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<-- until 5000 BC
--> 4000-3200 BC

The name given to the period of southern Mesopotamian culture from roughly 5000-4000 BC (though these dates are disputed), named for the site of the discovery of its characteristic pottery-type, Tell al Ubaid, excavated by Sir C. Leonard Wooley in the early part of the 20th century. Overlapping with the earlier Halaf period, the Ubaid represents the first stage of civilization in a progression from the earlier hunting and fishing societies to an agricultural institution on the southern plains.

Starting around 5000 BC, archaeological evidence points to a gradual increase in fixed settlements shifting from the Iraqi foothills to arable plains along the banks of the Euphrates. In this period, called Phase I, most houses are still simple, one-room structures of mud brick, with a heavy concentration on hunting and fishing implements. It has been suggested that this lifestyle compares to that of the Madan, the so-called Marsh Arabs, today. In Phase I we already find the pottery that would become characteristic of the period, made from a light clay decorated in geometric and abstract designs in dark paint, as well as an increasing specialization of labor. Phase II is marked by the introduction of the Hajji Muhammad pottery type, in which most of the surface is painted, the designed marked in reverse.

By Phase III and IV, a simple tripartite housing design becomes common, in which a central atrium is flanked by two rows of rooms. These are often haphazardly clustered in villages, and were most likely designed to house an extended famiily of about 20 people; the average size is roughly 200 square meters. As evidenced by the famous Temple of Ur-Nammu at Eridu, buildings, clearly temple, have by this period developed from simple one-room structures to multi-room buildings with niches and buttresses, as well as the offering tables and altars which would later become standard features of Mesopotamian religious centers.

Another remarkable feature is the evidence for the degree of trade taking place during this period. While the culture is limited to southern Mesopotamia, from Ur and Eridu in the south up to Tell Madhhur, 400 km to the north, with the earliest sites in Sumer, near Ur and Nineveh. The pottery, however, has been discovered throughout Mesopotamia, as far as northern Syria and modern-day Saudi Arabia. While this shouldn't be taken as evidence of an early administrative centralization (indeed, the diversification of a localized economy suggests a trend towards self-sufficiency), certainly complex trade networks were being formed.

The changes occurring in this period, building a flourishing agricultural civilization, form the basis of the revolutionary developments of the 3rd millennium, but form a drastic change from the previous Halaf age. Attempts at explaining this sudden change, as well as the origins of the later periods, have inevitably focused on the ethnic identity of the Ubaid peoples, generally known as the Sumerian Problem. Many archaeologists have tried to argue for a cultural invasion from the east rather than a cultural development from native inhabitants, perhaps even a Semitic migration, but with few convincing results. Because there is no written evidence, and a marshy alluvium has covered much of the territory once covered by the Ubaid culture, it is unlikely that there will ever be enough evidence to draw a definite conclusion.

The end of the Ubaid is marked by a gradual replacement by a gray and red burnished pottery, and an increase in the cultural institutions that would become the hallmark of the Uruk period.

  • Postgate, J.N. Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History. (New York 1992)
  • Roaf, Michael. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia. (New York, 1966).