Urbanism and Society in the Third Millennium Upper Khabur Basin

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Division of the Humanities in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

By Jason Ur

© 2004 All Rights Reserved
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago
Committee: McGuire Gibson, Tony Wilkinson, Gil Stein, David Schloen


In the middle of the third millennium BC, settlement in northern Mesopotamia was transformed from a landscape of small villages to one of large centers. These new cities had a dramatic impact on their surroundings; patterns of intensified land use and human movement were inscribed onto the landscape and traces of these have survived. Previous models for these settlement systems have assumed that urbanism was a direct result of a powerful centralized political structure which based its power on the control of the staple economy. These models are rooted in the ecosystems school of processual archaeology.

Using data from archaeological field surveys, satellite photographs, and published excavations, this study documents the settlement landscape at two major third millennium centers in the Upper Khabur basin of northeastern Syria: Tell Beydar and Hamoukar. The agricultural systems which served as the backbone of their economies are shown to be increasingly fragile as populations increased, so that the largest centers were at risk of collapse under a season of low rainfall. This conclusion supports the results of landscape studies around smaller centers in northern Mesopotamia.

However, the physical traces on the landscape of agricultural and pastoral production reveal no evidence of centralized organization of intensification, nor does the excavations of elite administrative structures. Evidence for centralized storage and redistribution is ambiguous or lacking. On the contrary, intensification was the result of the uncoordinated actions of individual farmers and shepherds. Contrary to the centralized models, rulers were relatively uninvolved with agricultural and pastoral production except to extract enough to support their own operations.

Based on these conclusions, a new model of third millennium urbanism is proposed which extends existing models of urban staple economics to include the individual household as the basic social unit at multiple scales. Northern Mesopotamian states were decentralized, with power based on social relationships. Rather than being imposed solely from the top, the landscapes of urban settlements were the not entirely foreseen products of the motivated political actions of rulers and the equally motivated economic decisions of individual households.

Jason Ur ©2004
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations