Sumer (or Shumer, Sumeria, Shinar) formed the southern part of Mesopotamia from the time of settlement by the Sumerians until the time of Babylonia. Sumerian cuneiform script may pre-date any other form of writing, and dates to no later than about 3500 BC.

Table of contents
1 Early History
2 Administration
3 Agriculture and Hunting
4 Architecture
5 Arts and Crafts
6 Culture
7 Economy
8 Medicine
9 Military
10 Religion
11 Technology
12 Downfall
13 Legacy
14 External links

Early History

The term "Sumerian" is actually an exonym, first applied by the Akkadians. It has remained an exonym for a people who referred to themselves as "Kiengi," which is usually interpreted to mean "land(of the)civilized lords." These people, with a language, culture, and, perhaps, appearance different from their Semitic neighbors and successors are widely believed to have been invaders or migrants, although it has proven quite difficult to say exactly when such an event would have occurred. Some archeologists have advanced claims that the Sumerians were, in fact, local to the Mesopotamian plains.


The Sumerians inhabited various city-states, each centered around a temple called a
ziggurat. They believed that a god owned each city. Some of their major cities included Eridu, Kish, Uruk and Ur. Kings who controlled the army and commerce ruled the cities.

Agriculture and Hunting

The Sumerians grew barley, chickpeas, lentils, millet, wheat, turnips, Datess, onions, garlic, lettuce, leekss and mustard. They also farmed cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs. They used oxen as their primary beasts of burden and donkeys as their primary transport animal. Sumerians hunted fish and fowl.

Sumerian agriculture depended heavily on irrigation. The irrigation was accomplished by the use of shadufs, canals, channels, dykes, weirs, and reservoirs. The canals required frequent repair and continual removal of silt. The government required individuals to work on the canals, although the rich were able to exempt themselves.

Using the canals, farmers would flood their fields and then drain the water. Next they let oxen stomp the ground and kill weeds. They then dragged the fields with pickaxes. After drying, they plowed, harrowed, raked thrice, and pulverized with a mattock.

Sumerians harvested during the dry fall season in three-person teams consisting of a reaper, a binder, and a sheaf arranger. The farmers would use threshing wagons to separate the cereal heads from the stalks and then use threshing sleds to disengage the grain. They then winnowed the grain/chaff mixture.


Sumerians made use of buttresses, recesses, half columns, and clay nails.

Arts and Crafts

Sumerian potters decorated pots with cedar oil paints. The potters used a bow drill to produce the fire needed for baking the pottery.

The masons and jewelers made use of ivory, gold, silver, and galena.


Though females could achieve a higher status in Sumer than in some other civilizations, the culture remained predominantly male-dominated. Historian Alan Marcus says: "Sumerians held a rather dour perspective on life".

A Sumerian writes: "Tears, lament, anguish, and depression are within me. Suffering overwhelms me. Evil fate holds me and carries off my life. Malignant sickness bathes me."

Another Sumerian writes, "Why am I counted among the ignorant? Food is all about, yet my food is hunger. On the day shares were alloted, my allotted share was suffering."


The Sumerians used slaves. Slave women worked as weavers, pressers, millers, and porterss.

Stone, silver, copper, and wood came from India and Africa. Camel caravans brought the goods to Sumer, along with ox-drawn wagons and sledges. Sumerian trading also used boats.


Laxatives, purgatives, and diuretics formed the majority of Sumerian medicines.

Sumerians manufactured saltpeter from urine, lime, ash, and salt. They would combine this with milk, snakeskin, turtle shell, cassia, myrtle, thyme, willow, fig, pear, fir, and/or date. They would mix these agents with wine and spread the result as a salve, or mix it with beer and consume orally.

Sumerians explained disease as the consequence of a demon becoming trapped within the body and trying to eat its way out. The medicines aimed to persuade the demon that continued residence within the body would prove distasteful. They often placed a lamb next to a diseased person and hoped to entice the demon into the lamb, which they would then butcher. Failing available lambs, they would try using a statue which, should the demon enter the statue, they would cover in bitumen.


