The landscape during the Uruk Period was dominated by agricultural growth, as cities competed for resources and warfare and hostilities sparked from disputes over water rights and property. Mudbrick walls were constructed around the developing and urbanizing cities in order to cut tensions. Ziggurats were created by the Uruk kings to protect the people and house the gods. The question remains, however, were there actual kings during the Uruk Period?
The answer is yes, albeit the evidence suggests that kings were more mythological in nature. After priests, who held economic and political powers, still retaining their religious mystique of course, Uruk period kings emerged as dual rulers in an effort to combat warfare and forge sociocultural bonds with their people.
Historians believe priests and priestesses of several early city-states played an essential role in ruling (Spielvogel 2009). Sumerians, however, believed kings derived their power from the gods, and in so doing, were agents of the gods. Therefore, ruling power was primarily in the hands of kings.
“You in your judgment, you are the son of Anu [god of the sky]; your commands, like the word of a god, cannot be reversed; your words, like rain pouring down from heaven, are without number” (Spielvogel 2009). This quote was recited by one being as a petition to his king. Is there evidence for this event? There’s only one documented source available for this meeting, however there’s also no archaeological records to dispute this actually occurred.
Looking at the archaeological record of Mesopotamia, there is at least one centrally located temple that housed the deities or deity who watched over the community. Each centrally located temple is controlled by a priest who manages the deity’s wealth. These priests appear to have been the most prominent political and economic forces in early Mesopotamian communities (Bulliet et al. 2008:36-37). Were they the Uruk kings?
The kings most often mentioned during the Uruk period are regarded as antediluvian; relating to the period before the flood described in the Bible. A problem arises, however. These mythological kings, some of which ruled for over 60,000 years, have very little support for their actual existence, with the exception of faith. Furthermore, it’s quite difficult to place certain kings with the time frame of the Uruk period since all were regarded as existing prior to 2900 B.C. and many were mythological and undocumented.
Sumerian King List
The only documented antediluvian kings mentioned in text, possibly reigning during the Uruk period or shortly thereafter, are mentioned in an ancient Sumerian King list. The list, mentioned in I Studied Inscriptions from Before the Flood": Ancient Near Eastern Literary, and Linguistic Approaches to Genesis 1-11, includes Alulim of Eridu, Alalgar of Eridu, Enmenluanna of Badtibiria, Enmengalanna of Badtibira, Dumanzi of Badtibira, Ensipazianna of Larak, Enmeduranki of Sippar, Ubar-Tutu of Shuruppak, and the Sumerian flood-hero Ziusudra (Xisuthros) of Shurappak (1994). There’s another list, however, pertaining to Uruk, published by J.J.A. van Dijk. Hess and Tsumura (1994) noted Dijk’s list includes seven antediluvian kings including (Ajalu= Alulim of Enmeduranki) and seven antediluvian sages, presumed to have lived under these kings: U-An, U-An dugga, Enmedugga, Enmegalamma, Enmebulugga, An-Enlilda, and Utuabzu (p. 225).
The “Lugar” or “Big Man”, mentioned by Kramer (1963), emerged in Sumerian cities during the third millennium B.C.E. (p.74). It’s not clear as to why these regent rulers appeared, however with the ongoing conflict occurring between city-states for water, food, and other resources, there’s seems to have been a need for control, and indeed there was. Pressures from (Kramer  barbaric peoples from the east and west of Sumer increased), therefore military leadership became a pressing need. The “Big Man” took his rightful superior place.
The kings led armies, built city walls and defenses, protected people against crime, supervised public works projects, initiated legislation, provided courts, and organized workers for irrigation projects, on which Mesopotamia agriculture depended (Spielvogel 2009 ). The Sumerian priest-kings received advice from a general assembly made up of free men. The army, government bureaucracy, and the priests and priestesses all aided the Uruk kings in their rule. By about 3000 B. C., they took their place as permanent kings (Kramer 1963). As time went by, the king’s power rivaled that of the priesthood. Why? The temples started to grow weaker in a sense as palaces were the center for political and economic assemblies. Furthermore, the army now followed the rule of the king.
So are we to assume that priests just evolved into kings? Text based evidence seems to support this notion. However, if we assume, or rather deny the flood or mythological kings prior to the flood, how does this explain the archaeological evidence at Uruk discovered in the 1920s?
In 1929, Leonard Woolley discovered a clay deposit laid down by the legendary Great Flood. “On top of this deposit was the stratum that contained the famous Royal Tombs of Ur, which belong to the period called Early Dynastic III (c.2600-2400 BCE); underneath it was a settlement from what is called the Late Ubaid period, which ended in c.3100” (Woolley 1934). What exactly does this have to do with the Uruk Period? The following evidence may substantiate the existence of a king who founded the First Dynasty.
In Ur: Royal Inscr. 268 was published the inscription which I should now transcribe nin-TUR nin; dam mes-an-ni-pdd-da; i.e. 'the lady NIN-TUR^, wife of Mesannipadda' ; from a seal (U. 8981) found loose in the stratum between the Sargonid and the older part of the cemetery. Mesannipadda is naturally assumed to be the king of that name who founded the First Dynasty. In 1928/9 it appeared that a stratum of rubbish was laid down above the older cemetery during (probably) the First Dynasty. In 1929/30 the stratum SIS I was discovered and named, and determined by the excavator to be, together with SIS II, continuous with the dividing stratum that elsewhere divides the lower cemetery from the upper. In SIS I was a seal-impression containing the inscription \ine\s-an-ni-pdd-da; lugal kis^'; dam-nu-gig'^ [Woolley 1994:312].
