Was the Early Dynastic period the first phase of “history” in Mesopotamia?
The early dynastic period marked a critical phase in Mesopotamia’s history. It saw the emergence of large cities like Uruk and Kish, which displayed the characteristics of urban centers today. The cities had large buildings constructed using the architectural designs of the time. The cities led to significant population growth, revolutionizing social and economic. These cities also encouraged the growth of political systems to govern the people and control resources. Influential cities like Ummah and Lagash controlled neighboring regions and their resources, accelerating growth. The Early Dynastic period in Mesopotamia, characterized by the growth of the first cities, intricate political systems, writing, and record-keeping, was the beginning of “history” in the region because it established the basis for the civilization that would follow. The primary sources from this era have some biases on the historical events in the region. These sources’ strengths, insights, and potential biases must be examined to understand the Early Dynastic period as the first phase of history in Mesopotamia.
History studies past events that have impacted how people live in modern times. It helps scholars understand people, communities, and cultures that lived in the past (Benati 2014). History can be studied by examining primary resources created during the time. Historians also use secondary sources such as journals and books to gain the context of the events. History seeks to understand how and why past occurrences shape the present, helping people determine the future by making informed decisions (Wencel 2016). Additionally, it helps people understand the experiences and points of view of those who lived in the past (Bartash 2015). Consequently, history is not merely a record of past events but a body of knowledge that helps people understand past communities and their cultures.
One of the most notable developments during the Early Dynastic period was the birth of recording through writing. The cuneiform maintained records of economic, political, and legal events. This highly advanced writing allowed people to record sounds and syllables, capturing many current affairs (Van De Mieroop 2016). The invention of writing and record-keeping was a significant turning point in Mesopotamia as it catalyzed the growth of administrative and economic systems. Van De Mieroop (2016) writes that administrative records from this period are significantly more than other documents from the Early Dynastic period. They contain a wide range of easily understood information because they use spoken language by incorporating phonetic and grammatical elements (45). The bulk of these texts can be traced back to the end of the Early Dynastic period indicating that writing became more advanced with time.
In addition to record-keeping, writing allowed Mesopotamians to pass knowledge among communities and time. According to Charpin (2010), writing is considered one of the hallmarks of civilizations as it indicates that a society has reached the age of preserving knowledge for future use. The cuneiform script enabled the people of Mesopotamia to preserve information on technologies, advancing them further (Lecompte and Benati 2021). As mentioned above, the cities in Mesopotamia featured unique architectural designs found in other cities centuries later (Sazonov 2018). The advancement of these designs was made possible by writing. Additionally, Mesopotamia had complex agricultural systems in places like Sumeria, allowing the society to thrive even when others faced drought.
The Cooper readings provide meaningful insight that indicates the Early Dynastic period was the first phase of “history” in Mesopotamia. They outline the events that happened during the Umma and Lagash border conflict. The readings outline the social, political, and economic events that culminated in the conflict. They enable historians to understand the reasons that catalyzed battle in ancient Mesopotamia. They also provide information about the administrative structure of the community and how this shaped the conflict.
The Cooper readings allow for historical constructions of the Umma-lagash conflict and other historical contexts allowing readers to understand the events that transpired. In addition to social, cultural, and political factors, the texts explore the religious aspects of the community and the rulers of Umma and Lagash. The religious records show that Mesopotamia was advanced in religion, and the people worshiped in temples and sanctuaries. The reading state that the king of Lagash built a temple of bricks and named it “Bagar provides justice” (24). From this, historians can infer that Mesopotamia linked religion to justice like many societies do today. The king also authorized the construction of shrines and statues in Gatumdug and Lugalurtur (25). These structures had symbolic meanings, emphasizing the spirituality of ancient Mesopotamia.
The readings also give a step-by-step development of the conflict. The leader of Lugash captured opposing kings and generals and conducted burial rights for them. This is an indicator of the ruthlessness of battle during the Early Dynastic period. Eliminating the opposing forces helped victorious kings gain easy control of the citizens of captured territories and their resources (Nowicki 2016). Although from distant civilizations, the narrations share characteristics with those of battles in recent history (Dijk-Coombes 2018). This allows for historical reconstructions as scholars can relate these happenings to those in similar battles.
The Cooper readings have some limitations and potential biases. The texts are mainly a construct of the leaders of Umma and Lagash. This exposes the texts to one-sided biases as each individual records the happenings in a way that favors their point of view. Consequently, the text might be inaccurate for historical reconstructions and require historians to refer to other sources for guidance. At the same time, the texts might fail to capture the entire context of the events during the Early Dynastic period since they mainly focus on elite conflict. They do not explore the experiences of the lower cadres of citizens, which is vital to understanding a community’s history completely.
Another potential limitation of a primary source is outlined in the course textbook. Van De Mieroop (2016) notes that sources from the third and second millennia outline the experiences of kings. Although they are well-detailed and are popular in modern research, they are unreliable (46). Factors such as that long reigns that lasted more than three millennia make the primary sources suspect because the conflicts during the era minimized the possibility of such long eras.
The Early Dynastic period was an essential phase in the development of “history” in Mesopotamia. Writing and record-keeping facilitated knowledge spread and the emergence of new technologies. It also helped the people of the region to preserve information. The Cooper readings, a primary source highlighting the Umma-Lagash border conflict, provide meaningful insight into Mesopotamia’s political, social, and religious landscape during the Early Dynastic period. However, primary sources have limitations and potential biases. The leaders and administrators of Umma and Lagash wrote the Cooper texts. They might be skewed and reflect the views of those individuals.
Bartash, Vitali. 2015. “New texts from the early dynastic i-ii period*.” Rivista Degli Studi Orientali 88 (14): 119–27. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24754110.
Benati, Giacomo. 2014. “The beginning of the early dynastic period at ur.” Journal of Asian History, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1017/irq.2014.5.
Charpin, Dominique. 2010. Writing, Law, and Kingship in Old Babylonian Mesopotamia. University of Chicago Press.
Dijk-Coombes, Renate Marian van. 2018. “Mesopotamian Gods and the Bull.” Sociedades Precapitalistas 8 (1). https://www.memoria.fahce.unlp.edu.ar/library?a=d&c=arti&d=Jpr9363.
Lecompte, Camille, and Giacomo Benati. 2021. “The Scale and Extent of Political Institutions in Early Dynastic Mesopotamia: The Case of Archaic Ur.” Hal.science. https://hal.science/hal-03333543/.
Nowicki, Stefan. 2016. “Women and References to Women in Mesopotamian Royal Inscriptions: An Overview from the Early Dynastic to the End of Ur III Period.” Studia Orientalia Electronica 4 (April): 36–52. https://journal.fi/store/article/view/47198.
Sazonov, Vladimir. 2018. “Universalistic Ambitions, Deification and Claims of Divine Origin of Mesopotamian Rulers: The Lagaa II Dynasty.” Usuteaduslik Ajakiri, no. 1 (72): 42–58. https://www.ceeol.com/search/article-detail?id=779493.
The Cooper readings
Van De Mieroop, Marc. 2016. A History of the Ancient near East, Ca. 3000-323 BC. Wiley Blackwell.
Wencel, Maciej Mateusz. 2016. “Radiocarbon Dating of Early Dynastic Mesopotamia: Results, Limitations, and Prospects.” Radiocarbon 59 (2): 635–45. https://doi.org/10.1017/rdc.2016.60.