southeast in the so-called cradle of
civilization once known as Sumer, located in today's
Iraq. When civilization arrived in this northern edge of
the Mesopotamian plain, the story goes, it was bestowed
by the Sumerians from fabled cities like Ur, Uruk,
Eridu. But this hulking mound in a remote corner of
Syria (tell means "hill") offers a radical new view of
just how, where, and why our globalized lifestyle may
have gotten its start.

Like hundreds of other mounds in this region, Brak was
built up over millennia as homeowners knocked down their
decaying mud-brick houses and erected new structures on
top of the remains. This tell towers over all others in
the region, rising about 130 feet above the plain. The
site contains a mini-mountain range of eroded hills and
valleys covering more than 120 acres, surrounded by a
sprawl of smaller mounds circling the central core like
satellites. People lived here for at least 3,000 years,
and probably much longer. Brak was abandoned around 1200
B.C. during the chaotic time when the Hittite empire
collapsed and the Bronze Age ended.

The Sumerians seem benevolent in many of the images that
they left behind, which depict feathered skirts, round
faces, and shaved heads. Some artifacts had hinted at
violence, but the new evidence from Brak shows that
conflict at the time of urbanization was at times
appallingly brutal. When forensic scientists pieced
together what took place during that bloody event, it
was gruesome by any standard. The corpses of the losers
in the conflict were left for weeks to rot in the sun,
then dragged and shoved into shallow pits. The winners
carved pointed sticks out of some of their enemies'
bones, slaughtered prize cows, feasted on roast beef,
and tossed the scraps and plates on top of the decaying
bodies.

"There was a big party of people feasting," says Oates
matter-of-factly, passing cookies around the table
during afternoon tea in Brak's cramped mud-brick dining
hall.

At first glance, Oates seems an unlikely figure to
revolutionize our understanding of the ancient world.
She spent most of her middle years raising three
children while assisting her husband, David, who
directed excavations in Iraq and Syria for several
decades. A self-described "dutiful wife," Oates says she
was left to draw potsherds-"the boring stuff." These
bits of broken pottery are both the bane and the
backbone of Middle Eastern archaeology, providing
crucial data on how, when, and who lived in a particular
place. They are also as ubiquitous as sand on a beach.
As I approach the campsite at Brak, nestled in a small
hollow within the massive hill, my taxi's tires crunch
with the sound of ancient pot pieces being pulverized.

Oates quickly emerged as an expert not only in
identifying the many varieties of potsherds but also in
interpreting them with remarkable precision. "When it
comes to a mastery of pottery, there is no equal to Joan
in Syria," says New York University archaeologist Rita
Wright. "She's a very powerful and informed
archaeologist with enormous experience."

And as a Western woman excavating in Iraq during the
1950s, the woman then named Joan Lines was a pioneer. At
the ancient Assyrian capital of Nimrud, she dug under
the direction of Max Mallowan, the British archaeologist
married to mystery writer Agatha Christie. Christie, who
spent much of her time writing in the quiet of the Iraq
countryside, took the young Joan under her wing, and the
two would troll the souks for bargains, practicing their
Arabic. At Nimrud, Joan also met David Oates. "The most
important things in my life have all seemed to be just a
series of coincidences," she says in a rare private
reflection. "Falling on my feet, as it were."

That is a vital quality in the complicated and sometimes
dangerous world of Middle Eastern archaeology. When the
Baath Party of Saddam Hussein took over in Iraq in 1968,
"heads and bodies were displayed in the square near our
home, and we had to make detours so the children
wouldn't see them," Oates recalls. The family moved the
next year from Baghdad to London so David could take a
professorship at an archaeology institute. In the
mid-1970s, David decided that he wanted to tackle Brak,
which lay just across the Iraqi border in Syria but was
nevertheless part of Mesopotamia-the storied lands
around and between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The
dramatic site of Brak had been briefly excavated by
Mallowan in the 1930s, but Christie found it not to her
liking, since rainfall was too sparse for the flowers
she loved to grow; they split their time with another
ancient mound farther north with a slightly wetter
climate.

Brak was in the archaeological boondocks. Virtually all
the action during previous decades had focused on
southern Iraq, in the low-lying alluvial plain that
merges with the Persian Gulf. Work there had uncovered
enormous ancient cities dating back to 3000 B.C. and
even earlier. Mallowan worked at Ur, the legendary
birthplace of Abraham, where he met Christie and helped
his mentor Leonard Woolley excavate royal tombs dating
to 2500 B.C. German archaeologists found the fabled
metropolis of Uruk, celebrated as the place where
writing originated and where the famous King Gilgamesh
reigned; Uruk appears to have been a bustling metropolis
by 3500 B.C. Nearby were the ruins of Eridu, viewed by
the Sumerians themselves as the world's oldest city.
These ruins yielded evidence of a small building,
possibly a temple, dating to 5500 B.C.