City walls defended Sumerian cities. The Sumerians engaged in siege warfare between their cities, and the mudbrick walls failed to deter foes who had the time to pry out the bricks.

Sumerian armies consisted mostly of infantry. Light infantrymen carried battle-axes, daggers, and spears. The regulary infantry also used copper helmets, felt cloaks, and leather kilts.

The Sumerians invented the chariot, which they harnessed to onagers. These early chariots functioned less effectively in combat than did later designs, and some have suggested that chariots served primarily as transports, though the crew carried battle-axes and lances. The Sumerian chariot comprised a four-wheeled device manned by a crew of two and harnessed to four onagers. The carriage was composed of a woven basket and the wheels had a solid three-piece design.

Sumerians used slings and simple bows. (Only later did mankind invent the composite bow.)


Sumerian temples consisted of a central nave with aisles along either side. Flanking the aisles would be rooms for the priests. At one end would stand the podium and a mudbrick table for animal and vegetable sacrifices. Granaries and storehouses were usually located near the temples. After a time the Sumerians began to place the temples atop artificial, terraced, and multi-layered hills: the ziggurats.

The Sumerian religion is thought to be the basis or source of inspiration for a number of modern religions. The Sumerians worshipped Nammu the Mother Goddess, Ishtar or Inanna the goddess of love, Enlil the god of the wind and Marduk the god of thunder.

The Sumerian dingirs (gods) each had associations with different cities, and their religious importance often waxed and waned with the political power of the associated cities. The dingirs allegedly created humans from clay for the purpose of serving them. The dingirs often expressed their anger and frustration through earthquakes: the gist of Sumerian religion stressed that all of humanity stood at the mercy of the gods.

Sumerians believed that the universe consisted of a flat disk enclosed by a tin dome. The Sumerian afterlife involved a descent into a vile nether-world to spend eternity in a wretched existence.

See also: Sumerian mythology


Examples of Sumerian technology include: saws, leather, chisels, hammers, braces, bits, nailss, pins, ringss, hoes, axes, knives, lancepoints, arrowheads, swords, glue, daggers, waterskins, bags, harnesses, boats, armor, quivers, scabbards, boots, sandals, and harpoons.

The Tigris-Euphrates plain lacked minerals and trees. Sumerian structures comprised plano-convex mudbrick, not fixed with mortar or with cement. As plano-convex bricks (being rounded) are somewhat unstable in behaviour, Sumerian bricklayers would lay a row of bricks perpendicular to the rest every few rows. They would fill the gaps with bitumen, grain stalks, marsh reeds, and weeds.

The Sumerians had three main types of boats:

  • skin boats comprised reeds and animal skins
  • sailboats featured bitumen waterproofing
  • wooden-oared ships, sometimes pulled upstream by people and animals walking along the nearby banks.


As the local states grew in strength, the Sumerians began to lose their political
hegemony over most parts of Mesopotamia. The Amorites conquered Sumer and founded Babylon. The Hurrians of Armenia established the empire of Mitanni in northern Mesopotamia around 2000 BC, while the Babylonians controlled the south. Both groups defended themselves against the Egyptians and the Hittites. The Hittites defeated Mitanni but were repulsed by the Babylonians; but the Kassites defeated the Babylonians in 1460 BC. The kassites were in turn defeated by the Elamites around 1150 BC.


The Sumerians are perhaps remembered most for their many inventions. Many authorities credit them with the invention of the wheel and the potter's wheel. Their cuneiform writing system was the first we have evidence of, pre-dating Egyptian hieroglyphics by at least fifty years. They were among the first formal astronomers. They invented the chariot and possibly military formations. Perhaps most importantly, many scholars believe the Sumerians were the first to domesticate both plants and animals, in the former case by the systematic planting and harvesting of mutant grass strains known today as einkorn and emmer wheat, in the latter case by confining and breeding ancestral sheep (similar to mouflon) and cattle (aurochs). These inventions and innovations easily place the Sumerians among the most creative cultures in human pre-history and history.

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External links