What Was the ‘Ubaid Culture’ and Why is it Important to Neolithic Archaeology in the UAE?

Until 1949, the work of archeologists was focused on the Mesopotamian plain with its prehistoric remains being buried under a thick layer of alluvium. Historians claim that between 4500 and 4300 B.C., few Halafian settlements in Mesopotamian were abandoned; their pottery and tools were gradually substituted by the pottery of another culture called Ubaid. First, it was found in the 1920s, during excavations of al-Ubaid, near the city of Ur. The name Ubaid became significant because it was the first excavations in the proto-history that proved the existence and spread of a single culture from the Juzirah to the Tigris-Euphrates delta. Lack of evidence doubted a conquest of central and northern Iraq by the Ubadians. Eventually, it was hypothesized that a peaceful adoption or assimilation of the native population took place.

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Different settlements had appeared in southern Iraq long before the middle of the fifth millennium. The Eridu excavation of 1946-1949 proved the abovementioned assumption. However, no one knows how far back into the sixth millennium the roots of the Ubaid culture go. Still, during the Eridu excavations, an impressive series of seventeen temples were discovered. In the proto-historic period, they were build one above the other. The earliest and lowest temples of the XVII-XV centuries were small and had only one room with altars decorated with elaborate pottery. A slightly different ceramic was presented on the poorly preserved XIV-XII temples remains. The examples of the Hajji Muhammad ware were also found in other cities of southern Iraq. The brightest example of it was found in Ras el Amiya. The fragments of the clay vessels, walls, and other objects were discovered under a few meters of alluvium. Well-preserved temples of the XI-VI centuries contained various specimens of traditional Ubaid ware. The discovered temples of VI-I levels were considered to belong to the early stages of the Uruk period. The Hajji Muhammad and Eridu ware were concluded to relate to the early and late Ubaid ware. The mentioned above types of pottery belonged to the Ubaid 1, 2, 3, and 4 periods respectively.

The French archaeologist discovered the brightest examples of the Ubaid 1, 2, 3, and 4 pottery at Tell el-Oueili near the city of Larsa. A relatively small Tell (mound) Oueili appeared to be totally Ubaidian. The excavations of 1981 and 1984 discovered 20 levels of settlement. The uppermost levels (1 to 8) contained Ubaid 4, 3, and 2 pottery, and samples of Ubaid 1 (Eridu) ware were recovered from levels 8 to 11 (Roaf, 1966, p. 60). Additionally, the levels 12 to 19 yielded a pottery of the Pre-Ubaid culture. Other layers of occupation below the level 20 were difficult to differentiate. Therefore, the modest South Mesopotamian village went far back into the VI millennium.

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The Halaf ware as a part of the Ubaid culture is characterized by less attractive and sophisticated decoration. The Halaf ware is represented by a jar with a basket-handle, bell-shaped bowl, long tubular spout, and cream bowl with pouring lip (Roaf, 1966, p. 60). The abovementioned pottery was found in northern Mesopotamia and southern Iraq. Notably, the words clay and water fully characterize the Ubaid culture of southern Iraq. The use of stone was limited due to its natural lack in that area. As a result, only heavy tools and few ornaments were made of stone. All other objects, including spindle-whorls, bent nails, sickles, loom-weights, sling pellets, as well as models of adzes, axes, and knives were made of terracotta. The clay figurines of women, called Mother Goddess, were very popular. Roaf (1966) depicted the architecture of the Ubaid period:

A number of houses were frail structures of reed matting supported by wooden poles and sometimes plastered with clay, such as can be seen around Basrah today, but pressed mud or mud bricks were widely used for more comfortable buildings. (p.62)

The Eridu temples of the Ubaid period were built on the increasingly large and high mud-bricks platforms. The temples were also made of big mud bricks set in the clay mortar. It was cella with small rooms. At the end of the cella, there was a low podium against the wall. Traditionally, the podium supported the statue of the god. There was a brick altar at the opposite end of the cella. Externally, the walls were adorned with niches and shallow buttresses.

The secular architecture of the Ubaid period was well illustrated in the Hamrin basin and Lower Mesopotamia. The archeologists excavated the remains of few houses detached from each other by open spaces. One of the houses is remarkable for its infrastructure. Many square and shallow cavities between the walls were discovered inside and around the construction. The inhabitants of the village grew date palms, barley, and other edible plants due to its location, partly marshy and crisscrossed by streams.

