Urbanism and the Prehistory of Violent Conflict: Tell Brak, northeast Syria

Fig. 1 : Tell Brak from the north; Outer Town in foreground, mounded city core in background.

Fig. 1 : Tell Brak from the north; Outer Town in foreground, mounded city core in background.


Traditional reconstructions of the world’s earliest cities place them in southern Mesopotamia (South Iraq), during the mid-4th millennium BC. Excavations at southern sites such as Uruk-Warka found evidence for rapid settlement growth, religious power represented by massive temple complexes, and strong leadership ideology suggested by images of priest-kings, all from ca 3500 BC. These developments were supplemented from ca 3200 BC by the world’s earliest writing, the ultimate tool of administrative power and the control of knowledge. But recent excavations in northeast Syria have revealed an independent, equally strong, trajectory towards urbanism in northern Mesopotamia, which occurred at the same time or possibly earlier than that in southern Mesopotamia, from ca 4000 BC. This northern urbanism is also represented by rapid settlement growth, evidence for religious and secular power, and increased complexity in socio-economic interactions.

The Cambridge University excavations at Tell Brak, in northeast Syria (Fig. 1), focused on the theme of early urbanism from the early 1990s through the most recent excavation season in the spring of 2011. The team has particularly explored the site’s growth to urban size and the economic changes that accompanied the development of urbanism in the early 4th millennium BC (McMahon & Oates 2007; Oates et al. 2007). The project has also revealed some negative aspects of urban growth, such as a greater hierarchy of power, social stress and violent conflict.

 Urban growth

Surface survey at Tell Brak undertaken in 2003-2006 by Prof. Jason Ur of Harvard University was the first scientific assessment of the settlement’s maximum size. This survey revealed that Brak grew rapidly from ca 55 hectares in 4000 BC to ca 130 hectares by 3800 BC (Fig. 2; Ur et al. 2007, 2011). This growth was possibly achieved by immigration of population from neighbouring smaller settlements in the region, which were abandoned.

Fig. 2 : Expansion of Tell Brak from 4200 to 3400 BC. Image courtesy J. Ur.

Fig. 2 : Expansion of Tell Brak from 4200 to 3400 BC. Image courtesy J. Ur.

Fig. 3 : Excavations in the southwest of Brak’s edge zone; industrial installations.

Fig. 3 : Excavations in the southwest of Brak’s edge zone; industrial installations.

The doubling in size of Brak suggests that a doubling of population might have occurred, which would have meant a huge increase in demands on food, water, fuel, and space for housing. However, excavations in the Outer Town of Brak revealed that the new city’s edge zone had a more dispersed population than the dense occupation of its core. The urban population certainly increased, and demands on resources would have been greater, but the most significant impact of the site’s growth may have been changes in the internal urban landscape and the location of different activities. Excavations in Brak’s edge zone exposed evidence for municipal rubbish dumps, ceramic manufacturing, textile dyeing industries (Fig. 3), and burials, all activities that had been pushed out of the centre by ca 3800-3600 BC, perhaps by the demand for housing space at the site’s core (McMahon & Stone 2013). Such a mixed-use edge zone is also a characteristic of modern cities and mega-cities.

Socio-economic changes

            Among the most notable aspects of the urban development at Tell Brak are changes in the economy, particularly increased division of labour and specialisation of production. Division of labour is represented by the concentration of production into certain locations, outside the household, while specialisation is evidenced through greater standardisation of tools and products. At Brak, these developments overlap, with division of labour initially strongest, followed by specialisation; both surely reflect the demands of the growing population.

Fig. 4 : Area TW industrial area, c 4000 BC.

Fig. 4 : Area TW industrial area, c 4000 BC.

Fig. 5 : Lithics and textile tools from Area TW.

Fig. 5 : Lithics and textile tools from Area TW.

