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Issue Number 32: First quarter for 2003

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An Introduction to the SUMERIANS: Who Were They? by Frank E. Smitha, John C. Sanders and Derek Cline.

Sumer was a collection of city states around the Lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now southern Iraq. Each of these cities had individual rulers, although as early as the mid-fourth millennium BCE the leader of the dominant city could have been considered the king of the region. The history of Sumer tends to be divided into five periods.

They are the Uruk period, which stretched from 3800 BCE to 3200 BCE and saw the dominance of the city of that same name, the Jemdat Nasr period, the Early Dynastic periods from 2800 to 2279 BCE, the Agade period, and the Ur III period - the entire span lasting from 3800 BCE to around 2000 BCE.

Where did Sumer's people and culture come from? It seems as though  the Ubaid people came down from the hills in the north east. Early settlements may date back as far as 9000 BC. Pottery was made before 6000 BC and metals were worked from 5500 BC. An urban area had developed at the head of the Persian Gulf by about 4000BC. The people grew crops, made mud bricks, learned to use carts for transport, water for irrigation, and traded extensively. As their settlements, independent city-states, spread across Mesopotamia, the basis for Sumer and its civilisation, from about 3500 BCE, was established.

Sumerians in South Mesopotamia: The 'New-comers'
It is generally assumed that around 4000 BCE a people called Sumerians moved into Lower (Southern) Mesopotamia, perhaps from around the Caspian Sea6. These people, were a dark-haired people - 'black-heads' the texts call them6a - speaking an agglutinative language somewhat resembling ancient Turkish (Turanian) in its formation though not in its etymology6b. The Sumerians found among the Ubaidians a people who spoke a Semitic language who had moved in among the Ubaidians. The Sumerians were well developed intellectually. By 3800 BCE the Sumerians supplanted the Ubaidians and Semites. They built better canals for irrigating crops and for transporting crops by boat to village centres. They improved their roads, over which their donkeys trod, some of their donkeys pulling wheeled carts. Thus, the Sumerians grew in number, the increase in population the key element in creating what we call civilization, a word derived from an ancient word for city7.

At least twelve cities arose among the Sumerians. Among them were Ur, Uruk, Kish and Lagash8. Ur, for example, became a city of about 24,000 people9. In the centre of each city was a temple that housed the city's gods, and around each city were fields of grain, orchards of date palms, and land for herding. Besides planting and harvesting crops, some Sumerians hunted, fished, or raised livestock. In addition to an increase in population, civilization was also about variety, and enough food was produced to support people who worked at other occupations, such as the priesthood, pottery making, weaving, carpentry and smithmanship. There were also traders, and the Sumerians developed an extensive commerce by land and sea. They built seaworthy ships, and they imported from afar items made from the wood, stone, tin and copper not found nearby10.

Origins of Writing: Sumerian Writing11
Sumerian writing is the oldest full-fledged writing that archaeologists have discovered. The Ubaidians may have introduced the Sumerians to the rudiments of writing and recorded numerical calculation, which the Sumerians used with the rise in trade and to calculate and to keep records of supplies and goods exchanged. The Sumerians wrote arithmetic based on units of ten, the number of fingers on both hands. Concerned about their star-gods12, they mapped the stars and divided a circle into units of sixty, from which our own system of numbers, and seconds and minutes, are derived. Thus, it is assumed that Sumerian script probably arose from a need for advanced property marks.

When they appear in the archaeological record about 5,500 years ago, the Sumerians had developed a system of icons inscribed on clay tablets for keeping temple records. A typical example includes icons for "two", "sheep", "temple/house", and the gods "An" and "Inanna". The meaning might be "two sheep received from the temple of An and Inanna", or "two sheep delivered to the temple of An and Inanna", or perhaps something else entirely.

The table whose picture is shown here on the left shows a more sophisticated use of a numbering system, as well as a way of specifying the accounting period, but the basic principles are similar.

