prehistoric site located on the surface of an alluvial plain not far from the present-day Euphrates River, near the ruins of Larsa, a major city and one of the historic capitals of ancient Mesopotamia (31°14′ N, 45°53′ E). The site of Tell el-'Oueili dominates the surrounding plain from a height of about 4 m, with its visible part covering about 4 ha (9 acres, or 200 m in diameter). However, when the modern water table was reached, close to 4.5 m below the level of the plain (following two major soundings), the inhabited layers continued even beyond that level and virgin soil was still not visible. Clearly, the site encompasses much more territory than the area suggested by the visible remains. However, the earliest occupation layers are now under water.

Although the ruins of Larsa were discovered In 1854 and periodically excavated by a French team (led by André Parrot, Musée du Louvre) beginning In 1933, it was not until 1967 that the same team located a small, low tell 3 km (2 mi.) southeast of the historic ruins. That tell, 'Oueili, appeared to consist entirely of prehistoric remains, rendering the site of particular interest, as the prehistoric levels of southern Mesopotamia are generally covered by massive later historical ruins. Prehistoric levels can only be excavated once the area has been carefully investigated, however, as was the case at Ur, Uruk, and Larsa, among other sites. It had long been known that a prehistoric age existed in lower Mesopotamia, but when the sites were not covered over by subsequent cultural layers, they were buried beneath thick layers of alluvial sediment from the Tigris or Euphrates Rivers. The sherds discovered on the surface of 'Oueili pointed to layers dating from Uruk and, in particular, the Ubaid 3 and 4 eras. This presented a unique opportunity to explore 'Oueili's prehistoric levels, in contrast to Larsa where, though present, they remained inaccessible because they were buried underneath more recent deposits 10–15 m deep. The Ubaid period in Lower Mesopotamia was particularly critical because it immediately preceded urbanization. Prior to the discovery of 'Oueili this period was known only from the excavations at Eridu carried out In 1946–1948.

The excavation of 'Oueili was carried out by Jean-Louis Huot and Jean-Daniel Forest (of the Université de Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne) beginning In 1976; the work gained momentum between 1981 and 1989. Periods previously believed to exist were uncovered and explored (Ubaid 3–4 and Uruk), as well as earlier, completely unknown phases that had not been detected in the first surface exploration (Ubaid 0–2).

Six periods were identified. They were distinguished from one another by phases of abandonment that were only beginning to become apparent when the excavation was interrupted by the international crisis in the Persian Gulf In 1990. The origins of 'Oueili are unknown. Similarly, the date the village was established is not known. The most ancient levels excavated—albeit not the earliest—were dubbed Ubaid 0 or the 'Oueili phase. They preceded and heralded the Ubaid 1–4 sequence so named In 1960 (on the basis of evidence from Eridu) and still in use, although the phases remain very general. The culture to which Ubaid 0 is linked is unknown (it may be the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B tradition in Syria). Certain architectural similarities suggest a connection between Ubaid 0 and the Hassuna culture of Samarra. [See Hassuna.] The two are either contemporaneous or Ubaid 0 is slightly earlier, at least in its final phase. For the time being, Ubaid 0 can only been seen at 'Oueili where its final phase can be dated, on the evidence of two radiocarbon dates (7430 ± 150 and 7320 ± 140 bp), to 5480 and 5370 BCE (uncorrected dates) or 6516–6018 and 6414–5955 BCE (corrected dates).

Three phases can be discerned in Ubaid 0 thanks to mud-brick architectural remains, some bearing finger marks. Small parallel or intersecting walls thought to have functioned as granaries, and three dwellings, each on a tripartite plan, with roofs held up by rows of wooden posts with brick bases were recovered. [See Granaries and Silos.] The regular use of posts to support a terracelike roof enabled the rooms, or the surface of the dwelling, to be enlarged and also anchored the building firmly. Two of the houses at 'Oueili measured approximately 140 sq m, while the third one—the oldest—probably measured 240 sq m. Floor-level ovens, a water jar, and other materials found leave no doubt that the buildings were used for housing. Such a discovery considerably alters existing notions with regard to early architecture in Lower Mesopotamia in about the middle of the sixth millennium. With the exception of some burnished sherds (perhaps of Hassuna date) containing vegetal temper, the pottery from this phase is decorated with simple geometric patterns painted dark brown or a very pale pinkish-gray. Among the types found were large bowls, stemmed goblets, large convex-concave earthenware jars (possibly a Hassunian survival or a new technique). The small objects found—lip ornaments of fine clay and dried or baked objects made of bitumen—reveal little variety. A small, painted head of a figurine, probably intact, with oval “coffee-bean” eyes, bears some resemblance to the Samarran figurines at Chogha Mami. Beginning in Ubaid 0, wheat (Triticum mono/dicoccum) and especially six-rowed hulled barley were grown, and common domestic animals were bred—goats, sheep, and, in particular, oxen and pigs. [See Cereals; Sheep and Goats; Cattle and Oxen; Pigs.]

