Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We Know

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
October 31, 2023

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowClay relief of a female nude believed to be Inanna, 19th – 18th century BC, Southern Mesopotamia; with LIFE Magazine June 1956 Issue cover featuring Ancient Sumerian Queen Puabi, USA, via The British Museum, London

Inanna, Queen of Heaven, barreled toward the shadowy underworld where she intended to steal the throne from her sister, Eshkegel. As she passed through each of the seven looming gates of hell, she was compelled to relinquish a piece of her identity. At the first, she removed her turban; at the second, her necklace; then her breast jewels at the third; at the fourth, her pectoral; then her rings, followed by her measuring rod; and, finally, at the seventh gate she removed her dress.

Completely nude, she entered the underworld and was met by her sister who had been plotting against her. Eshkegel convinced the seven judges of Kur to convict Inanna of conspiracy and sentence her to death. And so goes the first part of the most famous ancient Sumerian myth: Inanna’s Descent. This myth, much like Sumerian civilization, would go on to influence other ancient cultures throughout the Mediterranean and Near East.

Ancient Sumer: One Of The Earliest Civilizations

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowClay relief of a female nude believed to be Inanna, 19th – 18th century BC, Southern Mesopotamia, via The British Museum, London

Ancient Sumer, among the oldest civilizations in human history and titleholder of a long list of ‘firsts,’ influenced the entire ancient world with its pantheon. Inanna was called Ishtar in Akkadia and Isis in Egypt. She eventually found her way into the Phoenician pantheon as Astarte. And Astarte later became Aphrodite in ancient Greece.

Among its many other firsts, ancient Sumer holds the title for being the first civilization to transition from an oral to written culture, take part in a recorded war, and even to conceptualize and build cities.

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In terms of linear history, Sumer is about as ancient as it gets. By the time construction on the Pyramids of Giza had been completed, Sumerian civilization was already at least 1,600 years old. And despite its ruins being lost until as recently as the 1800s, ancient Sumer’s ingenuity lived on through subsequent cultures. Whether you call it the Cradle of Civilization or the Garden of Eden, ancient Sumer’s importance to human history and culture cannot be understated.

Ancient Sumer On The Map

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowMap of Ancient Sumer’s boundaries within the greater Near East, via Age of Empires

Sumer occupied southern Mesopotamia, in what is modern-day Iraq, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with the Persian Gulf to its south and the land of Akkad to its north. By 2,900 BC, there’s evidence of a firmly rooted civilization, but the existence of its material culture dates back as far as 5,000 BC.

Similar to ancient Phoenicia, Sumer was never one nation ruled by a singular king. It was rather a collection of sovereign city-states that shared a cultural identity and religious system.

Among the most notable cities were Eridu, the sacred place of the god Enki, principal Sumerian god and Inanna’s father; Ur, the biblical birthplace of Abraham, husband of Sarah and patriarch of the Abrahamic faiths; and Uruk, whose patron goddess was Inanna.

Its warm climate and position between two great rivers made for extremely fertile land. And a complex irrigation system throughout that land proved essential to the region’s massive population.

Six Periods Of Sumerian Civilization

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowHead of human statuette found in Nippur, Iraq, 2,600 BC, Sumerian, via The Penn Museum, Philadelphia

Archaeologists have defined six distinct periods of Sumerian civilization. The first, called the Ubaid Period, takes place between 5,000 and 4,100 BC. The earliest Sumerian material culture comes from these years. But where the inhabitants of the land originated and how they got there is unknown.

In the Uruk Period, from the end of the Ubaid until 2,900 BC, we begin to see evidence of a more sophisticated Sumer. It was at some point during this period that Sumerians invented the concept of the city, as we see the many city-states of southern Mesopotamia begin to crop up. Uruk in particular, called the “New York of ancient Mesopotamia” by one writer, is identified as the first major ancient city. It established hegemony throughout the region early on, and by the end of this period was home to some 40,000 people.

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowThe Weld-Blundell Prism, a portion of the Sumerian King List, Iraq, 1800 BC, Sumerian, via The Ashmolean Museum Oxford

The Early Dynastic Period, 2,900 – 2,334 BC, is marked by the Sumerian King List — a clay tablet with inscriptions of all Sumerian kings dating back to the beginning of time. This period sees an adverse relationship between the rise of kings and the decline in the prominence of priests. In the Uruk Period, the temple, or ziggurat, was central to cities. But in the Early Dynastic Period, the royal palace complexes that were constructed began to supersede the ziggurats in importance.

The beginning of the Akkadian Period is marked by an invasion of Sumer by Sargon of Akkad, the civilization occupying northern Mesopotamia at the time. After he’d subdued all the city-states, he installed Akkadian officials in prominent positions throughout Sumer to maintain order. This period lasted until approximately 2,218 BC when the Gutian tribes, hailing from the Zagros Mountains to the northeast of Mesopotamia, descended on Akkadia.

