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Features May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

The Buried Cities of Iraq
by Rex Graham


Guillermo Algaze has often waded into the Tigris River in southeast Turkey and gazed south toward Iraq. It is a land he has long wanted to explore, but political instability has made that virtually impossible. However, now a new constitution and the prospect of elections could soon enable archaeologists to resume digging in Iraq after decades of neglect.

Algaze, who is chair of UCSD's Anthropology Department, was awarded a $500,000 no-strings-attached MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in October 2003. His 1993 book, The Uruk World System: The Dynamics of Expansion of Early Mesopotamian Civilization , is a highly influential study about the growth of early Sumerian civilization, an informal empire spread along the fertile alluvium of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq. Algaze has combined his extensive experience excavating archaeological sites in Turkey and Iran with modern economic principles to create a controversial theory about how urban civilization first arose more than 5,000 years ago in southern Mesopotamia, the “land between two rivers.”

Algaze has proposed that the first city-states appeared in Mesopotamia because of capitalistic industrialization. He believes that the emergence of civilization should not be defined by the use of bronze or iron as much as by new ways of organizing labor, producing goods and building trade.

Uruk was one of the first urban centers in the world, and Algaze claims that its precocious social hierarchy of traders, artisans, scribes and builders was the likely driving force of its urban growth. That and factors such as the region's strategic geographic location, efficient modes of river transportation, mild climate and productive agriculture put the boom in the world's first boomtowns. In other words, he sees Uruk (referred to in the Old Testament as Erech) as an industrial Chicago in the Mesopotamian farm belt.

Over thousands of years, windblown sand has covered the ruins of ancient Uruk and other city-states in southern Iraq. But during the 4th millennium B.C., the Tigris and Euphrates rivers provided easy transportation of wool, wheat and other commodities from the north down to the south. Temples dominated the city-states that have been excavated, and Algaze believes it was innovative temple administrators who fired the engines of economic progress. The clerics took advantage of the highly productive fields of wheat to the north and the more salt-tolerant barley grown farther south. They accumulated large surpluses of grain, which permitted them to feed a captive pool of laborers.

Evidence suggests that, as temple administrators accumulated food and wool, they also assumed control over specialized textile workers and organized them to produce colorful cloth. Archaeologists have excavated shellfish and other sea creatures used to produce colorful textile dyes, which were superior to plant-derived tints.

Sheep, goats and cattle were the first to be domesticated, but Algaze believes the humble donkey may have played a central role in Mesopotamia. Its domestication may have provided the “tipping point” that enabled Uruk's administrators and entrepreneurs to transport fine textiles and highly crafted pottery along the trade routes, thus increasing their wealth through trade.

The evidence of great wealth is indisputable. Uruk's huge mud-brick buildings were decorated with beautiful mosaics and works of art. The architectural sophistication and economic power of Uruk and similar Mesopotamian cities, which were also centered around temple precincts, fundamentally set them apart from all other previous human settlements. “Early Meso­potamian society would have looked very much like Stalinist Russia,” says Algaze, “with Stalin as both the king and the chief priest.”

The conditions were ripe for the crystallization of a new socioeconomic structure. Using terms borrowed from economics, Algaze argues that the ecological diversity and bounty of the warm, moist river valleys also offered an unmatched “comparative advantage” to those who learned to exploit it. “Industrialization. People have not used that word to apply to ancient societies mostly out of ignorance,” says Algaze. “Whether we realize it or not, we operate on the Marxist paradigm, which essentially says that industrial, capitalist societies only emerged on the face of the earth starting in the 15th and 16th centuries. Marx was correct in some respects, but he missed the starting date by thousands of years.”

Algaze is not, however, without his critics. Archaeologists who explain the emergence of civilization in the first city-states with humanistic language or analogies have disagreed with his analytical, scientific approach. “Guillermo has a real gift for cross-disciplinary approaches, and he's brought fresh theoretical fodder into the discipline,” says Joy McCorriston, associate professor of anthropology at Ohio State University. “It's not unusual to have a reaction against such a new idea in anthropology.”

Charles Stanish, an anthropology professor at UCLA, also notes the impact that Algaze's cross-disciplinary approach has had. “He takes on the big questions, brings to bear political, economic and other models, and makes us think about the notion of early ‘state societies' in different and exciting ways,” says Stanish. “Some love it, some hate it, but if you look throughout the history of science, the greatest contributions always begin as the most contentious. At the same time, nobody disputes the fact that Guillermo is one of the most innovative minds in the business.”

Even as an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico, the Cuban-born Algaze was fascinated by the birth of civilization. He was inspired by scholarly books on early civilizations, particularly The Evolution of Urban Society: Early Mesopotamia and Prehispanic Mexico (Aldine de Gruyter, Berlin and New York, 1966) by Robert McC. Adams. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago in 1977, Algaze studied with McC. Adams and began conducting archaeological surveys in Iran. However, the overthrow of the U.S.-backed shah two years later and the taking of American hostages prevented Algaze from re-entering the country. Then, after Saddam Hussein seized power in Iraq in 1979, foreign researchers were required to show a baptismal certificate in order to enter. This effectively prevented Algaze and other Jewish scientists from working there. Algaze next focused his attention on urban ruins in southeast Turkey, and has excavated there for 20 years.

While coping with the baking heat of summer digs in Iran and Turkey, Algaze never lost his cool or his passion to explore. “He is very, very serious about his work, but he's very funny, pleasant and self-deprecating, and he treats everybody with respect,” says Gil Stein, the director of Chicago's Oriental Institute, who did field work with Algaze in Turkey when both were graduate students.

Algaze exhibited early potential as a university departmental chair by successfully leading archaeological digs in hot, inhospitable locales. Colleagues describe him as adept at dealing simultaneously with host countries' governmental entities, local landlords and village leaders. At the same time, he wrote grant applications, and coordinated the logistics of bringing in crews and equipment from around the world. He somehow satisfied security officials and police who were suspicious of foreigners, examined everything that his crews dug up, and even broke up fights between crew members while also keeping them well fed. “People vote with their feet, and they would come back year after year to work with Guillermo because he is such a good person,” says Stein.

Algaze's peers and friends describe him as unfailingly kind and generous in the Old World tradition of a gentleman, while he also chafes at outmoded modes of organizing academic research. “I call myself a social scientist,” Algaze says. “I look at issues of historical development over time. I am a historian who doesn't use historical methods; I use archaeological methods instead.”

And meanwhile he waits to finally cross the Tigris River and use those archaeological methods in Iraq.

Rex Graham is a freelance writer based in San Diego.


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"Some love it, some hate it, but if you look throughout the history of science, the greatest contributions always begin as the most contentious."