The silt laid down by thousands of years of floods
coupled with the frequent rebuilding of these sites in
ancient times made it difficult to penetrate down to
their origins. So we know precious little about how
Sumerian cities began to evolve. By contrast, much if
not all of Brak sits above the floodplain. That makes
its earlier levels more accessible, theoretically. In
the course of his dig here, Mallowan had uncovered a
mysterious building he called the Eye Temple, for its
thousands of unique votive objects with flat,
trapezoidal bodies and thick necks topped with pairs of
huge eyes. He also found evidence of richly decorated
copper and gold work as well as small clay cones painted
on their ends to adorn walls. This was a style popular
in distant Uruk in the centuries after 3500 B.C., so
Mallowan assumed the edifice was a southern concoction.
He did not suspect that under his feet was evidence of
an urban society independent of ancient Sumer, and at
least as old.

Arriving at Brak in 1976, Joan Oates wanted to explore
the period before 3500 B.C. to see if settlement there
predated the influx of southern influence. But her
husband vetoed the plan as too risky. A huge mound like
Brak is no simple wedding cake, with early layers below
and later layers above; rather, it is a mind-bogglingly
complicated mass of jumbled history. Wind and rain have
had their way with the site in the 3,000 years since it
was completely abandoned. Broken pottery bits have
drifted down slopes, mixing with earlier potsherds.
Foundations have vanished in sudden flash floods. A
stone throne sits overturned in a deep gully, far from
where its royal occupant once sat. Try to reach an early
layer, David Oates knew, and you might find yourself
exhausting both your time and money before you hit pay
dirt.

And money has been a perpetual source of anxiety at
Brak. The British School of Archaeology in Iraq and,
later, the McDonald Institute at Cambridge University
have supported the dig, but the Oates team has had to be
frugal. Team members live in canvas tents during the
spring and fall seasons-stifling on the frequent hot
days, and uncomfortable at night when temperatures can
plunge to near freezing. Only this year did electricity
arrive.

So Joan patiently bided her time as she and her husband
excavated the rich upper layers of the high mound. Then
one day in 1981, her son spotted signs of a thick-walled
building just below the surface on the northeast end of
Brak, and her husband began to dig along what proved to
be a fortification from the second millennium B.C. But
in one corner of the excavation, Joan discovered bits of
pottery dating back a thousand years farther. "I said,
`This is where we can get at the fourth millennium
B.C.,'" she recalls. This time her husband agreed.

It took a decade of arduous work on a steep section of
the hillside to carve back through the centuries. Even
the 2004 death of her husband did not halt Oates's
efforts. One morning, as if we are setting out for a
stroll through the English countryside, she takes me on
a walk across the mound to the massive wedge-shaped hole
she and a generation of archaeologists and local workers
have carefully made, its back wall soaring more than 30
feet. A slight woman in an off-white windbreaker, Oates
pauses in the trench and peers around. She looks
annoyed. "You are seeing here only a fraction of what's
going on, a little window on the economy of the past,"
she says. "It's terribly frustrating." But even that
small fraction that she and her team-made up largely of
Syrian, American, and British excavators-have found is
nothing short of revolutionary.

One of the most dramatic discoveries at Tell Brak is a
large building with massive redbrick walls and ovens
nearly 10 feet across. The types of pottery found, along
with radiocarbon analysis of ash deposits, date the
building to about 3800 B.C. By contrast, few large
structures have been found from a time before 3500 B.C.
in southern Iraq. Scattered across the building's floor
was a varied collection of objects, from large piles of
raw flint and obsidian from Turkey to finished blades.
All about lay an array of beautiful stones collected and
stored for making beads: jasper, marble, serpentine,
diorite. The site also contained a large chunk of
bitumen, a valuable tarlike substance used to bind stone
or wood, which had to have been imported from eastern
Iraq or Turkey. Mother-of-pearl inlays lay cut and ready
to be placed in jewelry. The remains of sheep and goats
abounded, as did spindle whorls, probably used to make
yarn, and simple looms-all clear signs of weaving
activity.

Among the most notable artifacts unearthed was a lavish,
black-and-white chalice, its cup made of obsidian and
its base of white marble, the two held together with
bitumen. The rim of the cup showed evidence that it had
been overlaid with a valuable metal such as gold, long
since removed. Whoever owned the chalice clearly held
great power. Nearby was a piece of clay bearing a large
impression of a beautifully carved striding lion, a
symbol of royalty even today. Amid a pile of mass-
produced bowls were potsherds with marks similar to the
pictographs that show up more than half a millennium
later in the first writing system, cuneiform. Those
marks may be the earliest evidence of writing anywhere
in the world. "The development of symbols may have a
long history in southern Mesopotamia too," Oates says.
"But we just don't have the evidence there."

