Sumerian Farming, Food, and Trade

The Fickle Rivers of Mesopotamia

The Mesopotamian plains were watered by the great rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates. Seasonal flooding replenished the nutrients of the soil, resulting in bumper crops which fed the growing population and allowed for more widespread urbanization than had been possible before.

Flood rivers like the Euphrates, however, would often change its course and leave some fields in drought, causing once fertile land to become dry and barren, and causing once-thriving villages to be abandoned.

To protect their crops from the spring floods, farmers learned to build banks and levees. They also dug cisterns and irrigation canals so that they could store and transport water to fields that were not in close proximity to the river.

Banking up the river and digging out the irrigation canals was a never-ending task. Each year the earthen Dykes had to be kept in good condition and channels needed to have silt removed through dredging. Over time, thousands of villagers were connected by an irrigation system that covered entire districts.

To ensure fair distribution of water, local government was established to maintain an orderly irrigation enterprise. This prevented, among other things, a farmer from stealing water meant for another. In this way, the irrigation network not only boosted crop yields but also fostered obedience to governmental authority, which would lay the foundation for their flourishing city-states.


What Kind of Food Did Sumerians Eat?

Wheat and barley, the predominant crops in Mesopotamia, were grown in fields, while rows of date palms were planted near the canals. Along with these staples, their diet included figs, apples, and melons. Popular vegetables included lettuce, onions, radishes, eggplants, along with chickpeas, sesame seeds, and lentils.

The Mesopotamians were also good at animal husbandry. Along with dairy cattle, they raised large numbers of sheep, which provided necessary clothing, such as their traditional sheepskin kilt.

The Sumerians hunted gazelle and the local fowl. The well-watered land also allowed them to catch large amounts of fish.

Use of the Shaduf (Irrigation Device)

Shaduf - Your World
Shaduf  |  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The shaduf (or shadoof) was a primitive crane-like device which transferred water from a natural source, such as a river, to the land. The shaduf’s construction usually consisted of a waterproof basket or animal-skin bag which hung on a long lever made from a branch or reed. The opposite end of this lever system was weighted by a stone or mound of clay. The entire system was suspended by a frame anchored to the ground between the water source and the land.

This mechanism allowed the water bag to be easily filled, lifted and swung from the river or lake onto the land. In this way, water could be distributed directly into the channels of the irrigation system, as opposed to being transported by hand. The shaduf is still in use to this day in various countries, including Egypt and India.


Inventions of the Plow and Seed Drill

Most of the Mesopotamians’ prosperity, came from their cereal crops, and it was within this enterprise that the plow was invented and became arguably the Sumerians’ most significant contribution to farming.

This instrument likely developed by modifying the use of their current wooden digging sticks into a large hoe. The first versions of this agricultural innovation were physically drawn by the farmer himself, his wife, and even his children. However, a more efficient tool was developed around 4000 BC, which was pulled by a pair of oxen led by a driver, who would guide the wooden plow blade through the soil.

An Ancient Plow  |  Image courtesy of

Originally, the plow beam was fastened to the horns of the oxen by ropes. Later, this system was improved by both the invention of the yoke, as well as the replacement of the wooden plowshare by a bronze blade.

Though the land was known for its floods, rainfall in Mesopotamia was scarce, which produced hard-baked soil in the summer. The advent of the plow allowed large areas of land to be broken up and planted which boosted the culture’s grain supplies.

For the process of sowing, Sumerian farmers replaced the traditional method of “broadcasting” (scattering the seeds by hand) with a seed drill pulled by an ox. This device worked like a plow, making a groove in the soil, while the seed was dropped into the ground by means of a tube with a funnel attachment.

This landmark innovation was once credited to a man named Jethro Tull, an English farmer who lived in the early 18th century. Yet recorded evidence of the Sumerian origins of this invention can be seen clearly inscribed on a stone seal excavated from the southernmost part of the Mesopotamian area.


Invention of the Wheeled Cart

Wheeled chariot from the Standard of Ur
Wheeled chariot from the Standard of Ur
(image source)

Another ingenious invention which contributed significantly to the Mesopotamians’ agricultural development was the wheeled cart. The wheel, which is the basis of man’s earliest technological advancements, seems likely to have appeared in Mesopotamia in its original form as a potters wheel. This device allowed crafters of clay vessels to increase production of their wares by means of a hand-spun, wooden turntable.

