Friday, February 1, 2013

Uruk – 5000 Years of the Megacity

Exactly one hundred years ago, finds from an excavation in the south of present-day Iraq sent shockwaves around the academic world as archaeologists working at the site of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, (modern day Warka in Iraq), brought to light the first known urban culture.

Uruk the first city of Sumer

For thousands of years, southern Mesopotamia was home to hunters, fishers and farmers exploiting the fertile soil and abundant wildlife, but by 3200 B.C., the largest settlement in southern Mesopotamia, if not the world, was Uruk: a true city dominated by monumental buildings of mudbrick  decorated with painted clay cones embedded in the walls.

Large-scale sculpture appears here for the first time, together with metal casting using the lost-wax process. Pictographs were marked on clay tablets to record the management of goods and the allocation of workers’ rations. These pictographs are the earliest formal writings, and are the precursors of later cuneiform writing. Until around 3000 B.C., objects inspired by Mesopotamia were found in central Iran to the Egyptian Nile Delta however, this culture underwent a collapse and became introspective for the next few centuries.

City of legend

Yet even after this Uruk expanded and during the following Early Dynastic period (2900–2350 B.C.), when city-states dominated Mesopotamia, the city rulers gradually grew in importance and expressed power through consumption of luxury goods from across the ancient world, acquired either by trade or conquest. Uruk was surrounded by a massive wall, which according to tradition was built on the orders of Gilgamesh. Although he may have been an actual king of Uruk around 2700 B.C., Gilgamesh becomes the legendary hero of later stories including the famous Epic.

Although Uruk had been one of the prominent cities of Early Dynastic Sumer, it was ultimately annexed into the Akkadian Empire and went into decline, partly due to agricultural failures as well as the north taking pre-eminence.  Later, in the Neo-Sumerian period, Uruk enjoyed revival as a major economic and cultural centre under the sovereignty of Ur. Several buildings were restored as part of an ambitious programme, which included a new temple for Inanna.

Following the collapse of Ur (2000 BC), Uruk went into a steep decline until about 850 BC when the Neo-Assyrian Empire annexed it as a provincial capital. Uruk, now known as Orchoë to the Greeks, continued to thrive under the Seleucid Empire (312 BC–63 BC), but with a shift in the Euphrates River by 300 AD, the city was mostly abandoned and by c 700 AD it was completely deserted.

The excavations

After the German Oriental Society was granted the necessary license from the Ottoman Empire, teams commenced excavation work in Uruk in November 1912. The turbulent political situation and ensuing military conflict soon put a stop to their endeavour, setting a trend that has continued to affect work at the site to this day. More than forty excavation campaigns have taken place so far in all. Even though less than five percent of the huge area that once made up the city has been explored, the current findings provide us with a wealth of details on the ancient Near-Eastern city.

It was customary at the time to divide up finds from a single site and remove them from the country of their origin. This led to scores of finds making their way to Germany, where they were not only preserved at the Museum of the Ancient Near East in the Pergamonmuseum, but also at the DAI’s Uruk-Warka’s Collection, which is housed at the University of Heidelberg.

Thanks to the unique cooperation of the four institutions involved in today’s project, objects from long-separated collections will now go on display to the public under one roof for the first time. These artefacts will be joined by numerous valuable loans from major European museums such as the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London and the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford, as well as by newly created digital reconstructions of both the ancient city’s layout and several of its key monuments.

Major new exhibition

To mark the 100th anniversary of the ongoing excavation project at the ancient city, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum has joined forces with the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim to present the major exhibition ‘URUK – 5000 Years of the Megacity’. The exhibition is the result of the two museums’ close collaboration with the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) and the German Oriental Society. This spectacular exhibition shines a spotlight on the genesis and flourishing of the first known city in the history of humankind some 5000 years ago, and its special importance for the ancient Near East as a whole. ‘URUK – 5000 Years of the Megacity’ will be on show from 25 April to 8 September 2013, at the Pergamonmuseum and from 20 October 2013 to 21 April 2014 at the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim.

The exhibition at Berlin

The first stage of the show will be presented in a part of the Vorderasiatisches Museum’s permanent exhibition in the south wing of the Pergamonmuseum. Since its opening in 1930, the Pergamonmuseum has been home to breath-taking reconstructions of the more than 5000 year-old clay cone mosaics that characterized the large architectural monuments that arose as a consequence of the burgeoning urban culture. As part of the major exhibition ‘URUK – 5000 Years of the Megacity’, these earliest examples of urban architecture will be presented along with newly produced virtual reconstructions.

Past Horizons. 2013. “Uruk – 5000 Years of the Megacity”. Past Horizons. Posted: January 8, 2013. Available online:

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