From the earliest discernible phases, it is obvious that a small, sedentary community cultivated and irrigated cereal crops (the only possible method given the latitude and climate) and bred cattle and pigs as well as sheep and goats in smaller numbers. Fishing and shellfish harvesting were also practiced. Rather remarkable architecture is also visible, though the group appeared to live practically in isolation. Very small amounts of bitumen and some flint were the only raw materials imported. The population was limited in size and was probably highly egalitarian. Unfortunately, the absence of tombs makes it difficult to interpret possible social ranking.

During Ubaid 1 (the available carbon-14 dates are 6710 ± 160, 6680 ± 110, 6460 ± 140 bp—or 4760, 4730, 4550 BCE, uncorrected dates; 5976–5369, 5723–5420, 5608–5236 BCE, corrected dates), the most noticeable development was in the pottery: it is much more elaborately decorated and painted, though still geometric. It closely resembles Eridu ceramics. Architecturally, posts continued to be used, as well as mud bricks with markings. Housing is not as easily described as for the preceding period. Two structures consisting of three adjacent rooms were uncovered, undoubtedly sections of houses along the lines of those from Ubaid 0 (despite a period of abandonment between the two phases). Particularly noteworthy are granary infrastructures similar to those from Ubaid 0—that is, a pisé platform with woven reeds supported by small parallel or intersecting walls. In one case, the platform is supported by a tight network of low clay pillars. There is a noticeable difference, however, between the two periods: Ubaid 0 granaries occupied a considerable surface area (approximately 80 sq m), whereas those from Ubaid 1 were much smaller (around 30 sq m). The large collective compounds evident in Ubaid 0 may thus have given way to small, independent family units during Ubaid 1.

'Oueili, Tell el-

'OUEILI, TELL EL-. Building 37, Ubaid 0, general view. (Courtesy J.-L. Huot)

view larger image

'Oueili, Tell el-

'OUEILI, TELL EL-. Layout of three three-section buildings, Ubaid 0. (Courtesy J.-L. Huot)

view larger image

The Ubaid 2 phase, clearly evident at Eridu and Hajji Mohammed, is less well-known, albeit present, at 'Oueili. At Ubaid 3, the excavated (but limited) site consists of a vast terrace 40 m long preserved to a height, in some spots, of more than 1.5 m. Unfortunately, neither the extent, the exact layout, nor for that matter the building's function are known. Like all the other construction at 'Oueili, it was made of mud brick. That it resembled the better-known construction at Susa from a later period can only be surmised. [See Susa.] The mere existence of such an impressive structure at 'Oueili nonetheless provides some evidence for the settlement's growth and social evolution. Little more can be said, however. Some type of local authority is implied, and, by extension, an increasingly complex society. The pottery from Ubaid 3 resembles that found at all the other sites of the same period in Mesopotamia: fewer painted and decorated examples; standardized motifs on goblets, bowls, and basins; marli dishes; and earthenware jars similar to those discovered at Eridu, Ras al-Amiya, and Tell Abada. From a technical viewpoint, this ceramic pottery heralds the appearance of paint made of “black sand” (containing chromite and iron-titanium minerals) typical of Ubaid 3 and 4 and discovered at Telloh, Ubaid, and Ur as well. This paint was more durable than earlier kinds and gradually replaced them, thus indicating increasingly standardized ceramic techniques.

