The Why Files The Why Files --

Ancient Syria: The anti-sprawl solution?
30 AUGUST 2007

Origins are always interesting. Where did the universe come from? How did humans descend from earlier primates? And how did ancient cities arise?

The standard growth model for cities in the ancient Middle East shows them arising as centers of trade, specialization and governance, under the rule of a powerful king, then becoming surrounded by contiguous suburbs -- a form of "urban sprawl" that predates the motor vehicle.

aerial view of hills and cavities in light brown desertAerial view of modern day Tell Brak. Photo: Google Maps.

A new report from Northeast Syria indicates that sprawling from the center out is not the only way for cities to form. Tell Brak, a giant city mound that was occupied for up to 6,000 years, shows that satellite villages may form near -- but not touching -- the city center, and then gradually sprawl toward the center.

Tell Brak began forming in the fertile alluvial plains of Northern Syria about 6,200 years ago. As residents built their city on the remains of previous buildings, the city eventually created a giant, artificial mound, called a "Tell" (which means "mound" in Hebrew and Arabic).

With dwellings covering up to 130 hectares by 3600 BC, Tell Brak may have been the largest city in the Middle East at the time. You can still see the mound from space.

 Amid large patches of farmland and desert, mounds of sand and dirt rise up from the earth
Want to navigate to the archeological site? Click here! Composite created from map images at Google Maps.

Over the last half century, farmers have plowed up a glut of busted pottery around Tell Brak, and these can be dated and used to locate the ancient villages. By examining pot fragments, Jason Ur, an assistant professor of anthropology at Harvard University, and colleagues observed that Tell Brak began to grow about 4,200 BC, when settlements sprang up roughly 400 to 500 meters outside the central city.

Steep, barren hillside littered with ruddy rocks and tufts of grass
The surface of Tell Brak is covered with broken pottery and other debris. Archaeologists used these artifacts to estimate the size and location of ancient settlements. Photo courtesy Jason A. Ur, Harvard University.

Ur says the settlement pattern was distinct from two patterns seen at other developing cities: the "village" pattern where residents left expanding cities to form "daughter" villages a few kilometers away, and the "sprawl" pattern of growth at the margins. "The process we see at Brak, is initially, settlement at the center, we don't know how big, but we assume it was a fairly typical village. Then satellite communities appear close to it, but separated by a few hundred meters. Through time, there is an infilling that ultimately ends up reaching the center. This is very atypical for previous sites; this is something new."

Black earth is tilled up in a long line leading to gentle hills in the distance
Broken pottery and other debris from the outer city at Tell Brak rest in the bottom of irrigation trenches. Today this area is entirely farm fields and sheep pasturelands. Photo courtesy Jason A. Ur, Harvard University.

Opportunity knocks
Brak was based on an economy of wheat, barley, sheep and goats, and while it is located close to the origin of agriculture, it arose thousands of years after that world-changing invention.

Fortunately for archeologists, the city faded after reaching its apex around 4200 to 3600 BC. City growth can bury evidence, as it did in Uruk, the classical "first city" of the Middle East, which is in Southern Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq. "The problem is that the early phase of the process of urbanization got covered by the remains of the later, mature city, so it's very difficult to study," Ur says. "In Brak, we have been able to tease out the early stages of the process," because after about 3000 BC, "there was a collapse of the urban area, and the outer areas were not settled. To some extent, Brak is a unique opportunity" to study ancient urban development.

White mound rises from a great expanse of green grass
The mound at Tell Brak is entirely artificial, the product of more than 4,000 years of continuous human settlement. Photo courtesy Jason A. Ur, Harvard University.

Bottom's up!
Just as Levittown, the low-cost, carbon-copy housing built for World War II veterans on Long Island, N.Y. represented a physical response to a particular social, political and economic situation, the settlement patterns around Tell Brak reflect conditions in ancient Syria. The remains do not show "action by a central polity, where a king through the force of will decided to create a city," says Ur. "This is often the implicit assumption, that cities are created by the acts of a strong, willful, charismatic leader."

Rather, in Tell Brak, "We see, in the formation of satellite clusters, people, probably outsiders, coming to a place, not under duress, but for their own reasons. We could guess the motivation to come is economic, but it could have something to do with Brak as a religious place. But the end result is the formation of a large city that was not the intention of the city's founders; the city came about organically."

The evidence for multiple, close-in satellites suggests that groups of newcomers would "stop and maintain some distance, 300 or 400 meters, from the city center. We interpret this as trying to become part of the place, but trying to maintain some political and social autonomy, too."

- David Tenenbaum

Related Why Files
War on Archeology
Salvage Archeology
Digging Common Folks
Ancient Agriculture
Archeologists in the Field

• "Early Urban Development in the Near East," by Jason A. Ur et al, Science, 31 August, 2007.

©2021, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.