     Tell Brak was a place of impressive wealth and
     sophistication, an important trading center and a
     major player in the early game of civilization.

Beneath the redbrick building, Oates and her team found
a more modest one dating to about 4000 B.C. This earlier
structure was a center of craft production on a large
scale and was also a busy site of communal cooking,
judging from its huge ovens set next to plastered basins
and bins. Just outside ran a street paved with pottery
shards, headed for what Oates believes was a north gate
facing the resource-rich mountains of Turkey.

Next door, Oates uncovered a large edifice with a
massive basalt threshold and thick walls, entered by
passing through two small rooms, perhaps guardhouses.
She believes this is the oldest administrative center
yet known. Nearby, the excavators found bits of clay
stamped with lion and snake motifs, seals that signified
ownership of property, and a statuette with large eyes.
At the Eye Temple, the site of an earlier dig on the
southern side of the mound, Oates found signs that the
earliest structure here dates back to about 3800 B.C.
And nearby, in another trench, her team found traces of
a brick platform and a wall built 1,000 years before
that.

These excavations prove that Tell Brak was a place of
impressive wealth and sophistication, an important
trading center and a major (and previously
unappreciated) player in the early game of civilization.
It even had suburbs. Oates invited a team of American
archaeologists to examine the area beyond the high
mound, which covers only about one-fifth of the site's
nearly 750 acres. The remainder lies within the halo of
smaller mounds circling the site. By methodically
sampling the area inside and outside this halo-a
laborious task of mapping, examining pottery, and
digging small test pits-the researchers concluded that
Brak covered 320 acres in the period between 3900 and
3400 B.C. Some 20,000 people may have lived within the
city limits, and dozens of smaller sites lay within a
10-mile radius. And this large population-only Uruk in
southern Mesopotamia is thought to have been as large in
this era-was supported without any irrigation.

So is Brak the world's earliest well-documented city?
There is no accepted definition of what constitutes a
city, Oates points out. But the size and elaborate
nature of the site certainly put it on or near a par
with its southern rivals. "I would never say Brak is
larger than Uruk," she says. "But there is clearly a
complex society developing in the north that is
independent of the south." Jason Ur, a Harvard
archaeologist who participated in the suburban survey,
adds that all the evidence "surely qualifies Brak as
urban, if that term is to have any meaning."

Ur (coincidentally sharing the name of the famed
southern Mesopotamian city) was the first to jump into
the trench made by that backhoe in 2006 at the small
mound just north of Brak's central hill. But it was left
to Arkadiusz Soltysiak, a Polish bioarchaeologist, to
sort through the human bones. He found no infants and
few elderly and determined that some of the victims had
suffered traumatic injuries, as might come from a blow
by club or mace, that had already healed before they
were killed. The incomplete, scattered skeletons made it
hard for him to establish the gender of the victims, but
surviving teeth hinted at a population of adolescents
and young adults. Some of them also appear to have
suffered from malnutrition.

Soltysiak leans toward the theory that this event at
what locals call Tell Majnuna was a massacre, noting
that some of the bones are from people not of warrior
age. If so, it could have been an inside job. Others
think the dead might have been locals who rebelled or
otherwise offended the city's elite, were put to death,
and then were denied decent burial. But Augusta McMahon,
who is the Brak dig's field director, argues that the
scene more closely resembles an attack. "The age
profile, the piles of bodies, and the rubbish context
says battlefield cleanup," she tells me as we trudge
through green wheat fields from the high mound to
Majnuna. "And the corpse abuse-the way they were
haphazardly piled up, the way femurs were made into
tools-says the victims were enemies of whoever buried
them." One possible scenario, she says, is that Brak's
enemies attacked from the outside and managed to kill
some civilians in the melee before being routed.

In either case, nabbing food or finished goods may have
been a motive for the bloodshed. (Two years ago, grain
shortages during a drought led to riots in this part of
modern-day Syria.) Brak's obvious concentration of
wealth would pose a temptation to outsiders.

Soltysiak and McMahon agree on what happened next. The
victors or perpetrators left their victims on the field
for weeks or even months. The rotting corpses were
eventually hauled to the shallow depression at Majnuna
and unceremoniously dumped. The total body count is
clearly in the hundreds, though for now excavations
there have ceased. About 10 yards from the mass grave,
the team found another cache of bones that are probably
the result of the same incident: mostly skulls and
femurs, stacked in relatively neat piles. Two dozen of
the femurs were whittled at one end to a point, perhaps
to dig around in the skulls of the dead, but for what
purpose is unknown. Soltysiak recalls being startled to
discover the human bones that had been made into tools
here.

