text-only page produced automatically by LIFT Text Transcoder Skip all navigation and go to page contentSkip top navigation and go to directorate navigationSkip top navigation and go to page navigation
National Science Foundation
News
design element
News
News From the Field
For the News Media
Special Reports
Research Overviews
NSF-Wide Investments
Speeches & Lectures
NSF Current Newsletter
Multimedia Gallery
News Archive
News by Research Area
Arctic & Antarctic
Astronomy & Space
Biology
Chemistry & Materials
Computing
Earth & Environment
Education
Engineering
Mathematics
Nanoscience
People & Society
Physics
 

Email this pagePrint this page


Press Release 10-054
Archaeologists Uncover Land Before Wheel; Site Untouched for 6,000 Years

Previously unexcavated site reveals clues about world's first cities

Photo of a red stone seal with an image of a deer.

Stone seals like this one were used to mark ownership of goods among Tell Zeidan's social elite.
Credit and Larger Version

April 6, 2010

View a video narrated by Gil Stein, lead researcher and director of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.

A team of archaeologists from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, along with a team of Syrian colleagues, is uncovering new clues about a prehistoric society that formed the foundation of urban life in the Middle East prior to invention of the wheel.

The mound of Tell Zeidan in the Euphrates River Valley near Raqqa, Syria, which had not been built upon or excavated for 6,000 years, is revealing a society rich in trade, copper metallurgy and pottery production. Artifacts recently found there are providing more support for the view that Tell Zeidan was among the first societies in the Middle East to develop social classes according to power and wealth.

Tell Zeidan dates from between 6000 and 4000 B.C., and immediately preceded the world's first urban civilizations in the ancient Middle East. It is one of the largest sites of the Ubaid culture in northern Mesopotamia.

Thus far, archaeologists have unearthed evidence of this society's trade in obsidian and production and development of copper processing, as well as the existence of a social elite that used stone seals to mark ownership of goods and culturally significant items.

"The project addresses questions not only of how such societies emerged but how they were sustained and flourished," said John Yellen, program director for archaeology in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences directorate. NSF supports the University of Chicago's research.

Covering about 31 acres, Tell Zeidan was situated where the Balikh River joins the Euphrates River in modern-day Syria. The location was at the crossroads of major, ancient trade routes in Mesopotamia that followed the course of the Euphrates River valley. The Ubaid period lasted from about 5300 to 4000 B.C.

"This enigmatic period saw the first development of widespread irrigation, agriculture, centralized temples, powerful political leaders and the first emergence of social inequality as communities became divided into wealthy elites and poorer commoners," said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute and a leader of the expedition.

"The research also is important because it provides insight into how complex societies, based on linkages which extended across hundreds of miles, developed," said Yellen, noting the distance travelled for raw materials needed for many of the Tell Zeidan artifacts.

For example, copper ore was carried by workers from sources near modern-day Diyarbakir, Turkey, about 185 to 250 miles away, then smelted at Tell Zeidan to produce metal tools and other implements.

One of the most remarkable finds was a stone stamp seal depicting a deer, Stein said. The seal was about two inches by two-and-a-half inches and was carved from a red stone not native to the area. A similar seal design was found 185 miles to the east near Mosul in northern Iraq.

"The existence of very elaborate seals with near-identical motifs at such widely distant sites suggests that in this period, high-ranking elites were assuming leadership positions across a very broad region, and those dispersed elites shared a common set of symbols and perhaps even a common ideology of superior social status," said Stein.

Stein said the location's potential for further discoveries is so great the project is likely to last for decades.

-NSF-

Media Contacts
Bobbie Mixon, NSF, (703) 292-8070, bmixon@nsf.gov
William Harms, University of Chicago, (773) 702-8356, wharms@uchicago.edu

Program Contacts
John E. Yellen, NSF, (703) 292-8759, jyellen@nsf.gov

Principal Investigators
Gil J. Stein, University of Chicago, (773) 702-4098, gstein@uchicago.edu

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2014, its budget is $7.2 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 50,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards about $593 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

 Get News Updates by Email 

Useful NSF Web Sites:
NSF Home Page: http://www.nsf.gov
NSF News: http://www.nsf.gov/news/
For the News Media: http://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: http://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/

 

University of Chicago lead researcher Gil Stein discusses the mound of Tell Zeidan.
View Video
University of Chicago lead researcher Gil Stein discusses the mound of Tell Zeidan.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of the Tell Zeidan site in irrigated fields.
The Tell Zeidan site is about 48 feet high at its tallest point and covers about 30 acres.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of project co-directors Annas and Gil Stein examining a sherd of pottery at Tell Zeidan.
Project co-directors Annas and Gil Stein examine a shard of pottery at Tell Zeidan.
Credit and Larger Version

The first excavation of Tell Zeidan in 6,000 years reveals a society divided by social inequality.
Photo of the first excavation of Tell Zeidan in 6,000 years.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of a strainer spouted pitcher painted and impressed in a pattern of connected ovals.
This strainer-spouted pitcher is from the Halaf period and dates to about 5400 B.C.
Credit and Larger Version

Photo of a seven-inch-tall female figurine made from clay.
This seven-inch-tall female figurine is from the Ubaid period and is made of baked clay.
Credit and Larger Version



Email this pagePrint this page
Back to Top of page