Ancient Sumer: Life, Death, and Learning

The ancient Sumerian city of Ur must have been a site of grandeur and spectacle. Surrounded by cultivated and well-manicured fields, the fortified metropolis, which rose from the plain of the Euphrates and was visible for miles. It was built atop an earthen mound to protect it from flooding and was encompassed by a rampart and canal.

Rising from the midst of the city was a temple built as a stepped pyramid constructed of clay bricks, known as a ziggurat. A population of more than 24,000 lived in tightly packed houses that surrounded this towering temple. Ur had two harbors at whose wharfs were unloaded exotic goods and wares. Unpaved winding and narrow streets carried merchants, craftsman, slaves, as well as priests and palace staff who worshiped Nanna, the cities patron moon God.


Sumerian Homes

Most of the mud-built houses had modest furnishings, consisting primarily of stools, chairs, low tables, and chests. Although some homes had beds, most families slept on mats. Since mud was a plentiful resource in the region, houses had no shortage of clay pots, vases, jugs, and the like.

Immense grain storehouses kept full by the plentiful harvest meant bread was the staple of the Sumerian diet. A kind of porridge was created by mashing wheat and barley into pulp. Their menu was complemented with onions, beans, cucumbers, lentils and garlic.

Butter and cheese came from their dairy herds of cattle and goats. Dates provided by the abundant palms which lined the irrigation canals, could be dried, pressed to make syrup, or eaten fresh. Fish was a popular source of protein, and beef and Mutton provided further variety.


Sumerian Family Relationships

In both poor and wealthy houses, the father assumed the role of Lord and Master. According to ancient Sumerian law, if a man’s wife was Barren, he could divorce her, take concubines, and in certain instances, even sell his wife and children into slavery.

This did not mean that a Sumerian woman had no rights. Women were given certain legal allowances, Such as The ability to own property and give testimony in court. One Sumerian proverb even deified the lady of the house, Giving this exhortation: “Pay heed to the word of your mother as though it were the word of God.


Sumerian Proverbs

But not all Sumerian adages were so high-minded toward women. A more cynical poetic nugget stated, “For a man’s pleasure there is marriage; on thinking it over there is divorce.

Other proverbs made poignant references to personal wealth. One stated, “We are doomed to die; let us spend. We shall live long; let us save.”

Another wise gem addressing the frustrations that come with owning property, observed, “He who possesses much silver maybe happy. But he who has nothing at all can sleep peacefully at night.

Successful farming practices and a metropolitan lifestyle lead to the increase of personal wealth. The booming economy led to technological improvements amongst the artisans and craftsmen who contributed to the quality of everyday life in Mesopotamia.


Beer, Wine, and Leisure

Beer was the reigning drink in Sumeria. Brewing most likely began after the production of cereal crops and was originally accomplished by housewives in order to make bread or porridge.

Early Mesopotamian records describe 19 different types of beer which varied depending upon the various proportions of grain, malt and honey, and aromatic plants which provided flavor and acted as a preservative.

Wine was not as plentiful as beer in Sumeria and was usually reserved for the wealthy, who also partook of higher forms of entertainment, like music from the harp, lyre, and drum, as well as poetry and board games. One surviving game board, known as the “Game of Ur,” is a wooden board who’s layout is divided into 20 squares decorated with star and circle designs of black and red. The board had a built-in drawer that held the game pieces which were moved by the player after throwing numbered sticks or casting dice.


Craft and Creativity

The pottery wheel allowed for the mass production of common, household vessels, while the skills of metalworkers were improved through experimentation and the exchange of ideas. Bronze was made by adding tin to copper and produced a material much harder than copper itself. Importing these supplies allowed Sumerian smiths to hone their techniques for bronze production in technologically improved kilns.

The bronze age got its start in Mesopotamia around 3500 BC. Sumerian smiths developed a method of bronze casting called the “lost-wax” method. This method involved making a model of the desired item in wax. The model was then covered in clay and baked which until the clay hardened and the wax melted and emptied through a drain hole. This left an empty void in the shape of the desired item into which molten bronze could be poured.