Then came a massive feast. Mixed on top of the death pit
were the bones of cows, sheep, and goats along with
broken plates. "The animals were cut in about the same
place on a large scale, in an industrialized way," says
Jill Weber, the team's zooarchaeologist. "Not
necessarily by the same person, but in the same way." In
her mud-brick laboratory on the mound, she pulls out
massive scarred cow bones. Such wholesale slaughter
would have been unusual, she says, particularly the
slaughter of cows, which were typically considered too
valuable to kill because of milk production and plowing.
"No expense was spared," Weber says. "This was an
important event."

And it was just the start of a series of violent acts
that shook ancient Brak. Back at Majnuna, McMahon points
out another mass grave, dating to a century or so later,
adjacent to the first pit. One clump of bones looks as
if it had been piled into a bag that decayed. Just a few
yards away is another mass of human bones, dating to
about 3600 B.C. The victims in both slaughters appear to
be young, the skeletons are jumbled, and there are no
grave goods, which would have been typical in a formal
burial.

Along with the bones are all manner of refuse, such as
broken pottery and flint tools. Majnuna seems to have
been one of Brak's main dumps. One possibility is that
the waves of enemies who threatened the city-whether
rebellious locals or foreign raiders-were treated like
garbage. As we step off the mound, the man who owns the
area containing the mass graves pulls up in his new GM
pickup. "Come for breakfast!" he insists with typical
Arab hospitality. As we walk down the dusty road to his
home, he pulls a gun from his holster to admire it.

Violence at the dawn of civilization was not unique to
Brak. An hour's drive to the east is Hamoukar, which was
a thriving settlement during the early and mid-fourth
millennium B.C., around the time that Brak arose.
Echoing the sophistication of its neighbor, Hamoukar had
well-planned houses with courtyards, large ovens, seal
impressions in the form of lions killing deer (a style
seen at Brak as well). Recently a joint Syrian and
American team found evidence of a battle around 3500
B.C. in which Hamoukar buildings were destroyed.

This attack may have been more than an incursion by
marauders looking for food or goods. At that time, the
southern city of Uruk began to expand its influence, and
Uruk-style pottery appears throughout the Middle East.
Possibly those southerners ran into opposition from the
formidable northern settlements of Hamoukar and Brak,
whose inhabitants may have resented the growing power of
Uruk and its allies. Brak and Hamoukar were burned
around the same time, but "evidence of both northern and
southern material suggests a peaceful coexistence
afterward," Oates says. "The `destroyers' could well
have come from Anatolia or anywhere else." By 3400 B.C.,
pottery typical of Uruk predominated, and Brak's Eye
Temple had been renovated in a southern Mesopotamian
style. When Brak appears in the historical record in the
third millennium, it is as the important city of Nagar.
Overwhelmed by superior technology, better military
organization, or a persuasive new ideology, the
pioneering civilization at Brak and its environs became
an adjunct of the south, which went on to create even
grander city-states, bureaucracies, and empires.

Violence and cultural sophistication may in fact have
gone hand in hand in creating the first urban societies.
"Tell Brak is not just another archaeological site but a
place where new aspects of humanity emerged, and our
work has the potential to explain them," Ur says.
Finding answers in Iraq may not be possible for a very
long time, given the political troubles there. This
gives the exploratory digs in Syria a special urgency.

Brak's independent advances in the north came to an
abrupt end, but perhaps not a dead end. Maybe the
interaction between the two competing visions, whether
through trade or warfare (or both), helped spur the
innovations that changed our world. "Civilization
spreads like a virus. It happens in clusters and not in
isolation," says Guillermo Algaze, an archaeologist at
the University of California at San Diego. In the past
decade, excavators have begun to find evidence to
support this idea around the globe. A thousand years
after Brak lost its independence, an astonishing array
of urban sites sprang up across the Iranian plateau,
central Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula. In the
following 1,000 years, a host of interacting cultures
contributed to what emerged as Chinese civilization.

In exposing one of the world's earliest experiments in
urban living, Oates and her team are illuminating both
the creative and violent tendencies of humanity and
painting a much richer picture of how our species left
the country for life in the city, a process that is
still in full swing today. "In textbooks you learn that
civilization starts with Sumer, and everything else is
peripheral," says Algaze, who was once an outspoken
advocate of the dominance of the south. "But Brak shows
a picture more complex than that. It has forced us to
think differently."

Eyes peeled, Oates continues her push to dig even deeper
into Brak's past. "She's brilliant-and she's changed the
field," Algaze says. "And she'll get to those earlier
levels." Unlike her old friend Agatha Christie, Oates is
after bigger game than a single murderer. In the
ultimate whodunit of civilization, the ancient people of
Tell Brak were, at the very least, important
accomplices.

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