Concentration of manufacturing is already in evidence by at least ca 4200 BC at Brak, and this concentration increased in scale and intensity thereafter, as the site and population expanded. In Area TW at the north edge of the site’s core, excavations revealed an industrial area with pottery kilns, bread ovens, lithic debitage and tools (Figs. 4, 5). This industrial area is at least 25 x 20 m in extent (probably greater, since it extended beyond the limits of our excavation) and is adjacent to a street that connected this area to one of the city’s main entrances. This would have been an excellent location for efficient management of incoming raw materials and transport of finished products. The area was in use from ca 4200 BC, but by ca 3800 BC some of these industries were pushed to the site edge (see above), and the area was taken over for use by a public building used for feasting.

Fig. 6Late Chalcolithic 3 standardised ceramic plate with heavy chaff temper.

Fig. 6 Late Chalcolithic 3 standardised ceramic plate with heavy chaff temper.

Standardisation and mass-production are most clearly seen in the ceramics of the Late Chalcolithic 3 Period, ca 3900-3600 BC. The clay used for this pottery is coarse, with large quantities of chaff temper that would have reduced firing time and use of fuel (Fig. 6). Vessels are often rather carelessly made and usually have no surface finishing effects. This limited investment in their manufacture is in contrast to that of the Late Chalcolithic 2 Period ceramics (4200-3900 BC), which are more variable and often have fine dense burnishing, red slip, or other time-consuming final treatments. The quantities of LC3 ceramics recovered from most contexts are extremely large, perhaps reflecting the cheap, rapid production and low value of any individual item.

 Expanding Power Differentials

Fig. 7 : Tell Brak “eye idols”.

Fig. 7 : Tell Brak “eye idols”.

Ancient architecture often transmitted messages of power. Scale, height, restricted access, and imported construction materials reflected the power of the gods and the authority of priests and kings from at least the 4th millennium BC temples at Uruk-Warka to the 1st millennium BC Neo-Assyrian palaces at Nimrud and Nineveh. The 1930s excavations at Brak by Max Mallowan exposed a large 4th millennium BC temple in the site’s southern quarter. Numerous small schematic human statuettes (Fig. 7) had been given as offerings and buried within the building or plastered into its walls. For decades, it was assumed that early authority at Brak rested with the religious sphere.

However, excavations in the 1990s in Area TW revealed a massive building with secular functions that would have supplemented the temple’s power. Excavations exposed only one corner of this large building, but the width of its walls (almost 2m) and distinctive red mud-bricks of its construction mark it out as a special structure (Fig. 8; Emberling et al. 2003). The proximity of this building to the contemporary industrial installations suggests its users held control over raw materials, labour, and products.

Fig. 8Plan of Area TW with monumental building (lower right) and industrial area, c 4000 BC.

Fig. 8 Plan of Area TW with monumental building (lower right) and industrial area, c 4000 BC.

Fig. 9 : Sealings from Tell Brak.

Fig. 9 : Sealings from Tell Brak.

A large assemblage of container sealings from Brak (over 1000) provides an additional proxy for increased economic control (McMahon 2009). These sealings are simple ‘locking’ or signature devices, lumps of clay that were attached to jars, baskets or bags containing raw materials or manufactured goods and then impressed with a stone seal. The designs on these seals left inverse impressions in the clay. The imagery borne by these seals is diverse and beautiful, incorporating human and animal figures or geometric designs (Fig. 9; McMahon 2009, McMahon & Oates 2007). Their diversity suggests that a large number of people, households, or smaller settlements were responsible for sending goods to the main centre, either as gifts or taxation. Their frequency increased from the LC 2 (4200-3900 BC) to a peak in the LC 3 (3900-3600 BC). Economic management can become more complex and hierarchical as populations increase. While the sealings may be evidence of multi-level bureaucracy needed to cope with a larger group, they also potentially reflect a greater division between the powerful and non-powerful, a possible source of social stress.

