A New Story of Sumer’s First Cities

By: Reed Goodman

Originally Published in 2023

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A large expanse of Iraq’s central floodplain, once thriving with life, now lies abandoned beyond the reach of modern agriculture. The dull beige of windswept desert stretches in all directions, marked only by the low rise of abandoned settlements, roaming dune sands and bygone canal levees. Subtle depressions shimmer white beneath the hot sun, betraying poisonous salts that choke all but the hardiest shrubs. Freshwater, the key to existence, is nowhere to be found. How did such an Ozymandian landscape, hostile to even the most intrepid among us, once harbor one of the most ancient and influential urban civilizations in history? This important question has stumped Mesopotamian archaeologists since the discipline’s founding, and it remains largely unanswered to this day.

Set within Iraq’s historic urban heartland, the ancient city of Lagash presents an ideal opportunity to unravel this mystery. Looking to integrate a long-term paleoenvironmental research component into the Lagash Archaeological Project, we set out to reconstruct ecological changes at the site and across the region. To achieve such an ambitious goal, we forged a partnership with Dr. Liviu Giosan, a geophysicist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, along with geochemists at the National Ocean Sciences Accelerator Mass Spectrometry facility, also housed at Woods Hole.

Illustration of the layers of Sumerian soil.
A drill dug 25 meters into Sumer soil, capturing 20,000 years of sediment. The findings revolutionize the history of the world’s first cities.

We wanted to piece together clues that could shed light on the ecological transformations that rendered this once-fertile land inhospitable, with a particular focus on the environmental conditions of the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE—a momentous period of city and state development in the Lagash region. During our inaugural season we established a geoarchaeological sampling program where remote-sensing data, including drone-based imagery, allows us to target subtle variations in topography, indicative of past features like watercourses, for geoarchaeological study. The latter includes the collection of sediment samples through augering and coring at strategic locations across the low-lying and sprawling tell, as well as offsite areas. This combines the bird’s-eye view of the landscape with the laser-focused precision of sediment sampling by hand auger and drill.

The initial findings reveal a fascinating, dynamic history of environmental change. Analyzing the geochemistry and biology of the sediments indicate past environments, including marshes, lakes, canals, and levees. Perhaps more importantly, cutting-edge methods in radiocarbon dating have allowed us to correlate these environmental signatures with the growth and decline of the city.

Our ongoing analysis continues to fill in the picture. For example, paleontological study of the sediment samples reveal the remains of unicellular aquatic organisms called ostracods and forams. While their protective shell is all that we have, they nevertheless offer invaluable insights into the range of environmental conditions that once persisted in our study area. Different classes of organisms inhabit specific types of waters, from fresh to salt to brackish (a mixture of fresh and salt).

We can now trace the evolution of this region from a once shallow sea, when the Persian Gulf reached far north of its present position during the Middle Holocene, to an increasingly anthropogenic landscape, as the advancing Tigris-Euphrates delta replaced seawater first with vast intertidal flats and then with nutrient-rich muds fit for agriculture.

We are also finding that as the 3rd millennium BCE progressed, the Lagash city-state found itself quite literally upstream without a paddle. First, as the former shoreline moved farther south and east through time, the Gulf’s tidal influence decreased, depriving the area of timely and economic flood waters. Next, the Tigris and Euphrates themselves began to change course, in part because of hydropolitics, with upstream power centers redirecting water away from their downstream foes, or polluting the rivers to render them useless. It’s no coincidence that the first recorded war in history was a dispute over water in the Lagash region, and that the city-state of Lagash ultimately fell for this reason.

Ultimately, as once-abundant freshwater sources gradually declined, and the tidal powers of the Gulf disappeared, communities looked to the construction of extensive canal networks to maintain opportunities for irrigation and transportation, a necessity for what had now become a predominantly urban lifeway. At the same time, without excess water to flush salts from the surface, the landscape’s productive potential began to drop. Marked decreases in water availability spelled impending disaster. The resulting environmental stressors would eventually contribute to the decline of many Sumerian cities, forcing populations to migrate to more favorable locales.

A lithology log next to a photo of people drilling for sediment samples.
The author drilled dozens of auger cores at strategic locations across southern Iraq. Each one pulled sediment samples that, when analyzed, became data that revealed the changing ecologies of the region over millennia. In particular, this heavy-duty drill extracted a core that goes 20,000 years back in time recording the diverse and changing habitats lived in by many generations of people from ancient Sumer until today.

Our collaborative research has provided crucial insights into the complex interplay between human activity and environmental factors that shaped the rise and fall of these incredible sites. Our rigorous geoarchaeological analysis has only begun to unravel the intricate tapestry of ecological changes that transformed the once-prosperous floodplain into the desolate desert we see today. Moreover, the implications of our findings extend beyond understanding the environmental history of ancient Mesopotamia. As modern societies grapple with the challenges of climate change, dwindling water resources, and agricultural sustainability, lessons from the past take on new relevance. The fate of the these once-thriving urban centers in southern Iraq offers a cautionary tale about responsible water management and environmental stewardship.

Further research will continue to refine our understanding of the complex interplay between human activities, climate fluctuations, and environmental degradation at Lagash. Our Lagash Project team, in collaboration with our partners, plans to continue these paleoenvironmental investigations, expanding the scope of the project to encompass a broader geographic range and a more comprehensive array of data sources. By combining archaeological evidence with cutting-edge scientific techniques, we hope to paint as nuanced and detailed a portrait as possible of the ecological conditions that shaped the lives of the ancient inhabitants of Mesopotamia.

In addition to the paleoenvironmental research, the Lagash Archaeological Project is investigating material evidence that can shed light on the daily lives, economy, and political structures of the ancient city. These findings, alongside our paleoenvironmental data, will contribute to a more holistic understanding of the complex and interrelated factors behind the rise and fall of one of the world’s first cities.

We hope that the interdisciplinary nature of the Lagash Archaeological Project, blending archaeology with geoscience, serves as a model for future research in the region. As we continue to investigate human-landscape interactions, we are reminded of the timeless adage that the past is a foreign country. The lessons we learn can help guide us as we navigate the challenges and uncertainties of our own rapidly changing world. This journey, far from being a mere academic exercise, holds one key to understanding the interplay between culture, society, and the environment, and may ultimately help shape a more sustainable and resilient future for Iraq, a place that finds itself once again at the brink of environmental collapse.

Lagash Emerges from Beneath the Water

Two maps of Sumer.
Based on the breakthrough data collected by the author, these two maps illustrate a revolution in our understanding of Sumer’s first cities: The place where Lagash was first inhabited was underwater in the 4th millennium BCE, indicating that people could not have settled there until long after the establishment of western cities on the Euphrates, like Ur and Uruk. By the time Lagash emerged from the water, around 3200 BCE, it benefited from hundreds of years of cultural development in the western cities, such as the invention of the wheel, the cuneiform writing system, and the institutions of formalized religion.

Reed Goodman earned his Ph.D. in 2023 while researching the relationship between social institutions and waterscapes in southern Mesopotamia. His work combines art history with high-tech data from remote-sensing and geoarchaeology to look at the rise of the city-state.

Cite This Article

Goodman, Reed. "A New Story of Sumer’s First Cities." Expedition Magazine 65, no. 1 (September, 2023): -. Accessed December 10, 2023. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/a-new-story-of-sumers-first-cities/

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