The tell (mound) of Ubaid (عبيد) near Ur in southern Iraq has given its name to the prehistoric Pottery Neolithic to Chalcolithic culture, which represents the earliest settlement on the alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia. The Ubaid culture had a long duration beginning before 5300 BC and lasting until the beginning of the Uruk period, c. 4100 BC. The invention of the wheel and the beginning of the Chalcolithic period fall into the Ubaid period.
The Ubaid period is divided into three principle phases:
- Early Ubaid — sometimes called Eridu, (5300–4700 BC) a phase limited to the extreme south of Iraq, on what was then the shores of the Persian Gulf. This phase, showing clear connection to the Samarra culture to the north, saw the establishment of the first permanent settlement south of the 5 inch rainfall isohyet. These people pioneered the growing of grains in the extreme conditions of aridity, thanks to the high water tables of Southern Iraq.
- Middle Ubaid — sometimes called Hadji Muhammad, (4800–4500 BC) after the type site of the same name, saw the development of extensive canal networks from major settlements. Irrigation agriculture, which seem to have developed first at Choga Mami (4700–4600 BC) and rapidly spread elsewhere, from the first required collective effort and centralised coordination of labour.
- Later or "Classic Ubaid" — In the period from 4500–4000 BC saw a period of intense and rapid urbanisation with the Ubaid culture spread into northern Mesopotamia replacing (after a hiatus) the Halaf culture. Ubaid artefacts spread also all along the Arabian littoral, showing the growth of a trading system that stretched from the Mediterranean coast through the Dilmun civilization based in Bahrain to Oman.
The archaeological record shows that Arabian Bifacial/Ubaid period came to an abrupt end in eastern Arabia and the Oman peninsula at 3800 BC, just after the phase of lake lowering and onset of dune reactivation. At this time, increased aridity led to an end in semi-desert nomadism, and there is no evidence of human presence in the area for approximately 1000 years, the so-called "Dark Millennium".. This might be due to the 5.9 kiloyear event at the end of the Older Peron.
Ubaid culture is characterised by large village settlements, characterised by multiroomed rectangular mud-brick houses and the appearance of the first temples of public architecture in Mesopotamia, with a growth of a two tier settlement hierarchy of centralised large sites of more than 10 hectares surrounded by smaller village sites of less than 1 hectare. Domestic equipment included a distinctive fine quality buff or greenish coloured pottery decorated with geometric designs in brown or black paint; tools such as sickles
were often made of hard fired clay
in the south. But in the north, stone and sometimes metal were used.
The Ubaid period as a whole, based upon the analysis of grave goods, was one of increasingly polarised social stratification
and decreasing egalitarianism
. Bogucki calls this a phase of "Trans-egalitarian" competitive household in which some fall behind as a result downward social mobility
. Thus Ubaid culture would seem to be one in which Morton Fried
and Elman Service
have hypothesised the rise of an elite of inherited chieftains
, perhaps heads of kin groups linked in some way to the administration of the temple shrines and their granaries, were responsible for mediating intra-group conflict and maintaining social order. It would seem that various collective methods, perhaps through what Thorkild Jacobsen
called primitive democracy
, in which disputes were previously resolved through a council of one's peers, were no longer sufficient to the needs of the local community.
The Ubaid culture was clearly intrusive into southern Iraq, though it has clear connection to earlier cultures in the region of middle Iraq. The appearance of the Ubaid folk, has sometimes been linked to the so-called Sumerian problem, related to the origins of Sumerian civilisation. Whatever the ethnic origins of this group, we here see for the first time a clear tripartite social division between intensive subsistence peasant farmers, with crops and animals coming from the north, tent-dwelling nomadic pastoralists dependent upon their herds, and hunter-fisher folk of the Arabian littoral, living in reed huts.
Stein and Özbal describe the Near East oikumene that resulted from Ubaid expansion, contrasting it to the colonial expansionism of the later Uruk period. "A contextual analysis comparing different regions shows that the Ubaid expansion took place largely through the peaceful spread of an ideology, leading to the formation of numerous new indigenous identities that appropriated and transformed superficial elements of Ubaid material culture into locally distinct expressions.""..
- Bogucki, Peter (1990). The Origins of Human Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Charvát, Petr (2002). Mesopotamia Before History. London, New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415251044.
- Mellaart, James (1975). The Neolithic of the Near East. New York: Scribner.
- Nissen, Hans J. (1990). The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000–2000 B.C.. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.