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The Hamrin basin is situated halfway between the extreme north and extreme south of Iraq. About twelve Ubaid settlements were explored there. The settlement of Tell Madhhur was excavated in 1977-1980 by the British expedition. This settlement was of particular interest for the archeologists and historians for the best-preserved prehistoric buildings that had ever been discovered in Mesopotamia. Roaf (1966) describes:

This was a relatively small house built on the tripantine plain characteristic of all the main buildings of the Ubaid period (temples included), with a central cruciform hall and smaller rooms on two sides. The walls were still six feet high, and the doors and windows remained perfectly visible. A ramp in one of the rooms suggested an upper floor...The most content of the house was preserved, including pottery in situ, household implements and agricultural tools. (p. 63)

Territorially, the Ubaid culture dominated in the south of Iraq while its bearers in the north were in the minority. This theory was proved by dramatic difference in almost every aspect of life, including the customs, traditions, rituals, ceramics, and agriculture. The Ubaid culture has lasted for at least a thousand years. Roaf (1966) mentions, It spread all over the cultivable areas of the Mesopotamian plain with the notable exception of the middle Euphrates and lower Tigris valleys (p.64). The Ubaid ware revealed the fact of cultural and religious traditions being derived from a century to century, from one generation to another. A number on significant findings suggested the longstanding and successive character of the Ubaid culture existence.

The presence of bitumen, obsidian, and gold within the territory of the Ubaid villages in southern Iraq testifies to a certain amount of trade, including a long-distance trade. Neither the highest chains of the Zagros and Taurus, nor the rivers, nor the sea stopped the commercial intercourse of the Ubaid culture. The early interactions between the Gulf and southern Mesopotamia were proved by the identification of the Mesopotamian pottery in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain. Predominantly, the pottery had a coastal character of the distribution, which proved it was transported by sea. However, significant quantities of the Mesopotamian ceramics travelled inland into the Central Gulf Region. Carter (2006) stated, Advanced boat-building and sailing technologies were employed at this time, and that is true maritime exchange relationship existed between the Ubaid communities of southern Mesopotamia and the Arabian Neolithic groups of eastern Arabia (p. 52).

The examples of the function, distribution, and imitation of the Mesopotamian ceramics, found on the territory of the Arabian Neolithic settlements, proved the influence of the Ubaid culture on the culture of Arabia. Additionally, various excavations provided evidence of the Ubaid pottery to be a trade item. It was incorporated into the local symbolic vocabulary and material culture of the Neolithic system. In terms of function, distribution, and value of the Mesopotamian pottery, it should be stressed that the inhabitants of the Gulf actively sought it and incorporated into their social and ideological schemata.

The penetration of the Ubaid culture into the culture of the Arabian Neolithic could be observed in a cellular complex of stone chambers. The complex is considered the brightest example of a mixed material culture that combined typical elements of both regions. The boat-related findings provided evidence on the intense cooperation between the southern Mesopotamian Ubaid and the Arabian Neolithic areas. Various excavations suggest the idea that sailing was known by the Ubaid 3 period, which in its turn developed the idea of a longstanding commercial trade between the settlements. The presence of the Ubaid pottery within the territory in Arabian Neolithic sites around the Gulf indicated stability and longevity in the relations. Carter (2006) wrote, By the Ubaid 5, contact had all but ceased, though there is evidence from Qatar and Bahrain of continuing low-level connections (p.58).

Beech, Elders, and Shepherd (2000) proved the long-term existence of the Ubaid settlements on the Dalma based on the classic Ubaid pottery discovered in the area. The closer the Ubaid findings were examined, the clearer it became that the Ubaid culture was not a monolithic entity, but a combination of local unique variations. It is now evident that, even in the southern Arabian Gulf, the inhabitants clearly formed their own distinctive version of the 'Ubaid which, although perhaps seeking to emulate some of the traits of the so-called 'Ubaid heartland, maintained a distinctive character (Beech, Elders & Shepherd, 2000, p. 45).

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The overwhelming spread of the Ubaid pottery within the territory of Arabia suggested the dynamics of the local Neolithic society and economy. Moreover, in the context of the Gulf, the Ubaid pottery proved a high status or wealth of people possessing them, which was regarded as an exotic good. At the same time, the functional profile of the Mesopotamian pottery in the Gulf depicted the social needs of the Neolithic population. According to Carter (2006), The examples of cooperation between the Ubaid culture and the Gulf show that small-scale, decentralized societies are capable of maintaining stable and elaborate cycles of long-distance exchange, usually in high-value goods, within a ceremonial context (p. 60).

To conclude, the Ubaid culture has lasted for at least a thousand years. During this period, the elements of the Ubaid culture managed to spread far beyond its initial borders. By the late sixth millennium, southern Mesopotamia and the Gulf were linked by a long-distance maritime exchange relationship. Certain elements of the Ubaid culture were discovered during the excavations on the territory of Arabia. The findings allowed the scientists to get more information about the Gulf economy, traditions, and culture.

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