Text #9420"Sumer", in .
Sumer was the first ancient urban civilization in the historical region of southern Mesopotamia, modern-day southern Iraq, during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze ages, and arguably the first civilization in the world.
Proto-writing in the region dates back to c. 3500 BC. The earliest texts come from the cities of Uruk and Jemdet Nasr and date back to 3,300BC; early cuneiform writing emerged in 3,000 BC.
Modern historians have suggested that Sumer was first permanently settled between c. 5500 and 4000 BC by a pre-Semitic people who spoke the linguistically isolated Sumerian language (pointing to the names of cities, rivers, basic occupations, etc., as evidence).
These conjectured, prehistoric people are now called “proto-Euphrateans” or “Ubaidians”, and are theorized to have evolved from the Samarra culture of northern Mesopotamia (Assyria). The Ubaidians (though never mentioned by the Sumerians themselves) are assumed by modern-day scholars to have been the first civilizing force in Sumer, draining the marshes for agriculture, developing trade, and establishing industries, including weaving, leatherwork, metalwork, masonry, and pottery.
However, some scholars contest the idea of a Proto-Euphratean language or one substrate language. It has been suggested by them and others, that the Sumerian language was originally that of the hunter and fisher peoples, who lived in the marshland and the Eastern Arabia littoral region, and were part of the Arabian bifacial culture. Reliable historical records begin much later; there are none in Sumer of any kind that have been dated before Enmebaragesi (c. 26th century BC). Professor Juris Zarins believes the Sumerians were settled along the coast of Eastern Arabia, today’s Persian Gulf region, before it flooded at the end of the Ice Age.
Sumerian civilization took form in the Uruk period (4th millennium BC), continuing into the Jemdat Nasr and Early Dynastic periods. During the 3rd millennium BC, a close cultural symbiosis developed between the Sumerians (who spoke a language no relatives of which are known today; see language isolate) and the Semitic Akkadian speakers, which included widespread bilingualism. Sumerian culture seems to have appeared as a fully formed civilization, with no pre-history.
The influence of Sumerian on Akkadian (and vice versa) is evident in all areas, from lexical borrowing on a massive scale, to syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. This has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian in the 3rd millennium BC as a Sprachbund. Sumer was conquered by the Semitic-speaking kings of the Akkadian Empire around 2270 BC (short chronology), but Sumerian continued as a sacred language.
Native Sumerian rule re-emerged for about a century in the Neo-Sumerian Empire or Third Dynasty of Ur (Sumerian Renaissance) approximately 2100-2000 BC, but the Akkadian language also remained in use. The Sumerian city of Eridu, on the coast of the Persian Gulf, is considered to have been the world’s first city, where three separate cultures may have fused — that of peasant Ubaidian farmers, living in mud-brick huts and practicing irrigation; that of mobile nomadic Semitic pastoralists living in black tents and following herds of sheep and goats; and that of fisher folk, living in reed huts in the marshlands, who may have been the ancestors of the Sumerians.
The term “Sumerian” is the common name given to the ancient non-Semitic inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Sumer, by the Semitic Akkadians. The Sumerians referred to themselves as ùĝ saĝ gíg-ga, literally meaning “the black-headed people”, and to their land as ki-en-gi(-r) (‘place’ + ‘lords’ + ‘noble’), meaning “place of the noble lords”. The Akkadian word Shumer may represent the geographical name in dialect, but the phonological development leading to the Akkadian term šumerû is uncertain. Hebrew Shinar, Egyptian Sngr, and Hittite Šanhar(a), all referring to southern Mesopotamia, could be western variants of Shumer.
By the late 4th millennium BC, Sumer was divided into about a dozen independent city-states, which were divided by canals and boundary stones. Each was centered on a temple dedicated to the particular patron god or goddess of the city and ruled over by a priestly governor (ensi) or by a king (lugal) who was intimately tied to the city’s religious rites.