These marks constituted a limited notation system, which in the beginning may only have served to remind the writer of what he had once already known. However, as long as agreed-on standards were obeyed, another person could also read the record in the same way. In this, these were similar to systems for record-keeping, based on symbolic tokens of many sorts, developed over and over again in many cultures over the millennia -- marks on stone or bone, clay figurines, even knots in cords. As civilizations become more complex, record-keeping of this kind becomes increasingly important in order to keep commercial transactions straight. The ability of trained third parties to read such records in a consistent way became increasingly important as systems for mediating or adjudicating disputes in non-violent ways come into use. However, most such systems remained limited in their expressive capacity.

In the case of the Sumerian record-keeping system, two crucial innovations led (over a few hundred years) to a full writing system, capable of expressing anything that could be expressed in the (written) words of the Sumerian language.

The first innovation was the Rebus Principle: if you can't make a picture of something, use a picture of something with the same sound. The first clear example of this is in a tablet from Jemdet Nasr, dated to around 2900 BC, in which a pictograph of a reed (GI in Sumerian) is used to mean "reimburse" (also pronounced GI).

The second innovation was what we might call the Charades Principle: if you combine an ambiguous or vague picture of the meaning of a word, with a little information about what the word sounds like, you can get a more effective communication of the identity of the word than if you tried to use only imperfect information about meaning, or imperfect information about sound. To give an example from Sumerian, a particular symbol having a meaning something like "leg" might be combined with a symbol pronounced "ba" to give the word GUB "to stand"; the same "leg" symbol, combined with a symbol pronounced "na", gave the word GIN "to go"; and combined with a symbol pronounced "ma", it gave the word TUM "to bring." Thus a Sumerian reader was in effect being asked to play a sort of game of charades: what word has something to do with "leg" and ends in the initial sound of "ba"? -- why of course, that's GUB, "to stand", what else! These combinations became conventionalized, resulting in a system that was presumably somewhat easier to learn to read than to learn to write, but was not very efficient in either direction.

Still, the result was a complete writing system, in which the Sumerians wrote down not just warehouse records, but poems, diplomatic treaties, letters, contracts and judicial decisions, dictionaries, and epic myths.

The Sumerians wrote poetically, describing events as the work of their gods, and they wrote to please their gods13. As seen above, the Sumerians wrote by pressing picture representations into wet clay with a pen, and they dried the clay to form tablets. Instead of developing their writing all at once, as one might expect with divine revelation, they developed their writing across centuries. As it developed it consisted of pictograms, phonograms and determinatives. They streamlined their pictures into symbols called ideograms, and they added symbols for spoken sounds: phonetic letters. Writing was never phonemic as in Egypt. Vowels are important in Sumerian which meant that whole syllables were rebused (pictures used to represent words and syllables) as opposed to simply their consonants. It rapidly became abstracted, to a greater degree than Egyptian writing. The complexity was reduced over time from 2000 to 800 signs and then to 570 by Babylonians.

A Belief in Spirits
Some suggest that like people who were not yet civilized(!), the Sumerians saw movement around them as the magic of spirits, magic being the only explanation they had for how things worked14. These spirits were their gods, and with many spirits around, the Sumerians believed in many gods, gods that had humanlike emotions. The Sumerians believed that the sun, moon and stars were gods. They believed in a goddess of the reeds that grew around them and in a goddess of the beer that they distilled15.

The Sumerians believed that crops grew because of a male god mating with his goddess wife. They saw the hot and dry months of summer, when their meadows and fields turned brown, as a time of death of these gods. When their fields bloomed again in the autumn, they believed their gods were resurrected. They marked this as the beginning of their year, which they celebrated at their temples with music and singing.

The Sumerians could dig into the earth and within a few feet find water. They believed that the earth was a great disk floating on the sea. They called the sea Nammu, and they believed that Nammu was without a beginning in time. They believed that Nammu had created the fish they saw and the birds, wild pigs and other creatures that appeared on the marshy wet lands, a story of creation around two millennia before the Hebrews would put their own story of the creation into writing16.

