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Upon This Foundation: The Ubaid Reconsidered, Proceedings from the Ubaid Symposium, Elsinore May 30th-June 1st 1988.

The volume resulting from the Elsinore conference of the Ubaid consists of 17 papers, discussion generated by them, an introduction and two conclusions (the first by senior scholars H. T. Wright and R. McC. Adams and the second by the volume editors). The uniformly high quality of the papers and follow-up discussions, which were always lively and at times of greater interest than the papers themselves, makes this volume one of the more successful conference proceedings to be published in recent years and provides not only a fresh look at the Ubaid period but a glimpse at the way anthropological archaeologists and prehistorians currently work and think.

The papers are grouped into five sections: villages, society, economics and politics, northern Ubaid, and adjacent regions. Other arrangements might have organized them under the headings of domestic architecture, funerary customs, ceramic studies, and evolutionary reconstructions. Just as the emphasis on architecture and funerary practices was evident so was the absence of topics such as demographics and settlement patterns, subsistence strategies, and the role of irrigation and dryland farming; in their concluding remarks the senior scholars noted these absences too.

The thematic aim of the conference was to recognize the importance of the Ubaid culture, which lies between two great turning points in the evolutionary sequence of mankind: the development of agriculture not too much earlier than the beginning of Ubaid and the emergence of states and urban centers in the Uruk period immediately following the Ubaid. It is clear, the editors suggest, that the real importance of the Ubaid cannot be appreciated apart from its transitional role on the "dynamic unfolding process" and as the foundation upon which subsequent greater human achievements were built.

The papers reflect new data and interpretations that have been emerging in the field during the past decade. Huot reviews changes between early and late levels at Tell Oueili, which now provides the best sequence in lower Mesopotamia for the Ubaid. Roaf continues his detailed analysis of a single structure at Tell Madhhur, which provides one of the earliest, best-preserved and best-documented tripartite buildings in early Mesopotamian history. Archaeological work outside the "heartland" is producing important new data regarding Ubaid cultures (see Berman and Pollock on the Susiana plain, Henrickson on the central Zagros highlands, Frifelt on the Gulf area and Akkermans and Thuesen on northern Mesopotamia and Syria). Rather than seeing the Ubaid as one large monolithic culture, there is increasing recognition of its regional variability.

A recurring issue is how and why the Ubaid evolved from basically egalitarian communities in its early phases to a more highly differentiated society, setting the stage for major transformations in the Uruk period. Thus the continuing research in two areas: mortuary practices (Vertesalji, Hole and Akkermans) and house architecture (Margueron, Roaf and Jasim). Hole and Akkermans base their synthetic evolutionary models on those two aspects, while Patterson compares the evolutionary sequences of the early cultures of Mesopotamia and Peru from a Marxist perspective. Vertesalji examines evidence for the emergence of "supralocational" cemeteries at Eridu and Susa to which surrounding communities sent their dead. Pollock considered the power generated symbolically by founding a new site, Susa, on a prominence overlooking a flat plain.

In contrast to earlier periods in scholarship, the Ubaid people are seen not to be the first settlers in southern Mesopotamia but to have predecessors who simply cannot be studied by archaeologists due to the heavy alluvial deposits overlying them; in fact, these same deposits severely obscure the nature of Ubaid settlement itself. At Tell Oueili subsistence in the Ubaid was based on irrigation for cereal crops and the raising of pigs and cattle, and in general social organization in the south is described as relatively simple. However in concluding remarks Adams disagreed "very sharply" with such a characterization.

The papers and discussions reveal some current tendencies in the field: Processual archaeology is still the dominant perspective by which the early Near East is approached, especially by Americans and senior scholars, while some of the younger and continental archaeologists reflect post-processual orientations--such as the interpretation of symbolism in material culture, as for example Vertesalji's analysis of transitions and transformations in ceramics, Forest's symbolic interpretation of tokens and the exchange of women, and Pollock's examination of symbolism and power at Susa.

One of the issues separating the positivistic background of the processualists is their distrust of the relativism implicit in the philosophy of idealism coming from the continent and from Hodder, Tilley, and Shanks. In his closing Wright was moved to note how appalled he was regarding "... remarks about how we are going to speculate, and anybody could say anything they want about the past." But he observed how responsible the participants had been after all. Nevertheless we find Pollock speaking in terms of narrative and "... the implications of writing archaeological accounts in a certain way." And Akkermans prefaces his study with an explicit discussion of symbolism, ideology and power. All this and pots too! Times are changing.
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Author:McClellan, Thomas L.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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