The Sumerian city-states rose to power during the prehistoric Ubaid and Uruk periods. Sumerian written history reaches back to the 27th century BC and before, but the historical record remains obscure until the Early Dynastic III period, c. the 23rd century BC, when a now deciphered syllabary writing system was developed, which has allowed archaeologists to read contemporary records and inscriptions. Classical Sumer ends with the rise of the Akkadian Empire in the 23rd century BC. Following the Gutian period, there is a brief Sumerian Renaissance in the 21st century BC, cut short in the 20th century BC by Semitic Amorite invasions. The Amorite “dynasty of Isin” persisted until c. 1700 BC, when Mesopotamia was united under Babylonian rule. The Sumerians were eventually absorbed into the Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) population.
- Ubaid period: 5300 – 4100 BC (Pottery Neolithic to Chalcolithic)
- Uruk period: 4100 – 2900 BC (Late Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age I)
- Uruk XIV-V: 4100 – 3300 BC
- Uruk IV period: 3300 – 3100 BC
- Jemdet Nasr period (Uruk III): 3100 – 2900 BC
- Early Dynastic period (Early Bronze Age II-IV)
- Early Dynastic I period: 2900–2800 BC
- Early Dynastic II period: 2800–2600 BC (Gilgamesh)
- Early Dynastic IIIa period: 2600–2500 BC
- Early Dynastic IIIb period: c. 2500–2334 BC
- Akkadian Empire period: c. 2334–2218 BC (Sargon)
- Gutian period: c. 2218–2047 BC (Early Bronze Age IV)
- Ur III period: c. 2047–1940 BC
The Ubaid period is marked by a distinctive style of fine quality painted pottery which spread throughout Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf. During this time, the first settlement in southern Mesopotamia was established at Eridu (Cuneiform: NUN.KI), c. 5300 BC, by farmers who brought with them the Hadji Muhammed culture, which first pioneered irrigation agriculture. It appears that this culture was derived from the Samarran culture from northern Mesopotamia. It is not known whether or not these were the actual Sumerians who are identified with the later Uruk culture. Eridu remained an important religious center when it was gradually surpassed in size by the nearby city of Uruk. The story of the passing of the me (gifts of civilization) to Inanna, goddess of Uruk and of love and war, by Enki, god of wisdom and chief god of Eridu, may reflect this shift in hegemony.
The archaeological transition from the Ubaid period to the Uruk period is marked by a gradual shift from painted pottery domestically produced on a slow wheel to a great variety of unpainted pottery mass-produced by specialists on fast wheels. The Uruk period is a continuation and an outgrowth of Ubaid with pottery being the main visible change.
By the time of the Uruk period (c. 4100–2900 BC calibrated), the volume of trade goods transported along the canals and rivers of southern Mesopotamia facilitated the rise of many large, stratified, temple-centered cities (with populations of over 10,000 people) where centralized administrations employed specialized workers. It is fairly certain that it was during the Uruk period that Sumerian cities began to make use of slave labor captured from the hill country, and there is ample evidence for captured slaves as workers in the earliest texts. Artifacts, and even colonies of this Uruk civilization have been found over a wide area—from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey, to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and as far east as central Iran.
The Uruk period civilization, exported by Sumerian traders and colonists (like that found at Tell Brak), had an effect on all surrounding peoples, who gradually evolved their own comparable, competing economies and cultures. The cities of Sumer could not maintain remote, long-distance colonies by military force.
Sumerian cities during the Uruk period were probably theocratic and were most likely headed by a priest-king (ensi), assisted by a council of elders, including both men and women. It is quite possible that the later Sumerian pantheon was modeled upon this political structure. There was little evidence of organized warfare or professional soldiers during the Uruk period, and towns were generally unwalled. During this period Uruk became the most urbanized city in the world, surpassing for the first time 50,000 inhabitants.
The end of the Uruk period coincided with the Piora oscillation, a dry period from c. 3200 – 2900 BC that marked the end of a long wetter, warmer climate period from about 9,000 to 5,000 years ago, called the Holocene climatic optimum.
The dynastic period begins c. 2900 BC and includes such legendary figures as Enmerkar and Gilgamesh—who are supposed to have reigned shortly before the historic record opens c. 2700 BC, when the now deciphered syllabic writing started to develop from the early pictograms. The center of Sumerian culture remained in southern Mesopotamia, even though rulers soon began expanding into neighboring areas, and neighboring Semitic groups adopted much of Sumerian culture for their own.
