Country life, circa 2900 B.C. Hopkins professor's Near East dig shows complex rural society

May 11, 1993|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

When a Johns Hopkins University archaeologist began excavating a 4,900-year-old rural village in eastern Syria six years ago, he raised an age-old question: How are you going to keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Uruk?

Or Mari? Or Ur?

What Dr. Glenn M. Schwartz, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Hopkins, found was fresh evidence that it may not have been too hard for country bumpkins to resist the lure of the globe's first wild, wicked cities.

Ancient rural life, he argues, was not as simple, isolated and placid as some researchers have assumed.

Many early farm villages in Syria, Jordan and Turkey had small but elaborate temple compounds and industrial structures and served as highly specialized manufacturing or processing centers, said Dr. Schwartz. The same is true for villages in Mexico, Honduras and Belize that served some of the great civilizations of Mesoamerica.

"It's new information about how big cities emerged," said the archaeologist, who has co-written a forthcoming book, "Archaeological Views from the Countryside: Village Communities in Early Complex Societies."

"One of the big questions has always been, what allowed these cities to feed their inhabitants? How did they coerce or persuade rural areas to give them surplus crops?" Part of the answer, he said, appears to be that urban bureaucrats carefully organized and tightly controlled rural life.

Dr. Schwartz's co-author is Steven Falconer, an assistant professor of anthropology at Arizona State University in Tempe. Dr. Falconer said that until the past couple of decades, archaeologists focused on the grand temples and palaces of ancient cities and ignored the countryside.

"There has been this long-standing urban bias," he said.

When they were considered at all, villages were assumed to resemble their modern Middle Eastern counterparts: culturally isolated, egalitarian societies where everyone engaged in farming, belonged to the same social class and earned about the same income.

A more intricate tale

But recent excavations of farm villages in the Near East, including Dr. Schwartz's, and other digs in Central and South America tell a far more intricate tale.

"These are not the sort of small, homogenous, simple farming communities we see in the industrial world," Dr. Falconer said. "These ancient small communities are extremely complicated and do a lot of things found in urban societies. This may be one essential way in which the preindustrial world differs from the industrial world."

In 1987, a joint U.S.-Dutch team led by Dr. Schwartz and Hans H. Curvers of the University of Amsterdam began excavating Tell al-Raqa'i, located in eastern Syria. Their work there was underwritten by Baltimore's Dellheim Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The research was encouraged by the Syrian government, which plans to build a dam that would flood that site and other ancient settlements in the middle Khabur River valley.

Tell al-Raqa'i, now a 24-foot-high mound of earth, was a small but thriving town during its most important period of occupation, between 2900 and 2400 B.C. That's roughly the same time the Egyptians began building the great pyramids, and it's about 600 years after some of the world's first great cities were built in southern Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq.

Dr. Schwartz and other archaeologists working at Tell al-Raqa'i rose before dawn and worked until early afternoon, when the punishing heat grew too intense. Nights were so hot that researchers usually slept outside their brick huts, which closely resembled the ancient structures they were uncovering.

Dr. Schwartz said he deliberately avoided looking at a thermometer. "I've always been afraid to find out how hot it was," he said.

But he learned to love the austere landscape, as smooth as a billiard table. The Khabur River flows through a plain dotted with clay mounds or "tells," the remains of human settlements thousands of years old.

"If you stand on top of a tell watching a sunset over the river, it can be stunningly beautiful," he said.

When excavation began, he said, "I expected to find a simple farming village of maybe two or three houses with very little contact with urban civilizations elsewhere in Syria, because that was the traditional view of what a rural site would be like."

Instead, he wrote in a recent edition of National Geographic Research and Exploration, archaeologists uncovered "an economically and architecturally specialized community concerned with the large-scale storage and processing of grain -- apparently for the benefit of larger centers elsewhere."

The most impressive structure was a large building with rounded corners that appeared to be used for storage, perhaps of barley grown on adjacent plots or grain shipped in from elsewhere.

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