Online Review: Book

Beyond the Ubaid: Transformation and Integration in the Late Prehistoric Societies of the Middle East

Marcella Frangipane


Edited by Robert A. Carter and Graham Philip (Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 63). Pp. vii + 394, figs. 149, tables 8, maps 2. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, Chicago 2010. $42.95. ISBN 978-1-885923-66-0 (paper).

This book contains the papers delivered at the international workshop “The Ubaid Expansion? Cultural Meaning, Identity and the Lead-up to Urbanism” held at the University of Durham in April 2006. The chapters are grouped around topic areas offering different approaches to answering a main question: How to explain the widespread dissemination—in this instance, that which is documented for the fifth millennium B.C.E. in and around Mesopotamia—of cultural features shared by communities with different origins and partly differing developments over vast and ecologically diverse areas. What is the significance of this koine? Is it correct to talk about “expansion”? What are the cultural meanings and the social, political, and economic implications of these kind of phenomena? Does the sharing of cultural features reflect a sharing of similar identities, or were they simply widely circulating individual cultural traits? What were these traits, and why did they circulate?

These questions are basic for analyzing and understanding not only the widespread dissemination of Ubaid culture in the fifth millennium but also the so-called Uruk expansion a millennium later. They open up a debate on such crucial concepts as those of culture (and its materialization and archaeological recognizability), boundaries, and core-periphery interaction, all widely used, and sometimes abused, in our field of scholarship.

This book offers a fairly comprehensive account of the current debate on these issues, and, by applying theoretical reflections to study cases, also provides methodological hints.

The dominant theoretical approach, shared by many of the contributions, is set out and discussed by the editors (Carter and Philip) in the first chapter, whose title, “Deconstructing the Ubaid,” is a telling indication of the approach proposed. The authors emphasize the need to reconsider the validity of the concept of culture itself and propose an open model both in temporal terms, as a set of continually evolving features, and in spatial terms, as “linked core elements shared to differing degrees within an interaction sphere” (13). The concept of an interaction sphere—which is also taken up by Stein, Karsgaard, and other authors in the book—is certainly of great interest when analyzing interregional relations among pre-state societies, allowing us to move beyond the unconvincing core-periphery or acculturation models. But this cannot replace the concept of culture itself, as the authors propose, because in the final analysis, reference has to be made again to structured, interacting whole realities. The ongoing transformation and superimposition of different types of identities (cultural, social, and even ethnic) in what is commonly called culture are certainly real and important phenomena to be taken into account. Also noteworthy is the reference frequently made in the book (Pollock, Weeks et al., Parker) to the need to examine individual traits separately to understand the meaning and the social and symbolic function they acquire when adopted in different communities that formally share them. But, although destructuring as a means of analysis would appear to be useful, this cannot avoid that we then restructure societies and cultures as sets of structurally correlated features functioning as a whole. Cultural features take on different meanings in different societies precisely because they become part of new structures, just as words can take on different meanings when they are borrowed by different languages, but they lose their meaning outside the structure of which they form part.

This is where the main thread running throughout the book emerges, namely, whether Ubaid as a widespread culture ever existed at all, what it was that expanded, and what is meant by Ubaid-related. The papers revolve around all these topics and, taken together, reconstruct a new picture of the Ubaid phenomenon. First of all, the book revisits the question of definitions and boundaries of what is meant by the expression “Ubaid,” also reviewing the matter of the role played by the southern fifth-millennium B.C.E. communities in the formation of early complex societies and in steering interregional relations. Oates (ch. 3) underlines the usefulness of the traditional subdivision that she herself had introduced, precisely because it is able to highlight both continuity and change, characterizing early Mesopotamian societies; she rightly recalls the wide-ranging relations that existed between northern and southern Mesopotamia well before Ubaid, as do Campbell and Fletcher (ch. 5), who moreover stress the difficulty in recognizing a clear period of transition between Halaf and northern Ubaid, as evidenced from 14C datings. Oates and Gibson (ch. 6) then suggest a basic role of the Ubaid culture in the formation of early state societies even in the north, which is certainly a stimulating view, although I do not agree with Gibson's excessively unidirectional perspective and the terms he uses—kingdoms, merchants—in reference to Ubaid society.

