Ubaid “Ophidian” Figurine of Mother Nursing Child. 4500 BC British Museum.
Overview of this post. We will continue to use the 2010 Oriental Institute publication, Beyond the Ubaid, to dig deeper into the prehistoric Ubaid phenomenon. The Ubaid accomplished the transition from Neolithic hunter-gatherers (7500 BC) to surplus-producing agricultural and urban communities. By 4000 BC, the Uruk culture emerged, and after the great Mesopotamian flooding around 3000 BC, morphed into the Sumerian culture.
This week, I will be using less web links and more references to the free PDF copy of this book, with occasional author and page cites. I believe it is necessary for many of you that I provide instruction on how to maneuver in Adobe reader to take advantage of this PDF book and other PDF documents which I will use in the future. When you learn this, you will be able to access a vast treasury of PDF research papers, which would be ponderous to read–at best–without this knowledge. All you will need to know is in this short Adobe Reader instruction page, so add it to your web favorites and read it now.
Then, download the PDF of Beyond the Ubaid from its link above to your desktop for your short-term convenience (you can delete it after we finish using it, because you can find it again at the same Oriental Institute website). Be sure to expand the PDF’s print size using the “+” and “-” buttons atop the Adobe Reader page (I like 150% because the font quality and readability is vastly better). Use the Adobe Reader up/down arrow to go down to the book’s index. Use Adobe’s PDF page box to get to specific articles and authors. Use the Adobe “Edit/Advanced Search” box to check the entire book on any specific topic you choose, such as “headshaping.”
Try out these reading and search features on the Beyond the Ubaid PDF before proceeding below. My writing in this post is meant to suggest a useful structure for the Ubaid findings, and to send you to read articles in the book that are essential to understand that structure. How much you get out of this resource will entirely depend upon your attention to these instructions, and your reading of the suggested papers, and others in the book that attract your interest.
Last week, we identified five unique artifacts that differentiate Ubaid settlement layers in archaeological excavations from other settlement layers in southern Mesopotamia, the homeland of the Ubaid, and throughout the northern arch of the Fertile Crescent.
- “Black on buff” pottery.
- Homes and temples with tripartite architecture.
- Flanged disks or labrets.
- Infant head shaping.
This week, we are going to add to, further describe, and categorize that list in order to identify both new and older hypotheses found in Beyond the Ubaid. Our purpose is to flesh out the Ubaid people as unique from the Halaf people who appear to have later adopted the Ubaid material horizon or, perish the thought, been absorbed in a Ubaid expansion (migration) into Halaf lands. You and I will examine these characteristics and decide for ourselves whether they are sufficiently unique to identify the Ubaid as distinctly “other” than the Halaf. Some archaeologists among the 23 authors in this book are reluctant to see a Ubaid people, rather than simply a material horizon that became increasingly popular (like the global reach of Apple phones and Coca-Cola). I ask you, “Is there sufficient evidence that the characteristics described below would describe a people who thought themselves distinctly different from the Halaf people to their North and West?” I’ll try to present the evidence without bias so you can decide for yourself. Below are the enhanced artifactual markers, and my analysis of what they imply.
(1) The material culture. Read Article 2. Local Identities and Interaction Spheres: Modelling Regional Variation in the Ubaid Horizon. Gil J. Stein more precisely describes the characteristic pottery called “black on buff” or “brown on buff” as “chocolate-brown greenish ware ceramics made on a tournette or slow wheel.” (p.23). There are tools and weapons which he identifies as unique markers of an Ubaid site: baked clay mullers (of tea, spices, herbs), baked clay sickles, polished stone mace heads, and polished stone palettes. (p.34). I suggest that baked clay sickles (rather than wooden Neolithic sickles with flint or obsidian inserts for cutting edges) are made because clay was abundant in Southern Mesopotamia, whereas flint and obsidian had to be imported. In the 7th through 5th millennia BC, firewood to bake the clay would have been abundant because the area was still moist, but would become rare after the 5.9 Kiloyear event (You will recall Dr. Akkerman’s study of the effect of this on the Halaf in post 56). Other artifactual markers unique to the Ubaid include labrets, shaped skulls, Ophidian figurines, communal cemeteries, tripartite home and temple architecture, and buttress-recess public architecture, all of which are treated separately below.
