Ubaid Culture Thrives in Mesopotamia

The Ubaid period, transitional between Neolithic farming cultures and early civilization, witnessed a series of economic and ideological changes that culminated in urbanism and more complex forms of social organization.

Summary of Event

The term Ubaid refers to an archaeological site, a distinctive ceramic type, and a long cultural period. The site, Tell al-Ubaid, is located about 4 miles (6 kilometers) west of Ur (now Muqaiyir) along the Euphrates River in Iraq. The site was explored by the British Museum in 1919 under Harry R. Hall and during 1923-1924 by Sir Leonard Woolley. Woolley applied the term Ubaid to designate the prehistoric sequence associated with painted ceramics. In 1960, the ceramic sequence for the Ubaid period was constructed by Joan Oates, and ultimately five phases (Ubaid 0-Ubaid 4) have been recognized.

The wares of Ubaid potters enjoyed a wide distribution: They have been found from central Turkey to the highlands of Iran and southward to the Persian Gulf region. Pottery was painted and unpainted as well as impressed and incised. Examples included beakers, bowls, and jars of different sizes and shapes. Ubaid ceramics enjoyed a remarkable homogeneity in terms of style, shape, and decorative motif, while being locally manufactured. Painted Ubaid ware was fired at high temperatures and constructed of a green, red, or buff paste, with brown or black geometric designs.

As a cultural period, Ubaid marks the earliest appearance of sedentary agricultural communities on the southern Mesopotamian alluvial plain. Settlements, both on the southern alluvial plain and in northern Mesopotamia, were small. On the Diyala Plain in Iraq, villages approximating fifty to one hundred individuals were located about 6 to 12 miles (10 to 20 kilometers) apart. However, in the southern region, the rich soil and improved agricultural techniques, such as irrigation, permitted a surplus that fostered population growth. By the terminus of the Ubaid culture, the urban center of Eridu in southern Mesopotamia (site now south of An Nāsirīyah, Iraq) contained between two thousand and four thousand people.

The earliest Ubaid sites from northern Mesopotamia are quite small: Arpachiyah, east of Nineveh (near Mosul, Iraq), covered an area of about 1.5 acres (slightly over 0.5 hectare) and may have contained only one or two dwellings. Settlements seldom approached 2 acres (about 1 hectare) in size. Small population densities suggest that the northern Ubaid communities had an egalitarian, highly autonomous character. The absence of elaborate grave offerings in the Ubaid mortuary complex and the small community size suggest that complex social ranking and developed social differentiation were lacking. Any form of political hierarchy would appear to be weakly expressed, particularly during the sixth and fifth millennia b.c.e.

Archaeologists, however, have called attention to a shift that was under way by the mid-fourth millennium b.c.e., in which a structural change evolved whereby community-oriented interests and concerns were replaced with an ideological orientation on the individual level. This social change, evident in domestic architecture, early temples, and grave offerings, gradually replaced an egalitarian ideology with one rooted in social inequalities. This is particularly evident in southern Mesopotamia, where the need for centralized coordination of labor projects such as irrigation works and construction of sacred architecture gradually spread into other areas of society and culture. In northern Mesopotamia, however, the prerequisites for economic life were more variable and less dependent on collective labor.

Modern archaeological work has suggested that the Ubaid is not a single cultural entity, but rather a composite, consisting of widespread local variability. The general cultural style has been preserved in Ubaid artifacts, such as pottery and food-processing equipment, and in architecture, both domestic and sacred.

Mud brick was the basic construction material for Ubaid village architecture. Domestic units were small, with equally diminutive rooms that may have been used for storage of food, fuel, or animal fodder. Buildings were constructed on a tripartite plan that consisted of a rectangular room extending the length of the house, with smaller rooms placed along each side. The central room was secluded from the outside through the addition of flanking rooms. Floors were often coated with a gypsum plaster.

The Ubaid period witnessed the first appearance of sacred public architecture in Mesopotamia. The rectangular temples were of mud-brick construction and contained altars and other features, such as niches, which facilitated ceremonial activity. Temples appear early in the archaeological sequence (Ubaid 1, about 5500 b.c.e.) and gradually become larger.