The other topic addressed frequently in the book is the question of regional variability and the diverse local and supraregional identities in the multifaceted “Ubaidized” world. An interesting analysis is offered by Stein (ch. 2), who emphasizes the need to recognize coexisting local and panregional identities, linked to different types of interaction between communities. Stein also draws a significant distinction between public and personal identities, which traveled and expanded in a different way. But the author's explanation of the reasons that produced the Ubaid oikoumene is more contentious since it once again refers to the demands for exchange, which I do not consider to be an adequate explanation of the wide-ranging relations linking Mesopotamian prehistoric societies.

Another stimulating point of view is provided by Karsgaard (ch. 4), who observes the Halaf–Ubaid transition from the perspective of a functional change in the use of painted pottery: the motifs, in the author's view, were similarly used in “social acts of consumption,” and their simplification in the Ubaid period indicates a radical transformation of the society, which was “the heart of the Ubaidizing transformation” (56). This is an appealing and original idea, but somehow oversimplified, since, by only considering structural and behavioral similarities, it disregards any evidence of historical relations.

Pollock makes reference to an interpretation of the structural, social, and symbolic meaning of specific behaviors that are only formally similar in her thorough analysis of the food-related daily practices on three sample sites (ch. 7): Abada, Maddhur, and Tall-i-Bakun. She emphasizes that specific differences in certain daily practices can be identified within shared and formally similar customs, and that these differences can reveal a different composition of the underlying social units. She suggests that this double-interpretation key should be used when investigating the Ubaid phenomenon.

Various papers in section 2 (Croucher, Lorentz, Daems, Healey, Crawford) deal with aspects concerning the symbolic expression of identity and social relations embodied in specific objects of the material culture. I would consider two other papers in this section separately: one by Sudo (ch. 12), which concerns the economic sphere and focuses on spindlewhorls as evidence of an early use of wool in the weaving industry; and the other by Sievertsen (ch. 14), which interestingly analyzes the variability and changes in the Ubaid buttress-recess architecture in sociopolitical terms.

The third part of the book is dedicated to peri-Mesopotamian regional contexts and offers fresh data from recent field researches in southwest highland Iran, particularly the Fars region and the site of Tall-i-Bakun (Weeks et al., Petrie and Potts, Helwing and Seyedin), in northwest Mesopotamia and surrounding regions (Yamazaki, Trentin, Özbal), in eastern Anatolia (Gurdil, Parker), and in the southern Caucasus (Chataigner et al.). All these papers emphasize the importance of the specific features of the various regions and the need for independently examining the circulation of the various cultural traits (pottery above all), as well as the causes, timing, and modalities of their dissemination. Özbal analyzes and reviews relations with the local traditions together with the weight and nature of what is referred to as the Ubaid influence.

The papers dealing with the mountainous areas of Anatolia, Iran, and the Caucasus (Weeks et al., Helwing and Seyedin, Parker, Chataigner et al.) emphasize the increased importance of herding strategies in the fifth millennium and the part nomadic pastoralism may have played in the spreading of Ubaid models and features. They, more or less explicitly, once again take up the issue of interaction spheres and the circulation of individual cultural traits within different regional networks and on the basis of strong local traditions. The view of nomadism as a factor of interaction between Mesopotamia and surrounding worlds is certainly a useful perspective and opens up considerable scope for reflection.

Viewed as a whole, this book is a remarkable contribution to current debates on the issues addressed, for it offers stimulating theoretical perspectives and a great deal of useful data. The approach is fairly homogeneous on the whole, despite the obvious—and welcome—differences of opinion on specific interpretations. It will long stand as a benchmark for anyone wishing to approach these topics.

Marcella Frangipane
Sapienza University of Rome
Department of Antiquity Sciences
Via Palestro 63
00185 Rome

Book Review of Beyond the Ubaid: Transformation and Integration in the Late Prehistoric Societies of the Middle East, edited by Robert A. Carter and Graham Philip

Reviewed by Marcella Frangipane

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 2 (April 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1162.Frangipane

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