Sumerians (4,100-1,750 BCE)

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Ziggurat of Ur
Sumerian Dignitary, Uruk
Tell Brak Head
Innana Head/Mask of Warka
Cylinder seal with priest-king
Early sample of writing
Sumerian Lionesss Person
Stele of Ushumgal
Sumerian Statuettes
Standard of Ur
Cylinder Seal and Impression

Bull’s Head Lyre
Queen Puabi Cylinder Seal
Stele of the Vultures
Lion-headed Eagle
Statue of Ebih-il
Sumerian Bridge
Ur-Nammu Cylinder Seal
Ur-Nammu Dedication Tablet
Ur-Nammu Cylinder Code
Statue of Gudea
Sumerian necklaces and headgear

Between 5,500 and 4,000 BCE, in Mesopotamia, the first serious civilization emerged and flourished, the Sumerians – this lasted for twenty-six centuries! Various theories exist as to where these Sumerian-speaking folk came from, however the lack of any recorded history of the region prior to 2,600 BCE ensures that they remain theories.

The Sumerians inhabited the area of Sumer, this was never moulded into a ‘country’, instead it consisted of many city-states each ruled by a king. To the north of their geographic area lay Akkad, and it was the Akkadians who applied the name Sumer to their southern neighbours, the term meant the ‘land of civilized kings’. Sumerians called themselves the ‘black-headed ones’. Sumer’s city-states included Eridu, Uruk, Ur, Larsa, Isin, Adab. Kullah, Nippur and Kish.

Building was thought to be a gift from the gods and architecture flourished, But Mesopotamia had little in the way of rock, so the medium was usually clay and sun-baked bricks. It was the Sumerians who initiated many notions of civilized life, and these still impact on us today.

It is clear that Sumer was founded upon agriculture and grazing, taking full advantage of the richly fertile soil created by regular deposits from the flooding of its two rivers. Floods were a real issue for these early settlements but times of water shortage could be just as damaging to fragile early communities, as a result they developed the principles of irrigation. The Sumerians raised earthworks and ditches that controlled the rivers’ floods which expanded the area that could be cultivated. Regular maintenance to dredge and clean the channels of silt and weeds required a mass effort, so early ‘farmers’ coalesced into towns and these grew into proto-cities to be able to provide greater community security.

Their success in agriculture led to the development of a cuneiform script and numbers for counting and recording their progress. As a result they created the first schools. Their development of the hexagesimal numeric system, or root of 60, is still used by us for time (60 seconds, 60 minutes), angles (360 degrees in a circle) and directional coordinates.

Its two-and-a-third millennia of existence is usually viewed witin five periods – Uruk Period (4100-2900 CE), Early Dynastic Period (2900-2334), Akkadian Period (2334-2218), Gutian Period (2218-2047) and Ur III Period aka the Sumerian Renaissance (2047-1750). It was the Early Dynastic Period that saw the kings grasp real power, but this led to a bureaucratic approach and it evolved moral and religious principles to control its populace. City-states were dominated by a ziggurat or temple complex. (The Tower of Babel was inspired by a ziggurat.)

In 2,700 BCE the Sumerians waged and won the first recorded war, against Elam. The kings routinely squabbled between each other for land and water rights, some briefly achieving a unification of the city-states.


Ur Ziggurat – Image source: ancientpages.com

Today’s ruins of Ur, with its partly resored ziggurat in the background – Image source: Wikimedia commons

Ur was originally at the estuary of the Euphrates, but the river’s silting has placed it many miles inland today. The lower picture shows the ruins of Ur today. The Ziggrat contained the shrine of Nanna, the patron saint of Ur and the Mesopotamian god of the moon and wisdom.
Ur was founded in 3,800 BCE and Nanna was first mentioned in 3,500 BCE. Some suggest he was the father of the gods. He was represented as an old man with a flowing beard and had a crescent symbol. The moon’s crescent led to his symbol being a bull.
This statuette (21 cm high) depicts a bearded, bare-chested, Sumerian male priest. They oftem officiated naked, though some are shown wearing kilts. It too was found at Uruk, dated to c3,300 BCE it is on show at the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad. Priests gained huge power throughtheir rituals to divine the future and to establishthe god’s pleasure and support, particularly for harvests.

Image source: Wikimedia commons


Image source: Wikimedia commons

This 17cm alabaster head was found at Tell Brak, north eastern Syria, in the ‘Eye Temple’, where many offerings to the gods had accumulated over time. The temple had hundreds of small alabaster eye idol figurines incorporated into its mortar. The head is dated from 3,500-3,100 BCE. The shape of the head and the almond eyes leaves open the question of what it is supposed to represent. It has several holes on the rear leading to suggestions it was attached to a pole and toted around during ceremonies.
This 20 cm tall mask was found at Uruk. It is perhaps the first accurate depiction of a human face – see Tell Brak Head above.

Innana was the patron saint of Uruk and so some sources attribute it to her (3,500 BCE). She was later Ishtar to the Akkadians and Innin to the Canaanites.
But it also termed the Mask of Warka (a nearby village) or the Lady of Uruk (3,200-3,100 BCE).
The mask is on display at the Iraq Museum, Baghdad.


Image source: crystalinks.com


Image source: Wikimedia commons

A cylinder seal depicting a priest king with two rams. It is from the late Uruk 3,300-3,000 BCE.

