Jemdet Nasr
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Jemdet Nasr
Jemdet Nasr
Jemdet Nasr is located in Iraq
Jemdet Nasr
Shown within Iraq
Coordinates32°43?01?N 44°46?44?E / 32.717°N 44.779°E / 32.717; 44.779
Part ofBabil Governorate, Iraq
Area1.5 hectares (3.7 acres) (Mound A), 7.5 hectares (19 acres) (Mound B)
Height2.9 metres (9 ft 6 in) (Mound A), 3.5 metres (11 ft) (Mound B)
PeriodsUbaid, Uruk, Jemdet Nasr, Early Dynastic I, Parthian?
Site notes
Excavation dates1926, 1928, 1988, 1989
ArchaeologistsS.H. Langdon, L.Ch. Watelin, R. Matthews

Jemdet Nasr (Arabic: ? ) is a tell or settlement mound in Babil Governorate (Iraq) that is best known as the eponymous type site for the Jemdet Nasr period (3100-2900 BC), and was one of the oldest Sumerian cities. The site was first excavated in 1926 by Stephen Langdon, who found proto-cuneiform clay tablets in a large mudbrick building thought to be the ancient administrative centre of the site.[1] A second season took place in 1928, but this season was very poorly recorded. Subsequent excavations in the 1980s under British archaeologist Roger Matthews were, among other things, undertaken to relocate the building excavated by Langdon. These excavations have shown that the site was also occupied during the Ubaid, Uruk and Early Dynastic I periods.

History of research

In 1925, the team that was excavating at Kish received reports that clay tablets and painted pottery had been found by locals at a site called Jemdet Nasr, some 26 kilometres (16 mi) northeast of Kish. The site was subsequently visited and it was decided that an excavation was necessary. The first season at Jemdet Nasr took place in 1926, directed by Stephen Langdon, Professor of Assyriology at Oxford University and director of the excavations at Kish.[2] The excavation lasted over a month and employed between 12 and 60 workmen.[3] Langdon was not an archaeologist, and even by the standards of his time, as exemplified by Leonard Woolley's work at Ur, his record-keeping was very poor. As a result, much information on the exact find spots of artefacts, including the tablets, was lost.[4] A large mudbrick building was excavated in which a large collection of proto-cuneiform clay tablets was found.[3] The finds from this season were divided between the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the Field Museum in Chicago; the latter two co-sponsors of the excavations in Kish and Jemdet Nasr.[5] A second season was organized in 1928, lasting between 13-22 March and directed by L.Ch. Watelin, the then-field director at Kish. This time, some 120 workmen were employed.[3] Watelin kept almost no records of his excavations at the site but from the few notes that survive he seems to have been digging in the same area as Langdon.[6]

In 1988 and 1989, two further excavation seasons were carried out under the direction of British archaeologist Roger Matthews. The aims of the 1988 season were to conduct an archaeological survey of the site, to revisit the large building on Mound B that had been excavated by Langdon but very poorly published, and to explore a building that was visible on the surface of Mound A.[7] During the 1989 season, again directed by Matthews, a dig-house was constructed on the site. Research focused on Mound B with the aim to further explore the ancient occupation in that area. No work was carried out on Mound A.[8] Further excavation seasons, although planned, were prevented by the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990 and no fieldwork has been carried out at the site since then.[9]

The importance of the findings at Jemdet Nasr were immediately recognized after the 1920s excavations. During a large conference in Baghdad in 1930, the Jemdet Nasr period was inserted into the Mesopotamian chronology between the Uruk period and the Early Dynastic period, with Jemdet Nasr being the eponymous type site. Since then, the assemblage characteristic for the Jemdet Nasr period has been attested at other sites in south-central Iraq, including Abu Salabikh, Fara, Nippur, Ur and Uruk.[10] The period is now generally dated to 3100-2900 BC.[11]

Jemdet Nasr and its environment

The name Jemdet Nasr translates as "Small mound of Nasr", named after a prominent sheikh in the early twentieth century. Jemdet Nasr is located in modern-day Babil Governorate in central Iraq, or ancient southern Mesopotamia. Before the implementation of the Musaiyib irrigation project in the 1950s, the site lay in a semi-desert area. Today, the site is located in an area that is heavily irrigated for agriculture. The tell consists of two mounds, A and B, that are located adjacent to each other. Mound A is 160 by 140 metres (520 by 460 ft), 2.9 metres (9 ft 6 in) high and has a total area of 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres). Mound B, located immediately to the northeast of A, measures 350 by 300 metres (1,150 by 980 ft) for a total area of 7.5 hectares (19 acres), reaching up to 3.5 metres (11 ft) above the modern level of the plain.[12]