The earliest dynastic king on the Sumerian king list whose name is known from any other legendary source is Etana, 13th king of the first dynasty of Kish. The earliest king authenticated through archaeological evidence is Enmebaragesi of Kish (c. 26th century BC), whose name is also mentioned in the Gilgamesh epic—leading to the suggestion that Gilgamesh himself might have been a historical king of Uruk. As the Epic of Gilgamesh shows, this period was associated with increased war. Cities became walled, and increased in size as undefended villages in southern Mesopotamia disappeared. (Gilgamesh is credited with having built the walls of Uruk).
Lagash c. 2500–2270 BC
The dynasty of Lagash, though omitted from the king list, is well attested through several important monuments and many archaeological finds. Although short-lived, one of the first empires known to history was that of Eannatum of Lagash, who annexed practically all of Sumer, including Kish, Uruk, Ur, and Larsa, and reduced to tribute the city-state of Umma, arch-rival of Lagash. In addition, his realm extended to parts of Elam and along the Persian Gulf. He seems to have used terror as a matter of policy. Eannatum’s Stele of the Vultures depicts vultures pecking at the severed heads and other body parts of his enemies. His empire collapsed shortly after his death.
Later, Lugal-Zage-Si, the priest-king of Umma, overthrew the primacy of the Lagash dynasty in the area, then conquered Uruk, making it his capital, and claimed an empire extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. He was the last ethnically Sumerian king before the arrival of the Semitic king, Sargon of Akkad.
Akkadian Empire c. 2270–2083 BC (short chronology)
The Semitic Akkadian language is first attested in proper names of the kings of Kish c. 2800 BC, preserved in later king lists. There are texts written entirely in Old Akkadian dating from c. 2500 BC. Use of Old Akkadian was at its peak during the rule of Sargon the Great (c. 2270–2215 BC), but even then most administrative tablets continued to be written in Sumerian, the language used by the scribes. Gelb and Westenholz differentiate three stages of Old Akkadian: that of the pre-Sargonic era, that of the Akkadian empire, and that of the “Neo-Sumerian Renaissance” that followed it. Akkadian and Sumerian coexisted as vernacular languages for about one thousand years, but by around 1800 BC, Sumerian was becoming more of a literary language familiar mainly only to scholars and scribes. Thorkild Jacobsen has argued that there is little break in historical continuity between the pre- and post-Sargon periods, and that too much emphasis has been placed on the perception of a “Semitic vs. Sumerian” conflict. However, it is certain that Akkadian was also briefly imposed on neighboring parts of Elam that were previously conquered by Sargon.
Gutian dynasty of Sumer c. 2083–2050 BC
2nd Dynasty of Lagash c. 2093–2046 BC (short chronology)
Following the downfall of the Akkadian Empire at the hands of Gutians, another native Sumerian ruler, Gudea of Lagash, rose to local prominence and continued the practices of the Sargonid kings’ claims to divinity. Like the previous Lagash dynasty, Gudea and his descendants also promoted artistic development and left a large number of archaeological artifacts.
Sumerian renaissance c. 2047–1940 BC (short chronology)
Later, the 3rd dynasty of Ur under Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, whose power extended as far as southern Assyria, was the last great “Sumerian renaissance”, but already the region was becoming more Semitic than Sumerian, with the rise in power of the Akkadian speaking Semites in Assyria and elsewhere, and the influx of waves of Semitic Martu (Amorites) who were to found several competing local powers including Isin, Larsa, Eshnunna and eventually Babylon. The last of these eventually came to dominate the south of Mesopotamia as the Babylonian Empire, just as the Old Assyrian Empire had already done so in the north from the late 21st century BC. The Sumerian language continued as a sacerdotal language taught in schools in Babylonia and Assyria, much as Latin was used in the Medieval period, for as long as cuneiform was utilized.
