Mesopotamian History of the "Early Dynastic Period" the present state and future prospects

Workshop from 1.11.2011 – 3.11.2011
at the Institut für Orientalisik, Vienna University.

The initiative was started in july 2010 at a private gathering in Hainfeld (Pfalz). The participants agreed that a revision of the Early Dynastic Period in Mesopotamia is one of the most pressing issues in the field. Under the questionable label “Early Dynastic Period(s)” (ED) – which was in fact borrowed of Egyptology - we usually subsume the diverse Sumerian cultures between 2900 and 2350 BCE, a time-span of more than 500 year (Middle Chronology). The preceding periods (Uruk periods and Gamdat Nasr period) are reasonably well researched, although the written documents contain almost no explicit “historical” information. The changes in ED, especially at the end, when we have a wealth of information from various cities are not yet described with the necessary precision. The desirable revision of ED history has, in a first step, to start with an evaluation of the present state in the various sub-fields in order to develop a programme for future research.

The internal differentiation of the ED periods is almost exclusively based on the stratigraphy of the pre Second World War Chicago excavation at the Diyala. In the last decades new excavation in Upper Mesopotamia (e.g. Mari and Beydar) provided much insight into these cultural contact zones where Semitic and Sumerian traditions were fused in a variety of ways. In consequence the chronologies of these later ED were revised and partially adjusted. However, the important artefacts as well as documents from Southern Mesopotamia pre-dating the latest ED phase and, of course, the Old Akkadian supremacy, remain up to now highly problematic.

Besides such chronological questions the entire cultural and social evolution during ED remains a riddle – only casual scholarly statements available so far. Even worse, much of what is hypothesized for these developments must be considered as vaticina ex eventu, that is paradigms deduced from much later material are applied to much older societies. (in certain cases, up to one millennium older). Examples are the palace – temple dichotomy, kinship and inheritance, family structures and social groupings, dynastic vs. divine kingship, private vs. Temple or state economies, property rights, and much more issues.

As the absolute chronology will certainly remain disputed for many years to come, and attempt to establish a relative chronology by using all available material should be used and connected: texts with historical information and historical synchronisms, as well as stratigraphic comparisons, regional and supra-regional development of stylistic features in iconography, architectural sequences, ceramics and sealings as key artefacts and so on.

All the invited scholars are experts in the specialisation; we expect to produce a concise and reliable overview of the state of the art concerning the ED history in Mesopotamia. The ensuing Old Akkadian period is presently receiving much interest because several new archives are going to be published in the near future. Doubtlessly, the attempt to describe the ED cultures and societies is pre-requiste for an improved understanding of the Old Akkadian times.

(G.J. Selz, Universität Wien, R. Dittmann Universität Münster)

Tagungsprogramm (.pdf)