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Urbanization at Tell Brak, Syria Volume 61 Number 1, January/February 2008
by Heather Pringle

Tell Brak • Syria



Pottery sherds from Syria's Tell Brak show that the Bronze Age city developed from a central core surrounded by satellite communities. (Courtesy Jason Ur)

Archaeologists have long believed that the world's oldest cities lay along the fertile riverbanks of southern Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq. There, in a land of plenty, went the idea, powerful kings began coercing their subjects to live together some 6,000 years ago. Their great invention--the city--later spread throughout the Near East. But last August, Harvard University archaeologist Jason Ur and two British colleagues turned that idea on its head. Their intensive field survey and surface collection of potsherds at the site of Tell Brak in northern Syria revealed that an ancient city rose there at exactly the same time as urban centers first sprouted up in southern Mesopotamia, but followed a very different model of development. "Urbanism," says Ur, "is not one brilliant idea that occurred one place and then diffused."

Tell Brak first came to scientific attention in the 1930s when British archaeologist Max Mallowan and his wife Agatha Christie started excavations there. But recently, a team led by Cambridge University archaeologist Joan Oates has unearthed new clues to the city's early years. By 3900 B.C., the ancient metropolis sprawled across some 130 acres and boasted a flourishing bureaucracy and skilled artisans turning out fine marble chalices and other luxury goods for the ruling class.

Intriguingly, Tell Brak seems to have grown from the outside in. In the south, cities began as a central settlement--under a single authority--that grew outward. But Ur's field survey shows that Tell Brak started as a central community ringed by smaller satellite settlements that expanded inward. "There isn't a very tight control over these surrounding villages, at least at this beginning period," says Ur. "So the assumption that we're making is that people were coming in under their own volition."

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