This period is generally taken to coincide with a major shift in population from southern Mesopotamia toward the north. Ecologically, the agricultural productivity of the Sumerian lands was being compromised as a result of rising salinity. Soil salinity in this region had been long recognized as a major problem. Poorly drained irrigated soils, in an arid climate with high levels of evaporation, led to the buildup of dissolved salts in the soil, eventually reducing agricultural yields severely. During the Akkadian and Ur III phases, there was a shift from the cultivation of wheat to the more salt-tolerant barley, but this was insufficient, and during the period from 2100 BC to 1700 BC, it is estimated that the population in this area declined by nearly three fifths. This greatly upset the balance of power within the region, weakening the areas where Sumerian was spoken, and comparatively strengthening those where Akkadian was the major language. Henceforth Sumerian would remain only a literary and liturgical language, similar to the position occupied by Latin in medieval Europe.
Following an Elamite invasion and sack of Ur during the rule of Ibbi-Sin (c. 1940 BC), Sumer came under Amorites rule (taken to introduce the Middle Bronze Age). The independent Amorite states of the 20th to 18th centuries are summarized as the “Dynasty of Isin” in the Sumerian king list, ending with the rise of Babylonia under Hammurabi c. 1700 BC.
Later rulers who dominated Assyria and Babylonia occasionally assumed the old Sargonic title “King of Sumer and Akkad”, such as Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria after ca. 1225 BC.
The most important archaeological discoveries in Sumer are a large number of tablets written in cuneiform. Sumerian writing, while proven to be not the oldest example of writing on earth, is considered to be a great milestone in the development of man’s ability to not only create historical records but also in creating pieces of literature both in the form of poetic epics and stories as well as prayers and laws. Although pictures — that is, hieroglyphs — were first used, symbols were later made to represent syllables. Triangular or wedge-shaped reeds were used to write on moist clay. A large body of hundreds of thousands of texts in the Sumerian language have survived, such as personal or business letters, receipts, lexical lists, laws, hymns, prayers, stories, daily records, and even libraries full of clay tablets. Monumental inscriptions and texts on different objects like statues or bricks are also very common. Many texts survive in multiple copies because they were repeatedly transcribed by scribes-in-training. Sumerian continued to be the language of religion and law in Mesopotamia long after Semitic speakers had become dominant.
The Sumerian language is generally regarded as a language isolate in linguistics because it belongs to no known language family; Akkadian, by contrast, belongs to the Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic languages. There have been many failed attempts to connect Sumerian to other language groups. It is an agglutinative language; in other words, morphemes (“units of meaning”) are added together to create words, unlike analytic languages where morphemes are purely added together to create sentences.
Understanding Sumerian texts today can be problematic even for experts. Most difficult are the earliest texts, which in many cases do not give the full grammatical structure of the language.
During the 3rd millennium BC a cultural symbiosis developed between the Sumerians and the Akkadians, which included widespread bilingualism. The influences between Sumerian on Akkadian are evident in all areas including lexical borrowing on a massive scale—and syntactic, morphological, and phonological convergence. This mutual influence has prompted scholars to refer to Sumerian and Akkadian of the 3rd millennium BC as a Sprachbund.
Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as a spoken language somewhere around the turn of the 3rd and the 2nd millennium BC, but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary, and scientific language in Babylonia and Assyria until the 1st century CE.
Sumerian religion seems to have been founded upon two separate cosmogenic myths. The first saw creation as the result of a series of hieros gami or sacred marriages, involving the reconciliation of opposites, postulated as a coming together of male and female divine beings; the gods. This continued to influence the whole Mesopotamian mythos. Thus in the Enuma Elish the creation was seen as the union of fresh and salt water; as male Abzu, and female Tiamat. The product of that union, Lahm and Lahmu, “the muddy ones”, were titles given to the gate keepers of the E-Abzu temple of Enki, in Eridu, the first Sumerian city. Describing the way that muddy islands emerge from the confluence of fresh and salty water at the mouth of the Euphrates, where the river deposited its load of silt, a second hieros gamos supposedly created Anshar and Kishar, the “sky-pivot” or axle, and the “earth pivot”, parents in turn of Anu (the sky) and Ki (the earth). Another important Sumerian hieros gamos was that between Ki, here known as Ninhursag or “Lady Sacred Mountain”, and Enki of Eridu, the god of fresh water which brought forth greenery, pasture, and the web. The second stage development concerns the development of patriarchal political hegemony. At an early stage following the dawn of recorded history, Nippur in central Mesopotamia replaced Eridu in the south as the primary temple city, whose priests also conferred the status of political hegemony on the other city-states. Nippur retained this status throughout the Sumerian period.
