Mesopotamia - Sumer (ca. 4500 BC - 1940 BC)


Mesopotamia is the “land between rivers” or the Tigris-Euphrates river system, corresponding to modern-day Iraq, north-east Syria, south-east Turkey, and south-west Iran. We are jumping directly from the cave paintings of the Stone Age (ending ca. 4500 BC) to the cradle of civilisation (or Fertile Crescent) with the Bronze Age cultures (ca. 3300-1100 BC) of Sumer (ca. 5300-1940 BC), Akkad (ca. 2334-2218 BC), Babylonia (ca. 1894-1531 BC) and Assyria (ca. 2500-912 BC), and the later Iron Age (ca. 1300-600 BC) cultures of Neo-Assyria (ca. 911-612 BC) and Neo-Babylon (ca. 626-539 BC).

In reality “civilisation” does not have a precise definition - does it start with the written language or the wheel, or perhaps with the emergence of a class-based society, or is it perhaps linked to the presence of temples and public buildings? We know that the Natufian culture became a sedentary agricultural society around 10,000 BC. But traditionally civilisation is more or less defined as starting in ancient Mesopotamia and with the settlements and cities of Ubaid (ca. 6500-3800 BC).


Here are a few pointers to interesting news items and resources:

Note: many of these references should be consulted along with those on the page dedicated to Assyria.

News items:

Regional Development

The Sumerians were the first to settle Mesopotamia (“land between rivers”) over 7,000 years ago. The Akkadians followed and create the world’s first empire. Sumerians called themselves Saggiga (“black-headed” or “bald-headed”) and they came from Kengi the “civilised land”. Around 3500 BC Sumerians started to build walled cities, such as Ur, and it would appear that rivalry between city-states fostered the introduction of kingship (someone representing a local god or goddess). Ziggurat’s were built as temples and palaces. Sumerians established codes of law, and they developed the plow, the sailboat, the lunar calendar, a numerical system based upon the number 60, and a writing system based upon cuneiform symbols. Akkadians would take over, and evolve into Babylonian and Assyrian. It was Sargon who in 2350 BC conquered all the Sumerian city-states, and created the Mesopotamian Empire.

Some DNA studies of a large collection of teeth from Tell Ashara (Terqa), Tell Masaikh (in present-day Syria) and from sites in the lower middle Euphrates valley show origins from the early and middle Bronze Age, from the Neo-Assyrian period (early Iron Age), from classical/late Antiquity, from the early Islamic (Umayyad and Abbasid) period, and from the modern period. The conclusions are that no major changes in the gene pool occurred between 3000 BC and early 2000 BC. That with the Mongolian invasion a major depopulation occurred in the 13th C AD, and that Bedouin tribes arrived from the Arabian Peninsula in the 17th C AD. Perhaps more importantly some individuals carried mtDNA haplotypes believed to have arisen in the Indian subcontinent during the Upper Palaeolithic period (10,000 to 40,000 years ago). These haplotypes are absent in the modern-day Syrian population, but are present in people in Tibet, Himalayas, India and Pakistan. So the ancient Mesopotamian population had a genetic affinity with the Indian subcontinent (Trans-Himalaya). 


Ur was the Sumerian city-state. It dates from about 3800 BC and was abandoned in around 600 BC. According to some estimates Ur was the largest city in the world from about 2030 BC to 1980 BC, with a population of 65,000 people.

But what was the city like? Evidence suggests that Ur had three classes of people. The richer, government officials, priests and soldiers, were at the top. The second level was for merchants, teachers, labourers, farmers and craft-makers. The bottom was for slaves captured in battle. Burials at Ur give insight into people's social standing. Kings and Queens were buried with treasure, and wealthy people were buried with less. Since irrigation gave Ur abundant crops, not everybody needed to work on farms. People learned other skills. The chisel workers made sculptures, the gem cutters made gems, and the fuller stomped on woven wools to make them soft. The metal workers naturally made weapons.

