Sunday, 27 November 2011


"Standard" of Ur showing scenes of battle
This will be the last post that I shall do for a while. The assignment that I have been doing will be completed this week. I shall continue the blog (I have grown to enjoy it); time constraints mean that I shall probably put it on hold for a few weeks before resuming posting at some point after Christmas. I would like to thank everyone who took the time to read or comment on the blog. I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

This final post will be about my favourite ancient civilisation, Sumer. When I was in my early teens I wanted to study Sumerian (or Mesopotamian) history for a living and I occasionally still wish that I had gone down that route. I have alluded to this civilisation in earlier posts, such as The Gardener Who Became King and Hearing History but I never gave them a proper introduction to the reader.

Sumer is special because in many ways it is the first civilisation. There are Neolithic settlements around the world that are far older than any Sumerian sites and other areas could claim to have been roughly contemporary with Sumer but it is uncontested that Sumer is the oldest civilisation yet discovered that we can say anything about with certainty. They are indisputably the earliest culture to leave behind records that can still be read by scholars today.

A Map of some of the cities of Sumer
Sumer is located in the south of Iraq, from the Persian Gulf in the south to roughly around Baghdad in the north and bounded by the Arabian Desert and Iranian Plateau to the west and east respectively. It is generally a flat floodplain for the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates that give Mesopotamia its name (Mesopotamia literally means “the land between the rivers” in Greek). It lacks natural resources, including stone and wood and the deltas of the rivers have extensive marshland around the mouths.

In or around 3500 BC (by most conventional dating) the inhabitants of the land banded together to create irrigation systems. These systems allowed the inhabitants to control the floodwaters of the two unpredictable rivers, drain the marshlands and irrigate the deserts. The new farmland was exploited to allow the Sumerians to produce multiple harvests per year. Their population expanded but not in a haphazard fashion. They needed to cooperate in order to maintain these complex irrigation systems. This led to communities living together in the world’s first cities.

The plain of Sumer lacked stone so to build their houses and monuments the Sumerians used mud bricks. This was a poor building material so they would periodically destroy their buildings and build new ones on top of them. This led to their cities (occupied for hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of years) to eventually rise above the plains on artificial hills. These mounds survive today across the Middle East and are referred to as “tells”.

King Gudea of Lagash
There are possible writing systems that may predate the Sumerian one but many scholars are convinced that these systems are just collections of pictures, not actually writing. The Sumerian script is the oldest decipherable script by far. It originally seems to have been a method for recording transactions but evolved into a medium for writing advanced mathematics and literature. They wrote on clay tablets. The scribes would use a wedge shaped stick to make impressions on the clay, which led scholars to name the script cuneiform (“cuneus” is Latin for “wedge”). The Sumerians kept a huge amount of records and thousands upon thousands of tablets and tablet fragments have been found documenting everything from their musical scales, to epic poetry, to humour (they liked situational comedy) to the price of sheep. Many civilisations leave behind a few enigmatic fragments. The Sumerians left behind libraries.

The language that they wrote in is a language isolate. There is no language on earth today that is related to it. There are wild theories about extraterrestrial contact and stuff but language isolates are not all that uncommon (Basque is one) and there were doubtless many languages spoken thousands of years ago that have died out without a trace. Fortunately for scholars, for thousands of years scribes would write parallel texts in Sumerian and Akkadian. Akkadian is a Semitic language that can be understood so the Sumerian texts could be read by measuring them against the parallel texts. Nevertheless the unique formation of the language leads to occasional difficulties in translation.

As fascinating as the price of sheep might be to an agricultural historian the rest of us can be glad that they left behind somewhat more interesting texts. They were deeply interested in astronomy, or more strictly speaking, astronomy mixed with astrology. They believed that there was a correlation between celestial events and earthly ones, plus they needed to keep a close track of the seasons to maximise their agriculture so they used their recording skills to develop a sophisticated astronomy and mathematics. Many of their ideas were subsequently transmitted to the Greeks and survive today. Did you ever wonder why, when we have a decimal system (with ten as a base) we have 24 hours in a day? The 24-hour day, twelve-signed zodiac and 360-degree circle are all (probably, as there is some debate about this) legacies of Sumerian astronomy and mathematics.