Sumerians believed in an anthropomorphic polytheism, or the belief in many gods in human form. There was no common set of gods; each city-state had its own patrons, temples, and priest-kings, however they were not exclusive. The gods of one city were often acknowledged elsewhere. Sumerian speakers were among the earliest people to record their beliefs in writing, and were a major inspiration in later Mesopotamian mythology, religion, and astrology.
Sumerians believed that the universe consisted of a flat disk enclosed by a dome. It was believed that when people died, they would be confined to a gloomy world of Ereshkigal, whose realm was guarded by gateways with various monsters designed to prevent people entering or leaving. The dead were buried outside the city walls in graveyards where a small mound covered the corpse, along with offerings to monsters and a small amount of food. Those who could afford it sought burial at Dilmun. Human sacrifice was found in the death pits at the Ur royal cemetery where Queen Puabi was accompanied in death by her servants. It is also said that the Sumerians invented the first oboe-like instrument, and used them at royal funerals.
The universe was divided into four quarters.
- To the north were the hill-dwelling Subartu who were periodically raided for slaves, timber, and raw materials.
- To the west were the tent-dwelling Martu, Semitic people living as pastoral nomads tending herds of sheep and goats.
- To the south was the land of Dilmun, a trading state associated with the land of the dead and the place of creation.
- To the east were the Elamites, a rival people with whom the Sumerians were frequently at war.
Their known world extended from The Upper Sea or Mediterranean coastline, to The Lower Sea, the Persian Gulf and the land of Meluhha (probably the Indus Valley) and Magan (Oman), famed for its copper ores.
The Sumerians developed a complex system of metrology c. 4000 BC. This advanced metrology resulted in the creation of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. From c. 2600 BC onwards, the Sumerians wrote multiplication tables on clay tablets and dealt with geometrical exercises and division problems. The earliest traces of the Babylonian numerals also date back to this period. The period c. 2700 – 2300 BC saw the first appearance of the abacus, and a table of successive columns which delimited the successive orders of magnitude of their sexagesimal number system. The Sumerians were the first to use a place value numeral system. There is also anecdotal evidence the Sumerians may have used a type of slide rule in astronomical calculations. They were the first to find the area of a triangle and the volume of a cube.
Discoveries of obsidian from far-away locations in Anatolia and lapis lazuli from Badakhshan in northeastern Afghanistan, beads from Dilmun (modern Bahrain), and several seals inscribed with the Indus Valley script suggest a remarkably wide-ranging network of ancient trade centered on the Persian Gulf. For example, Imports to Ur came from many parts of the world. In particular, the metals of all types had to be imported.
The Epic of Gilgamesh refers to trade with far lands for goods such as wood that were scarce in Mesopotamia. In particular, cedar from Lebanon was prized. The finding of resin in the tomb of Queen Puabi at Ur, indicates it was traded from as far away as Mozambique.
The Sumerians used slaves, although they were not a major part of the economy. Slave women worked as weavers, pressers, millers, and porters.
Sumerian potters decorated pots with cedar oil paints. The potters used a bow drill to produce the fire needed for baking the pottery. Sumerian masons and jewelers knew and made use of alabaster (calcite), ivory, iron, gold, silver, carnelian, and lapis lazuli.
Large institutions kept their accounts in barley and silver, often with a fixed rate between them. The obligations, loans and prices in general were usually denominated in one of them. Many transactions involved debt, for example goods consigned to merchants by temple and beer advanced by “ale women”.
