Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamia

© Ian Lawton 2000


Lying within the western regions of modern-day Iraq, Mesopotamia - literally 'The Land between the Rivers' - is the name given since ancient times to the great alluvial plain built up by the silt deposits of the Euphrates in the west and the Tigris in the east. It extends from north of Baghdad down to the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and is bordered in the north and east by the vast mountain ranges stretching down from Kurdistan to the Zagros in Iran, in the west by the Syrian desert.

The land is rich and fertile, ensuring high yields for farmers especially in ancient times. Indeed it has been identified with the biblical 'Garden of Eden', especially since the Euphrates is one of the rivers quoted in Genesis 2:14 as flowing out of it. However this is to over-simplify the matter. The annual flood levels are entirely dependent on the degree of inundation coming down from the surrounding mountain ranges, and this is highly variable - unlike, for example, the Nile plains in northern Egypt. The resulting alternation between drought and devastating flood made the area at worst highly vulnerable to famine, and at best an unpredictable place to live. Small wonder, say the traditionalists, that the early settlers revered their gods and prayed so much for favourable conditions.

This unpredictability was coupled with the inhospitable terrain surrounding the plains, which harboured many well-protected potential enemies and ensured escape was difficult. Furthermore the land was lacking in fundamental resources for building work; stone, timber and metal were in short supply unless brought in from surrounding areas some distance away. It was not therefore the paradise for the earliest civilisations on earth to develop and flourish which some commentators would have us believe.

Although there are those who are beginning to provide strong arguments that the earliest signs of modern civilisation are to be found in the Indus Valley to the east1 or in Anatolia to the west2, the bulk of conventional opinion continues to support the contention that it was the Sumerians who first introduced the identifiable elements of civilised life, as distinct from the less advanced and communalised farming life that had preceded it for many millennia. The emergence of civilisation in Sumer, whose name is derived from the Babylonian name for Southern Mesopotamia, is dated under this paradigm to somewhere between the middle and end of the 5th millennium BC, although there remains some difficulty in tying this date down further. Certainly most scholars currently agree that the other most commonly discussed early civilisation, that of Ancient Egypt, did not develop properly until some time later, and possibly not until towards the end of the 4th millennium BC.

The dating process for Sumer works broadly along the following lines: reliable links between the archaeological and documentary evidence can be established as far back as approximately 2500 BC. This date is recessed somewhere between 1500 and 2000 years based on the extent of stratified remains unearthed before virgin soil is encountered in excavations of the oldest occupied sites. However the respected Assyriologist Samuel Noah Kramer, of the University of Chicago, has indicated that this approach is further confused by geological arguments about the extent to which the Persian Gulf at one time extended into Southern Mesopotamia; about the timing of its recession; and also about the underlying levels of the water table on the land.3 These factors can evidently render any assumption about reaching virgin soil inaccurate, and may imply a 'false bottom' which masks earlier evidence of civilisation.

In a number of books published in the 1950’s and 60’s, the most influential of which is The Sumerians, Their History Culture and Character published in 1963, Kramer has provided what is still the most extensive catalogue of the elements of civilisation that were introduced by the Sumerians. Let us take a brief look at their achievements:4

Waterways and Irrigation: In order for some stability to be brought to bear on the irrigation of this area, extensive and complex systems of canals, weirs, dikes and reservoirs were built; these feats required advanced engineering skills, including accurate surveying and measurement. Furthermore these waterways required considerable annual maintenance to ensure they did not become clogged up with silt. Such tasks required significant levels of co-operation between neighbours over an extended area. Indeed the orthodox view is that it was this very necessity for extended co-operation which led to the emergence of civilisation in the area.

Shipping and Transport: Given their reliance on waterways, it comes as no surprise to find that the Sumerians list many types of shipping vessel in their records. Kramer also supports the relatively modern view that from early times they were undertaking significant sea voyages (assumed until recently to be impossible at that time), engaging in trade with places such as Egypt and Ethiopia in order to acquire materials that their own region did not provide.5 According to the current orthodoxy they were also the first to introduce the wheel, from which they developed both the cart and chariot.

