The Lost City of Hamoukar

These days, when the world is covered by cities, we can be forgiven for thinking that there’s nothing much special about them. You get a bunch of people together, you put them in houses, you add a few businesses, and presto! Instant city.

But in fact cities are a relatively recent invention. Modern humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, but the concept of the city has existed for less than 10,000.

Recently everything we thought we knew about the invention of the city was shaken by the discovery of an ancient city in Syria–in a place where standard archaeological theory said no such city should exist.

Just last week, scientists from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute reported to the International Conference on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East in Copenhagen that they have discovered evidence of the oldest city ever found in a huge mound known as Tell Hamoukar. (In the Near East, a “tell” is a manmade mound rising out of the usually flat countryside, formed by the successive building and destruction of settlements.)

To an archaeologist, a city is defined not by its population, but by its organization. Whereas a village might have been led by some kind of chief, each household in it was largely self-sufficient, making its own pottery, growing its own food, etc. In a city, people specialized: you’d have some people who did nothing but make pottery, others who were just soldiers, others who wove cloth, others who baked bread. You’d also have a complex system of religious and political leadership.

Cities were made possible by improvements in agriculture. Irrigation and fertilization allowed people to stay in one place and build up a surplus of food, which allowed some people to concentrate on other things than growing crops–weaving, for instance, or pottery.

Even in a quite preliminary excavation of the lowest strata of the mound at Tell Hamoukar, in an area corresponding to 3500 to 4000 B.C., the archaeologists turned up pieces of fine, porcelain-like pottery, proof of sophisticated, organized manufacturing techniques; and huge, institutional-size cooking ovens full of ash, bones and burned seeds, obviously used for feeding hundreds of people.

They also found stamp seals and seal impressions. Stamp seals were pressed into small pieces of wet clay. When the clay dried, the seal impressions were used as records for trade transactions. Two types of seals were discovered: simple clay chunks with a few lines incised in them and elaborate ones in the form of ibexes, bears, dogs, rabbits, fish, birds and lions. The archaeologists assume the simple ones were used by commoners and the ornate ones by officials, evidence of a hierarchical society. A number of bone figurines called “eye idols,” simple stick figures with huge eyes, also turned up..

Most interestingly, the team discovered a portion of a wall 10 feet high and 13 feet wide. It could be an early city wall, constructed for self-defense, which would indicate a high degree of central control and government.

None of this was expected. To begin with, the traditional theory of the growth of cities states that they first appeared in Sumeria, and spread from there. Hamoukar throws a monkey wrench into that theory because it existed at the same time as the Sumerian cities, and possibly even earlier.

Another unusual thing about Hamoukar is that it sits on an arid plain. Most early cities grew up beside rivers, which provided water for drinking, irrigation and transportation. Hamoukar appears to have instead grown up on a caravan trade route that ran through the Tigirs and Euphrates river regions west to the Mediterranean.

Such trade routes carried ideas as well as goods, and it could well be that the idea for building a city came to both Hamoukar and Sumeria from somewhere else entirely. One candidate is a little-known culture in the Tigris-Euphrates region called the Ubaid Period, whose pottery has been found all over the region.

Today, 750 people live at Tell Hamoukar, in a modern village perched atop the mound. At its peak in 2400 B.C., as many as 10,000 or 20,000 people may have lived there, on about 500 acres of land–making Hamoukar as big as any city of its time.

It’s sobering, in a city where anything a hundred years old is considered ancient, to consider that four thousand years ago, people in Hamoukar were already living on top of 2,000 years of ruins!

It makes you wonder. In another six millennia, what will be left of us–and what will future archaeologists make of it?

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