And upon taking possession of the capital city of Akkad the Gutians inherited its Sumerian subjects. This ushered in what’s known as the Gutian Period. But it was short-lived.

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowEarly Dynastic Period Stele of Ushumgal, 2900-2700 BC, Mesopotamia, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In 2,047, the cities of Ur and Uruk rose up against their savage colonizers and restored the ancient kingdoms of southern Mesopotamia. This Renaissance of Sumerian civilization is known as the Ur III Period, and it lasted until the fall of Sumer in 1,750 BC.

Land Of ‘Firsts’

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowCuneiform tablet with a small second tablet: private letter, 20th-19th century BC, Anatolia, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Many of the things we take for granted today were invented in ancient Sumer. Even, for example, a thing as fundamental as time. The Sumerians devised the concept of a 24-hour cycle marking one day with two 12-hour periods.

After structuring their lives around time, they became the first people to live in cities. Humans in the Near East had been primarily nomadic since the end of the last glacial period. But as they established a more static agrarian culture in Sumer, groups began organizing themselves around large administrative capitals.

With the rise of administrative cities came the development of a sophisticated religious tradition. In the wake of this came the first “Great Flood” story, predating the tale of Noah’s Ark.

And, in the ancient world, when great cities were within close proximity of one another, war almost always resulted. Ancient Sumer holds another ‘first’ for engaging in the first recorded war with its eastern neighbors, the Elamites.

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowA recently discovered fragment of a tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, Iraq, via The Slemani Museum, Baghdad

Culturally, too, their ‘firsts’ can’t go unnoted. Sumerian civilization straddles a monumental gap in human development: the shift from prehistory to recorded history. It began as an illiterate, oral culture that developed into one with a dynamic writing system called cuneiform. What started as a crude list of symbols to support trade grew into a language sophisticated enough to produce a work of literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Religion In Ancient Sumer

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowVotive statuettes dedicated to the minor Sumerian god, Abu, 2,800 – 2,600 BC, Iraq, via The Iraq Museum, Baghdad

Sumerian religion made an impact, at least to some degree, on the entire ancient world of the Near East and the Mediterranean.

In Mesopotamia itself, the Sumerian pantheon and belief system were adopted by ancient Sumer’s successors as well as most of its neighbors.

Sumerians envisaged their earthly world as a dome on a disk surrounded by water. Their underworld, Kur, was thought to be a geographical place beyond the Zagros Mountains to the northeast of Mesopotamia. Similar to Hades, it was a gloomy, dismal land that souls departed to after death.

The Sumerians had some notion of heaven or a land of paradise beyond the earth plane, but it was reserved solely for the gods.

The nature of their gods reflected that of the landscape and environment of the time: mercurial at best, cruel at worst. While the ancient Egyptians attempted to enlist the gods in their service, the Sumerians sought simply to appease them.

The role of the gods was to create a natural order out of nothingness and chaos. And the role of man was to ensure the satisfaction of the gods to keep the chaos from reemerging.

Enki, god of wisdom and water, was believed to be the creator of the human race. He was worshipped at the sacred city of Eridu, which was thought to be the oldest in the world during ancient times. Although Uruk, the sanctuary of his daughter Inanna, actually predates it.

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowStatuette of a priestess, Diorite, 1953 – 35 BC, Sumerian, via The Penn Museum, Philadelphia

Inanna, goddess of love, sex, fertility, justice, war, and politics, is the progenitor of the Aphrodite prototype. She was known for her trickery, like when she traveled to her father’s city to get him drunk and steal the “meh” which had been bestowed upon him.

Also spelled “me,” this mythological tablet had decrees of civilization inscribed on it by the most supreme gods.

Highest among the supreme deities was Enlil, god of air and wind. His consort Ninlil was also among those ranks as goddess of the southerly wind.

Cities And Architecture

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowIllustration of a Mesopotamian city-state by Jeff Brown Graphics

Interwoven between the two great rivers of Mesopotamia was a complex irrigation network that sustained the region’s prolific agricultural sector.

And at a certain point, the people of ancient Sumer became so proficient at farming that the task could be relegated to a smaller subset of the population. So while the professional farmers stayed in the fields, the rest of Sumerian society took up various trades and moved closer to commercial centers. The result was the dawn of the city-state.

Each city-state was walled for protection and had a great ziggurat at its center dedicated to a particular god.

Nippur, a holy city built around the banks of the Euphrates River, was dedicated as the sanctuary of Enlil. The name of its ziggurat translates to “the house binding heaven and earth,” as it was thus considered the umbilical cord to the celestial world.

The ziggurat like the one in Nippur was a feature characteristic of all Sumerian cities. Architecturally, it had a square foundation and pyramid-like shape — each level above the foundation becoming progressively smaller, culminating with a temple at the very top. Unlike the pyramids in Egypt, however, the ziggurats of ancient Sumer were holy places of worship. It was even believed that the patron god of the city-state lived inside the temple at the ziggurat’s peak.

