Recent discoveries have led some scholars to believe that the inventors of writing may have been a people called Subarians who were apparently subjugated about 3100 B.C. by the Sumerians, in the fertile lower valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates. Here the Sumerians were already well established by the year 3000. They had
invented bronze, an alloy that could be cast in molds, and they made tools and weapons of it. They lived in cities, and they had begun to accumulate and use capital. They apparently turned the Subarians into slaves. Perhaps most important, the Sumerians adapted writing into a flexible tool of communication.
Archaeologists working at Nineveh in northern Mesopotamia in the mid-nineteenth century found many inscribed clay tablets. Some they could decipher because the language was a Semitic one (Akkadian), on which scholars had already been working for a generation. But other tablets were inscribed in another language that was not Semitic and previously unknown. Because these inscriptions made reference to the king of Sumer and Akkad, a scholar suggested that the new language be called Sumerian.
But it was not until the 1890s that archaeologists digging in city-states well to the south of Nineveh found many thousands of tablets inscribed in Sumerian only. Because the Akkadians thought of Sumerian as a classical language (as we think of Greek or Latin), they taught it to educated persons and they put vocabularies, translation
exercises, and other aids to study on tablets. Working from known Akkadian to previously unknown Sumerian, scholars have learned how to read the Sumerian language. Over the thousand years between 3000 and 2000 B.C., the Sumerians developed a phonetic alphabet. With a reed pen they impressed little wedge-shaped marks into a wet clay tablet, producing a script that we call cuneiform—from the Latin cuneus, meaning “wedge.” The first thousand years of Sumerian history we know from tens of thousands of these tablets, which are mostly economic or administrative records. From the second thousand years (after 2000 B.c.) we have five thousand tablets that provide us with purely literary texts.
The earliest Sumerians governed themselves through a council of elders, who derived their authority from a general assembly of adult free males. This assembly, which decided on matters of war and peace, sometimes granted supreme authority to one leader for a limited time. This arrangement—apparently did not last long and was replaced by one-man rule in each city. The human ruler acted as the representative of the god of the city. He built temples to the god to keep him appeased and to obtain divine protection against the torrential floods that swept down the river valleys in the springtime.
The lives and religion and literature of the people of Mesopotamia were pervaded by terror of these floods; the story of Noah and the ark in Genesis echoes the Sumerian tradition of a disastrous flood from which only a remnant of the people was saved, and from which (about 2900 B.C.) all subsequent events were dated. The Sumerians devised an elaborate system of canals to control the force of the floods and halt the inward flow of salt water that would ruin the fields.
Over many centuries the Sumerians transformed the bleak marshes of the river valleys into fertile farmland dotted with prosperous cities, each with its own political bureaucracy and religious institutions. As with all human societies, each passed through occasional oppressions, upheavals, and political overturns, many of which are recorded by surviving inscriptions. The Sumerians also had to fight against infiltrating Semites from the Arabian deserts to the west and the hills to the north. They also campaigned eastward against Elam, the peoples living in what today is western Iran.
About 2300, Sargon, king of Akkad, a Semite from the north, conquered the Sumerian ruler of Uruk. Sargon and his successors called themselves kings of Sumer and Akkad, perhaps indicating that a fusion of the Sumerians and the Akkadians had begun. By about 2100, when most scholars date the end of the early Bronze Age, Sargon’s descendants had lost their power.
Taking the lead against invaders, Gudea, ruler of the city of Lagash, united the Sumerians about 2050 B.C. Soon after he died, Ur replaced Lagash as the capital city, and its rulers again called themselves kings of Sumer and Akkad. Much of what we know about the Sumerians comes from the systematic excavation of Ur. More recently, a portion of a series of statutes promulgated by the ruler Ur-Nammu (about 2000 B.C.) has been discovered, providing fixed punishment for certain crimes, such as a fine of a quantity of silver for the rape of a virgin slave girl without her owner’s consent. Ur-Nammu is thus the first known true lawgiver for an entire people.
Ur enjoyed a century of great prosperity based on far-flung trade by sea in textiles and metals, a carefully recorded systematic tax system, and a revival of learning. But a decline set in, in part because Ur had taken on too many responsibilities, and outlying cities began to usurp the power they saw as overly centralized in Ur.
Sumer was a hydraulic society—that is, one based on the centralized control of irrigation and flood management by government. When its leaders could no longer demonstrate this control, the compact, agriculturally linked city-states began to fragment. Ur’s subject cities fell away; invading Elamites from the east destroyed it. With Ur’s destruction and the end of Sumerian power, the center of political might shifted to the north.
Besides their city gods, the Sumerians worshiped a god of the heavens, a god of the region between heaven and earth (the air, hence storms and winds), and a god of earth. Another trinity included gods of the sun and moon and a goddess of the morning star, who was also associated with fertility. With this female deity was associated a young male god who died and was reborn as a symbol of the seasons. Here we find elements common to all subsequent human efforts to deal with the concept of a higher being or beings. For instance, it was Enki, god of earth and of wisdom, who poured water into the two great fertilizing rivers, Tigris and Euphrates, and stocked them with fish; who created grain, filled the land with cattle, built houses and canals, and set subgods over each enterprise.
The Sumerians used various arts to foretell the future. The entrails of slaughtered sheep or goats were carefully observed, and meanings were ascribed to their shapes. Interpreting dreams was also important, and the stars were observed ever more scientifically, though always to obtain omens. Because the temple of the city god (and other gods) actually owned most of the land, most of the population worked as serfs of the temple. But the produce of the land was distributed as pay to them.
Life was highly diversified, if not yet truly specialized; blacksmiths, carpenters, and merchants appeared alongside the hunters, farmers, and shepherds of the older days. Fathers had many rights over their children. The society was monogamous, and women held a high position. Punishments seemed mild and specific; they consisted mostly of fines.
In their epic poetry the Sumerians celebrated the brave exploits of Gilgamesh, a mighty hero two-thirds divine and one-third human. He undertook perilous journeys, overcame dreadful monsters, and performed great feats of strength. But even Gilgamesh, strong though he was, had to die; and ultimately a realistic tone pervades Sumerian literature, its hymns, lamentations, prayers, fables, and even schoolboy compositions. A Sumerian proverb says, “Praise a young man, and he will do whatever you want; throw a crust to a dog, and he will wag his tail before you.”
Sumerian art and architecture were largely religious, official in intent, and impersonal in style. They changed very little during more than a thousand years. The Sumerians built their temples of baked brick. The shrine was at first simply an altar against a wall; other rooms and an outer courtyard were added later. The most striking feature of the temple was that the entire structure was set upon a terrace, the first of many terraces, each above and smaller than the last, with a sanctuary at the top, reached by stairs from terrace to terrace. This was the ziggurat, the typical Mesopotamian temple.
Sumerian tombs were simple chambers, often filled with objects intended for use in the afterlife. Their statuary consisted of clothed human figures, solemn and stiff, with large, staring eyes. Gods were represented as larger than kings, and ordinary human beings as smaller. On monumental slabs (steles), on plaques, and especially on seals, the Sumerians showed themselves skillful at carving in relief—clear, informative, stiff, yet human.