The ancient Sumerians, the "black-headed ones," lived in the southern part of what is now Iraq. The heartland of Sumer lay between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in what the Greeks later called Mesopotamia. This territory, once skillfully irrigated, proved very fertile, and major cities had long been in existence before the period when archaeologists can identify the Sumerian people themselves.
The Sumerians were characteristically inventive, and are likely to have been responsible for the development of the first writing. Well before 3000 B.C.E. Sumerians were recording their language using simple pictures. They wrote on tablets of clay, later evolving the script that to us is known as cuneiform, or "wedge-shaped."
Silver lyre from Ur, southern Iraq, c. 2600-2400 B.C.E., 106 x 97 cm
This lyre was found in the “Great Death-Pit,” one of the graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur accompanied by seventy-four bodies—six men and sixty-eight women—laid down in rows on the floor of the pit. Three lyres were piled one on top of another. They were all made from wood which had decayed by the time they were excavated, but two of them, of which this is one, were entirely covered in sheet silver attached by small silver nails. The plaques down the front of the sounding box are made of shell. The silver cow's head decorating the front has inlaid eyes of shell and lapis lazuli. The edges of the sound box have a narrow border of shell and lapis lazuli inlay. When found, the lyre lay in the soil. The metal was very brittle and the uprights were squashed flat. First it was photographed, and then covered in wax and waxed cloth to hold it together for lifting. The silver on the top and back edge of the sounding box had been destroyed. Some of the silver preserved the impression of matting on which it must have originally lain. Eleven silver tubes acted as the tuning pegs. Such instruments were probably important parts of rituals at court and temple. There are representations of lyre players and their instruments on cylinder seals, and on the Standard of Ur being played alongside a possible singer.
They were energetic farmers, traders and sailors. Their religion recognized many gods, whose feats and escapades were described in stories that were often preserved for generations. Rituals as well as parties were enlivened by skillful harpists and singers, and Sumerian musical instruments have even been excavated by modern archaeologists.
Book-keeping was a feature of Sumerian life, and very detailed records on clay tablets of offerings, rations, taxes and agricultural work have come down to us. Their favorite board game achieved popularity throughout the whole Middle Eastern world. Imported lapis lazuli and carnelian was much prized for inlays and jewelry.
Archaeology has shown that in about 2500 B.C.E. the ruling elite in the city of Ur went to their final resting place surrounded by their wealth and the attendant bodies of their court personnel.