Architecture and City-States: These developed from the smaller towns and villages at the latest by the start of the 3rd millennium BC, and housed populations of anything up to 100-200,000 people. The complexity of housing construction varied according to status, with the poor occupying single-story houses built usually of reinforced clay or mud bricks, while the better-off enjoyed grander dwellings of two or occasionally even three stories. However the concept of town planning was not particularly advanced, with private houses muddled together along usually narrow and jumbled streets and alleyways. Nevertheless the imposing and often monumental stepped temple or ziggurat of the patron god, and in later times the palace of the ruler (the ensi or lugal), were splendid affairs made of more expensive materials, and highly decorated inside and out with columns, arches and mosaics. These buildings, sometimes combined with large and ornate city gates, wide boulevards and walkways, and central public squares which were a focal point for recreation, dominated the city. So successful was this prototype of civilised life that in subsequent millennia the city-state thrived from the Indus Valley in the east right through to the Mediterranean in the west, based largely on the Sumerian model. Indeed our modern western city-based culture owes much to this original Sumerian influence as against that of, for example, Ancient Egypt, which never adopted the city-state concept.

Agriculture and Farming: There is evidence that the Sumerians experimented with both crops and livestock, introducing new varieties and strains of both which were not originally native to the area. Detailed instructions about agricultural activities throughout the year have been found on a tablet called The Farmer’s Almanac.6

Writing and Printing: The Sumerians were the first race of people to develop a system of writing by imprinting on clay tablets using a stylus. A form of printing was a similar first: they carved 'negative' images onto 'cylinder seals'; these were stone cylinders, usually between 2 to 6 cm long, which could then be repeatedly rolled over fresh clay to produce the 'positive' inscription. As forerunners of the rings used to imprint wax seals in later times they were used to identify possessions such as pottery, to seal written tablets to guarantee their authenticity, and to protect other valuables via clay stoppers on containers such as bottles, urns and leather bags. With details of over 6000 already published, and many more residing in unpublished private collections, they provide an abundant source of information - especially since they portray scenes including gods (usually identified by horned headgear) and mortals, as well as including inscriptions7 (particularly in later times).

Culture and the Arts: Not only did the Sumerians produce complex stone sculptures including inscribed stelae, and highly decorated pottery and clothing, but they also developed musical instruments such as the harp and lyre which were used to accompany the recital of their many epic literary works. They developed the concept of the library, assiduously collecting and cataloguing their mass of not only literary but also administrative, scientific and historiographic texts. And there are some indications that they indulged in vigorous debates both in public and private.

Legal and Political Systems: Textual evidence indicates that they had a form of congress or assembly for making key political decisions using a consensual approach; and that they held courts to make legal judgements over such things as house ownership, divorce and inheritance settlements, and slave rights. This legal and political system was at least in later times enshrined in a regularly published Law Code - effectively the earliest 'bills of rights' - which formed the prototype for later Greek and Roman systems. That they also developed some understanding of economics is attested by evidence of price-setting agreements.

Metalwork and Smelting: The Sumerians used many metals in the construction of buildings, household objects and jewellery; these included gold, silver, tin, lead, copper and bronze. They were also familiar with a wide variety of techniques for working with metals, such as annealing, granulation, riveting and filigree.

Schools and Education: Centres of scholarship or edubbas were set up in most city-states at the latest by the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. Primarily these provided education for the offspring of the better-off, and their main aim was to train the pupils to become specialist scribes. Given the complexities of the Sumerian language which by then existed, graduating from the edubba was no mean feat. Learning how to write the language, made harder because it was not alphabetic or phonetic, was a multi-stage process: students started with vocabulary, for example learning and copying 'scientific' lists of botanical, zoological and mathematical words, each of which could extend into the hundreds or even thousands; they then progressed to mastering the complexities of Sumerian written grammar. But the edubba was at the same time a 'centre of learning' where, as now, lecturers and senior scholars also engaged in original research to add to the extant body of knowledge in many areas. Furthermore, even in the literary areas, writing was not only directed towards learning, copying and preserving, but also occasionally towards the creation of new epics.

