In The Field: Late 4th millennium Uruk

Size Matters: A Study of Monumentality and Bigness in Late 4th m. BCE Uruk/Iraq

by: Felix Levenson, Freie Universität Berlin (email)

The following paper will present a short abstract of the work I will be conducting for my PhD at the Freie Universität Berlin in collaboration with the Excellence Cluster Topoi and the DAI (German Archaeological Institute).

My doctoral dissertation will try to re-evaluate the traditionally used term of ‘monumentality’ in West-Asian Archaeology by contrasting it with the concept of ‘bigness’, thereby showing that size does in fact not matter for monumentality. By the term ‘bigness’ in architecture I mean large or extra-large structures without any notion of their social function.

In my thesis I will argue against the general use of the term ‘monumentality’ for big buildings, as is traditionally the case in West-Asian archaeology.

The Etemenanki of Babylon, the Aššur temple in Aššur, the Ziqqurat in Ur or the Anu-Ziqqurat in Uruk are without any doubt large structures and are often, if not always, described as monumental in the literature. I do not want to argue with this annotation but I want to contest the notion that size is the defining factor for monumentality: as well as these big structures, also comparably small structures can be monumental.

In the German tradition the term ‘monumentality’ has a rather short history. In its beginnings, in the 18th c. CE, it used to describe only “Memorial Sites” and was implying a notion of inner greatness or “Erhabenheit” (gradeur). This changed in the 19th c. CE to a notion of oversizing, which is still the main use of the term. In this fashion Bruce Trigger defined ‘monumentality’ in World Archaeology 22 (1990:119) as follows: „Monumental architecture embraces large houses, public buildings, and special purpose structures. Its principal defining feature is that its scale and elaboration exceed the requirements of any practical functions that a building is intended to perform.“

In opposition to this I argue that monumentality is a social construct and can therefore not be understood by a ”traditional” architectural analysis but must be determined by detailed analysis of the building process and the energetics of construction (Cancik et al. in prep.).

My case study will deal with big structures from Uruk in the late Uruk period. I will study five buildings in detail:

  1. The so-called “Steinstiftgebäude” (Eanna district, Uruk/Iraq)
  2. The lime-stone building (Eanna district, Uruk/Iraq)
  3. Building E (Eanna district, Uruk/Iraq)
  4. The so-called “White Temple” with its terraces (Anu-Ziqqurat, Uruk/Iraq)
  5. Building H (Habuba Kabira/Syria)
Figure 1. Plan of The Eanna district in the late Uruk period (Crüsemann et al. 2013:Fig 14.5)
Figure 1. Plan of The Eanna district in the late Uruk period (Crüsemann et al. 2013:Fig 14.5)

Each structure was chosen for a specific reason, for within the selection of these five structures we find very different building techniques (mud-brick architecture, stone architecture, “Gusssteinbauweise”), as do we find all kinds of different functional uses ranging from public, presumably religious, up to domestic. In Uruk itself we can even see differences in the planning approach of building. While in the Eanna district we are dealing with single phased structures that did not undergo many changes during their life (for the use of the term life concerning artifacts or structures see Kopytoff 1986), whereas the “White Temple” was restructured several times.

I will exemplify my approach with a brief discussion of the “Steinstiftgebäude” (Fig. 2, below).

Figure 2. Reconstruction of the “Steinstiftgebäude” (© by artefacts, Material: DAI)
Figure 2. Reconstruction of the “Steinstiftgebäude” (© by artefacts, Material: DAI)

The first step in my analysis will be the calculation of the required building materials. This is based on the material gathered by the DAI during its excavations (see mainly Eichmann 2007) and the reconstruction work done by Sebastian Hageneuer and Sandra Grabowski of artefacts© (for further information see the artefacts© website and Bator et al. 2013).

The next step is the to determine the origin of the used materials and calculate the energy requirements of procuring and transporting them to the building site. The actual work at the building site itself is also calculated and added to the energy needed for the material gathering. For mud-brick architecture this is not such a big problem because there are some ethnographic studies (cf. Nippa 1991) and already in the Ur III period we find a corpus of texts dealing with the energetics of mud-brick production and construction (cf. Robson 1993 and 1999). For stone and even more “Gussstein” architecture this is not so simple and several scenarios will need to be thought through.