Workers in gold had perfected the art of beating it into thin sheets, and the spun the precious metal into thin, pliable threads for ornamentation. Carpenters shaped wood through saws and hand drills, while builders were able to produce the first finished drainage systems with arches by using wedge-shaped bricks.

Sumerians also took advantage of the abundant subterranean supply of bitumen (or pitch) that seeped through the earth. The petroleum-based, tar-like substance was an excellent bonding agent for brick-making or waterproofing baskets and boats.

The person who eventually discovered how glass could be created from a formula of sand, limestone, and soda remains a mystery. Quite possibly it was a Mesopotamian jeweler who stumbled upon the method while working with glazes and beads. Nevertheless, well before 2000 BC, this skill had been acquired by craftsmen in Sumer and Egypt. But at this stage, glass pieces were treated as no more than decorative gems. Entire glass vessels would not be made for another thousand years.


Sumerian Beauty and Fashion

In the early days of Sumerian society, men walked free of footwear and bare-chested, wearing only the customary Sumerian kilt. Sometime later, they wore a long garment resembling a shirt, which was sometimes accessorized by a fringed shawl. Women wore either loose-fitting draped garments or fitted dresses along with various forms of headgear. They would sometimes wear their hair in braids which encircling the top of their head. Sometimes a helmet-like hat or a headband was worn.

Sumerian jewelry was elegant and dazzling, made from semi-precious stones, gold, and silver. Necklaces and bracelets fixed with blue lapis-lazuli and red carnelian beads were favorites among the women. Heavy make up in the faces, hands, and especially the eyes, was perceived to be the pinnacle of beauty in Sumerian society.

Eye makeup was worn by Sumerian women and men alike. They lined and highlighted their eyes with a powdered blue-black substance called antimony. In order to give themselves a slightly more severe appearance, they would often darken their eyelashes and eyebrows. Mesopotamian royalty would sometimes accentuate their faces by wearing false beards in order to make themselves appear more threatening.

One particular headdress, found in a grave at Ur and which dates from around 2600 BC, was made of gold and fashioned to resemble plant leaves which hung from two rows of lapis-lazuli and carnelian beads.

Both men and women of Sumeria would sometimes paint their faces with a white, lead-based substance, giving them the appearance of wearing a mask. To contrast the white base, they would use henna to color their cheeks and lips red, as well as fingernails and palms. A pumice stone was used to smooth the skin and they applied oil to repel pests. They also enjoyed perfumed baths and they curled and perfumed their hair. Gold cosmetic cases resembling seashells could be found in many women’s toiletries, along with toothpicks, eyebrow tweezers, and cuticle pushers.


Sumerian Death and Taxes

When a Sumerian king died, he would not go to his tomb alone. He was accompanied by his entire household of sometimes 70 people who had ingested poison so that they could follow their Lord and loyally serve him in the afterlife. This mass burial required meticulous preparation. A burial chamber was dug deep underground which was accessed by a long, sloping shaft. Along with the King’s body, the room was filled with opulent offerings and a few of the King’s personal effects.

After the tomb was sealed, a throng of household attendants, including guards, ladies of the court, and funeral musicians, descended the shaft. Holding a personal cup containing the poison, each would take a lethal drink before lying down outside the King’s tomb to prepare for their passage into the next life. As each of the King’s household drank their last, the musicians played on, until finally it was their turn to partake. While various ritual offerings continued above ground, the shaft was completely filled with dirt.


Sumerian Religion

The fact that the King’s attendants did not resist their demise testifies to their uncompromising and resolved obedience both to the gods into their king. All archaeological evidence uniformly supports the importance of religion in Sumerian society. They believed that men were created to be the servants of the gods who ruled the earth on which they stood. They saw each city as belonging to a certain god or goddess, who would dwell in that city’s temple as their earthly home, while a complex ranking of priests would conduct elaborate rituals in their honor.