Image source: teachinghistory100.org

Sumerian numeric symbols Image source:

From 3,200 BCE the Sumerians developed their pictogram script, which then gradually became more abstract. These used damp clay tablets and sticks or reeds to etch the symbols, then the clay was left to dry.
The pictured example defines the barley rations to be distributed to workers; the barley symbol is obvious.
The later use of wedge-shaped ‘pens’ moved the writing on to a cuneiform script of some six hundred symbols. It spread through the Middle East and was able to be used by peoples having fifteeen different languages.
This 8 cm Limestone sculpture was found near Baghdad and is dated to 3,000-2,800 BCE BCE. It depicts a muscular lioness-woman. In 2007 it became the most expensive sculpture, auction by Sotheby’s (for three years). It is Elamite, a civilization that was to the east of Sumer, in today’s Iran.

Image source: Wikimedia commons


Image source: Wikimedia commons

This 22 cm stone stele probably came from Umma and is dated 2,900-2,700 BCE. It is considered to be a form of boundary stone, declaring the ownership of a plot of land. The land-owner is a priest named Ushumgal, so this is called the Stele of Ushumgal. It is on show at the Met Museum NY USA.
These nine alabaster statuettes were part of a hoard of twelve found at Tell Asmar on the Diyala Plain of Iraq, fifty miles north of Baghdad. These nine all look upwards and wring their hands, so are assumed as effigies of worshippers. The taller figures are considered as cult figures. They range from 23 to 72 cm high.

Image source: twitter.com and thoughtco.com


Image source:

Much discovered from Sumer has been found in tombs, as it was the practice to be buried with your prized possessions.
The ‘Standard of Ur‘, is such an item. It has mosaic illustrations on four sides created by shells, red limestone and lapis lazuli set in bitumen.
The image shows a war scene of a Sumerian army with chariots and infantry. The reverse shows scenes of men bringing animals and fish possiby as booty or tribute and a banquet, the diners entertained by a singer and a man playing a lyre. The object was found crushed but has been restored
This is a cylinder seal and an impression on show at the Louvre. The cylinder is fabricated from hard stone and then pressed into wet clay. They are linked to the Sumer invention of cuneiform.

Image source:
Wikimedia commons


Image source:
Wikimedia commons

This bulls head was found attached to a lyre from Queen Puabi’s tomb in Ur. It is one of the oldest stringed instruments ever discovered.
This cylinder seal was discovered in the tomb of Queen Puabi, dating it at 2,600 BCE.

Image source:
Wikimedia commons


Image source: courses.lumenlearning.com

This limestone fragment of the Stele of the Vultures is on show at the Louvre.
It commemorates the victory of the Sumerian city of Lagash over Umma. Lagash was a southern Mesopotamian Sumerian city a little northwest of where the Euphrates and Tigris come together and to the east of Uruk. It fought regularly with Elam and other local peoples. When, in the 25th century BCE, the King of Lagash, Eannatum, built canals and water storage around his city it meant that little water arrived in the city of Umma. They had a battle in 2450 BCE immortalised in the ‘Stele of the Vultures’ (the carrion birds are featured on the stele. Lagash was therefore the victor of the earliest recorded ‘Water War’
This 12 x 13 cm statuette is considered among the most significant items discovered in the Treasury of Ur. This statuette is made of lapis lazuli and gold, it has the face of a lion, the wings of a bird, and the tail of a fish. It was hidden in a pottery jar at the palace of King Zimri Lim in Mari (Middle Euphrates). This statuette is believed to have been a gift from the King of Ur and is dated to c2,500 BCE.

Image source:


Image source:
Wikimedia commons

This c2400 BCE statuette is of Ebih-Il at prayer – he was the superintendent of the city-state of Mari. It is 53 cm x 21 cm wide and made from gypsum, schist, shells and lapis lazuli. It was discovered at the Temple of Ishtar in Mari and is on show at the Louvre. [I have to confess, that as a Bristolian this reminds me a little too much of Johnny Ball and Aardman Animations.]
Mesopotamia means between the rivers – the Euphrates and tigris. So naturally Sumerians encountered the issues of crossing these during floods. Half-way between Basrah and Baghdad at Girsu they set about building perhaps the first bridge c2,000 BCE.

Image source:


Image source:
Wikimedia commons

King Ur-Nammu was the founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur, ending many years of . Akkadian and Gutian rule, perhaps why his inscriptions sound a tad baoastful? This cylinder seal shows him enthroned with the inscription ‘Ur-Nammu, the Great man, King of Ur’. His name also appears vertically in the upper right corner.
This tablet is dedicated to the Temple of Inanna in Uruk. It states ‘For his lady Inanna, Ur-Nammu the mighty man, King of Ur and King of Sumer and Akkad’

Image source:
Wikimedia commons


Image source:
Wikimedia commons

But Ur-Nammu is best known today for his legal code, inscribed on this stele. See later Hammurabi’s Babylonian Code which, in part, derives from this one.
Dating from 2,090 BCE and the Neo-Sumerian period. This sculpture belongs to a series of diorite statues commissioned by Gudea (c2150–2125 BCE), who devoted his energies to rebuilding the great temples of Lagash and installing statues of himself in them.
Many inscribed with his name and divine dedications survive. This statue bears a lengthy inscription ending with Let the life of Gudea, who built the house, be long. It is 44 x 22 x 30, and on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.


Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons
Sumerian necklaces and headgear discovered in the royal (and individual) graves of the Royal Cemetery at Ur. The picture is a display at the British Museum suggesting how they may have been worn.

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