Astronomy and Mathematics: The Sumerians developed a highly-advanced quasi-sexagesimal system of mathematics, and a highly accurate lunar calendar with adjustments to reconcile it to the solar calendar. As to their broader astronomical knowledge, orthodox opinion holds that they knew of only about 25 stars which were presented in simple lists, and that their knowledge of the other planets in our solar system was limited or non-existent. However this view has of course been challenged by the new breed of alternative historians.

Medicine: The majority of the hundreds of medical tablets currently excavated date only to the early part of the 1st millennium BC, and are written in Akkadian.8 Nevertheless these utilise many Sumerian words and phrases which indicate their heritage, and a few similar tablets have been found which date as far back as the start of the 2nd millennium BC. It has been suggested that these ancient pharmacopoeias, which describe a variety of illnesses and cures, would probably be remarkably similar to one compiled only a couple of hundred years ago. But although the texts describe fundamentally practical procedures, these tend to be couched in a moral framework which views disease as a punishment for wrongdoing; as a result we regularly come across 'supernatural' elements in Sumerian medical thinking, including for example exorcism. It would also appear that their medical knowledge did not develop a great deal over several millennia. However this should not detract from the evidence that they researched a great many herbal remedies, many of which apparently worked, and indeed they were perhaps more aware than many modern practitioners of the 'healthy mind, healthy body' approach, and the possibility of psychosomatic illness.

Science in General: Both the Sumerians and their successors in Mesopotamia were highly curious and lovers of knowledge, often just for its own sake. They were particularly methodical, and therefore arguably made good scientists. To say as some have that Mesopotamian science was a 'science of lists' is to do it a grave disservice; although textbooks did not exist (or if they did they have not yet been found), evidence suggests a strong reliance on lectures for teaching and explanation.

Brewing: Since beer is a subject close to my heart, I cannot help but record that brewing was an issue of such importance to the Sumerians that it had its own patron goddess - Ninkasi, 'The Lady who Fills the Mouth'. Indeed one medical remedy insists that 'if a man has a stone of the bladder this man will drink beer, and the stone will dissolve; if this man instead of drinking beer drinks much water, he will go to his destiny.' Even if they were wrong, at least he would die happy…

But what of the character of the Sumerians, which can become neglected when one is engrossed in archaeological and linguistic details? Kramer’s view is that the Sumerians loved life and wanted to extend it as much as possible, at least in part because they believed death led them to the rather uninviting and dreary netherworld.9 He suggests that in adopting this approach they appear to have had little concept of a utopian heaven, or an abominable hell for that matter, nor indeed of reincarnation. My own view is that this needs more thought, and that they may have been more spiritually advanced than Kramer allows, albeit that they do not appear to have developed anything like the esoteric wisdom of the Ancient Egyptian and Vedic civilisations.

Nevertheless one does form an impression that they were fundamentally materialistic, competing aggressively for pre-eminence, social standing and prestige. Combined with the fact that as citizens they identified with their city-state more than with Sumer itself, this trait lead the city-states into perpetual wars with each other in the struggle for ascendancy - to such an extent that dominant rulers always struggled to keep Sumer united. Indeed their civilisation was ultimately brought down by being weakened from within in this way, rendering them vulnerable to attack from external invaders. Vanity and lack of humility were also highly evident in their make-up, especially in the self-laudatory royal hymns of the ensis. And yet they seemed at the same time to have had a great sense of morality, prizing truth, compassion, law and order, justice and freedom, wisdom and learning, and courage and loyalty. Enigmatic people indeed!