Sumerians: The Children of Enki17
The Sumerians believed that Nammu had created heaven and earth, heaven splitting from earth as being the male god, An, and the earth being a goddess called Ki. They believed that Ki and An had produced a son called Enlil, who was atmosphere, wind and storm. The Sumerians believed that Enlil separated the day from night and that he had opened an invisible shell and let waters fall from the sky. They believed that with his mother, Ki, Enlil set the stage for the creation of plants, humans and other creatures, that he made seeds grow, that he shaped humanity from clay and imbued it, as it states in Genesis 2:7, with "the breath of life.18"

The Sumerians believed that humanity had been created to serve the gods, and they served their gods with sacrificial offerings and supplications. They believed that the gods controlled the past and the future, that whatever skills they possessed, including writing, their gods had revealed to them, and they believed that their gods provided them with all they needed to know. In accordance with this, some have suggested that they had no vision of their civilization as having developed by their own efforts against worldly conditions. They had no vision of technological or social progress, and they saw no need of knowledge to aspire to beyond what they already knew19.

Nevertheless, Sumerian priests altered the stories that they told. They let human invention intrude into their religious life and created a new twist to old tales, serving that which would be common with religious belief for millennia to come: change. But, consistent with their tradition, they failed to acknowledge this as a human induced change of any sort. They gave no thought to a change in their story meaning that they had failed to get it right the first time. New ideas were simply revelations from the gods. The Sumerians did not recognize interpretation20. They saw no need for rules of reason. No evidence remains in their writings of their respecting doubt or that they understood any benefit from suspended judgment21.

The priests did believe in axioms22. A part of the change they had made in their religion was working their stories about their gods into axioms. Sometime around 2500 BCE, Enlil became the greatest of the gods and the god who punished people and watched over their safety and well being. Like the gods of other ancient peoples23, Enlil was a god who dwelled somewhere. He was a god of place, and that place was the city was Nippur, a sacred city believed to have been inhabited at first only by divine beings.

By around 2500 BCE, the Sumerians were individualistic enough to believe in personal gods, gods with whom individuals had a covenant24. Individuals no longer prayed just for the community. The evidence suggests that Sumerian society was becoming dominated by males25, and Sumerian scholars claimed that the head of every family -- a male -- and every other adult male had his personal god. Men hoped that their god would intercede for them in the assembly of gods and provide them with a long life and good health. In exchange, they glorified their god with prayers, supplications and sacrifices while continuing to worship the other gods in the Sumerian pantheon of gods.

The religion of the ancient Sumerians has left its mark on the entire middle east. Not only are its temples and ziggurats26 scattered about the region, but the literature, cosmogony and rituals influenced their neighbours to such an extent that we can see echoes of Sumer in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition today27. From these ancient temples, and to a greater extent, through cuneiform writings of hymns, myths, lamentations, and incantations, archaeologists and mythographers afford the modern reader a glimpse into the religious world of the Sumerians.

Carving of Ianna c.2500 BCEEach city housed a temple that was the seat of a major god in the Sumerian pantheon, as the gods controlled the powerful forces which often dictated a human's fate. The city leaders had a duty to please the town's patron deity, not only for the good will of that god or goddess, but also for the good will of the other deities in the council of gods. The priesthood initially held this role, and even after secular kings ascended to power, the clergy still held great authority through the interpretation of omens and dreams. Many of the secular kings claimed divine right; Sargon of Agade, for example claimed to have been chosen by Ishtar/Inanna28. A representation of Ianna is given in the picture on the right. Most of the Sumerian deities were depicted with 'wings'.

A Belief in Sin29
Believing that the gods had given them all they had, the Sumerians saw the intentions of their gods as good, and believing that their gods had great powers and controlled their world, the Sumerians needed an explanation for their hardships and misfortunes. The obvious explanation was that their hardships and misfortunes were the result of human deeds that displeased the gods -- in a word, sin. They believed that when someone displeased the gods, these gods let demons punish the offender with sickness, disease or environmental disasters.

The Sumerians experienced infrequent rains that sometimes created disastrous floods, and they believed that these floods were punishments created by a demon god that lived in the depths of the Gulf of Persia. And to explain the misfortunes and suffering of infants, the Sumerians believed that sin was inborn, that never was a child born without sin. Therefore, wrote a Sumerian, when one suffered it was best not to curse the gods but to glorify them, to appeal to them, and to wait patiently for their deliverance30.