 Social stress and conflict

            The negative aspects of urbanism are revealed most strongly by our excavations at the northern edge of Brak’s Outer Town, which exposed a series of mass graves dating to ca 3900-3600 BC. The number of known dead per grave ranged from 14 to almost 90; in each case, this is a partial and conservatively-calculated number, with the true numbers probably being in the hundreds. The dead were mostly young adults, 14-40 years old, both male and female. Although not common, children were also present. In each grave, the consistent degree of partial disarticulation of the remains indicates they died at the same time, while the stratigraphic context indicates they had all been deposited during the same event. These aspects, together with the distinctive, non-normal, age curves, strongly suggest death by violence. In addition, the dead had been piled up on the ground surface, rather than the usual mode of burial in a pit. There was both accidental and deliberate mixing of individuals (Fig. 10; McMahon et al. 2011), and animals were included within one burial, evidence of a possible post-conflict feast.

Fig. 10 : Tell Brak mass grave.

Fig. 10 : Tell Brak mass grave.

These graves belie the dominant reconstruction of a peaceful prehistory. We have proposed that the mass graves represent the aftermath of civil war, rather than attack by an external force. There are no plausible powerful external enemies in proximity to Brak. And while women may be parts of travelling armies, children are rare in such situations. However, women and children are frequently collateral damage in internal warfare and are often active participants in internal revolutions. The power differential and increasingly structured economic situation outlined above may be the reason for civil unrest: while mass production can generate cheaper goods, labour may be undervalued; taxation or obligations may become oppressive.

 Brak’s trajectory to urbanism can thus be traced from an auspicious beginning in ca 4200-3900 BC, when it was a relatively large site, with concentration of production but still artisanal manufacture, and early secular and religious power. But rapid population growth in 3900-3600 BC created a massive site and further concentration of production, now pushed to the site edge, together with standardisation of products. Secular and religious power persisted and socio-economic differences became wider, resulting in social stress. The precise trigger for the violent events may never be known: the population may have reached a tipping point; climate fluctuations might have stressed a fragile ecosystem and led to food shortages; or new policies may have become unacceptable. Urbanism has had a successful global trajectory, but even in its earliest stages there were significant challenges to its sustainability.


            Research at Tell Brak in 2006-2011 was generously funded by The British Academy (BARDA); British Institute for the Study of Iraq; Newton Trust, Cambridge; McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge; Newnham College, Cambridge; and Society of Antiquaries, London. This project would have been impossible without the support of colleagues in the Directorate General of Museums and Antiquities in Damascus and Hasseke and of the entire Tell Brak team.


Emberling G. and McDonald H.  2003. Excavations at Tell Brak 2001-2002, Iraq 65, 1-76.

 McMahon A. 2009. The lion, the king and the cage: Late Chalcolithic iconography and ideology in Northern Mesopotamia, Iraq 71, 115-124.

 McMahon A. and Stone A. 2013. The edge of the city: Urban growth and burial space in 4th millennium BC Mesopotamia, Origini 35, 83-109.

 McMahon A., Sołtysiak A. and Weber J. 2011. Cities and conflict: Late Chalcolithic mass graves at Tell Brak, Syria (3800-3600 B.C.), Journal of Field Archaeology 36(3), 201-220.

 McMahon A. and Oates J. 2007. Excavations at Tell Brak, 2006-2007, Iraq 69, 145-171.

 Oates J., McMahon A., Karsgaard P., al-Kuntar S. and Ur J. 2007. Early Mesopotamian urbanism: a new view from the north, Antiquity 81, 585-600.

 Ur J., Karsgaard P.  and Oates J. 2007. Early urban development in the Near East, Science 317(5842), 1188.

 Ur J., Karsgaard P.  and Oates J. 2011. The spatial dimensions of early Mesopotamian urbanism: The Tell Brak suburban survey, 2003-2006, Iraq 73, 1-19.


Augusta McMahon is Senior Lecturer in Mesopotamian Archaeology at the University of Cambridge.

Pour citer ce billet : McMahon A., Urbanism and the Prehistory of Violent Conflict: Tell Brak, northeast Syria, ArchéOrient-Le Blog (Hypotheses.org), 2 mai 2014. [En ligne] http://archeorient.hypotheses.org/2797

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