Earliest archaeological findings for the pottery wheel place the invention at around 3500 BC. It was not until approximately 250 years later that this device was adapted for transport.

The earliest cart wheels had no spokes, constructed from solid planks of wood encompassed with leather. Four wheels would be attached to a wooden cart which was used by farmers to transport their goods to market. Carts were also used for ceremonial purposes, carrying noblemen and officials in processionals drawn by wild donkeys or oxen. Unlike in other regions, horses were not yet in use in Mesopotamia.


Sumerian Trade

Surviving ziggurat of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur
Surviving ziggurat of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur
(image source)

Each of the great Sumerian cities of Nippur, Ur, Lagash, Uruk, and Eridu was built within fertile, irrigated land and thrived through the raising of cattle and agriculture. Mesopotamia lacked raw building materials like timber, metals, and quarried stone. The people had to trade their abundant supplies of wool and grain to import these natural resources from the surrounding cultures.

Coinciding with “Ur of the Chaldees,“ in the book of Genesis, the City of Ur boasted great storehouses which were stocked with goods that came from across land and sea. Hundreds of surviving clay tablets (including the Epic of Gilgamesh) explain how trade was organized between neighboring lands. Lead and silver were transported on the Euphrates from the mountains of what is now modern-day Turkey. Timber was transported from Syria and other nearby locations. Semi-precious stones were brought from Afghanistan. Oman supplied stone and copper, while incense and gold were brought from Arabia.

To help accommodate some of these precious goods, a bustling trading post was established in the Persian Gulf on the isle of Bahrain.

According to existing records, trade traffic seems to have been relatively one-sided with most commodities being transported into Mesopotamia rather than out of it. This could be due to the fact that the grain and textile transported to the eastern nations have mostly vanished. In addition to this, the civilization of the Indus Valley, who was likely Sumer’s largest trading partner, was self-sufficient in these commodities.

Sumerian bill of sale on a cuneiform tablet
Sumerian bill of sale in Cuneiform
(image source)

Seemingly, Central Asian civilizations also participated in the larger commercial relationships of this region, although archaeological data on this point is scarce. Raw materials indigenous to the south and east of Sumeria have been discovered in archaeological sites of certain mountain ranges in modern-day Iran.

The Sumerians bought and sold good by means of a barter system, while other societies in Mesopotamia used the shekel coin, the standard currency in Mesopotamia made of either copper, silver, or gold. This shekel coin was first used by the Babylonians.


Trade by Land

Eastern land trade to Sumer came by way of the Iranian Plateau. Towns dispersed along these trade routes could be used as rest stops by caravans, as well as sources of specialized production. Consequently, the archaeological sites of Tepe Yahya and Shahr-I-Sokhta (located in what is now Iran) produced chlorite stoneware and lapis lazuli. Various commodities have also been discovered as coming from the Indus and Afghanistan regions.

This terrestrial trade economy sustained the lifestyle of the rich and influential in the towns and cities of the Iranian Plateau. Controlling this trade meant they could monopolize its distribution and capitalize on the economic power and influence in order to enhance their own political positions. This resulted in a somewhat symbiotic relationship between the elite of both Mesopotamia and the Iranian Plateau.


Trade by Sea

Likely appearing in the later Early Dynastic Period (c. 2900–2350 BC), the ancient eastern sea trade reveals a pattern that closely resembles that of land trade with communities situated geographically between Indus and Sumer. These societies produced their own unique resources and/or participated as shippers in the wider sea trade from the Indus region and coastal cities of Iran.

Ancient records from 2340-2000 BC describe a deep involvement of Mesopotamian cities with the Persian Gulf. Naram-Sin, ruler of the Akkadian Empire, claimed to have invaded Iran and conquered Magan (most likely located in what is now Oman). Ancient texts also describe ships sailing from Magan to Akkad through Dilmun, as well as the presence of colonist-traders from Meluḫḫa (a Sumerian trading partner most likely located in the Indus valley) living in cities of southern Sumeria.


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