Baked bricks were used for the lowest courses of walls, for drains, where bitumen was employed to make them watertight, and for paved courtyards and other exposed architecture such as the facades of buildings. Important buildings, such as the ziggurat at Ur, might be encased in baked bricks as a protection against the elements. The use of bitumen as a mortar, particularly in the construction of large structures such as city walls, also provided an effective protection against damp. Courses of reed matting and layers of bitumen were interspersed between those of brick in the construction of ziggurats to counteract rising damp from the foundations, and weep-holes also assisted drainage and prevented damp decay. Bitumen was also employed as a water-proofing material for bathrooms and constructional timber such as doors. Brick walls were often plastered to protect them against the rain. Mud could not be used as a plaster but a stronger and more attractive plaster was made of gypsum or lime, made by burning limestone.

The Great Ziggurat of Ur was a temple of Nanna, the moon deity in Sumerian mythology.  It had two stages both constructed from brick, the lower stage bricks were joined together with bitumen, and in the upper stage they were joined with mortar.

An early image of the Ziggurat from the 1920's.

An image of the building after restoration.

Artistic reconstruction of the original complete structure.

Archaeologists can use both the trade in seals themselves, as well as the distances between seals and the corresponding sealings, to trace long-distance trade networks. One such set of seals were manufactured around 1900 BC on two important island trading cities in the Persian Gulf - Bahrein and Failaka. These seals were traded all over the Middle East, and have been found at diverse and distant locations such as Susa in Iran, Bactria in Afghanistan, Ur in Iraq, and Lothal on the west coast of India. By 1750 BC Common Style seals are found in locations ranging from Spain, to Mycenaean Greece, to Marlik near the shores of the Caspian Sea. These seals were made from faience, a less expensive material, and used by smaller merchants.

The first objects unearthed from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro were small stone seals inscribed with elegant depictions of animals, including unicorn-like figures, and marked with Indus script writing which still baffles scholars. These seals are dated back to 2500 BC.


It is interesting to note that the Akkadian text corpus is about the same size as the corpus of ancient Latin. You can check out the Etymological Dictionary of Akkadian. And here is the Diachronic Corpus of Sumerian Literature which is a Web-based corpus spanning the entire history of Mesopotamia.


A digital model has been created of Uruk. The exhibition covers the invention of writing, urban life and how the “mega-city” would have evolved.


The Ancient History Encyclopedia has an entry for Mesopotamia, with a short timeline.

The University of Chicago has a whole site dedicated to Mesopotamia, along with both student and teacher material. 

The British Museum has a site dedicated to Mesopotamia (Assyria, Babylonia, Sumer).

Here is the Heilbrunn Timeline for Mesopotamia.

Fordham University has a Ancient History Sourcebook for Mesopotamia, including topis such as Sumeria, Akkadia, Kassites and Hittites, Assyria, Syria, .....

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has site dedicated to Iraq and Ur, with information of expeditions and findings.

The University of Chicago has a site entitled the Iraq Museum Database, which covers objects that are in Iraq, and those that are still missing after the “conquest” in 2003.

Check out the entries on Sumerian literature, Sumerian language, and cuneiform. Sumerian is the first language for which we have written evidence and its literature is the earliest known. Check out the Oxford University project Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL) which comprises nearly 400 literary compositions, with their English prose translations.

The History of the Ancient World is a great source of articles, video, and news items about social and military history, architecture, economics, politics, daily life, .... of pre-history and ancient China, Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

and here are some links to background video material: (to be used as needed)


The Ubaid pioneered the growing of grain, the development of irrigation and extensive canal networks, the development of collective effort and centralised coordination of labour, and the emergence of a trading system along the Mediterranean coast. Some experts have noted that Ubaid society was a mix of intensive subsistence peasant farmers, tent-dwelling pastoralists and hunter-fishers living reed huts on the coasts, and it has been suggested that they collectively practiced a primitive form of democracy to resolve disputes. Aridity brought an abrupt end to the Ubaid period, forcing them to return to nomadism.