Conflicts Among the Gods
In giving their gods human characteristics, the Sumerians projected onto their gods the conflicts they found among themselves. Sumerian priests wrote of a dispute between the god of cattle, Lahar, and his sister Ashnan, the goddess of grain. Like some other gods, these gods were vain and wished to be praised. Each of the two sibling gods extolled his and her own achievements and belittled the achievements of the other.

The Sumerians saw another dispute between the minor gods Emesh (summer) and his brother Enten (winter). Each of these brothers had specific duties in creation -- like Cain the farmer and Able the herdsmen. The god Enlil put Emesh in charge of producing trees, building houses, temples, cities and other tasks. Enlil put Enten in charge of causing ewes to give birth to lambs, goats to give birth to kids, birds to build nests, fish to lay their eggs and trees to bear fruit. And the brothers quarrelled violently as Emesh challenged Enten's claim to be the farmer god.

A dispute existed also between the god Enki and a mother goddess, Ninhursag -- perhaps originally the earth goddess Ki. Ninhursag made eight plants sprout in a divine garden, plants created from three generations of goddesses fathered by Enki. These goddesses were described as having been born "without pain or travail." Then trouble came as Enki ate the plants that Ninhursag had grown. Ninhursag responded with rage, and she pronounced a curse of death on Enki, and Enki's health began to fail. Eight parts of Enki's body -- one for each of the eight plants that he ate -- became diseased, one of which was his rib. The goddess Ninhursag then disappeared so as not let sympathy for Enki change her mind about her sentence of death upon him. However, she finally relented and returned to heal Enki. She created eight healing deities -- eight more goddesses -- one for each of Enki's ailing body parts. And the goddess who healed Enki's rib was Nin-ti, a name that in Sumerian meant "lady of the rib," which describes a character who was to appear in a different role in Hebrew writings centuries later, a character to be called Eve31.


Early in Sumerian civilization, eighty to ninety percent of those who farmed did so on land they considered theirs rather than communal property32. Here too the Sumerians were expressing a trend that was common among others33. Another individual effort was commerce, and with a growth in commerce the Sumerians had begun using money, which made individual wealth more easily measured and stored. Commerce required initiative, imagination, an ability to get along with people and luck, and, of course, some merchants were more successful than were others. Farming took stamina, strength, good health, good luck and organization. And some farmers were more successful than were other farmers.
Those farmers who failed to harvest enough to keep themselves in food and seed borrowed from those who had wealth in surplus. Those who borrowed hoped that their next harvest would give them the surplus they needed to repay their loan. But if the next harvest were also inadequate, to meet their obligations they might be forced to surrender their lands to the lender or to work for him. When Sumerians lost their land, they or their descendants might become sharecroppers: working the lands of successful landowners in exchange for giving the landowners a good portion of the crops they grew.

Accompanying divisions in wealth was a division in power, and power among the Sumerians passed to an elite. Sumerian priests had once worked the fields alongside others, but now they were separated from commoners. A corporation run by priests became the greatest landowners among the Sumerians. The priests hired the poor to work their land and claimed that land was really owned by the gods. Priests had become skilled as scribes, and in some cities they sat with the city's council of elders. These councils wielded great influence, sometimes in conflict with a city's king.

Common Sumerians remained illiterate and without power, while kings, once elected by common people, became monarchs. The monarchs were viewed as agents of and responsible to the gods. It was the religious duty of his subjects to accept his rule as a part of the plan of the gods. Governments drafted common people to work on community projects, and common people were obliged to pay taxes to the government in the form of a percentage of their crops, which the city could either sell or use to feed its soldiers and others it supported. And priests told commoners that their drudgery was necessary to allow the gods their just leisure.

Male Domination?
One of the criteria by which a society can fairly be judges is the position which it accords to women.

In Ancient times, physically stronger than women, men could rule women by brute force, and in societies where men were the warriors, it was they who got together and made the decisions. Kings were chosen by the warriors as the leading warrior.

