Crafts in the Ancient Near East
Some of the earliest human civilizations arose in southern Mesopotamia, in what is now southern Iraq, in the fourth millennium B.C.E. In the second half of that millennium, in the south around the city of Uruk, there was an enormous escalation in the area occupied by permanent settlements A large part of that increase took place in Uruk itself, which became a real urban center surrounded by a set of secondary settlements. While population estimates are notoriously unreliable, scholars assume that Uruk inhabitants were able to support themselves from the agricultural production of the fields surrounding the city, which could be reached with a daily commute. But Uruk's dominant size in the entire region, far surpassing that of other settlements, indicates that it was a regional center and a true city. Indeed, it was the first city in human history.
The vast majority of its population remained active in agriculture, even those people living within the city itself. But a small segment of the urban society started to specialize in nonagricultural tasks as a result of the city's role as a regional center. Within the productive sector, there was a growth of a variety of specialist craftspeople. Early in the Uruk period, the use of undecorated utilitarian pottery was probably the result of specialized mass production. In an early fourth-millennium level of the Eanna archaeological site at Uruk, a pottery style appears that is most characteristic of this process, the so-called beveled-rim bowl. It is a rather shallow bowl that was crudely made in a mold; hence, in only a limited number of standard sizes. For some unknown reason, many were discarded, often still intact, and thousands have been found all over the Near East. The beveled-rim bowl is one of the most telling diagnostic finds for identifying an Uruk-period site. Of importance is the fact that it was produced rapidly in large amounts, most likely by specialists in a central location.
A variety of documentation indicates that certain goods, once made by a family member as one of many duties, were later made by skilled artisans. Certain images depict groups of people, most likely women, involved in weaving textiles, an activity we know from later third-millennium texts to have been vital in the economy and to have been centrally administered. Also, a specialized metal-producing workshop may have been excavated in a small area at Uruk. It contained a number of channels lined by a sequence of holes, about 50 centimeters deep, all showing burn marks and filled with ashes. This has been interpreted as the remains of a workshop where molten metal was scooped up from the channel and poured into molds in the holes. Some type of mass production by specialists was involved here.
Objects themselves suggest that they were the work of skilled professionals. In the late Uruk period (3500–3100 B.C.E.), there first appeared a type of object that remained characteristic for Mesopotamia throughout its entire history: the cylinder seal. This was a small cylinder, usually no more than 3 centimeters high and 2 centimeters in diameter, of shell, bone, faience (a glassy type of stoneware), or various types of stones, on which a scene was carved into the surface. When rolled over a soft material-primarily the clay of bullae (round seals), tablets, or clay lumps attached to boxes, jars, or door bolts-the scene would appear in relief a type of sculpture in which the subjects project from the background, easily legible. The technological knowledge needed to carve it was far superior to that for stamp seals, which had happened in the early Neolithic period (approximately 10,000–5000 B.C.E.). From the first appearance of cylinder seals, the carved scenes could be highly elaborate and refined, indicating the work of specialist stone-cutters. Similarly, the late Uruk period shows the first monumental art, relief, and statuary in the round, made, with a degree of mastery that only a professional could have produced.