Episode 26: Samarra

The Samarra culture developed in southern Mesopotamia during the second half of the seventh millennium BCE. It is believed to have developed out of the more southern parts of the Proto-Hassuna culture, which in these more southern parts of Mesopotamia changed differently to the Hassuna culture of northern and central Mesopotamia. We can see this change from the Proto-Hassuna to the Samarra through the pottery as well as in some ways through the shape of houses at early Samarra villages such as Tell es-Sawwan.

The Samarra culture was first identified in 1911 during excavations at the site of Samarra – the much later capital of the Abbasid caliphate. Fragments of painted pottery were discovered in some of the deeper areas of excavation. These were recognised as being old – certainly much older than the Abbasid city above – but were not recognised as being from the Neolithic until the same types of pottery were found in the 1940s during excavations at Tell Hassuna. Here, Samarra pottery was found in the Hassuna and later levels, which identified this pottery type as being from the Neolithic. Actual information about the organisation and distribution of Samarra villages came later, with the excavation of sites such as Tell es-Sawwan (about 100 kilometres or 60 miles north of Baghdad).

Most Samarran villages which we currently know about were small, at one or a few hectares in size. Those which have been excavated – such as Tell es-Sawwan – show houses arranged into groups, in many several cases with some evidence of a ditch or wall surrounding the village. Houses were build of large ‘cigar-shaped’ mudbricks, laid in the header and stretcher fashion. This would have made the walls not only very thick but also very strong, suggesting that these houses had at least one upper floor. Samarra houses are also distinctive for their shape, as the earliest known evidence for the development of the ‘Tripartite’ house which later become a distinctive feature of the architecture of Southern Mesopotamia.

Examples of ‘cigar-shaped’ mudbricks laid in header and stretcher fashion at Chogha Mami. Image adapted from Oates 2013.
Examples of T-shaped ‘tripartite’ type houses from Tell es-Sawwan, Level III. Image adapted from es-Soof 1968.

Samarran houses, such as those at Tell es-Sawwan and at Chogha Mami near the border between modern-day Iraq and Iran, were laid out in groups with courtyards or open areas between them. At Sawwan we also have evidence of other buildings which have been interpreted as granaries, suggesting the use of communal storage, possibly on a large scale.

The walled village at Tell es-Sawwan, Level IIIa. Image adapted from Yasin 1970

Storage is not the only aspect of the organisation of life in Samarran villages which is believed to have been communal across the village. Southern Mesopotamia is very dry – too dry to rely on only rainfall for growing crops. Even in the Neolithic, when the landscape was less arid, this part of Mesopotamia would have seen too little rainfall in most years to rely on rain to keep growing plants watered and healthy. Despite this, charred plant remains from sites such as Tell es-Sawwan contain plants which need a lot of water. This includes plants such as linseeds (also known as flax) which provides not only nutritious oily seeds but which also has fibrous stalks which can be processed, spun and woven into linen. In order to grow plants such as wheat and barley, and especially to grow water-hungry plants such as flax, it is believed that people living in Samarran villages must have gotten together to build some form of irrigation infrastructure to keep their crops watered. Irrigation systems will later become a complex and highly important part of the organisation and maintenance of villages, kingdoms and empires in Southern Mesopotamia. And, like the Tripartite house, irrigation systems are believed to have started during the Samarra.

Samarran pottery is distinctive for its naturalistic designs. These were most commonly placed inside the centre of bowls or on the sides of jars. These large central motifs would have then been surrounded by bands of geometric patterns, although in some areas of Southern Mesopotamia (such as at villages in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains) geometric designs were more often the only form of decoration painted onto vessels. All Samarran pottery was handmade, with the fine or serving wares being made of a buff or light coloured clay, often either of levigated (filtered) clay or fine clays with with no visible temper.

Example of naturalistic style Samarran pottery decoration. Image from Oates 2013, original caption included.
Geometric decorated small jar from Samarra on display in the British Museum. Image by self.
Bowl from Samarra with naturalistic decoration of gazelle, on display in the British Museum. Image by self.
How to make a Samarran carinated bowl, examples of each stage of manufacture. Image from Nieuwenhuyse et al 2001.

