Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sumerian Civilization

The Sumerians were a people who lived in the southern portion of Mesopotamia from around 3500 B.C. to 1800 B.C.. The Sumerian people lived in twelve city states, famous among which ar Sumer and Ur. They shared a common language, Sumerian. Sumerian has no modern day descendants, it seems to have disappeared from human history as a spoken language, but lived on in written language.

The Sumerians were an agricultural people, and they raised crops in three areas. Inside the city, highly cultivated gardens were kept. The main source of food and surplus came from fields outside of the cities, irrigated by a system of canals from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The third agricultural region was the large tracts of land away from water sources. These were used for grazing animals, hunting, and for collecting fuel. The date was an especially important food of the Sumerians, it was highly nutritious, it kept well, and it could be grown in salty or stagnant water. It only needed to be kept wet in order to produce fruit. Other important crops included corn and flax.

The plow was first introduced in Sumer. It was made of stone, and later copper. An innovation the Sumerians also invented was a plow with a seed funnel behind it. The Sumerians used hoes and spades to cultivate fields. These were made out of flint or copper. Sickles were made out of clay which was fired longer than normal. Public institutions such as the city temple and government owned most of the large land tracts and rented out their use and expensive tools like plows and animals to pull them.

The reason so much is known about a people in a time shrouded in obscurity is because of the clay from the rivers. The Sumerians used clay to build their cities and houses. They used it to make bricks which they baked and built the city ziggurats with. Clay was used for tools and for pottery. Most importantly however, clay was used for writing. This was what set the Sumerians apart from all their contemporaries.

Possibly the most important aspect of Sumerian culture, and the one that has had the most lasting impact on the modern world and history, was the innovation of the Sumerian system of writing. The Sumerians writing system is called Cuneiform, or, "wedge shaped" writing. The roots of Sumerian writing come from financial transactions. To keep track of financial transactions, the ancient Sumerians used little clay figurines, representing a certain amount of a commodity, such as sheep or corn. They would group say, five sheep tokens with three corn tokens in a ball of clay to represent a transaction.

On the outside of the ball of clay they would impress the tokens in the clay to make an imprint, making the contents of the ball (transaction) known. Some tokens for different commodities did not make good impressions into a ball of clay. Instead a symbol representing the token for the commodity was placed on the outside of the clay ball. Here was the birth of Sumerian writing. Over time, the clay was flattened instead of balled up, to make a more convenient writing surface. Vocabulary was expanded and gradually pictograms of cows and sheep were replaced by the wedge shaped language of Cuneiform. Cuneiform was written Sumerian, it consisted of characters which represented syllables, like "za", "sag", or "sha". These syllables were strung together to phonetically spell a word. Needless to say that Sumerian contained many, many written characters to represent the vast number of syllables in oral Sumerian.

The complexity of Cuneiform necessitated schools for scribes. Sumerian school was very harsh and disciplined, and only for males of rich families. Scribes were guaranteed important positions in life because of their relative scarcity. Diplomatic messages, poems, financial transactions, and personal messages were all inscribed onto clay tablets by the scribes of ancient Sumer. Virtually all we know about the Sumerian people is obtained from these tablets which have survived to the present day.

The Sumerians were polytheistic. They believed in many Gods and Goddesses. The Gods, so goes the Sumerian myth, created man to be their tool and to serve the Gods. When one died, the underworld awaited everyone, it was considered to be a generally dreary place. There were several Gods and Goddesses who were very important and central in Sumerian mythology. Each city's temple housed one of these important Gods. An (the God of Heaven) and Ki (the Goddess of the Earth) were generally thought to be the parents of all the other Gods, they themselves were not emphasised and as time wore on their importance waned

The two most important Gods in Sumerian mythology were Enki and Enilil. Enki was the God of Wisdom and Fertility. Enlil was a father and sort of administrator and overseer of Creation. Enlil wrote the laws of heaven and earth or the "me" (pronounced "may"). Enki was given the me by Enlil, and was entrusted with their administration. The concept of the me is important. There were different sorts of me, some were laws which governed the universe. Others were skills, which could be given as gifts and blessings. Me of pottery or growing corn would bring skill in these areas to whomever they were bestowed upon. The latter sort of me were written down on clay tablets and kept in temples, in this way temples became a repository of learning and agriculture as well as a dispensary of items to use the knowledge of the me (such as the renting of plows). Whether the tablets of the me were actually written by Gods has not yet been determined. (That was sort of a joke. Delete at will)

The Sumerians were a people who survived for over a millennium, whose spoken language vanished without a trace, but whose inventions like the wheel, the sail, and the plow live on. And the writing of the Sumerians lived on far after the spoken language died. They contributed more major innovations in human history than did almost any other major civilization.

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