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowPartially reconstructed ruins of the Sumerian ziggurat at Ur, originally constructed ca. 2,100 BC, via KlimtLover

So, naturally, life inside the city revolved around it. Most people resided within their city’s walls, which were key features of Sumerian urban design. As the southern Mesopotamia region lacks natural barriers, except for the Persian Gulf to its south, ancient Sumer was exposed to potential attackers on three fronts. Therefore, the walls proved to be critical.

Within the walls, a person’s status determined where he and his family could live. Neighborhoods surrounding the ziggurat were usually reserved for priests and high-ranking officials. Tradesmen, fisherfolk, and the lower classes were consigned to dwellings nearby the city’s periphery.

Wealth And Status In Ancient Sumer: The Royal Tombs Of Ur

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We Know
Sumerian Early Dynastic Period Headdress of Queen Puabi, 2600-2450 BC, via The Penn Museum, Philadelphia

In the 1920s, British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley descended on southern Iraq with a joint team of excavators from the University of Pennsylvania and the British Museum. Committed to learning more about Sumerian civilization, which had only been discovered in the century prior, Woolley and the team uncovered some 1,800 royal tombs on the site of ancient Ur.

The fruits of Woolley’s digs were sumptuous: golden crowns, like the one belonging to “Queen” Puabi, and a profusion of jewels, cups, ostrich eggs, and other luxury items turned up. It’s from these excavations that we’ve gained better insight into ancient Sumer’s royalty and upper class.

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowAmulet from the Cemetery of Ur, Sumerian Early Dynastic Period, via The Penn Museum, Philadelphia

In January 1928, Woolley sent a telegram to update the Penn Museum on recent finds from the Cemetery of Ur: “I found the intact tomb, stone-built and vaulted over with bricks of Queen Shubad [Puabi] adorned with a dress in which gems, flowers, crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups.”

As Woolley’s hastily-written telegram exhibits, the treasure trove in and around the tomb of Puabi astounded excavators. And while we don’t know for certain if she was a queen per se, all evidence points to her being the sovereign ruler of Ur at some time before 2,450 BC.

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowWreath made of gold beech leaves and lapis tubular and carnelian beads from a tomb in the Cemetery of Ur, Early Dynastic Period, Sumerian, via The Penn Museum, Philadelphia

Puabi’s exalted status led archaeologists and historians to delve deeper into the status of women in general in ancient Sumer. And the consensus seems to be that women, of both the upper and lower classes, shared broad equality with men in almost all aspects of society.

“[Women] were involved in industrial life and crafting, particularly in the textile industry,” says American archaeologist, Dr. William B. Hafford.

There is also evidence of women becoming merchants and scribes — positions they’d be barred from in later, more patriarchal ancient civilizations. With the decline of ancient Sumer, we also see a decline in the status of women in Mesopotamia.

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We Know

Ostrich eggshell inlaid with gold, a luxury item of the ancient Near East, Early Dynastic Period, Sumerian, via The Penn Museum, Philadelphia

But despite the culture’s egalitarian ethos between the sexes, this certainly wasn’t the case between the classes. The sheer number of luxury objects uncovered at Ur are proof of a very wealthy Sumerian upper class at the time of the Early Dynastic Period.

So powerful were some Sumerian elites that they kept servants on retainer to take with them to the underworld after death.

Leonard Woolley found proof of this type of mass human sacrifice in what he called the “Great Death Pit of Ur.” His team uncovered an unlabeled grave with some 74 bodies neatly stacked and adorned with amulets, weapons, and helmets.

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We Know

Ram in the Thicket, discovered in the Great Death Pit of Ur, Early Dynastic Period, Sumerian, via The Penn Museum

The owner of the Great Death Pit is unclear. But researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have theorized that it may have belonged to an Entu-Priestess, a holy woman dedicated to the moon god who’s role was usually filled by the daughter of the king.

Inanna’s Transformation And Ancient Sumer

Ancient Sumer & The Sumerian Civilization: Here’s What We KnowFour perspectives of the Warka Vase, discovered in the temple complex of Inanna at Uruk, 3,200 – 3,000 BC, Sumerian, in The Iraq Museum, Baghdad

So after Eshkegel killed Inanna she was hung on a hook, and it was in this condition that she remained in the underworld for three days. On the third day, unable to bear his daughter’s death, Enki intervened and resurrected her.

The parallels here to Jesus’s death and resurrection have not gone unnoticed by scholars. But there’s no conclusive evidence that the tale of Inanna’s descent influenced the Christian Bible in any way. Inanna had to transform after her resurrection. And like Inanna, the Sumerian culture, too, transformed and impacted all subsequent human civilizations. Because its foundations are the bedrock of the world.