Sumerian kings had promulgated codes of social justice, their laws protecting the widow, the orphan, the weak, for example decreeing that "you shall not take away the donkey of a widow34". However, in some matters the Sumerians put the domination of men over women into law. If a husband died, the widow came under the control of her former husband's father or brother, or if she had a grown son under his control. Some suggest that this meant a woman in Sumer had no recourse or protection under the law, however others claim that the status of the legitimate wife was well protected. Monogamy was the law of the land and marriages were seen as important 'contracts' and concubinage, although existed, did not undermine the buttress of the marital relationship. Infertility of a woman however could deprive a woman of the rights of wedlock and the Sumerian man could gain an easier divorce than the woman. A woman's only power, if she had any, was the influence of her personality within her family35.

However other writers suggest that the role of women and their status was not only engaged in household chores like spinning, weaving, milking or tending to the family and the home, but that they were also 'working professionals' such as doctors, mid-wives and nurses36. She could engage independently in business and keep her own slaves. She could give witness in a court of law. However, this has to be considered in the light that most students were men (see below) and it is not known to what extent the woman's status was given by law or allowed by the individual relationships women found themselves within. It is not certain whether their professional roles were not for females, i.e. doctors for females and children. Yet, Sumer had the first ever queen in her own right, bearing the title LU.GAL37. Evidence of Sumerian carved depictions show women by themselves and dressed, while men were shown naked38. Also, some suggest, that the goddesses, like Inanna depicted in the picture above, and their high standing is evidence of women's high status in Sumerian society39.  One thing which can be asserted with any certainty is that the women in Sumerian society was assigned a higher status than of those civilizations which succeeded it39a.

Early in Sumerian civilization, schooling was associated with the priesthood and took place in temples. But this changed, and an education apart from the temples arose for the children of affluent families, who paid for this education -- and with men dominating women, most if not all students were males. The students were obliged to work hard at their studies, from sun up to sun down. Another sign which arguably shows that Sumerians did not believe in change, was that there was no probing into the potentials of humankind or study of the humanities. Their study was "practical" -- rote learning of complex grammar and practice at writing. Students were encouraged with praise while their inadequacies and failures were punished with lashes from a stick or cane40.

War and Slavery
As Sumerian cities grew in population and expanded, the virgin swamps that had insulated city from city disappeared. And, like other peoples, the Sumerians were inclined to empathize more with those closer to themselves and inclined to see their own interests more clearly than those distant from them. Sumerians from different cities were unable or unwilling to resolve their conflicts over land and the availability of water, and wars between Sumerian cities erupted -- wars they saw as between their gods.

Eventually, the Sumerians made slaves of other Sumerians they had captured in their wars with each other, but originally they acquired their slaves from peoples beyond Sumer. The Sumerian name for a female slave was mountain girl, and a male slave was called mountain man. The Sumerians used their slaves mainly as domestics and concubines. And they justified their slavery as would others: that their gods had given them victory over an inferior people.

Wars with distant people were fuelled by the greed and ambitions of kings. The Sumerians described this in a poetic tale of conflict between the king of Uruk40a and the distant town of Arrata, a tale written by a Sumerian some five hundred years after the event, a tale of which only fragments remain. Here was reporting as it would be for more than three thousand years, as it would be with Homer and his Iliad, the sacred writings of Hindus and with the Old Testament, with gods in command and not disapproving of war41.

Among the Sumerian cities was an impulse to be supreme, and, around 2800 BCE, Kish had become the first of the cities to dominate the whole of Sumer. Then Kish's supremacy was challenged by the city of Lagash, which launched a bloody conquest against its Sumerian neighbours and extended its power beyond Sumerian lands. A bas-relief sculpture uncovered by archaeologists depicts a king of Lagash celebrating his victory over the city of Umma, the king's soldiers, with helmets, shields and pikes, standing shoulder to shoulder and line behind line over the corpses of their defeated enemy. See the image on the left, which depicts the spike and shield carrying arms of King Eannatum of Lagash as they trample on the defeated of the city of Umma.