But our focus is on their architecture and art. And that means that we will start by looking at a site called Tell al-‘Ubaid (tell is a mound). The site in modern-day Iraq has been dated from ca. 4000 BC. There were some modest houses, home to some painted pottery. There was an extensive cemetery with graves dating from ca. 3000-2350 BC, and a mud-brick temple platform dating from between ca. 2500-2000 BC. The Urbaid culture actually takes its name from this site, and more particularly the pottery found there. It is a well-made buff pottery, frequently fired to high temperature giving it a greenish colour, and decorated with geometric and sometimes floral and animal designs in dark brown or black paint.

Above we have some pots from the last phase of Ubaid pottery. Pottery with this type of design has been found in the Persian Gulf possibly dating from ca. 7000-6500 BC, and in southern Iran dating from ca. 5000 BC.

And here above we have the so-called “Lizard” figurines, dating from ca. 4500 BC. These figures were usually of women, slim, and often holding a child with an elongated head and slanted “coffee bean” eyes. Ears are not shown and the nose is only presented by two holes. Decoration is simple with bands of black/brown.

This bull was discovered in 1923 at Tell al-'Ubaid, close to the remains of the city of Ur. The bull was found among a group of objects at the foot of a mud brick platform that had originally supported a temple building dedicated to the goddess Ninhursag. The body of the bull originally had a wooden core, now decayed, which was covered in a thin layer of bitumen. Over this was hammered thin sheet copper (probably from Iran or Oman) secured with copper nails.

The earliest settlement of the southern alluvial flood plain of the Fertile Crescent in the late 6th millenium was by a non-Semitic people called proto-Euphratean, e.g. the Ubaid. Their culture is said to have developed between 5900-3800 BC, but similar pottery remains in Turkey appear to extend the Ubaid people to as far back as 6200 BC.

It is said that Ubaid-culture potters were the first to turn out their products en masse. Their technical skill enabled them to supply some novel and useful clay products, such as bent clay nails for decorating mud walls, the beginnings of cylinder seal glyptic art (e.g. carvings or engravings), and simplified female figurines.

Terra-cotta figurines occur in all periods from the Neolithic through to the Sasanian. Chalcolithic (Copper Age starting ca. 5500 BC) figurines included both the Halaf style (ca. 6100-5400 BC), characterized by seated naked females (usually headless), with bulging, rounded legs, arms, and breasts, and occasionally with painted decorations on their bodies, and the Ubaid style of elongated, standing, nude male and female figures with tall, conical heads, ``coffee-bean''-shaped eyes, and applied body ornaments.

On the left we have a Halaf period (ca. 7000-6000 BC) seat figure (heads could be missing or highly elongated, stylised and featureless). On the right we have a Ubaid figurine dated ca. 3500 BC.

The ceramic tradition in Iraq is among the oldest in the world, extending back some 9,000 years and encompassing a tremendous variety of shapes, fabrics, and decorative treatments. Here is a kind of checklist of different types of early pottery:

Chalcolithic vessels are unglazed bichrome pottery having a buff body decorated with dark paint. These early ceramics were made by hand in a variety of techniques, including coil, mold, and slab construction (the potters wheel had still not been invented). Decoration consists of geometric patterns, sometimes including motifs from nature. For example below we have storage jar decorated with mountain goats (ibex) from central Iran and dated to early 4000 BC.

Halaf is usually hand-made polychrome pottery, often polished to a high sheen. Complex compositions of geometric and natural motifs in red, orange, brown/black, and white reminiscent of textiles, sometimes incorporating dense patterns of tiny black dots. Forms include plates, shallow bowls, footed goblets, and jars with flaring necks and oval mouth. Below we have a bowl from northern Iraq dated to ca. 5500-5000 BC. The firing was generally to a high standard so many examples have survived. However it is still not clear how this style spread over such an enormous areas, being made locally in many, many different places.