A pantheon of Sumerian gods was believed to oversee every facet of both life and death on the fertile plains. The chief god was An, ruler of the sky who sat in the heavens and took little interest in the affairs of men. Nevertheless, they believed a city’s patron deity owned not just what was inside the city walls but also the surrounding villages and fields which comprised the entire city-state. Consequently, there was an intricate hierarchy of priests as well as a throng of slaves and secular staff to support them in offering worship to their god.

Some villagers worked the land solely for the gods, under the watchful eye of temple officers. Some land was awarded to the temple staff in payment for their services. Some land was given to farmers who would offer part of their harvest as rent to the temple. Even in this early part of human history taxes were a reality, and the temple priests were the primary collectors of it.

One ancient Sumerian proverb lamented, “You can have a Lord, you can have a king, but the man to fear is the tax collector.


Sumerian Medicine

Although Sumerian doctors relied on magical rituals for driving out demons in order to heal a patient, practical remedies were also at their disposal, such as balms and plasters to bind and dress the wound to prevent infection. Salt was used as an antiseptic, and potassium nitrate to toughen the skin and reduce bleeding.

One of the earliest recorded prescriptions dates from 2100 BC for an infected wound, and reads, “Pass through a sieve and then need together turtle shells, salt and mustard. Then wash the diseased part with good beer and hot water, and rub with the mixture. Then rub again with oil and put on a poultice of pounded pine.

Astrology played an important role in their agriculture, as well. Sumerian astrologers would study the heavens to surmise the seasonal patterns which were vital to farmers. Through this practice they developed a calendar based on the lunar behavior. Its 28-day cycles gave a 12-month year with a few days left over.


Numbers and Writing

Because addition, subtraction, and multiplication were necessary skills when managing heads of cattle and sacks of grain, Sumerians were the first society to develop an arithmetic system. Unlike ours which is based on a unit of 10, Sumerian arithmetic was based on the unit of 60. We can see the remnants of this in the fact that we divide circles into 360 degrees and hours into 60 minutes.

Born from this necessity of accurate recordkeeping for the purposes of tax collection or trade, came a practical system of weights and measures, as well as their crowning achievement, the written word.

The first Sumerian records were inscribed simply as images of the inventory in question, such as an ox head. Next to that would be a number of dots describing the quantity. Inscription was accomplished with a reed that had been sharpened so that it could press into the soft clay tablet, which would then be placed in a kiln to bake until hardened.

Because Sumerian writing was originally for the purpose of keeping accurate lists of goods, it was first written in vertical columns, read from the top-right of the tablet. However, around 3000 BC, scribes discovered the writing process was easier if they held the tablets sideways and wrote their columns horizontally, from left to right.

In addition to this adaptation, the pointed stylus was replaced with one having a wedge-shaped tip. They discovered that jagged grooves were the result of scratching with a point, whereas the modified stylus could be pressed into the clay, leaving a tidier impression. This gave birth to cuneiform, wedge-shaped marks that would define the Mesopotamian writing system.

However, by around 2500 BC, The original pictures that had been used were replaced by symbols that were so stylized that their matching object could hardly be recognized. The symbols had also come to be used to represent actions, feelings, and ideas, rather than physical objects alone. For example, a symbol of a foot could mean to stand or go or come, etc. Consequently, thousands of unique characters had to be created to accommodate their vast vocabulary.

Eventually, they devised the solution of using phonetic symbols, as opposed to pictures that represent literal objects. But it was not a letter-by-letter word construction, as in English. In an English example of their word construction, an abstract concept such as “treason” might be represented by the image of a “tree” next to that of a “sun.” By this method, it was possible to construct any word using a fairly limited collection of syllables.

The Sumerian’s had to memorize 600 distinct signs in this system. They never advanced to the point of deconstructing syllables into a set of 24 or so phonetic characters to make a formal alphabet. However, this system proved remarkably flexible, paving the way for rich literature to blossom alongside legal contracts, inventory manifests, and bills of sale.

Scribes in training in Sumer would learn by following the example of their instructor, who would write a selected text on one side of a clay tablet. The pupil would have to memorize the inscription and duplicate it on the reverse side of the tablet.


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