The Sumerians

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Standard of Ur - peace panel detail
Royal Standard of Ur
detail from the Peace Panel with lyrist

The Sumerians were the first Mesopotamian civilization. They lived in independent walled city-states. Uruk, the first and one of the largest cities in Mesopotamia, had a six miles long wall with defense towers located at 30-35 foot intervals. Although there was not much stone or wood in the area, Sumerians learned to build with clay bricks made from the mud and this was the primary building material. Uruk was the city of the legendary hero Gilgamesh who appears in the world's oldest known book, the Epic of Gilgamesh.

There were commoners, nobles and slaves. 90% of the population were involved in farming. Wealthy landowners used slaves as did the temples who needed workers for public projects, to weave cloth and grind grain.

The Sumerians traded by land with the eastern Mediterranean and by sea as far as India. The invention of the wheel, 3000 years ago, improved transportation by land. The Sumerians were well known for their metalwork, a craft at which they excelled.

The largest city was Ur. Its patron deity was the moon god Nanna whose temple topped the largest known ziggurat (70 feet high). Excavations there revealed the Royal Tombs of Ur, containing beautiful and valuable artifacts

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Sumerian Firsts

The Sumerians built the first cities, established the first monarchies and bureaucracies. The city was ruled by the gods through the priest king who exercised divine authority. Under the king were priests who surveyed land, assigned fields, ran the complex irrigation system, and distributed the harvest. A bureaucracy was established to administer the growing complex society.

They invented writing, first in pictographs and then developing into cuneiform. and used it to keep track of trade and to create the world's first known literature. The world's oldest book is The Epic of Gilgamesh, a collection of stories about a Sumerian hero.

They invented the wheel which facilitated the movement of goods and trade. They invented mathematics, developing a system of numbers based on a unit of 60. We still use their development of time measurement, 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour and the division of a circle into 360 degrees. This also was developed to facilitate trade.

Sumerian Headdress - gold - lapis lazuli
from the Royal Tombs of Ur

The priests made observations of the heavens and develped a calendar based on these observations - 12 lunar months with a leap year every 3 years to catch up to the solar year). These observations were the foundation of astronomy.

The Sumerians invented irrigation, which made it possible to build the first cities by creating a food surplus and a regular dependable food supply.

They invented law, a system of resolving disputes based on a code of rules and retribution by a central authority rather than relying on private retribution. The Code of Hammurabi (Babylonian) is generally believed to be based on Sumerian law.





Part of The Sumerians a HistoryWiz exhibit


The Epic of Gilgamesh

The Sumerian Flood Myth

Ancient Near East

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