Earlier Ubaid: Hand-made wares, including fine buff or cream-slipped fabric decorated with thick dark paint with zones of geometric designs such as parallel lines in different directions, zigzags, and chevrons. Forms include bowls with and without ring bases, large dishes, sauceboats, beakers, and globular jars. For example below we have a shallow bowl typically found in graves from ca. 6000-5000 BC, the decoration was simple, bold and effective.

Later Ubaid: Wheel-made pottery often of a greenish hue, decorated with fine monochrome dark paint, used sparingly in broad black horizontal lines and simple curving shapes. Forms include large globular jars, shallow flaring bowls, round-bottomed bowls, and cups with flat bases. Below we have a painted jar dating from ca.  4500-4200 BC. 

Uruk pottery (ca. 4000-3100 BC) was a burnished or polished monochrome (red-slipped or grey) wares, typically utilitarian, undecorated (unlike earlier Ubaid painted pottery) and mass-produced (fast wheel-made). Jars of this period often have bulging bellies, large mouths, short necks, and occasionally tubular spouts on the shoulder. For example below we see a standardized, small, hand-made coarse ware bowl with a beveled rim that was clear quite a common piece. This was probably produced using a mould, and some experts have suggested that the standard size was associated with rationing of barley or bread. 

Around 4500, this Ubaid culture spread into northern Mesopotamia and replaced the Halaf in the north and in the Zagros mountains. Ubaid pottery was more austere in form and decoration than that of the Halaf. In general, Ubaid ceramics were modestly decorated, often, in the later phases, with dark painted patterns rapidly applied, showing none of the glossy polychromy of Halaf ware. Thus the distinctive types of pottery serve to delineate stratigraphic layers and cultures as well. However things are not “linear”, with the lowest levels of earliest known settlement in Sumer (Tell Oueili) now considered to pre-date the Ubaid culture.

The most remarkable aspects of these cultures are their wide geographical spread and their long-distance contacts. The Late Ubaid Culture is thought to have flourished in southern Mesopotamia before spreading to the north. The Ubaid culture of southern Iraq was the first to expand into the north and into the Syrian Euphrates region. Various Syrian sites have Ubaid-period remains. When Ubaid material culture makes its earliest appearance in Syria in the final centuries of the sixth millennium, it co-existed with diverse stylistic traditions in different regions. After about 5000 BC, the focus of development moved farther south into the lower alluvial plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the area that became known as Sumer.

The history of this area is not “set in stone”. For example work in 2010 has uncovered new clues about a prehistoric society that formed the foundation of urban life in the Middle East prior to invention of the wheel. The mound of Tell Zeidan in the Euphrates River Valley near Raqqa, Syria, which had not been built upon or excavated for 6,000 years, revealing a society rich in trade, copper metallurgy and pottery production. The Tell Zeidan site (considered part of the Ubaid culture) is about 16 m high at its tallest point and covers about 30 acres. It sits in an area of irrigated fields at the junction of the Euphrates and Balikh Rivers in what is now northern Syria. The location was at the crossroads of major, ancient trade routes in Mesopotamia that followed the course of the Euphrates River valley.

Artifacts found there provide more support for the view that Tell Zeidan was among the first societies in the Middle East to develop social classes according to power and wealth. Tell Zeidan dates from between 6000 and 4000 BC, and immediately preceded the world's first urban civilizations in the ancient Middle East. It is one of the largest sites of the Ubaid culture in northern Mesopotamia. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of this society's trade in obsidian and production and development of copper processing, as well as the existence of a social elite that used stone seals to mark ownership of goods and culturally significant items.