Cuneiform text of the Epic of Gilgamesh
They also created some of the most poignant literary works the world has ever seen. The Sumerian worldview is generally held to have been a gloomy one. The gods ruled in heaven and the underworld and humanity lived a life of toil for a brief period before descending to the underworld for an uncomfortable life as an insubstantial ghost. The Sumerians were very concerned with the meaning of life and the greatest of their works (perfected by the successors of their civilisation but created originally by the Sumerians) is the Epic of Gilgamesh. This epic tells of a king who rules harshly until he finds a real friend. When his friend dies Gilgamesh falls into despair and goes on a quest to try and find eternal life and give meaning to his existence. Storytelling has changed greatly over the last four thousand years but the basic storyline is still gripping. The first known author (there are literary texts that predate her but she is the first named author) was a priestess called Enheduanna writing in the Sumerian city of Ur.

The partially restored Ziggurat of Ur
Sumerian architecture is often overlooked for two reasons. Firstly because their buildings were built of mud-brick, which degenerates over time and made it difficult to truly build large structure and secondly because the near-contemporaneous Egyptian civilisation produced lasting architecture on a truly colossal scale. The Sumerian cities were ornamented with at least one ziggurat. A ziggurat was a series of brick platforms built on top of each other with a temple at the top. The temples were the symbolic home of the gods of the city and may have doubled as astronomical observation platforms for the priests.

The Stele of Vultures: Lagash victory stele
The Sumerians lived in city-states with rulers (who seem to have had advisory councils). These city-states rose or declined in prominence over the years and the latter part of the third millennium BC the cities were involved in direct warfare with each other. The Sumerians were either the first or among the first to invent the wheel and used chariots in battle. The horse was not yet domesticated in that area of the world so their chariots were massive, slow platforms for warriors to fight from, drawn by onagers (wild donkeys), that would lumber into battle. Their warriors had helmets, body armour, spears and bows. It is theorised, based on certain reliefs, that their armies may have used the phalanx formation but this is unclear and I suspect that it may have more to do with artistic conventions than actual military formations.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin: Last king of Akkad
Over the years the Sumerian culture had imitators and similar cultures arose in what is now Iran and in northern Iraq. Around the year 2270 BC (according to certain dating systems) the Sumerian city-states were conquered by the Akkadian king Sargon and ruled from Akkad for several generations. The empire eventually broke down when Gutian invaders from the Iranian Plateau conquered the Akkadians. There was a revival in Sumerian culture (there were several major revolts by the Sumerian cities during the Akkadian Empire) after the Gutian invasion and a city called Ur (which is possibly the city identified by the Bible as the birthplace of Abraham) became the centre of an empire in the south of Iraq. But this empire only lasted a few generations and by the year 1800 BC Sumerian cities had declining populations, reduced farmland and were ruled from Babylonia. The Akkadian language gradually replaced Sumerian and Sumerian culture as a distinct entity effectively came to an end.

Sumer had an impressive legacy however. Their language remained as a language of learning (rather like Latin used to be in Europe) and the last Sumerian texts were written around the first century AD. The Akkadians, Elamites and later Assyrian and Babylonian cultures were deeply influenced by them and in many ways Sumerian culture didn’t die so much as change into a broader Mesopotamian culture. While the later Persian Empire drew primarily on Iranian culture it was also influenced by the Mesopotamian empires it replaced, thus extending the range of Sumerian influence. The Greek philosophers borrowed concepts such as certain mythic cycles and mathematical and astronomical ideas from the Mesopotamians thus drawing on Sumerian cultural achievements in a way that perpetuates their influence to this day.

Cylinder Seal from Ur showing the Moon God Nannar
So, hopefully this has sparked some interest in this most ancient of civilisations, whose ultimate legacy to us is more than mathematics, the wheel, writing, irrigation etc. The real legacy of the Sumerians to us is, well, civilisation itself.