Southern Iraq was home to the earliest cities and city-based polities in the ancient world. These initial experiments in urban life brought about enduring social, political and economic structures, some of which remain with us today.
Right: Map of southern Mesopotamia during the third millennium BCE
Ubaid (ca. 6000-4000 BCE)
Beginning in the 6th millennium BCE, small isolated, self-sufficient villages spread out across the Tigris-Euphrates floodplain. Archaeological evidence for these sites is minimal, often based on field scatters of artifacts associated with the Ubaid culture, especially its painted pottery tradition.
Ubaid settlements were located in and around estuarine marshes or along the coast of the Gulf. Their inhabitants ate a diet that reflected these surroundings, rich in fish, birds, mollusks, and water-loving cereals. Shark and other pelagic fish were dedicated at their temples. Clay model boats adorned their altars to ensure a successful voyage.
Uruk (ca. 4000-3100 BCE)
As the sea withdrew farther south, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers–what would now become the lifeblood of ancient Sumer–took on more regular courses. This period is termed Uruk after the site of the same name, in Muthanna Governorate, which grew to over 250 hectares in size and initiated the Urban Revolution.
Right: Stone tablet from Tello (ancient Girsu), ca. 2800 BCE. Penn Museum B10000.
Early Dynastic (ca. 2900-2334 BCE)
At the end of the Uruk period, the environment would shift once more. Sea level both rose and fell. Smaller settlements were replaced by new cities that developed alongside rivers amidst irrigable farmland, some forming coalitions, others actual city-states. Among the latter was the site of Lagash, modern Tell al-Hiba, which–along with Girsu (modern Telloh) and Niĝin (modern Tell Zurghul)–formed the larger city-state of Lagash. At about 600 hectares, the city of Lagash became one of the most sizable cities in southern Mesopotamia.
The primary settlements of the Lagash city-state were situated in the heart of the Mesopotamian delta and connected by the Going-to-Niĝin Canal, a watercourse that served as a transportation and ritual route. Texts suggest that the region consisted of a fertile countryside with multiple ecological zones, including agricultural fields, steppe for pasture, wetlands, and sea; some texts even suggest that communities organized along tribal lines distinguished themselves from one another by ecological specialization.
Our first evidence of the institution of dynastic kingship in Lagash comes from the latter half of the third millennium BCE (hence the conventional designation of the “Early Dynastic” period). Beginning with Ur-Nanshe (ca. 2500 BCE), rulers of the First Dynasty of Lagash (Lagash I) left inscriptions at al-Hiba, Telloh, and Zurghul that allow us to sketch a historical outline of the roughly 150 years before the Akkadian conquest of southern Mesopotamia.
Left: Stele of Ur-Nanshe, ruler of Lagash, with goddess Nisaba from al-Hiba. Iraq Museum.
Much of the Lagash I rulers’ attention was given over to disputes with the neighboring city-state of Umma over control of the fertile lands to the east of al-Hiba. The most famous monument commemorating these disputes is the “Stele of the Vultures,” excavated at Telloh, in which Eanatum of Lagash’s victory over Umma is narrated using both text and image. This victory, however decisive, did not establish a lasting peace, for an inscription of Eanatum’s brother and successor, Enanatum I, found in Area C at al-Hiba, records another dispute with Ur-Lumma, ruler of Umma.
By the middle of the Early Dynastic period, the political capital of the Lagash city-state had shifted north to Telloh, ancient Girsu. The Lagash I rulers nevertheless continued to be active in sponsoring construction work at al-Hiba. Enanatum I left numerous inscribed tablets as foundation deposits in the Ibgal temple of Inana. Inscriptions of Enanatum I and Enmetena, as well as the impression of the royal seal of Eanatum, attest to craft production and administrative activity under these rulers’ patronage or supervision in Area C.
Right: Fragment of the upper part of the obverse of the Stele of the Vultures of Eanatum, king of Lagash ca. 2400 BCE. Tello, ancient Girsu. Louvre Museum AO 16.
The texts, seals, sealings, residential architecture, pottery, and other finds from both excavations and survey reflect a diverse urban population at al-Hiba in the later Early Dynastic period, who were producing and consuming various forms of specialized crafts. These materials also indicate intense regional and interregional interaction, paralleling contemporary evidence from other important cities of the period such as Ur, Uruk, and Nippur.
During antiquity, the city of Lagash was one of the three major cities—Girsu (modern Telloh), Lagash (Tell al-Hiba) and Niin (Tell Zurghul) in the city state of Lagash. All three cities lay on the Going-to-Niĝin Canal, the main watercourse through the city state. Lagash controlled a fertile countryside consisting of multiple ecological zones. Additionally, its location until the end of the third millennium, at the head of the Gulf allowed it to fully engage with regional trade networks, which brought in metal ores, hard woods, precious stones, and other materials and products unavailable in the southern alluvium.
Akkad and After (ca. 2334 BCE – )
Lugalzagesi of Umma conquered and sacked Lagash at the end of the Early Dynastic period. Shortly thereafter, Lugalzagesi was in turn defeated by Sargon of Agade, the founder of the first imperial dynasty to unite the city-states of Sumer in the south and the region of Akkad to the north. During the ensuing period of Akkadian rule (ca. 2334-2150 BCE), settlement at al-Hiba began to contract toward the center-west area of the site.
Lagash briefly reemerged as the seat of an important regional power around 2150 BCE, after the collapse of the Akkadian state. This “Lagash II” dynasty is best known from the statues and inscriptions of Gudea found at Telloh, most of which are now in the Louvre. Some fragmentary architectural remains and an inscribed door socket from Area B at al-Hiba show that Gudea was active in restoring and rebuilding the city’s older temples.
By the end of the 3rd millennium BCE, the Lagash region had once again lost its political centrality and functioned mainly as a breadbasket for the Third Dynasty of Ur based in the west (ca. 2112-2004 BCE). Further changes to the environment left the region largely uninhabited by around 1600 BCE. After a few centuries of effective abandonment, al-Hiba was reoccupied during the Kassite/Middle Babylonian period in the late second millennium BCE.
An Islamic period settlement (post-7th century CE/1st century AH) existed along the eastern edge of the site, as indicated by sherds of colorful glazed pottery found in surveys.