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Sumer (or Shumer, Sumeria, Shinar, native ki-en-gir) 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.


Early history

The term "Sumerian" is actually an exonym, first applied by the Akkadians. The Sumerians described themselves as "the black-headed people" (sag-gi-ga) and called their land Ki-en-gi, "place of the civilized lords". The Akkadian word Shumer possibly represents this name in dialect. The Sumerians, 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 difficult to determine exactly when this event occurred or the original geographic origins of the Sumerians. Some archeologists have advanced the notion that the Sumerians were, in fact, local to the Mesopotamian plains. Others suggest that the term 'Sumerian' should only be applied to the Sumerian language, positing that there was no separate 'Sumerian' ethnic group. Sumerian itself is generally regarded as a language isolate in Linguistics because it belongs to no known language family, as compared, for example, to Akkadian which belongs to the Hamito-Semitic, or Afro-Asiatic languages.

Administration and politics

The Sumerians inhabited various city-states, each centered on a temple dedicated to the patron god of the city and ruled over by a king, who was intimately tied to the city's religious rites.

Some of their major cities included Eridu, Kish, Lagash, Uruk, Ur, and Nippur. As these cities developed, they sought to assert primacy over each other, falling into a millennium of almost incessant warfare over water rights, trade routes, and tribute from nomadic tribes.

Agriculture and hunting

The Sumerians grew barley, chickpeas, lentils, millet, wheat, turnips, dates, onions, garlic, lettuce, leeks 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 pickaxe s. 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 wagon s to separate the cereal heads from the stalks and then use threshing sled s to disengage the grain. They then winnowed the grain/chaff mixture.


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. Mud-brick buildings eventually deteriorate, and so they were periodically destroyed, levelled, and rebuilt on the same spot. This constant rebuilding gradually raised the level of cities, so that they came to be elevated above the surrounding plain. The resultant hills are known as tells, and are found throughout the ancient Near East. The most impressive and famous of Sumerian buildings are the ziggurats, large terraced platforms which supported temples. These may have been the inspiration for the Biblical Tower of Babel. Sumerian cylinder seals also depict houses built from reeds not unlike those built by the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq until rececnt years.

Sumerian temples and palaces made use of more advanced materials and techniques, such as buttresses, recess es, half column s, and clay nail s.


Historian Alan Marcus says: "Sumerians held a rather dour perspective on life"

One Sumerian wrote: "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 wrote, "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."

Though females could achieve a higher status in Sumer than in some other civilizations, the culture remained predominantly male-dominated.

Economy and trade

Discoveries of obsidian from far-away locations in Anatolia and Afghanistan, beads from Dilmun (modern Bahrain), and several seals inscribed with the Indus Valley script suggest a remarkably wide-ranging network of ancient trade centered around the Persian Gulf.

The Epic of Gilgamesh refers to trade with far lands for goods such as wood that were scarce in Mesopatamia. In particular, cedar from Lebanon was prized.

The Sumerians used slaves, although they were not a major part of the economy. Slave women worked as weavers, pressers, millers, and porters.

Sumerian potters decorated pots with cedar oil paints. The potters used a bow drill to produce the fire needed for baking the pottery. Sumerian masons and jewelers knew and made use of ivory, gold, silver, galena and lapis lazuli.


As with any pre-modern society, the Sumerians had a limited understanding of medical diagnosis and treatment. Laxatives, purgatives, and diuretics formed the majority of Sumerian medicines. Some surgery was also practiced.

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 or goat 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-axe s, 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 (wild asses). 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 recurve bow.)


Main article: Sumerian mythology

It can be difficult to speak of a 'Sumerian religion' as such, since practices and beliefs varied widely through time and distance, with each city having its own twist on mythology and theology.

The Sumerians worshipped An the god of Heaven, Nammu the Mother Goddess, Inanna the goddess of love and war (who is equivalent to the Akkadian goddess Ishtar), Enlil the god of the wind, as well as a host of other gods. The Sumerian gods (Sumerian dingir, plural dingir-dingir or dingir-a-ne-ne) each had associations with different cities, and their religious importance often waxed and waned with the political power of the associated cities. The gods allegedly created humans from clay for the purpose of serving them. The gods 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.

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 storehouse s 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.


Examples of Sumerian technology include: saws, leather, chisels, hammers, braces, bits, nails, pins, rings, hoes, axes, knives, lancepoints, arrowheads, swords, glue, daggers, waterskin s, bags, harness es, boats, armor, quivers, scabbards, boots, sandals, and harpoons.

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 (with the possible exception of the highly controversial Old European Script), 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.

Language and writing

Sumerian is a language isolate which means that it is unrelated to any other known languages, despite many failed attempts to prove connections to other languages. Sumerian is an agglutinative language; in other words, morphemes or word-units are stuck together to create words.

An extremely large body of texts (many hundreds of thousands) in the Sumerian language has survived, the great majority on clay tablets. Sumerian is written in cuneiform and is the oldest known written human language. Types of Sumerian texts known include personal letters, business letters and transactions, receipts, lexical lists, laws, hymns and prayers, magical incantations, and scientific texts including mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Monumental inscriptions and texts on different objects like statues or bricks are also very common. Many texts survive in multiple copies because they were repeatedly transcribed by scribes-in-training.

Understanding Sumerian texts today can be problematic even for experts. Most difficult are the earliest texts, which in many cases don't give the full grammatical structure of the language.

See also

External links



Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45