The Archaeology of Complex Societies: A project presented by the graduate students of The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology


Ugarit was an ancient city located in present-day northern Syria, founded as early as 6000 BCE, with its apex occurring 1800 – 1200 BCE. An independent city ruled variously by the Egyptians, Amorites and Hittites (and probably others) the defining, and perhaps crucial, feature of the city was its seaport, which is known to have engaged in trade with Egypt, Cyprus, Palestine and others across the Mediterranean and Aegean.

Ugarit is located in modern day Syria, right on the Mediterranean coast. Located within what is known in the Fertile Crescent, it was a relatively moist and fertile area of Western Asia. It was in this region that some of the earliest human civilizations emerged.

Economy & Food Subsistence
Royal and administrative texts speak to this site's vast network and outline the types of goods (craft, textiles, and food) that were traded. The texts themselves have been found preserved principally in larger structures. This evidence indicates that they may have been stored in a repository or governmental building such as a palace; which in turn would seem to demonstrate a political economy.

Metallurgy was an important aspect of life at Ugarit. While flint initially made up a majority of the toolkit found at Ugarit, experts in bronze metallurgy arrived sometime during B.C. 2000. Soon, Ugarit was flooded with spectacular bronze tools that were traded around the Mediterranean.

Social Organization
Beyond religious figures, Ugarit was ruled by a series of six patrilineal kings, many of whom seem to have possessed a distinct political acumen – marrying women of foreign courts or nobility, enacting diplomatic treaties with neighboring groups, and subjugating Ugarit at times to the level of a vassal in order to achieve more explicit economic gains. As a result of common economic surpluses, Ugarit seems to have been a somewhat luxurious and aesthetically-forward city, with large palaces centered around courtyards, ambitious domicile complexes and numerous
stele and cultic/votive statuettes being found. As a result of trade, Ugarit contained a large and diverse merchant population that spoke various Semitic dialects and completed and recorded transactions in the indigenous Ugaritic dialect (a unique cuneiform alphabet consisting of thirty characters) as well as the lingua franca of the Late Bronze period, Akkadian.

This combinatory system of economy and trade also brought with it a rich canon of mythology and religion, one that developed so deeply that researchers today often have trouble discerning between that which is story and that which is factual. Several religious complexes have been found during archaeological excavations of the city, the most important being dedicated to the god BʿL (transliterated: Baal). Built atop an acropolis, the Temple of Baal (the god of strength and fertility) likely performed a function complicit with a life/death ritual or belief.


Ugarit provides an example of hierarchical classes. Is a monarch required to organize a city or does a large group of people need to organize before a king can rise? We have discussed economic and food subsistence strategies in other case studies, but how could a trade network impact whether a society is more or less complex?

Header image by:
Gianfranco Gazzetti (Wikimedia Commons)

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