Sumerian Civilization: the Origin and Repercussions

  September 26, 2021   Read time 5 min
Sumerian Civilization: the Origin and Repercussions
Sumerian civilization had deep roots. The people had long shared a way of life not very different from that of their neighbours. They lived in villages and had a few important cult centres which were continuously occupied.

One of these, at a place called Eridu, probably originated in about 5000 BC . It grew steadily well into historic times and by the middle of the fourth millennium there was a temple there which some have thought to have provided the original model for Mesopotamian monumental architecture, though nothing is now left of it but the platform on which it rested. Such cult centres began by serving those who lived near them. They were not true cities, but places of devotion and pilgrimage. They may have had no considerable resident populations, but they were usually the centres around which cities later crystallized and this helps to explain the close relationship religion and government always had in ancient Mesopotamia. Well before 3000 BCsome such sites had very big temples indeed; at Uruk (which is called Erech in the Bible) there was an especially splendid one, with elaborate decoration and impressive pillars of mud brick, 8 feet in diameter.

Pottery is among the most important evidence linking pre-civilized Mesopotamia with historic times. It provides one of the fi rst clues that something culturally important is going forward which is qualitatively different from the evolutions of the Neolithic. The so-called Uruk pots (the name is derived from the site where they were found) are often duller, less exciting than earlier ones. They are, in fact, mass-produced, made in standard form on a wheel (which fi rst appears in this role). The strong implication of this is that when they came to be produced, there already existed a population of specialized craftsmen; it must have been maintained by an agriculture suffi ciently rich to produce a surplus exchanged for their creations. It is with this change that the story of Sumerian civilization can conveniently be begun.

It lasts about 1 , 300years (roughly from 3300to 2000 BC ), which is about as much time as separates us from the age of Charlemagne. At the beginning comes the invention of writing, possibly the only invention of comparable importance to the invention of agriculture before the age of steam. Most of it was done on clay for nearly half the time mankind has possessed the skill. Writing had in fact been preceded by the invention of cylinder seals, on which little pictures were incised to be rolled on to clay; pottery may have degenerated, but these seals were one of the great Mesopotamian artistic achievements. The earliest writings followed in the form of pictograms or simplifi ed pictures (a step towards non-representative communication) on clay tablets, usually baked after they had been inscribed with a reed stalk. The earliest are in Sumerian and it can be seen that they are memoranda, lists of goods, receipts; their emphasis is economic and they cannot be read as continuous prose. The writing on these early notebooks and ledgers evolved slowly towards cuneiform, a way of arranging impressions stamped on clay by the wedge-like section of a chopped-off reed. With this the break with the pictogram form is complete. Signs and groups of signs come at this stage to stand for phonetic and possibly syllabic elements and are all made up of combinations of the same basic wedge shape. It was more fl exible as a form of communication by signs than anything used hitherto, and Sumer reached it soon after 3000 BC.

A fair amount is therefore known about the Sumerian language. A few of its words have survived to this day; one of them is the original form of the word ‘alcohol’ (and the fi rst recipe for beer), which is suggestive. But the language’s greatest interest is its appearance in written forms at all. Literacy must have been both unsettling and stabilizing. On the one hand it offered huge new possibilities of communicating; on the other, it stabilized practice because the consultation of a record as well as oral tradition became possible. It made much easier the complex operations of irrigating lands, harvesting and storing crops, which were fundamental to a growing society. Writing made for more effi cient exploitation of resources. It also immensely strengthened government and emphasized its links with the priestly castes which monopolized literacy at fi rst. Interestingly, one of the earliest uses of seals appears to be connected with this, since they were used somehow to certify the size of crops at their receipt in the temple. Perhaps they record at fi rst the operations of an economy of centralized redistribution, where men brought their due produce to the temple and received there the food or materials they themselves needed.

Besides such records, the invention of writing opens more of the past to the historian in another way. He can at last begin to deal in hard currency when talking about mentality. This is because writing preserves literature. The oldest story in the world is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Its most complete version, it is true, goes back only to the seventh century BC , but the tale itself appears in Sumerian times and is known to have been written down soon after 2000 BC . Gilgamesh was a real person, ruling at Uruk. He became also the fi rst individual and hero in world literature, appearing in other poems, too. His is the fi rst name which must appear in this book. To a modern reader the most striking part of the Epic may be the coming of a great fl ood which obliterates mankind except for a favoured family who survive by building an ark; from them springs a new type of men to people the world after the fl ood has subsided. This was not part of the Epic’s oldest versions, but came from a separate poem telling a story which turns up in many Middle Eastern forms, though its incorporation is easily understandable. Lower Mesopotamia must always have had much trouble with fl ooding, which would undoubtedly put a heavy strain on the fragile system of irrigation on which its prosperity depended. Floods were the type, perhaps, of general disaster, and must have helped to foster the pessimistic fatalism which some scholars have seen as the key to Sumerian religion.