Occupation history

Occupation is thought to have started at least in the Ubaid period and occupied until the Early Dynastic I period. The Ubaid occupation of the site has not been explored through excavation but is inferred from pottery dating to that period, and clay sickles and a fragment of a clay cone, that were found on the surface of Mound A.[13] Both the 1920s as well as the 1980s excavations have resulted in considerable quantities of Middle Uruk period (mid-4th millennium BC) pottery. It seems that during this period, both Mounds A and B were occupied. During the Late Uruk period (late 4th millennium BC), an extensive settlement must have existed at Mound B, but its nature is again hard to ascertain due to a lack of well-excavated archaeological contexts.[14]

The Jemdet Nasr period settlement (3100-2900 BC) extended over an area of 4-6 hectares (9.9-14.8 acres) of Mound B. Some 0.4 hectares (0.99 acres) was occupied by the single, large mudbrick building that was excavated by Langdon, and where the clay tablets were found. In and around this building, kilns for firing pottery and baking bread were found, and other crafts like weaving. Many of these crafts, and also agricultural production, feature prominently in the proto-cuneiform tablets - indicating that much of the economy was centrally controlled and administered. In the texts from Jemdet Nasr, the term "SANGA AB" appears, which may denote a high official. The building was probably destroyed by fire. There is no evidence for far-reaching trade-contacts; no precious stones or other exotic materials were found. However, the homogeneity of the pottery that is typical for the Jemdet Nasr period suggests that there must have been intensive regional contacts. This idea is strengthened by the finding of sealings on the tablets of Jemdet Nasr that list a number of cities in southern Mesopotamia, including Larsa, Nippur, Ur, Uruk and Tell Uqair.[15]

After the destruction of the Jemdet Nasr building, occupation of the site seems to have continued uninterrupted, as pottery forms show a gradual transition from Jemdet Nasr forms into the Early Dynastic I repertoire. At least one building of this period has been excavated at Mound B. Based on the distribution of Early Dynastic pottery on the surface, the settlement seems to have been smaller than during the Jemdet Nasr period.[16] A single Early Dynastic I grave was found on Mound A, but no further evidence for occupation during this period. The building that was visible on the surface of the mound was probably a Parthian fortress, but due to a lack of well-dated pottery from this area this dating could not be ascertained.[17]

Material culture

Apart from the proto-cuneiform tablets, Jemdet Nasr gained fame for its painted polychrome and monochrome pottery. Painted pots display both geometric motifs and depictions of animals, including birds, fish, goats, scorpions, snakes and trees. However, the majority of the pottery was undecorated, and the fact that most painted pottery seems to have come from the large central building suggests that it had a special function. Pottery forms included large jars, bowls, spouted vessels and cups.[18]

A number of cylinder seals, stamp seals and cylinder seal impressions on the clay tablets have been found at Jemdet Nasr.[19] Stylistically, these seals are a continuation of the preceding Uruk period. The cylinder seals display humans as well as animals in a very crude style. Over 80 of the clay tablets bore a sealing, showing humans, animals, buildings, containers and more abstract designs. None of the sealings on the tablets was made by the seals that were found at the site, indicating that sealing either occurred outside Jemdet Nasr or that seals could also be made of perishable materials. One sealing, found on thirteen tablets, lists the names of a number of cities surrounding Jemdet Nasr, including Larsa, Nippur, Ur and Uruk.[20]

The exact findspots of many objects retrieved during the 1920s excavations could no longer be reconstructed due to the poor publication standards, so that many can only be dated by comparing them with what has been found at other sites that do have a good stratigraphy and chronological control. Many of the objects found during the 1920s could be dated from the Uruk period to the Early Dynastic I period. Very few copper objects were found in Jemdet Nasr. These included an adze, a fish-hook and a small pendant in the shape of a goose. A particular type of stone vessel with ledge handles and a rim decorated by incised rectangles has so far not been found at any other site. The function of a number of flat polished stones incised with lines forming a cross is uncertain, but it has been suggested that they were used as bolas. They are common in Uruk period sites. Because clay as a raw material is widely available around Jemdet Nasr, clay objects are very common. Clay objects included baked clay bricks, clay sickels, fragments of drain pipes, spatulas, spindle whorls and miniature wagon wheels. Beads, small pendants and figurines were made of bone, shell, stone, clay and frit.[21]

Proto-cuneiform texts

The clay tablets that were reported to the excavators of Kish in 1925 may not have been the first to come from Jemdet Nasr. Already before 1915, a French antiquities dealer had bought tablets that reportedly came from the site through looting. He sold them in lots to the French dealer Dumani Frères, the Louvre and the British Museum, while those resold to Dumani Frères were subsequently purchased by James Breasted for the Oriental Institute in Chicago.[22] Another group of tablets was purchased in Kish in the 1930s and of these it was asserted that they came from Jemdet Nasr, although this is unlikely due to stylistic differences between these tablets and those excavated at Jemdet Nasr in 1926.[23] During the first regular excavation season in 1926, between 150 and 180 tablets were found in Mound B; the error margin resulting from gaps in the administration kept by the excavators. Some of these tablets may actually have come from the 1928 excavations under Watelin. The tablets from the regular excavations are stored in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.[22]

