Life in Ancient Sumeria

Throughout recorded ancient history, one city took its place as the forerunner of future civilizations, forming the foundation from which other empires could build. This city, Sumer, was located on the floodplains of Mesopotamia in ancient Middle East. Over a period of two thousand years, Sumer rose from a simple farming village to a complex city that included government, religion, arts, music and medical services. Modern life within the city included three important aspects: technology, religion and literature. These three aspects have helped modern society glimpse inside this great city and view the growth of perhaps the first civilization in the world.

Like most other peoples in the region of Mesopotamia during the New Stone Age, the Sumerians began as farmers of the land, residing in small agricultural villages. They soon discovered that the fertility of the surrounding land permitted a greater density of settlement (Kramer, Gordon, Guisepi, 2002). This density enabled the Sumerians to develop sophisticated irrigation mechanisms, harnessing the waters from the annual floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Examples of these irrigation mechanisms included canals, dikes, ditches, and the draining of marshes (Kramer et al., 2002).

However, the Sumerian’s technological prowess extended beyond water control methods. As early as 3000 B.C., the wheel appeared as a transportation device. Mass production of pottery was made possible through the use of the potter’s wheel. Sumerian mathematicians developed number positioning (the concept of numbers being components of other numbers), a counting system based on 60, and standard measures with units of length, area, and capacity (Sporre, 2000, p.37). In addition to these technological advances the Sumerians domesticated various animals, invented the plow, and learned to cast weapons first smelting copper with tin, then advancing to the use of bronze.

These technological advances required extensive planning and manpower. In addition, division of the land, water and crops demanded political control. The Sumerians solved these issues around 3000 B.C. by developing “temple-communities” – a class of priest-bureaucrats controlling the political and economical life of the city in the name of the city gods. (Kramer et al., 2002) The city gods were part of a complex polytheistic system of religion that formed the basis of the city. The most elaborate building in each city was the ziggurat. This temple was considered literally inhabited by the city’s god, and was the center point of the town. The ziggurat was built as high as possible in an attempt to reach “heaven” (Dawson, 2001). After 3000 B.C. the growing warfare among the cities made a leadership role vital, and a king (or lugal) was established in an intermediate role between the god (whom the king was an agent for) and the priestly class (Kramer et al., 2002).

This leadership role ultimately led to a clash of kings for control of the land as a whole. Around 2600 B.C. Gilgamesh took the throne of Erech and became involved in a power struggle for the region with the Kish Dynasts and Mesannepadda. Though Gilgamesh was recorded in epic tales as a demi-god, it was Mesannepadda who was victorious and claimed the title of “King of Kish.” About 2335 B.C., Sargon of Agade seized the opportunity these power struggles had created and conquered Sumer, uniting it with the northern region of Akkad. This new kingdom briefly became the center of world culture, swelling the city with trade from the empire and beyond. Eventually the kingdom was divided, and absorbed into the rising empire of the Babylonians (Siren, 2000).

One of the outstanding works of ancient literature involved the king who lost the struggle for “King of Kish” – Gilgamesh. This epic story was written in early Sumer, and was one of the pinnacles of ancient Sumerian writing. Yet at the beginning of the era, written communications were in their most basic form – simple pictorial representation of individual words. As the era progressed, Sumerian writers symbolized not only the word they were trying to convey, but also the syllabic sounds that formed the make-up of the word with their drawings (Sporre, 2000, p.38). The Sumerians discovered that the use of a stylus and unbaked clay tablet was faster, more efficient, and of better quality then simply scratching in rock or baked clay with a hard object. The stylus had one limitation – it produced straight or triangular forms, forcing curved lines to be broken up into a series of straight strokes (Kramer et al., 2002). These triangular forms, or wedges, made up Sumerian writing and were collectively known as cuneiform. As writing and literacy became commonplace in Sumeria, stories normally passed down the generational line orally could be recorded. This led to the preservation of many tales, including the aforementioned Epic of Gilgamesh, the legend of Adapa and Anu, and the Sumerian counterpart of Noah, Ziusudra.

Though the debate may rage on whether Sumer was the first civilization in the world, it is clear that the advances made by the Sumerians permeated throughout the cultures of the region and eventually the world. Sumerian-led technological advances helped shape modern-day business practices and mathematical systems. Their religion and establishment of government laid the foundation for future cultures to build on. Finally, literature works from the Sumerian era are regarded as some of the most outstanding works of ancient literature. Combining these three ideals shows that, regardless of Sumeria being the “first” civilization, they laid the foundations that helped build some of the greatest civilizations in the world.

Dawson, R. (2001) Ancient Sumer Online Serial. Retrieved March 4, 2002 from the World Wide Web:
Kramer, S. N., Gordon, E. I., Guisepi, R.A.(2002) Sumeria Online serial. Retrieved March 4, 2002 from the World Wide Web:
Siren, C. (2000) Sumerian Mythology FAQ (Version 2.0html) Online serial. Retrieved March 4, 2002 from the World Wide Web:
Sporre, D. (2000) The Creative Impulse Pearson Custom Publishing: New Jersey

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