Samarran pottery not only included jars and bowls but also included new forms. One of these for which the Samarra culture is particularly known is ladles. At many sites these ladles were made of delicate pottery and often painted with geometric patterns. At other sites, such as at Tell es-Sawwan, ladles were made in the same size and shape but were carved from stone rather than shaped and fired from pottery.

Jars, such as those found at Tell es-Sawwan, sometimes also had lids made from gypsum. Many cultures in the Pottery Neolithic fashioned some sort of lids for jars, so the presence of gypsum lids in the Samarra is not entirely surprising. We can identify these gypsum discs as lids from their shape, and from the impressions of cords across the top and sides of these discs where they would have been tied onto jars. We can also identify these as lids from the seal impressions occasionally found on them. These show us that the use of seals to identify and protect private property – something missing from the Hassuna culture to the north – developed in the Samarra culture. Like irrigation and Tripartite houses, the use of seals for the organisation of property will be a major feature of Southern Mesopotamian societies for thousands of years afterwards.

Episode Bibliography:

al-A’dami, K.A. 1968. Excavations at Tell es-Sawwan (second season). Sumer 24: 57-60.

Banning, E. 1997. Differing trajectories in the Late Neolithic of Mesopotamia and Jordan. Bulletin of the Canadian Society of Mesopotamian Studies 32: 43-52.

Beard, L. 2002. The function of village enclosure walls in the Samarra period, with references to changes in animal exploitation. Altorientalische Forschungen 29(2): 298-306.

Breniuet, C. 2016. Tell es-Sawwan, Irak. Essai de synthèse et de prospective sur la néolithisation de la plaine mésopotamie. Paléorient 42(1): 137-149.

Darabi, H. 2020. A consideration of eastward spread of the Samarran phenomenon in the light of new evidence along the Zagros piedmont. Iraq 82: 95-110.

Helbaek, H. 1964. Early Hassunan vegetable at es-Sawwan near Samarra. Sumer 20: 45-48.

Helbaek, H. 1972. Samarran irrigation agriculture at Choga Mami in Iraq. Iraq 34(1): 35-48.

Hellwing, B. 2016. Reconsidering the Neolithic graveyard at Tell es-Sawwan, Iraq. Paléorient 42(1): 129-142.

Kennett, D.J. and Kennet, J.P. 2006. Early state formation in Southern Mesopotamia: sea levels, shorelines and climate change. Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology 1: 67-99.

Mortensen, P. A sequence of Samarran flint and obsidian tools from Choga Mami. Iraq 35(1): 37-55.

Nieuwenhuyse, O., Jacobs, L., Van As, B., Broekmans, T. and Andriaens, A.M. 2001. Making Samarra fine ware – technological observations on ceramics from Tell Baghouz (Syria). Paléorient 27(1): 147-165.

Oates, J. 1968. Prehistoric investigations near Mandali, Iraq. Iraq 30(1): 1-20.

Oates, J. 2013. Samarran issues. In O.P. Nieuwenhuyse, R. Bernbeck, P.M.M.G. Akkermans and J. Rogasch (eds.), Interpreting the Late Neolithic of Upper Mesopotamia. Turnhout: Brepols: 407-416.

al-Soof, B. 1968. Tell es-Sawwan. Excavation of the fourth season (spring, 1967). Sumer 24: 3-16.

al-Souf, B.A. 1971. Tell es-Sawwan, fifth season’s excavations (1967-1968). Sumer 27: 3-8.

al-Tekriti, A.Q. 1968. The flint and obsidian implements of Tell es-Sawwan. Sumer 24: 53-55.

Wahida, G. 1967. The excavations of the third season at Tell es-Sawwan, 1966. Sumer 23: 167-178.

es-Wailly, F. and al-Soof, B.A. 1965. The excavations at Tell es-Sawwan: first preliminary report (1964). Sumer 1965: 17-32.

Yasin, W. 1970. Excavation at Tell es-Sawwan, 1969. Report on the sixth season’s excavations. Sumer 26: 3-20.

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