(2) Concept of Personal Identity. Read Article 8. Figuring Out Identity: The Body and Identity in the Ubaid. Karina Croucher. The Ubaid identified a subset of their population by headshaping some infants (see Art. 9. Lorentz p.125ff). Another subset wore labrets in their lower lip, and others wore ear spools. (Stein p.30) (We do not currently know who were in these subsets i.e. what differentiated them, except that none of these were found in Halaf levels of excavations). The Ubaid were also the first people known to bury their dead in community cemeteries. Their tripartite home architecture introduces a recognizable desire for personal privacy (along with personal safety), a huge leap forward from the beehive of Catalhoyuk.
(3) Burial practices massively shift to once-and-final cemetery interment in 5th Millennium. (Croucher p.116) The Ubaid were also the first known to bury their dead just once in community cemeteries outside the town. This replaced first burying (or exposing the body) to remove the flesh, then a second time in a family bone repository, or final burial under or beside the home. Ubaid buried adults with standardized grave goods (Sievertsen p.201) and adornment (Croucher p.116) signifying there may have been only minor social distinctions. Archaeologists look for evidence of distinctions among people as a marker that a “complex” society exists, and as evidence of the wherewithal by which city living can be managed. (Think about the quality of city life without effective management–like some cities in today’s news.) This burial practice was implemented across the full Ubaid horizon (Stein p.30)—concurrent with the spread of the Ubaid material culture. Implementation of this practice is now starting to look more like the city culture of the 4th Millennium BC i.e. Uruk. Without cemeteries, it would be difficult to control the spread of plagues and lesser epidemics in the close quarters of cities.
Female “Ophidian figurines with coffee-bean” eyes. Univ. of Pennsylvania
(4) “Ophidian” figurines with “coffee-bean” eyes. Read Article 10. A Snake in the Grass: Reassessing the Ever-Intriguing Ophidian Figurines. Aurelie Daems. Archaeologists named figurines like the one atop this post, the two figures above, and the one below “Ophidian” because the faces look like snakes i.e. ophidia.
“Ophidian” nursing mother and child figurine. Univ. of Pennsylvania
As I pondered the two figurines depicting mothers and nursing babes, the two female figurines side-by-side above, and the hooded “cobra” figurines from Susa (Daems p.156), I was struck with a recognition, of sorts. The Biblical relationship between Eve and the Snake originated in a pleasant garden similar to mythical Dilmun. This is an ancient story which could have spawned a conception in Ubaid oral-mythology of Eve’s fallen offspring as spiritual children of the Snake. A child of the Snake would have snakelike features and inherit characteristics of its father.
This would be consistent with a spiritual interpretation of the long-term consequences of the Biblical story: (1) humanity descended from Adam and Eve and are no longer children of their creator, but children of the Snake; (2) the attitude of these descendants progresses into an ever-increasing alienation from their creator; and (3) there are no exemptions from the creator’s decree. Various philosophies and religions offer ways to redeem devotees from this slavery to sin and death. Feel free to skip over my personal belief about this conundrum as a Christian, but here it is, and here’s how I was persuaded to accept it as a matter of my own free will. The Ubaid had nothing but their folklore and traditions to work with, but their fear-filled path spawned the subsequent Sumerian pantheon of rebel demons against the creator.
These reptilian heads could imply the Ubaid were worshiping the Snake, and the shaped-headed infants were raised to be its priests and priestesses. Don’t misunderstand, this is just my first impression (albeit one I can’t shake) after seeing the mother and child. It is not archaeological thinking. I am an imaginative fiction writer looking at ancient artifacts, and want to share these observations with you to stir your curiosity about these figurines. Moreover, archaeologists still don’t know the background of these figurines, what they depict, or why there was headshaping.
(5) Home and Monumental Architecture. Read Article 14. Buttress-Recess Architecture and Status Symbolism in the Ubaid Period. Uwe Sievertsen. We discussed the tripartite home floorplan and its application to larger construction in the prior post (also see Carter and Philip p.4 and Stein p.23). Stein introduces the niched and buttressed tripartite design of Ubaid temples as a cultural marker. Some challenge that this architecture really was transferred beyond Southern Mesopotamia and the homeland of the Ubaid.
This is a good point to end this post. In the next post we will resume digging into and clarifying the Ubaid phenomenon, then begin to study the Halaf-Ubaid transition period.
Thanks for visiting.
R. E. J. Burke