Recent Develoments in Ancient Archaeology: Where did Civilization Begin?

A massive earthen mound rises majestically and rather mysteriously above agricultural fields in northeastern Syria. From a distance, the more than 130-foot-tall protrusion looks like a jagged set of desolate hills. But up close, broken pottery from a time long past litters the mound’s surface. The widespread debris vividly testifies to the large number of people, perhaps as many as 10,000, who once congregated on and around this raised ground.

Known as Tell Brak, the mound and its surrounding fields contain the remnants of the world’s oldest known city. The word tell refers to an ancient Near Eastern settlement consisting of numerous layers of mud-brick construction. Generation after generation of residents cut down, leveled, and replaced each layer with new buildings, eventually creating an enormous mound.

At the city of Brak, the first tell layers were built more than 6,000 years ago. At that time, the settlement emerged as an urban center with massive public structures, mass-produced crafts and daily goods, and specially made prestige items for socially elite citizens.

Surprisingly, the evidence for Brak’s rise as a major city predates, by as many as 1,000 years, evidence for comparable urban centers hundreds of miles to the south, in what’s now southern Iraq. Like those southern cities, Brak lay between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the ancient land of Mesopotamia. But scholars have long assumed that southern Mesopotamia’s fertile crescent, blessed with rich soil and copious water, represented the “cradle of civilization.” In the traditional scenario, fast-growing southern cities established colonies that led to a civilization of the north. Southern immigrants sought timber, metal, and other resources that were absent in their homeland.


Excavation has led to a revolution in thinking about the first urban civilizations. It is not yet known why urbanism flourished in both civilizations only to wither in the north while continuing to prosper in the south.

Cite: Bower, B 2008, ‘DAWN OF THE CITY’, Science News, vol. 173, no. 6, pp. 90-92.

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