A detailed chaîne opératoire/entanglement (cf. Hodder 2011, 2012) is used to fully understand the building process and to demonstrate how the building was (re-)constructed and what effect such a large building project had for the society and environment (e.g. surplus of foodstuff for the workers etc.).

In comparison: the “Steinstiftgebäude”, being one of the smaller buildings in my analysis, is made from a lot more different and non-native materials (Fig. 3). With my analysis I hope I can show that the energy demand of the “Steinstiftgebäude” is higher than the energy demand of the “White Temple”, for example. Following my analysis for several different buildings we will be able to form a reliable objective baseline for further studies. In light of this we might be able to develop a new image of the ancient societies. This data can give a better understanding and might enable us to ground hypothetical sociological theories.

Figure 3. Assemblage of materials needed for the “Steinstiftgebäude” (© by artefacts)
Figure 3. Assemblage of materials needed for the “Steinstiftgebäude” (© by artefacts)

When looking further then just the finished product, like we are used to do in our modern world and in the way we present history in museums etc., we get a better understanding of the social implications of large or even extra-large building projects. Considering not only the workers and the materials used but also the workforce and resources needed to feed and accommodate this surplus of workers, an image is created of the whole society and not just the elites actually planning and using it.

Furthermore, I will suggest a function of shaping or constructing society and binding society for the creation of large buildings. This already started during the ‘Ubaid period and therefore in the development of early urbanism (cf. Sievertsen 2010). Big and specialized buildings in early urban centres, cities if you will, serve a more complex function than just representation.

figure 4
Figure 4. Reconstruction of the White Temple in Uruk (Crüsemann et al. 2013:Fig. 16.4)

Nevertheless, big and specialized architecture of monumental character still needs to be considered as an important factor in representing power and hierarchical structure, especially because they create a sphere of social entanglement in which every member of society can play or at least think of playing an equal role. Especially in a time of social change and beginning urbanization, this architecture and the act of “building together” plays a crucial role in the making of society.

Terms like Bigness, Colossally, Gigantism, Grandeur and many others could and should be introduced into archaeological and anthropological research to give a more decisive idea about the way architecture was conceived by the society that built it.

In grand-master Yoda’s famous words „Size matters not”.


Bator, Sebastian, Margarethe van Ess, and Sebastian Hageneuer (2013)
Visualisierung der Architektur von Uruk. In: Uruk: 5000 Jahre Megacity. N. Crüsemann, M.v. Ess, M. Hilgert, and B. Salje, eds. Pp. 365-374. Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag GmbH & Co. KG.

Cancik-Kirschbaum, Eva, et al. (in prep.)
Thinking Big. Why Monumental Constructions in the Ancient World?

Crüsemann, Nicola, et al., eds. (2013)
Uruk: 5000 Jahre Megacity. Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag GmbH & Co. KG.

Eichmann, Ricardo (2007)
Uruk: Architektur I. Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH.

Hodder, Ian (2011)
Human-thing entanglement: towards an integrated archaeological perspective. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17:154-177.

Hodder, Ian (2012)
Entangled: an archaeology of the relationships between humans and things. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Kopytoff, Igor (1986)
The cultural biography of things: commoditization as process. In: The social life of things. A. Appadurai, ed. Pp. 64-91. Cambridge.

Nippa, Annegret (1991)
Haus und Familie in arabischen Ländern: vom Mittelalter bis zur Gegenwart. München: Beck.

Robson, Eleanor (1996)
Building with bricks and mortar: quantity surveying in the Ur III and Old Babylonian periods. In: Houses and households in ancient Mesopotamia: Papers read at the 40th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Leiden, July 5-8, 1993. K. Veenhof, ed. Leiden.

Robson, Eleanor (1999)
Mesopotamian Mathematics 2100-1600 BC: Technical Constants in Bureaucracy and Education. Oxford.

Sievertsen, Uwe (2010)
Buttress-recess architecture and status symbolism in the ubaid period. In: Beyond the Ubaid: transformation and integration in the late prehistoric societies of the Middle East. R. Carter and G. Philipp, eds. Pp. 201-226. SAOC, Vol. 63. Chicago.

Trigger, Bruce (1990)
Monumental architecture: a thermodynamic explanation of symbolic behaviour. World Archaeology 22:119-132.