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BA Latin and French

Year of entry: 2020

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Course unit details:
Origins of States: The Archaeology of Urbanism in the Near East

Unit code CAHE30912
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Archaeology
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Mesopotamia occupies a key place in the history of human society – the setting in which a series of ‘firsts’ appear; the first writing, the first kings, the first cities, the first legal systems, the first literature. These developments had a fundamental influence on subsequent civilizations, including the classical world and even society today. All these developments emerge during the 1000 years that are centred around 3000BC, but to understand them we need a wider perspective as it wasn’t a simple phenomenon or a single event. This course considers the late Neolithic society from which these urban states emerged as well as the way in which early states matured into the second millennium BC. Through a series of case studies, this course explores the major theoretical perspectives, the archaeological data, economy and the social changes that occurred within this region. These changes, however, were far from uniform or inevitable. The course examines the distinctive local social trajectories and the interaction between different regions as well as how these changes impacted on religion, the beginnings of writing, identity, exclusion, memory and social roles. The different theoretical perspectives of archaeological and textual sources are also explored to understand how the study of the topic has changed.


  • To become familiar with the geography of Mesopotamia, the chronologies and key sites through a series of case  studies.
  • To understand late prehistoric society in Mesopotamia and its subsequent changes
  • To understand social organisation within an early urban society, as well develop approaches to understanding early urban states as dynamic, unstable entities.
  • To develop a greater appreciation of the changing ways in which material culture is used in the creation of social identities.
  • To improve understanding of the influence of inter-regional contact.
  • To examine long-term patterns of social change.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students should/will be able to:


The following topics will be covered within the course. Some will be spread over more than one week. Some will be covered through lectures; others will be covered through the oral presentations, seminars and the creation of the course Wiki.

Introduction to the region and period of study

Changing interpretations

History of study and changing disciplinary perspectives

Texts and assumptions (including issues around collecting)

Material culture and alternative perspectives

Summary of developments prior to 4000BC.

Overview of the later Neolithic.

Concepts of urbanism

Definitions and structure of the urban state

Origins of urbanism; inter-related processes

Primary state development in southern; secondary; secondary state development in northern Mesopotamia?

Scale and political integration

Contrasts between different parts of Mesopotamia

Changes through time

Resisting urbanism; nomadism and the fringes of society

Power and hierarchies

Chalcolithic Chiefdoms?

Hierarchy and the state in 4th millennium Mesopotamia

Developments in the 3rd and early 2nd millennia

Local and regional identities

Dispersed communities in the Late Neolithic

Colonies and local resistance in 4th millennium north Mesopotamia

Changing food practices

Food, drink and feasting

Depicting consumption


The spread and decline of painted pottery in Mesopotamia; evolution of simplicity

Iconography of the early state

The appearance and use of writing and record keeping

Death and burial

What happened to burials in the 4th millennium?

Theatres of cruelty: the Ur Royal Cemetery

Household mortuary practices

Social roles


Dependent labour

Slaves and prisoners of war

Teaching and learning methods

  • 11 x 2 hour lectures
  • 7 x 1 seminar sessions involving discussion around weekly readings structured around theoretical and thematic approaches to the period, balancing archaeological and textual material.
  • 1 x mini-conference (c.4 hours, dependent on number of students) involving oral presentations and discussion around themes.
  • Collaborative creation of a course Wiki through student contributions.
  • There is a comprehensive Blackboard site including:
    • Module handbook
    • Assessment materials
    • All reading for preparation of weekly seminars
    • Student-developed Wiki
    • Links to other e-learning resources


Knowledge and understanding

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the detailed interpretation of specific key sites and their implications for society.
  • Express an in-depth knowledge of material culture in the Near East from later prehistory to the mid-2nd millennium BC.
  • Articulate an awareness of the impact of social, geographic and climatic factors of the development of human settlement in the Near East.
  • Understand how textually- and archaeologically-informed approaches to the past can draw on different theoretical perspectives.

Intellectual skills

  • Show an understanding of the complex interactions between different aspects of past societies.
  • Demonstrate and understanding of how technological and organisational change occurs, and the ways in which it articulates with society and social change.
  • Become accustomed to using primary archaeological data, and its biases and limitations.
  • Understand the potential of modern media to explore research questions.
  • Critically examine published works.
  • Contribute to and critically edit other students’ contributions to the course Wiki.

Practical skills

  • Experience of oral presentation;
  • Use of PowerPoint or Prezi to support presentations;
  • Use of standard Wiki software to create an online resource.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Make use of enhanced team-working and individual research skills, in other learning environments;
  • Independent research skills;
  • Creation of co-operative online resources.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Cognitive Skills ¿ appreciate the historical, social, cultural, and political context of archaeological interpretation ¿ apply scholarly and theoretical concepts to an understanding of social organisation in urban societies ¿ appreciate the issues in using primary and secondary sources of data
Personal Capabilities ¿ be able to work effectively within a group ¿ be able to edit the work of others and accept editing of own work ¿ be able to present own ideas
Project management
Practical and Professional Skills ¿ communicate effectively in writing, verbally and in discussion ¿ use presentation skills to support communication ¿ be able to critically evaluate one¿s own and others¿ opinions ¿ be able to use wiki-software and write effectively for a wider audience
Generic Competencies ¿ use diverse sources of evidence to draw and present conclusions ¿ ability to critically assess existing interpretations

Assessment methods

Assessment task

Formative or Summative


Weighting within unit (if summative)



2 hours


Oral presentation


15 minutes



Contribution to a course Wiki

Formative and Summative

2,000 words



Feedback methods

  • Written feedback on course wiki and oral presentation delivered via the School feedback template.
  • Additional one-to-one feedback (during the consultation hour or by making an appointment)
  • Peer feedback on Wiki contribution, both through the comments facility and particularly through the collaborative editing process.
  • Exam feedback available after completion of the relevant examination period, delivered via the School feedback template.

Recommended reading

Algaze, G. 1993. The Uruk World System. The Dynamics of Expansion of Early Mesopotamian Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Algaze, G. 2008. Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization: The Evolution of an Urban Landscape. Chicago University Press.

Matthews, R. 2003. The Archaeology of Mesopotamia. Theories and Approaches. London: Routledge.

Mieroop, M. van de. 1999. The Ancient Mesopotamian city. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pollock, S. 1999. Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Potts, D.T. 1997. Mesopotamian Civilization: The Material Foundations. London: Athlone Press.

Radner, K., & Robson, E. (2011). The Oxford handbook of cuneiform culture. Oxford University Press.

Yoffee, N. (2005). Myths of the archaic state: Evolution of the earliest cities, states, and civilizations. Cambridge University Press.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 22
Practical classes & workshops 4
Seminars 7
Tutorials 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 154

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Stuart Campbell Unit coordinator

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