One of the most remarkable finds was a stone stamp seal depicting a deer. The seal is about 5 cm by 7 cm and was carved from a red stone not native to the area. A similar seal design was found 300 km to the east near Mosul in northern Iraq. The existence of very elaborate seals with near-identical motifs at such widely distant sites suggests that in this period, high-ranking elites were assuming leadership positions across a very broad region, and those dispersed elites shared a common set of symbols and perhaps even a common ideology of superior social status.


Let us turn now to two periods that “followed” the Ubiad in the evolution of the Sumer culture, namely those associated with Uruk (ca. 4000-3100 BC) and Ur (ca. 3800-2000 BC). The Uruk period was named after the early Sumerian city-state of Uruk, whereas the Ur period is named after another Sumerian city-state called Ur. I will use the Uruk period to introduce the cuneiform script, and the Ur period to talk about the ziggurat.

Cuneiform script is an early form of writing that emerged in the so-called Uruk IV period (ca. 4000-3100 BC). Initially a pictographic representation, it became more abstract as the number of characters were simplified and reduced. It disappeared from use in the 2nd C, and was only deciphered in the 19th C. Cuneiform documents were written on clay tablets using a stylus made of a blunt reed to make wedge shaped symbols (cuneus is Latin for wedge). As with Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese ideograms cuneiform was not a language even if the Sumerians did assign word-sounds to the symbols. Later the Akkadians added their own words to the same cuneiform symbols. It probably disappeared from use because it was not an alphabetic way of writing, and could not really compete with the alphabetic systems of the Phoenicians or Greeks. The cuneiform is seen today as a tool for theocratic (priestly) rule born out of the economic necessity to keep track of the agricultural wealth of the city-states. Given the formal status of the cuneiform, they were often associated with a formal signature using a cylinder seal.

The example below dates from ca. 3000 BC and it contains the calculations of basic ingredients needed to produce cereal products, including different types of beer. It would appear the “fermented cereal juice” was very popular with the Sumerians. The reality is that the number systems and measurement units were not consistent, the quantities remained constant over decades so probably did not reflect reality, and no production processes or recipes are listed. So it is not sure that the juice could be called a beer, or that it contained any alcohol.

Let us now turn to the ziggurat and in particular the Ziggurat of Ur. A ziggurat is just a massive (solid) structure built on a raised area, and looking a bit like a terraced step pyramid. Built in receding tiers upon a rectangular, oval, or square platform, the ziggurat was a pyramidal structure with a flat top made with sun-baked bricks in the core and faced with glazed and coloured fired bricks on the outside. The number of tiers ranged from two to seven, and it is assumed that they had shrines at the top. Access to the shrine would have been by a series of ramps on one side of the ziggurat or by a spiral ramp from base to summit. The Mesopotamian ziggurats were not places for public worship or ceremonies, they were the dwelling places for the patron gods of the city.

The ziggurat of Ur (below is the reconstructed façade) was built ca. 2100 BC and was reduced to a ruin by ca. 600 BC when is was restored by one of the late neo-Babylonian kings. Originally it would have been part of a temple complex serving as the administrative center of the city, and it might well have been 30 m high. It was dedicated to the moon god Nanna, the patron deity of Ur. It has been suggested that there might have been trees and gardens on the top (due to the existence of drainage channels). The ziggurat would have stood in a walled compound with courts and “casemates” housing offices, workshops and storerooms. It should be remembered that the god would have received a large share of the economic activity of the city. There was also a kitchen for preparing the meals of the gods. The site also housed the records of all laws and legal decisions, made in the name of the gods. Equally the site housed economic and administrative texts for raw materials, manufactured products and rations for workers. For example it is known that in Ur the temple owned one weaving shop employing 165 women, and they noted the amount of wool thread used, the amount of cloth produced, waste produced, and rations distributed according to skill, productivity and age. It has been suggested that at one gate there would have been a place of judgement.