The Jemdet Nasr tablets are written in proto-cuneiform script. Proto-cuneiform is thought to have arisen in the second half of the 4th millennium BC. While at first it was characterized by a small set of symbols that were predominantly pictographs, by the time of the Jemdet Nasr period, there was already a trend toward more abstract and simpler designs. It is also during this period that the script acquired its iconic wedge-shaped appearance.[24] While the language in which these tablets were written cannot be identified with certainty, it is thought to have been Sumerian.[25] Contemporary archives have been found at Uruk, Tell Uqair and Khafajah.[26]

The tablets from Jemdet Nasr are primarily administrative accounts; long lists of various objects, foodstuffs and animals that were probably distributed among the population from a centralized authority.[27] Thus, these texts document, among other things, the cultivation, processing and redistribution of grain, the counting of herds of cattle, the distribution of secondary products like beer, fish, fruit and textiles, as well as various objects of undefinable nature. Six tablets deal with the calculation of agricultural field areas from surface measurements, which is the earliest attested occurrence of such calculations.[28]


  1. ^ Stephen Langdon, New Texts from Jemdet Nasr, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, pp. 837-844, 1931
  2. ^ Ernest Mackay, Report on the Excavations at Jemdet Nasr, Iraq, Field Museum of Natural History. Anthropology, Memoirs, vol. I, no. 3, Chicago, 1931
  3. ^ a b c Matthews 1992, pp. 1-3
  4. ^ Matthews 2002, p. 2
  5. ^ Matthews 2002, p. 4
  6. ^ Matthews 2002, p. 6
  7. ^ Matthews 1989
  8. ^ Matthews 1990, p. 25
  9. ^ Matthews 2002, p. ix
  10. ^ Pollock 1990, p. 58
  11. ^ Pollock 1999, p. 2
  12. ^ Matthews 1989, pp. 225-228
  13. ^ Matthews 1989, p. 247
  14. ^ Matthews 2002, p. 33
  15. ^ Matthews 2002, pp. 33-37
  16. ^ Matthews 2002, pp. 33-34
  17. ^ Matthews 1989, p. 246
  18. ^ Matthews 2002, pp. 20-21
  19. ^ Roger J. Matthews, Cities, Seals and Writing: Archaic Seal Impressions from Jemdet Nasr and Ur, Materialien zu den frühen Schriftzeugnissen des Vorderen Orients, vol. 2, Berlin: Gebr, Mann Verlag, 1993, ISBN 978-3786116868
  20. ^ Matthews 2002, pp. 17-19
  21. ^ Matthews 2002, pp. 30-32
  22. ^ a b Englund & Grégoire 1991, pp. 7-8, 16
  23. ^ Matthews 2002, p. 3
  24. ^ Woods 2010, pp. 36-37
  25. ^ Woods 2010, pp. 44-45
  26. ^ Woods 2010, p. 35
  27. ^ Matthews 2002, pp. 34-35
  28. ^ Englund & Grégoire 1991, pp. 8-9

See also


  • Englund, Robert K.; Grégoire, Jean-Pierre (1991), The Proto-Cuneiform Texts from Jemdet Nasr. I: Copies, Transliterations and Glossary, Materialien zu den frühen Schriftzeugnissen des Vorderen Orients, 1, Berlin: Gebr. Mann, ISBN 3-7861-1646-6
  • Matthews, Roger (1989), "Excavations at Jemdet Nasr, 1988", Iraq, 51: 225-248, doi:10.2307/4200306, JSTOR 4200306
  • Matthews, Roger (1990), "Excavations at Jemdet Nasr, 1989", Iraq, 52: 25-39, doi:10.2307/4200315, JSTOR 4200315
  • Matthews, Roger (1992), "Defining the Style of the Period: Jemdet Nasr 1926-28", Iraq, 54: 1-34, JSTOR 4200350
  • Matthews, Roger (2002), Secrets of the Dark Mound: Jemdet Nasr 1926-1928, Iraq Archaeological Reports, 6, Warminster: BSAI, ISBN 0-85668-735-9
  • Pollock, Susan (1990), "Political Economy as Viewed from the Garbage Dump: Jemdet Nasr Occupation at the Uruk Mound, Abu Salabikh", Paléorient, 16 (1): 57-75, doi:10.3406/paleo.1990.4519
  • Pollock, Susan (1999), Ancient Mesopotamia. The Eden that never was, Case Studies in Early Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-57568-3
  • Woods, Christopher (2010), "The Earliest Mesopotamian Writing" (PDF), in Woods, Christopher (ed.), Visible Language. Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond, Oriental Institute Museum Publications, 32, Chicago: University of Chicago, pp. 33-50, ISBN 978-1-885923-76-9

Further reading

External links

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