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


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.

That warehouse, Dr. Schwartz calculated, could have held enough grain to feed between 150 and 600 people for a year. Tell al-Raqa'i itself covered only about an acre and probably housed no more than 50 residents.

Inside the building

Inside the building, archaeologists found several brick platforms along with ovens. Another brick platform, some ovens and drains were found outside. Dr. Schwartz said villagers might have used these areas to "parch" or roast barley to preserve it during storage and shipment.

Excavators also found what appears to be a religious painting inside the rounded building.

"It's as if the B&O; [Baltimore and Ohio railroad] warehouse had a chapel in it," said Dr. Schwartz, a 1972 graduate of the Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Yale University.

Impressions produced by cylinder seals used by royal authorities were found on jars and on the entrances to rooms. The Hopkins archaeologist said the evidence suggested that priests or other emissaries of the city-state helped collect surplus grain as taxes or tribute.

"The chances are good that they were making it palatable by doing it in a religious environment," he said.

Archaeologists also found a small rectangular building, set in the middle of a walled compound, with what appear to be altars. The structure was built with the same floor plan as temples in major Mesopotamian cities, but on a much smaller scale.

In modern rural communities in the Near East, residents have roughly the same economic and social status.

But at Tell al-Raqa'i, sharp class divisions are reflected in the graves of infants up to age 2, which are the easiest to find because they are generally located next to dwellings.

Some babies are buried in elaborate brick boxes and wear shell and stone bead ornaments. Other infants, whose parents apparently were poor, are buried in simple pits. "There's no jewelry, no fancy ornaments, not even any pottery," Dr. Schwartz said.

Tell al-Raqa'i's language, Dr. Schwartz said, was probably similar to the ancient Semitic tongue, Akkadian. But scientists aren't sure what city-state the hamlet served.

One possibility, Dr. Schwartz said, is that it was one of a network of villages linked to a trading center to the south called Mari. Located in a relatively arid area of the Mesopotamian plain, Mari is known to have imported grain from lusher areas to the north.

Mary Voigt, an associate professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, said Tell al-Raqa'i and other archaeological sites suggested that civilizations might have evolved as craftspeople and their specialties, such as grain storage or tool production, gradually shifted from villages to major cities.

But more villages need to be excavated, she said. More surprises may be in store for archaeologists.

"A site like Glenn's, on the fringes of what people thought was productive farmland, proved to be far more interesting than what anybody thought," she said.

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