The Ubaid 4 phase is represented by a tripartite structure that was later reused as a granary, as revealed by the extremely dense network of small intersecting walls. Available carbon-14 dates for Ubaid are 6190 ± 90, 6170 ± 90, 5980 ± 100, 5800 ± 100, 5650 ± 90 BP—or 4240, 4220, 4030, 3850, 3700, BCE, uncorrected dates; 5304–4940, 5293–4926, 5187–4719, 4893–4486, 4725–4357 BCE, corrected dates), a structure divided into three sections was discovered that later functioned as a granary—revealed by the extremely dense network of small, intersecting walls. Ceramics from this period resemble vases from the same period at the large southern sites and on the west coast of the Gulf; at 'Oueili, however, this pottery is less decorated and appears to have been used less frequently. Plain, undecorated vases are far more numerous. Terra-cotta sickles, which began to appear in Ubaid 3, were by this time commonly used, as were small clay knobs (curved nails); clay lip ornaments (practically unchanged since Ubaid 0); animal figures, or ophidians (human figurines with a snake head) polished obsidian “nails”; a few stamp seals (but no seal impressions); and ornaments. [See Seals.] Paleobotanical remains attest to the existence of tamarisk, reeds, and the date palm (one of the earliest known examples), as well as wheat (Triticum mono/dicoccum) and six-rowed hulled barley, cultivated using stone hoes. Animal breeding continued to revolve around cattle and pigs. Only 5.2 percent of the bones identified belonged to goats and sheep. This rather unusual livestock probably reflects the very marshy terrain during the final Ubaid phase. Fish were numerous and undoubtedly provided most of the protein consumed. Unfortunately, no tombs or prestigious buildings were found. It is known from Eridu's contemporary levels, however, that Ubaid 4 had begun to develop a ranked social order. Furthermore, the large “temples” (according to early interpretations) of Eridu VIII–VI attest to the important position occupied by heads of families or clans within these agricultural settlements because only they could have ordered such construction.

A small worksite at 'Oueili has yielded evidence of a final Ubaid phase (Ubaid 5) characterized by painted pottery found in an area where ceramics were drawn from the kiln, along with obvious wasters. This can be correlated to the discovery of a two-storied pottery kiln, with a preparation area and firing chamber, discovered during the first season of excavation. Pottery remains are the only evidence of this phase. A few Late Uruk remains (bevelled-rim bowls, jugs with a curved spout, incised latticework decoration) represent the final period during which 'Oueili is known to have been inhabited. The site apparently ceased to exist thereafter—abandoned, probably, in favor of Larsa. Following a long period of economic and social growth, society was at the threshold of urbanization.

The excavation at 'Oueili was originally undertaken to pinpoint the transition toward urbanization. The goal was not achieved. On the other hand, discovery of the site led to the identification of the longest sequence known to date in Lower Mesopotamia; despite a few gaps, it encompasses most of the Ubaid phase, from the most ancient levels (previously unidentified) to the late prehistoric era. As a result, what is now known of this transitional phase, which had previously rested entirely on the discovery of Eridu, has been corrected and expanded.

[See also Eridu; Larsa; Mesopotamia, article on Prehistoric Mesopotamia; Ubaid; Ur; and Uruk-Warka.]

Bibliography

  • Connan, J. “De la géochimie pétrolière à l'étude des bitumens anciens: L'archéologie moléculaire.” Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 1993 4 (1993): 901–921. See pages 910–914 for bitumen from Tell el-'Oueili.
  • Huot, Jean-Louis, et al. “Larsa … et tell el'Oueili: Première campagne, 1976.” Syria 55 (1978): 183–223.
  • Huot, Jean-Louis, et al. Larsa (8eme et 9eme campagnes, 1978 et 1981) et 'Oueili (2eme et 3eme campagnes, 1978 et 1981): Rapport préliminaire. Paris, 1983.
  • Huot, Jean-Louis, et al. Larsa (10e campagne, 1983) et 'Oueili (4e campagne, 1983): Rapport préliminaire. Paris, 1987.
  • Huot, Jean-Louis. “Ubaidian Village of Lower Mesopotamia: Permanence and Evolution from Ubaid o to Ubaid 4, as Seen from Tell el-'Oueili.” In Upon This Foundation: The Ubaid Reconsidered, edited by Elizabeth F. Henrickson and Ingolf Thuesen, pp. 19–42. Copenhagen, 1989.
  • Huot, Jean-Louis, et al. 'Oueili, travaux de 1985. Paris, 1991.
  • Huot, Jean-Louis. “The First Farmers at 'Oueili.” Biblical Archaeologist 55 (1992): 188–195.
  • Huot, Jean-Louis, et al. 'Oueili, travaux de 1987–1989. Paris, in press.

Jean-Louis Huot