Before moving on we should really look at a couple of masterpieces of art from Ur. Th


The first is the so-called “Standard of Ur” (ca. 2600 BC), a small trapezoidal box whose two sides and end panels are covered with figurative and geometric mosaics made of pieces of shell, lapis lazuli, and red limestone set into bitumen. Originally through to have been carried on a long pole as the royal emblem of a king, it is now thought to have been a simple sound box for a musical instrument (but “the Standard” is still used). The mosaics on the Standard depict life in early Mesopotamia. The two sides, dubbed the “War Side” (top) and the “Peace Side” (bottom), tell a story read from bottom to top.

The top register on each side depicts a king, who is larger than the other figures. The Standard shows the two most important roles of an early Mesopotamian ruler: the warrior who protected the people and secured access to water and natural resources and the leader who served as an intermediary between the people and the gods. The Standard’s War side shows the defeat of some unknown enemy. At the bottom, war carts, drawn by onagers (donkeys), race with increasing speed from left to right, trampling naked enemy soldiers. The second register shows a phalanx of armed soldiers to the left, while on the right soldiers in a variety of poses dispatch some captives and lead others away. The top register shows the ruler, his height exceeding the border of the field, and behind him, his cart is drawn by four onagers alongside his attendants. In front of him, soldiers parade nude with thier bound prisoners.

By the 3rd millennium BC, southern Mesopotamia was organized into 20-30 city-states, consisting of urban centers, towns, villages, and hamlets. Each city-state had its principle guardian deity. Ur’s patron was Nanna, the moon god. Officially, the city-state was the deity’s property. These deities chose and nurtured the city-state’s ruler, whose title varied from place to place. For their part, city-state rulers acted on the deity’s behalf, even on the battlefield. Though sources provide evidence of peaceful cooperation among city-states, they equally record conflicts, both local disputes and more wide-ranging conquests (e.g. over access to water). The Standard of Ur and other royal monuments provide graphic illustrations of these battles and their aftermaths.

The Standard’s Peace side has a completely different theme from the War side. Its two lower registers illustrate the bounty of the land. The bottom one depicts men carrying produce in bags on their shoulders and in backpacks supported by headbands, as well as men leading onagers by ropes. The second register shows men leading bulls and caprids (sheep and goats) and carrying fish, presumably the produce of the pastures, rivers, and swamps. The upper register depicts a royal banquet. The ruler, wearing a kilt composed of tufts of wool, is shown larger in scale than the others and at the center of attention. The other banqueters, who wear plain-fringed kilts, face him and raise their cups together while attendants provide food and drink. Banqueting in early Mesopotamia usually involved music. A lyre player and a singer, distinguished by their long black hair, stand to the right of the scene.

The second item is the so-called “Bull-headed Lyre” found in the “King’s Grave” royal tomb and constructed with gold, silver, lapis lazuli, shell, bitumen and wood. It dates from ca. 2550 BC. The lyre’s panel depicts a hero grasping animals and animals acting like humans, serving at a banquet and playing music typically associated with banquets (experts think this might represent a banquet in the underworld). The bottom panel shows a scorpion-man and a gazelle with human features. The scorpion-man is a creature associated with the mountains of sunrise and sunset, distant lands of wild animals and demons, a place passed by the dead on their way to the Netherworld.

The excavations at the Royal Cemetery at Ur (ca. 6000-4000 BC) unearthed some 16 royal tombs and 137 "private tombs" of the wealthier residents of the Sumerian city. The people buried at the Royal Cemetery were members of the elite classes, who held ritual or managerial roles in the temples or palaces at Ur.

Early Dynastic funerals depicted in drawings and sculpture often included musicians playing lyres or harps, instruments that were found in several of the royal tombs. Some of these lyres held inlays of feasting scenes. One of the bodies buried in the Great Death Pit near Queen Puabi was draped over a lyre like this one, the bones of her hands placed where the strings would have been. Music seems to have been extremely important to Early Dynastic Mesopotamia: many of the graves in the Royal Cemetery contained musical instruments, and quite possibly the musicians that played them.