Commercial credit and agricultural consumer loans were the main types of loans. The trade credit was usually extended by temples in order to finance trade expeditions and was nominated in silver. The interest rate was set at 1/60 a month (one shekel per mina) some time before 2000 BC and it remained at that level for about two thousand years. The agricultural loans were also usually given by temples to sharecroppers working on temple’s land. They were extended in kind and were denominated in barley or other crops. The interest rate (which can be interpreted as rent for using the temple’s land) was typically much higher than for commercial loans and could amount to 1/3 to 1/2 of the loan principal.
Periodically “clean slate” decrees were signed by rulers which cancelled all the rural (but not commercial) debt and allowed bondservants to return to their homes. Customarily rulers did it at the beginning of the first full year of their reign, but they could also be proclaimed at times of military conflict or crop failure. The first known ones were made by Enmetena and Urukagina of Lagash in 2400-2350 BC. According to Hudson, the purpose of these decrees was to prevent debts mounting to a degree that they threatened fighting force which could happen if peasants lost the subsistence land or became bondservants due to the inability to repay the debt.
The almost constant wars among the Sumerian city-states for 2000 years helped to develop the military technology and techniques of Sumer to a high level. The first war recorded in any detail was between Lagash and Umma in c. 2525 BC on a stele called the Stele of the Vultures. It shows the king of Lagash leading a Sumerian army consisting mostly of infantry. The infantrymen carried spears, wore copper helmets and carried leather or wicker shields. The spearmen are shown arranged in what resembles the phalanx formation, which requires training and discipline; this implies that the Sumerians may have made use of professional soldiers.
The Sumerian military used carts harnessed to onagers. These early chariots functioned less effectively in combat than did later designs, and some have suggested that these chariots served primarily as transports, though the crew carried battle-axes and lances. The Sumerian chariot comprised a four or two-wheeled device manned by a crew of two and harnessed to four onagers. The cart was composed of a woven basket and the wheels had a solid three-piece design.
Examples of Sumerian technology include: the wheel, cuneiform, arithmetic and geometry, irrigation systems, Sumerian boats, lunisolar calendar, bronze, leather, saws, chisels, hammers, braces, bits, nails, pins, rings, hoes, axes, knives, lancepoints, arrowheads, swords, glue, daggers, waterskins, bags, harnesses, armor, quivers, war chariots, scabbards, boots, sandals, harpoons and beer. The Sumerians had three main types of boats:
- clinker-built sailboats stitched together with hair, featuring bitumen waterproofing
- skin boats constructed from animal skins and reeds
- wooden-oared ships, sometimes pulled upstream by people and animals walking along the nearby banks
Evidence of wheeled vehicles appeared in the mid 4th millennium BC, near-simultaneously in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucasus (Maykop culture) and Central Europe. The wheel initially took the form of the potter’s wheel. The new concept quickly led to wheeled vehicles and mill wheels. The Sumerians’ cuneiform writing system is the oldest (or second oldest after the Egyptian hieroglyphs) which has been deciphered (the status of even older inscriptions such as the Jiahu symbols and Tartaria tablets is controversial). The Sumerians were among the first astronomers, mapping the stars into sets of constellations, many of which survived in the zodiac and were also recognized by the ancient Greeks. They were also aware of the five planets that are easily visible to the naked eye.
They invented and developed arithmetic by using several different number systems including a mixed radix system with an alternating base 10 and base 6. This sexagesimal system became the standard number system in Sumer and Babylonia. They may have invented military formations and introduced the basic divisions between infantry, cavalry, and archers. They developed the first known codified legal and administrative systems, complete with courts, jails, and government records. The first true city-states arose in Sumer, roughly contemporaneously with similar entities in what are now Syria and Lebanon. Several centuries after the invention of cuneiform, the use of writing expanded beyond debt/payment certificates and inventory lists to be applied for the first time, about 2600 BC, to messages and mail delivery, history, legend, mathematics, astronomical records, and other pursuits. Conjointly with the spread of writing, the first formal schools were established, usually under the auspices of a city-state’s primary temple.
Finally, the Sumerians ushered in domestication with intensive agriculture and irrigation. Emmer wheat, barley, sheep (starting as mouflon), and cattle (starting as aurochs) were foremost among the species cultivated and raised for the first time on a grand scale.
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