Ancient Mediterranean + Europe
- The Sumerians and Mesopotamia
- Sumerian art, an introduction
- White Temple and ziggurat, Uruk
- Archaeological reconstructions
- Warka Vase
- Standing Male Worshipper from Tell Asmar
- Perforated Relief of Ur-Nanshe
- Cylinder seals
- The Standard of Ur
- Standard of Ur and other objects from the Royal Graves
- Standard of Ur
- The ‘Ram in a Thicket’
Sumerian art, an introduction
The region of southern Mesopotamia is known as Sumer, and it is in Sumer that we find some of the oldest known cities, including Ur and Uruk.
Prehistory ends with Uruk, where we find some of the earliest written records. This large city-state (and its environs) was largely dedicated to agriculture and eventually dominated southern Mesopotamia. Uruk perfected Mesopotamian irrigation and administration systems.
An agricultural theocracy
Within the city of Uruk, there was a large temple complex dedicated to Innana, the patron goddess of the city. The City-State's agricultural production would be “given” to her and stored at her temple. Harvested crops would then be processed (grain ground into flour, barley fermented into beer) and given back to the citizens of Uruk in equal share at regular intervals.
The head of the temple administration, the chief priest of Innana, also served as political leader, making Uruk the first known theocracy. We know many details about this theocratic administration because the Sumerians left numerous documents in the form of tablets written in cuneiform script.
Reconstruction of the ziggurat erected by King Urnamma dedicated to the goddess Inanna (created by Artefacts/DAI, copyright DAI, CC-BY-NC-ND)
It is almost impossible to imagine a time before writing. However, you might be disappointed to learn that writing was not invented to record stories, poetry, or prayers to a god. The first fully developed written script, cuneiform, was invented to account for something unglamorous, but very important—surplus commodities: bushels of barley, head of cattle, and jars of oil!
The origin of written language (c. 3200 B.C.E.) was born out of economic necessity and was a tool of the theocratic (priestly) ruling elite who needed to keep track of the agricultural wealth of the city-states. The last known document written in the cuneiform script dates to the first century C.E. Only the hieroglyphic script of the Ancient Egyptians lasted longer.
A reed and clay tablet
A single reed, cleanly cut from the banks of the Euphrates or Tigris river, when pressed cut-edge down into a soft clay tablet, will make a wedge shape. The arrangement of multiple wedge shapes (as few as two and as many as ten) created cuneiform characters. Characters could be written either horizontally or vertically, although a horizontal arrangement was more widely used.
Very few cuneiform signs have only one meaning; most have as many as four. Cuneiform signs could represent a whole word or an idea or a number. Most frequently though, they represented a syllable. A cuneiform syllable could be a vowel alone, a consonant plus a vowel, a vowel plus a consonant and even a consonant plus a vowel plus a consonant. There isn’t a sound that a human mouth can make that this script can’t record.
Probably because of this extraordinary flexibility, the range of languages that were written with cuneiform across history of the Ancient Near East is vast and includes Sumerian, Akkadian, Amorite, Hurrian, Urartian, Hittite, Luwian, Palaic, Hatian and Elamite.
Essay by Dr. Senta German
Want to join the conversation?
- "Prehistory ends with Uruk, where we find some of the earliest written records."
Why here...why in this one spot amongst the entire globe did people begin to take note of their history in written form?(8 votes)
- Actually written language is believed to have developed independently in different areas of the world. This provides a nice overview: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_writing#Locations_and_timeframes(15 votes)
- Where is the Tigris River?(4 votes)
- The Tigris river is near modern day Iraq and Syria(5 votes)
- So the clay tablet is kinda like paper's prototype, huh?(3 votes)
- The Romans also used tablets, but their tablets were made with fresh wax. Usually they were used for mathematical computation, but some were used to record Roman history.(3 votes)
- When archaeologists discovered this form of writing, how long did it take them to decifer it? Is it a language that is passed down, and some people just know it from ancestors and such? Do a lot of archaeologists know how to read this form of writing, or is it somewhat rare?(2 votes)
- This very much depends, in the 1500 and 1600s European explorers were finding examples of Cuneiform tablets so modern archaeologists were not responsible for the discovery of cuneiform. It wasn't until 1857 that scholars confirmed the successful translation of the language (four different scholars were given the same piece of text to independently translate) although some scholars were successfully translating in the 1830s.
As with the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs the work was made easier by the discovery of a trilingual tablet, discovered by Sir Henry Rawlinson who was able to translate the Ancient Persian and from there the other two languages http://global.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Creswicke-Rawlinson.
It is also worth noting that the above is very much a Eurocentric view of attempts at translation, there is evidence that cuneiform was known to Medieval Islamic scholars, that they too investigated and attempted to translate the languages. Sadly, as with many things, hard evidence of this is not so easy to come by (it's all Wikipedia and vague hints) and there is no evidence that any of these scholars ever succeeded in their attempts.
So, to sum up, the process of deciphering cuneiform took anywhere from c.400 to c.30 years depending on how you judge but no, it was not a language which was passed down to recent times ("the last known document written in the cuneiform script dates to the first century B.C.E.")(4 votes)
- If "The last known document written in the cuneiform script dates to the first century B.C.E." which I understand as it being a dead language and therefore not used anymore for centuries, how are we able to decipher the characters and meanings of cuneiform script, or even the sounds (to say that "There isn’t a sound that a human mouth can make that this script can’t record")? Was there something found similar to Rosetta Stone to help decipher the script?(3 votes)
- how did you now what they wright on the clay or mud means(2 votes)
- If you continue on in this series you will read about the deciphering of the tablets here: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/ancient-near-east1/sumerian/a/cuneiform(3 votes)
- Did they sell/exchange their art?(3 votes)
- Sumer is in African, right?
Is Sumer came before the Mesopotamia civilization?
Did Sumerians introduced farming?(0 votes)
- Sumeria was a Mesopotamian civilization, and therefore was located around where Iraq is today. Sumerians were some of the first farmers in the world, yes.(5 votes)
- What is Hatian language?? Who spoke that?(2 votes)
- "There isn’t a sound that a human mouth can make that this script can’t record." What about syllables or sounds that were not in the languages that used cuneiform to write in (I'm sure there must be some)? What about large consonant clusters?(2 votes)
- In the video, Writing Cuneiform, it is explained that the language was constructed to represent sounds. Each stroke represents a sound. So, I assume that an ancient Sumerian, or even a particularly talented modern scholar could listen to a spoken sound, and then assign a particular stroke or letter to represent that sound.(1 vote)