Stele of Vultures
One of the earliest archaeological depictions of warfare in Mesopotamia was on the Stele of Vultures, kept in the Louvre, dating to the Early Dynastic III (2600-2330 BC) during the reign of Eannatum, King of Lagash (Pollock 1999). Indeed, the stele date doesn’t fall in the time frame of the Uruk Period, however it does allude to patron deities who were heavily involved in battle when his city was threatened. Pollock (1999) noted King Eannatum’s reign falls in the 1st Dynasty of Lagash, following the 2nd Dynasty of Uruk, one ponders if there was such a parallel to warfare led by divine kings and nature of deities during the Uruk Period (p. 184). Indeed there is.
The Mask of Warka may be one of the most fascinating archaeological finds of the Uruk period, dating to 3100 B.C. Jan Russell (2008) that the Mask of Warka is believed to be the world's oldest known naturalistic sculpture of a human face (p.86). Even more fascinating is the fact the face is off a women, and not just any women, Inanna.
The kingship of Sumer is given to Ninisinna, otherwise known as Inanna, the daughter of An, documented in the Lipit Ishtar Code. Inanna is often depicted as a fickle person who first attracts men and then rejects them, a richly dressed goddess, or as a naked woman (Collins 1994). Did Uruk period kings exist? Let’s look at some archaeological evidence.
Ward (1910) noted a cylindrical seal kept at the British Museum, dating about 3000 B.C Uruk Period, clearly depicts a 'priest-king', Bin-Gur-Akhi, King of Erech. The seal reads “To Bin-Gur-Akhi, King of Uruk; the scribe; thy servant”. This is indeed one of the most valuable seals The British Museum has ever procured (p. 21).
The Royal Tombs of Ur discovered by Leonard Woolley have yielded evidence of kings dated to 2600 B.C. The most complete of the burials was that of Pu-abi, a high ranking woman. Her name is known because a cylinder seal was found in the tomb and is engraved with a banquet scene. It has been suggested that this indicates that the owner was female and a queen. The cuneiform inscription on this seal reads 'Pu-abi nin’, with ‘nin’ formally read as Shubad. This would be the feminine equivalent of “lugal”.
When lugal is applied to a mortal it means “queen”. A seal discovered next to Pu-abi had been an unknown person; however Woolley seems to have believed the cylinder read “A-bra-ge”, the king and husband of Pu-abi (Moorey 1977).
How does this pertain to Uruk kings? Let’s take a step back to the cylindrical seal kept at the British Museum, dating about 3000 B.C Uruk Period. The seal of the priest-king represents a new social organization in the city-states, and although warfare is missing from the seal, it doesn’t rule out the existence of kings during that time. Is this evidence that kings existed during that time? Possibly so.
Indeed, the existence of archaeological texts and written records are lacking for the Uruk period. However, based on the Stele of Vultures, the cylindrical piece at the British Museum, and the Mask of Warka, it is possible there could be more. Further excavation and investigation needs to take place, especially in light of the evidence found during the 1920s. If cylindrical and seal devices can be found depicting kings in warfare during the Uruk period, arguments for the existence of actual kings could be heavily changed. The seal discovered by Woolley depicting A-bra-ge dates to 3200 B.C. and clearly shows a priest-king making an offering. The Uruk period ended in 3000 B.C., so it seems anomalous, and hardly feasible, that kings should only exist 200 years after this time.
- Bulliet, Richard W., Pamela Kyle Crossley, Daniel R. Headrick, Lyman L. Johnson, and Steven W. Hirsch. 2008 The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, Volume I. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.
- Collins, Paul. 1994 The Sumerian goddess Inanna (3400.2200 BC). Institute of Archaeology, UCL, Los Angeles.
- Hess, Richard S. (editor) and David Toshio Tsumura (editor).1994 I Studied Inscriptions From Before The Flood: Ancient Near Eastern, Literary, and Linguistic approaches to Genesis 1-11, Volume 4. Einsenbrauns, Inc. Winona Lake.
- Kramer, Samuel N. 1963 The Sumerians: their history, culture, and character. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
- Moorey, P.R.S 1977 What do we know about the people buried in the Royal Cemetery? Penn Museum Documents and Publication. Accessed February 18, 2011.
- Pollock, Susan. 1999 Ancient Mesopotamia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Russell, Jan, J. (editor). 2008 They Lived to Tell the Tale: True Stories of Modern Adventure from the Adventurers Club. The Explorers Club. Lyon’s Press, Guilford.
- Spielvogel, Jackson J. 2009 Western Civilization, Volume 1: To 1715, Seventh Edition. Thomson Higher Education. Belmont.
- Ward, William, H. 1910 The Seal Cylinders of Western Asia. Carnegie Institute of Washington, Washington D.C.
- Woolley, C.L. 1934 Ur Excavations: The Royal Cemetery. A Report on the Predynastic and Sargonid Graves Excavated Between 1926 and 1931, Volume II. British Museum and The University of Pennyslyvania. Oxford University Press, London.
- Stele of Vultures picture.
- Mask of Warka picture. BBC
- Leonard Woolley
- Royal Tomb photo © Answers in Genesis
- Sumerian King List photo © Christina Mina