The variety of populous, civilized life produced differing opinions, and dissent -- something authoritarians would never be able to extinguish. Sumerians complained. One wrote that he was a "thoroughbred steed" but drawing a cart carrying "reeds and stubble." Another complained in writing of the stupidity in one city taking enemy lands and then the enemy coming and taking its lands. Rather than docility, people in the city of Lagash instigated history's first recorded revolt. This came after Lagash's rulers had increased local taxes and restricted personal freedoms. Lagash's bureaucrats had grown in wealth. And the people of Lagash resented this enough that they overthrew their king and brought to power a god-fearing ruler named Urukagina, who eliminated excessive taxation and rid the city of usurers, thieves and murderers -- the first known reforms42.

Clinging to their belief in the goodness and power of their gods and wondering about their sin and the toil and strife with which they lived, the Sumerians imagined a past in which people lived in a god-created paradise. This was expressed in the same poetic tale43 that described the conflict between the king of Uruk and the distant town of Arrata -- the earliest known description in writing of a paradise and the fall of humankind. The poem describes a period when there were no creatures that threatened people -- no snakes, scorpions, hyenas, or lions -- a period in which humans knew no terror. There was no confusion among various peoples speaking different languages, with everyone praising the god Enlil in one language. Then, according to the poem, something happened that enraged the god Enki44. The clay tablet on which the poem was written is damaged at this point, but the tablet indicates that Enki found some sort of inappropriate behaviour among humans. Enki decided to put an end to the golden age, and in the place of the golden age came conflict, wars and a confusion of languages.

On another clay tablet, surviving fragments of a poem describe the gods as having decided that humans were evil and the gods as having created a flood "to destroy the seed of humanity," a flood45 that raged for seven days and seven nights. The depiction below was found on a Sumerian cylinder seal, showing Enki as the Serpent God revealing the secret of the Flood or Deluge to prevent the complete destruction of humanity, it seems that he had forgiven mankind. The tablet describes a huge boat commanded by a king named Ziusudra, who was preserving vegetation and the seed of humankind. His boat was "tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters." When the storm subsided, the god Utu -- the sun -- came forward and shed light on heaven and earth. The good king Ziusudra opened a window on the boat and let in light from Utu. Then Ziusudra prostrated himself before Utu and sacrificed an ox and a sheep for the god.


Sumerians: The 'First' Civilization?
Sumer may very well be the first civilization in the world, although long term settlements at Jericho and Catal Huyuk predate Sumer. From its beginnings as a collection of farming villages around 5000 BCE, through its conquest by Sargon of Agade around 2370 BCE and its final collapse under the Amorites around 2000 BCE, the Sumerians developed a religion and a society which influenced both their neighbours and their conquerors. Sumerian cuneiform, the earliest written language, was borrowed by the Babylonians, who also took many of their religious beliefs.
After the Flood, various city-states and their dynasties of kings temporarily gained power over the others. The first king to unite the separate city-states was Etana, ruler of Kish (c. 2800 BCE). Thereafter, Kish, Erech, Ur, and Lagash vied for ascendancy for hundreds of years, rendering Sumer vulnerable to external conquerors, first the Elamites (c. 2530-2450 BC) and later the Akkadians, led by their king Sargon (reigned 2334-2279 BCE). Although Sargon's dynasty lasted only about 100 years, it united the city-states and created a model of government that influenced all of Middle Eastern civilization46.
Sumerians also directly contributed to the development of Western civilization, through the Hebrew people. Not only did the Semities adopt ready-made those stories of the Creation and the Flood which viewed as history or as parable have affected the Christian even more than the Jewish Church. All arts can no longer be traced back to Greece or even to Egypt: behind all these lies Sumer.

Frank E Smitha was born in Los Angeles, December 1933. He has a B.A in History. You can find his contribution to this exclusive article for Bilgelik on his website also.

John C. Sanders was born in the USA, April 1964 and he works at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

Professor Derek Cline is an archaeologist. Currently he is on-site excavating Tell Hamoukar. He lectures part-time at the University of Nottingham, England.


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