Agriculture was diversified: Several types of wheat, barley, beans, linseed, peas, lentils, the date palm, and vegetable crops were grown. Irrigation was a necessity in southern Mesopotamia. Sheep and goats were kept, in addition to cattle. The ox-drawn plow may have been in use by the fifth millennium b.c.e. The site of Tell Abada excavated in the 1970’s by the Iraqi archaeologist Sabah Jasim provided evidence that hunting (of gazelle, deer, and boar, among other wild fauna) remained important. At Tell Abada, a water-distribution system was discovered in which ceramic pipes channeled river water and water trapped in large wadis (streambeds, usually wet only during the rainy season) into the village, presumably for human use.

Craft specialization and a variety of industries flourished during the Ubaid. Pottery kilns, ranging from simple to complex in construction, have been excavated at numerous Ubaid sites. Ceramic vessels, figurines, and other ceramic artifacts reveal a high degree of ceramic specialization. The output of Ubaid ceramic production was significant. Ubaid pottery was not made on a potter’s wheel but on a tournette, in which the potter’s table rotated on a peg. The true potter’s wheel emerged toward the end of the Ubaid sequence. In addition to ceramic workshops, the stone-tool industry produced hoes, axes, sickles, scrapers, pestles, and grinding tools for processing cereals. Weaving and basket manufacture were also important industries in Ubaid villages.


The Ubaid period is positioned at the terminus of prehistory. Although certain features of civilization are lacking, such as warfare and a developed social stratification system, the Ubaid period ushered in a number of prominent civilizational processes.

Ubaid settlements reveal the gradual formalization of religion. Large, nonresidential buildings of mud brick, most likely temples, were erected on platforms of clay or imported stone. Stairs led to the top of these structures, and they may anticipate the great ziggurats of Sumer. A platform at Susa (ruins at Shūsh, Iran) that may have provided the base for a temple was 11 yards (10 meters) high, about 88 yards (80 meters) long, and 71 yards (65 meters) wide.

The gradual movement toward occupational specialization during the fifth millennium b.c.e. suggests that the family as a productive and property-controlling unit was being replaced by more formalized social institutions. The older kinship-oriented society was ultimately eclipsed by formalized managerial institutions such as the temple, which in post-Ubaid times was a powerful economic, coercive, and spiritual force.

Regional trade was active during the Ubaid period. Items that were essential to the productive economy of the village but were absent from local environments were sought after. Obsidian, limestone, natural asphalt, carnelian, and marine products from the Gulf region provide examples of desirable materials.

The precise form of leadership during the Ubaid period remains unknown. No archaeological evidence has been found attesting to great differences in political power, wealth, or prestige. By the latter stages of the Ubaid, a religious authority or a chief possibly controlled agricultural resources and coordinated labor projects. These functions may have been previously addressed through a council of village elders or a kin-oriented structure, for example, a lineage.

Small clay tokens, modeled into different shapes and found in Ubaid sites, may anticipate either a formalized record-keeping system or perhaps written accounts of business transactions. At Tell Abada, a clay proto-tablet was discovered, on which were inscribed numerous signs arranged in four lines. Jasim suggests these inscriptions may stand for numerical values and may anticipate writing for administrative and economic activity.

The Ubaid is a long and crucial archaeological sequence in which the prerequisites for an urban-based, state-level society were slowly becoming institutionalized.

Further Reading

  • Henrickson, Elizabeth, and Ingolf Thuesen, eds. Upon This Foundation: The Ubaid Reconsidered. Copenhagen: Carsten Niebuhr Institute of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, 1989. An important study consisting of seventeen papers that deal with various issues in Ubaid archaeology. Bibliography.
  • Jasim, Sabah Abboud. The Ubaid Period in Iraq: Recent Excavations in the Hamrin Region. 2 vols. Oxford, England: BAR International Series, 1985. A discussion of the excavations at Tell Abada in Iraq and a comparison with other Ubaid sites. Appendixes, bibliography.
  • Roaf, Michael. “Ubaid Houses and Temples.” Sumer 43 (1984): 80-90. A discussion of Ubaid domestic and religious architecture and its defining features.
  • Stein, Gil, and Mitchell S. Rothman, eds. Chiefdoms and Early States in the Near East: The Organizational Dynamics of Complexity. Madison, Wis.: Prehistory Press, 1994. A collection of thirteen papers that deal with the Ubaid period, in addition to other political formations at the threshold of civilization. Bibliographies.
  • Wengrow, David. “The Changing Face of Clay: Continuity and Change in the Transition from Village to Urban Life in the Near East.” Antiquity 72 (1998): 783-795. A discussion on the uses of clay and changing patterns of labor in Ubaid society.