Before moving on we will just highlight a few additional examples of Sumerian art. The first item (left) is a silver head of a lion (inset with shell and lapis lazuli) dated ca. 2650-2550 BC and found in the Royal Cemetery. The second item (right) is a seated man praying found in the city-state of Ur, ca. 2600 BC.

We must remember that we talk about Sumerians, however the reality is that it was not a unified political entity, but a set of city-states, namely Kish, Ur, Uruk, Adad, Erider, Akkar, Nippur, and even Babylon. There was probably no sense of national identity, at best people would identify with their city. But with the need for irrigation came the requirement for both planning and organised labour (for building and upkeep), implying some form of hierarchical ordering of society. With irrigation came also urban settlements and social stratification, e.g. land-owner appeared (high-ranked officials, warriors, priests, merchants), a large body of dependent farmers and artisans came next, and on the bottom there was a small class of slaves.

Mesopotamians (beginning with the Sumerians) are also credited with developing the first organised religion. Early gods looked human and had human traits and desires, and each city-state would have its particular deity. Poetry, myths and stories helped develop and maintain a hierarchy between different gods. You could have personal gods, city-state gods, and gods for the sun (An), the moon (Ur), and the different planets. There were gods for grain (Ashnan), beer (Siris), cattle (Lahar), writing and accounts (Nidaba), and even “harlots who pray on men” (Abtagigi). Leaders, or lugal, appeared around 3000 BC and claimed to be the earthly representatives of the gods. Great leaders such as Sargon, the leader of the city-state Akkad, was able to unite many cities.

These stories and myths were so strong that they essentially make up the first 11 chapters of Genesis. The Tower of Babel was in Babylon, and the Hanging Gardens may well have inspired the story of the Garden of Eden. The first cities found after the flood were Babel (Babylon), Erech (Uruk) and Accad (Akkad). The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned in Sumer myth, as are the names of David, Ab-ra-mu (Abraham), E-sa-um (Esau) and Sa-u-lum (Saul). The Babylonians also had myths about the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, and the story of Noah’s Ark.


And this brings us to the Akkadian empire (ca. 2334-2193 BC), and we use the word empire with caution and intent. Many experts consider the Akkadian empire the first true one in the history of the world. The first ruler Sargon I (ca. 2334-2279 BC) started by usurping the royal throne of the Kish, before conquering the Sumerian city-states, and finished by dominating large parts of Mesopotamia, as well as parts of modern-day Iran, Asia Minor and Syria (some treaties claim that 65 cities and lands were part of the empire). He built (or restored) his capital Akkad (the location has never been identified) and established a dynasty that lasted 142 years. The fall of the empire ushered in a period of decline and anarchy, often associated with drought and even possibly correlated to periods of decline in the Egyptian kingdom.

Below on the left we have bust of Sargon I dated from ca. 2300-2200 BC. And on the right we have a life-size copper alloy head of a ruler, dated from ca. 2300-2000 BC.

The Akkadian empire was overthrown in ca. 2154 BC by a prominent nomadic tribe called the Gutians, but they were dislodged in ca. 2050 BC by the Sumerian ruler from Uruk.

Following that there was a brief neo-Sumerian period (also called the Third Dynasty of Ur) ca. 2100-2000 BC where Sumerian writings and culture were resurrected (some experts consider this period a true Sumerian renaissance).

Just preceding that period was the reign of Gudea of Lagash (ca. 2144-2124 BC), an ancient city-state in south Mesopotamia near Ur and Uruk. Gudea is quite well known today because he left quite a collection of lifelike statues of himself with inscriptions describing trade, rulership and religion (as with Sargon I he claimed divinity for himself upon his death). And below we a couple of these statues, the left one is the so-called Diorite Statue I (diorite being a type of stone) and one on the right is made from paragonite.

