The bevel-rimmed bowl of late 4th millennium BCE Mesopotamia is just that: a crude piece of pottery easily cupped in two hands, with straight sides that end in a rim that is beveled. Bevel-rimmed bowls (often abbreviated BRB) are ugly, durable, and cheaply made, using a mold not a wheel. The coarse nature of the pottery makes the bowl porous—it will not hold liquid. They are remarkably consistent in size.
BRBs are often found whole in garbage pits, and they are extremely numerous—sometimes literally half the total pottery found in a deposit are BRBs. They are a reliable indicator of the presence of the Uruk culture, originating from the city of that name in Sumer (Uruk culture can also be called “early Sumerian”). Uruk (modern name Warka) was the city of Gilgamesh, celebrated for the arrival of urbanism as a form of human society. Suddenly, thousands of people were living in a dense urban environment, not farming for their family’s subsistence. At the same historical moment, we find thousands of bevel-rimmed bowls in use.
These and a few other facts tend to lead to involved discussions in my introductory art-history classes and provide an entry into my Mesopotamian art class. The main point in discussing BRBs in both of these college-level courses is that artifacts are as useful as texts in researching ancient societies. For the text-based historian, history begins with writing, and preliterate societies are by definition “pre-historical.” The first written texts recorded payments to individuals, payments that were probably given in BRBs, and the bowls tell us as much about the system as the receipts. BRBs are a way to introduce students to the most basic kind of field archaeology, based on identifying common pottery types, not simply reviewing the occasional gold treasure or masterpiece.
I introduce the bowls at the beginning of each course for chronological reasons, but also for pedagogical reasons. By beginning with the lowly BRB, students understand that history is written in common artifacts. More importantly, they find that they can ask and answer questions about the past with even limited information.
Reviewing the few facts about BRBs presented here allows the class to speculate on what the bowls were used for. I put up a slide of these bowls and ask some basic questions. With some trial and error, the class usually figures them out.
Are these elite objects? No. One look at the BRB makes it clear that this is not an extraordinary piece of craftsmanship and the large number of bowls otherwise confirms this.
What did the bowls hold? Not liquid, so water and beer are out. Possibly bread, but why would you need a bowl? Most likely, they held grain such as wheat or barley. Unhealthy archaeologists in the field also find that BRBs make handy ashtrays or soap dishes (the veiled contempt for these hideous containers is tempered by their inherent usefulness).
How were these bowls made? This one we don’t have an answer for yet. BRBs are so numerous that their manufacture would have been the closest thing to mass production in Sumerian times. A few years ago at Tell Brak in northeastern Syria, University of Michigan professor Henry Wright tested a BRB-making hypothesis. He dug some shallow holes in the ground, threw a mixture of wet clay and chopped chaff into them, and then punched his fist into the center of each of his “molds.” The entire assembly was covered with dry straw and twigs and the fuel was set on fire. A few hours later, after everything had cooled enough to handle, Wright pulled out a few bowls with beveled rims. They were not as strong as the real thing, but they made serviceable ashtrays. With some refinements in firing times, BRBs could be reproduced.
Why were these bowls made? Clue: why are they all the same size? Scholars believe that these bowls were made as measured containers with which workers could be paid in grain.1 With the advent of urbanism, work became specialized—refining metal tools, for example—and workers could not spend their time growing food to feed their families. Coinage had not yet been invented, so whatever institution they worked for (a palace led by a king or a temple led by a priest) paid the specialized workers in a form they could use or store; one could argue that barley was a form of money.
Why were they thrown away? Did I mention that BRBs are cheap, ugly, and mass produced? In the 1980s, archaeology professors compared BRBs to McDonald’s styrofoam clamshells, food containers that do not break down easily in landfills. Today the analogy is often plastic bags; while there are some conscientious consumers who return to the store with plastic bags to reuse, most people throw away bags and get new ones when they get more stuff.
If my students need more convincing, I offer the answer to the question “How do we know BRBs were important to Uruk culture?” More proof that the BRB played an important part in early Mesopotamia can be found in the Sumerian word “to eat.” While Sumerian eventually became a syllabic writing system, early cuneiform signs were pictograms. “Eat” was written by adding the shape of a bowl to the ideogram for a human head.2
By focusing on this everyday object, students begin to appreciate and relate more to the people they are studying. While we may fantasize about being the king or high priestess of Uruk admiring the Warka vase in a temple, we know that most Sumerians were laborers trying to earn a bowl of barley. The essential disposability of the BRB relates well to our time, and students understand that archaeology and history can be based on going through other people’s garbage.3 This also gives students a sense of the vast differences between elites and workers.
Once the class accepts the importance of the BRB, I explain how the appearance of the vessel in northern Mesopotamian sites like Tell Brak and Hammoukar are indicators of the moment of contact with the southern Uruk culture. Precontact, both Brak and Hammoukar had established societies, but one can read in the archaeological record that once the BRBs arrived, the locals abandoned their previous traditions and adopted the southern Sumerian ways. Current research investigates what the nature of the interaction between north and south was—assimilation, conquest, destruction, trade? Researchers have not come up with a definitive answer, although there has not been evidence of the most visible choices, such as destruction or conquest. The levels at which answers are sought are just below the first appearance of the BRB in the archaeological digs.
For a survey of world cultures, the acceptance of bevel-rimmed bowls and the social system they imply leads to a discussion of the strengths of Sumerian culture, pointing the way to classes on literacy, institutional organization, and craft specialization.
1 Hans J. Nissen, The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 B.C. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 83-85.
2 Nissen, The Early History of the Ancient Near East, p. 84 for illustration.
3 For more on this topic, see William Rathje and Cullen Murphy, Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001), a highly readable introduction to archaeology through a modern anthropology of garbage in the Arizona suburbs.