(Ar., Tell al-῾Ubaid),

site located 6 km west of Ur, on the right bank of the Euphrates River in Iraq (30°58′ N, 46°05′ E) that has given its name to the last period of the prehistory of Mesopotamia. This small mound, 350 m long and 6–7 m high, was explored on behalf of the British Museum in 1919 by Harry R. Hall (1922), who recovered painted sherds, now known to be similar to those from Eridu that, at the time, he could compare only with those collected at Susa, in the Iranian province of Khuzistan. He also discovered several later objects—fragments of columns inlaid with stone mosaic and copper animals. In 1923–1924, C. Leonard Woolley, responsible for the exploration of the large neighboring site of Ur, carried out a productive excavation at Ubaid, resuming Hall's work. Woolley explored the historical as well as the prehistoric strata. He initiated the use of the name Ubaid for the long period with painted ceramics whose traces he also explored in soundings at Ur. This terminology, accepted by all, is still in use. Finally, in 1937, Pinhas Delougaz (1938) and Seton Lloyd (1960), who were working at the time on behalf of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago at Khafajeh, in the valley of the Diyala River in central Iraq, worked at Tell al-῾Ubaid. In only four days at the site they discovered that the great temple excavated by Hall and Woolley was the same type as that at Khafajeh, but with an oval circuit wall. The site has not been excavated since. [See Khafajeh.]

The periodization of the prehistoric occupation of Ubaid was definitively set in 1960 by Joan Oates, based on analysis of the ceramics from Eridu, which was occupied during nearly the entire Ubaid period. [See Eridu.] Two new phases have been added to her subdivisions (Ubaid 1–4, early–late): Ubaid 0, the earliest (recognized at Tell el-'Oueili and several sites surveyed but not excavated), and Ubaid 5, the latest (attested at 'Oueili, Ur, Tell Madhhur, and several sites in the Arabian Gulf). [See 'Oueili, Tell el-; Ur.] In terms of absolute chronology, according to the most recent carbon-14 datings obtained at 'Oueili, the Ubaid began in about 6200 BCE, Ubaid 4 lasted from about 4800 to 4300 BCE, and Ubaid 5 from about 4300 to 3800 BCE.

At Tell al-῾Ubaid, the habitation area, investigated in a trench 30 × 2.1 m opened in the center of the mound, seems to have consisted of houses of light construction—wattle or straw matting layered with pisé—essentially reed hut, plastered with mud that did not preclude the use of pivot stones. The material recovered did not permit distinguishing between an Ubaid 4 or 5 dating, but it certainly indicated a very late Ubaid date: the finds consisted of painted and especially monochrome pottery, sometimes incised; sickles and pestles of baked clay; grooved balls of clay; fragments of sickles with large flint teeth; limestone hoes; small polished axes; and terra-cotta figurines. The lightly constructed huts at Tell al-῾Ubaid, which must date to 4000–3800 BCE, demonstrate the fact, also observed at Ur, that in lower Mesopotamia, at the end of the Ubaid period, housing was made of light materials. The only important constructions were probably the large family or clan reception rooms (as at Eridu VII–VI) or the granaries (as at 'Oueili). [See Granaries and Silos.]

A short distance south of the trench, a vast cemetery was surveyed. The site's British excavators covered the area rapidly because of the apparent poverty of the remains. They uncovered ninety-four tombs that represent a vast period of time (Ubaid 3–4, 5000–4300 BCE)—only three of which seemed on the basis of the pottery found there to belong to the final phase of Ubaid. To the north of the cemetery and sounding, excavation uncovered a single structure, a large temple whose foundation date is not known. In fact, the only stage of the building excavated was a reconstruction, according to the text of a stone foundation tablet, by “A-anepada, king of Ur, son of Mesannipadda, king of Ur, for Ninḫursag.” The king Mesannipadda, of the first dynasty of Ur, reigned in about 2500 BCE. This great sanctuary strongly resembles the Oval Temple at Khafajeh and one found at Lagash, present-day al-Hiba, not far from Telloh. [See Girsu and Lagash.] These vast structures set in an oval enclosure wall and identified by inscription, are clearly separate from the surrounding habitation areas, which is especially evident at Khafajeh. They are very isolated, not only by their enclosure wall, which fits poorly into the urban design, perhaps on purpose, but also by the terrace on which they are set. At Tell al-῾Ubaid, the great oval enclosure wall (85 × 65 m) was probably doubled in the interior by a concentric, smaller enclosure (as at Khafajeh). A rectangular terrace 33 × 26 m was constructed in the center of the enclosure of unbaked plano-convex bricks on a stone socle. Perpendicular to its southeast facade, a staircase with several stone treads gave access to the summit of the terrace. In addition, a small lateral stair, also of stone, was arranged parallel to the southwest facade, which was later incorporated in an annex. The sanctuary itself, which has since disappeared entirely, probably stood on this terrace.

At the foot of the terrace, on either side of the principle stair, Hall and Woolley retrieved numerous decorative elements fallen from the facade, or perhaps from the doors. Some scholars think that the decoration was located next to the main staircase leading to the terrace. All the objects are presently housed in the British Museum. The finds include eight copper bulls with a wood and bitumen core, the small heads of birds and of a lion; the heads of leopards; a large copper plaque (2.38 × 1.07 m) representing an eagle, perhaps lion-headed, grasping two stags; numerous clay nails whose heads are in the form of a flower; stone birds; and copper columns ornamented with stone mosaics. Also found were the elements of a decorative panel out of shells, set into bitumen, that represents a rare milking scene (see Gouin, 1993); and some fragments of statuary in the round. These sparse and scattered vestiges demonstrate the extraordinary wealth of ornamentation in this sanctuary, which continued to be maintained, in particular by Shulgi, king of the third dynasty of Ur, in about 2100 BCE. They are the most beautiful examples known of the decoration of a great Sumerian sanctuary in the middle of the third millennium BCE.

[See also Ceramics, article on Mesopotamian Ceramics of the Neolithic through Neo-Babylonian Ages; Mesopotamia, article on Prehistoric Mesopotamia; and the biography of Woolley.]


  • Delougaz, Pinhas. “A Short Investigation of the Temple at Al-῾Ubaid.” Iraq 5 (1938): 1–11.
  • Gouin, Ph. “Bovins et laitages en Mésopotamie méridionale au troisième millénaire: Quelques commentaires sur la ῾frise à la laiterie' de el-῾Obeid.” Iraq 55 (1993): 135–145.
  • Hall, Harry R. “The Discoveries at Tell el-῾Obeid in Southern Babylonia, and Some Egyptian Comparisons.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 8 (1922): 241–257.
  • Hall, Harry R., and C. Leonard Woolley. Ur Excavations, vol. 1, Al-῾Ubaid. Oxford, 1927.
  • Lloyd, Seton. “Ur—Al ῾Ubaid, ῾Uqair, and Eridu: An Interpretation of Some Evidence from the Flood Pit.” Iraq 22 (1960): 23–31.
  • Oates, Joan. “Ur and Eridu, the Prehistory.” Iraq 22 (1960): 32–50.
  • Sollberger, Edmond. “Notes on the Early Inscriptions from Ur and el-῾Obēd.” Iraq 22 (1960): 69–89.

Jean-Louis Huot

Translated from French by Nancy Leinwand