Now returning to the last entry on this page, we have the neo-Sumerian period. Below (top left) we have an “bowel with buffalos” ca. 2150-2000 BC. The second item (top right) is a steatite (or soapstone) statue of a “recumbent bull with man’s head”, or Lamassu a benevolent protective spirit associated the the sun-god. This theme was  popular throughout Mesopotamian history, but in the neo-Assyrian period it acquired a pair of wings and became the guardian of the royal palace. The third item (bottom left) is a mace dedicated to Gilgamesh and dating from ca. 2150-2004 BC). The fourth item (bottom right) is a clay seal (ca. 2100 BC) from Narem-ili, prefect of the potters, which would have been used to close packets or bundles of goods to ensure that they were delivered unopened (thus also proving that trade was active at that time).

The neo-Sumerian period would end with the defeat of the last king by an Elamite (modern-day Iran) invasion in 1940 BC. For nearly 300 years there would be political instability before the Amorites (usually associated with Syria and Canaan or modern-day Israel, Palestine and Lebanon) reunited the country. It is they who would take Babylon for their capital and Sumer would once again be fully united under the Babylonian ruler Hammurabi in 1792 BC. But this story is for the our next page.


But before we leave this page we are going to look in depth at one particular artifact of ancient Sumer, or in fact a series of artifacts in the form of small statues found together in excavations made between 1930-1936. The location of these finds was in Eshnunna a major city-state in central Mesopotamia during the Jemdet Nasr period (ca. 3000 BC), although some experts claim that the statuettes predate the city. Because of its strategic location it became a key trading center for horses, copper, tin and precious stones. Today the remains of the ancient city are preserved in the Abu temple at the mound of Tell Asmar, which are still yielding interesting finds even today (see the Laws of Eshnunna developed ca. 1800 BC). A cache of 12 gypsum sculptures, in geometric style, were found in the “Square Temple” on this site and they are considered today some of the best known and most symbolic examples of ancient near-eastern sculpture.  

The statues are of men and women with large staring eyes, upturned faces, and clasped hands, dressed in the sheepskin or woolen skirts of the early dynastic period of Mesopotamia. The men have long hair and heavy beards, often trimmed in corrugations and painted black. The hair of the women would have heavy coils with a chignon behind, and they may have a headdress of folded linen. Only priests would be ritually naked. It is thought that some of the figures represent gods and goddesses, whilst the other would be worshipers. The largest figure (ca. 45 cm tall) is thought to represent the male god Abu, the god of vegetation. The 2nd largest is a mother goddess (often linked to fertility and crops), with the other being priests and worshippers. The two deities can be distinguished by their larger size (often there is a hierarchy of size), and their large eyes with coloured inlays. The symbolic nature of the large eyes is thought to indicate that some form of communication might be possible between gods and worshippers using their eyes, remembering the idea that the eyes are the windows to a persons soul. Equally it should be noted that the bodies and faces are very simplified so as not to distract from the eyes, and that there was not attempt to obtain a likeness to a real person (focus on geometry of head and expression on face). Sumerian sculpture was composed of a cone and cylinders, rather than the Egyptian cubic style (e.g. arms and legs are pipes). It has often been suggested that the difference in style between Sumer and Egyptian sculpture was the lack of cut prismatic blocks of stone in Sumer and thus the need to import amorphous boulders (e.g. Egyptian statues are more geometric, heavy and project a sense of strength that is lacking in Sumer statues). When in front of the gods, figures were to stand rigidly frontal, possess complete symmetry, have hand tightly clasped in prayer, have little to distinguish gender, and of course have big eyes.  

The statues themselves are modeled from gypsum, the mineral is called alabaster (or alabaster of the ancients to distinguish it from the calcite alabaster used today). The technique used would have been to fired the gypsum at around 150ºC until it became a fine white powder. Then mix the powder with water and model or sculpt the paste.