Excavation, Discovery and Decipherment

The Mesopotamian city-states were repeatedly abandoned and reoccupied in ancient times. Either water levels rose, or over time the rivers changed their course, (for example, in places the course of the Euphrates is now as much as 50 kilometres to the west of its position c. 2000 BC10), either of which could render their continued occupation untenable. And of course the in-house rivalry for supremacy between them, let alone invasions by foreign usurpers, meant that they were often attacked and destroyed. When sites were later reoccupied, the old ruins were simply levelled and used as foundations. Hence the 'levels' referred to by archaeologists.

When they were finally abandoned the mainly mud-brick buildings collapsed, leaving piles of rubble which rapidly became covered with sand or vegetation. Despite their often impressive size, the resulting mounds or tells rising out of the by now primarily arid desert attracted little attention over the intervening millennia - until a few travellers in the 17th century began retrieving the odd brick, and isolated fragments of tablets bearing 'unknown inscriptions'. Western interest in the area grew, and in 1842 the French consul in Mosul, Paul Emil Botta, undertook the first proper excavation at Kuyunjik in northern Mesopotamia. When initially nothing was found he switched his attentions to nearby Khorsabad, and was duly rewarded when he discovered the ruined palace of the Assyrian King Sargon II, dating to the latter part of the 8th century BC.

Then in 1845 Englishman Sir Austen Henry Layard began digging at both Nimrud and Kuyunjik. This time he struck archaeological gold, because the latter site turned out to be the infamous biblical city of Nineveh; and there he uncovered the ruins of the Royal Library of King Ashurbanipal, the great-grandson of Sargon II, which contained literally thousands of tablet-fragments which would subsequently prove to be collations of the vast body of literary and administrative texts of the Ancient World, written in the wedge-shaped or cuneiform script of the period. In fact Layard and his colleagues Hormuzd Rassam and George Smith continued their work at this site for the next 25 years, unearthing a total of between 25 and 30,000 fragments which it is estimated represent as many as 10,000 complete tablets.11 A similarly valuable source of tablets were the libraries at Ashur, unearthed by a German archaeological team between 1902 and 1914.

However we are jumping ahead of ourselves. At the time of Layard’s initial discovery the unusual script on the tablets was still undeciphered. In fact to trace how the script was decoded we need to go back to the trilingual inscriptions found on the ruins of a magnificent palace at Persepolis in Iran. From the writings of various travellers it is clear that these were known to the western world as far back as the beginning of the 16th century. However it wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that scholars established that the first language or 'Class' was Old Persian, and alphabetic. But translation of the other two proved impossible because the inscriptions were too short and consisted of mostly proper names.

Then in the 1830’s, a British Army officer who was to become arguably the most historically influential figure in the understanding of cuneiform script, culminating in his heading up the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum, entered the fray. Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson started work on some similar trilingual inscriptions carved into the rock outcrops at Behistun, which were far lengthier and therefore allowed greater scope for understanding the languages involved. Often risking his own neck because the inscriptions were several hundred feet off the ground, Rawlinson meticulously copied them down over a number of years. By 1850, and with the help of other scholars - in particular Irishman Edward Hincks and Frenchman Jules Oppert, the three becoming known as cuneiform’s 'holy triad' - the decipherment of both the first and second Class (which proved to be Elamite) was more or less complete.

These three then turned their attention to the third Class, and realised that the huge number of symbols and variants thereof were caused by the fact that the language and its symbols were both syllabic and ideographic - the latter meaning that whole words could be written with one symbol. They also realised it was polyphonic, in that the same sign could have more than one sound or value. Finally they were assisted by the discovery of syllabaries at Nineveh which the ancient scribes had prepared to assist understanding of the language. And by 1859 Oppert was able to publish a study of the language, now known as Akkadian, which was so authoritative that the foundations of its understanding were complete. This launched a tidal wave of scholarly effort directed towards the increasing numbers of Akkadian tablets being found at Nineveh and elsewhere, the translation of which from a linguistic point of view is now reasonably assured.

However at about this time Hincks was already turning his attention to another mystery. The Assyro-Babylonians who inhabited Mesopotamia for the bulk of the 1st and 2nd millennia BC were a Semitic race, this term deriving from the name of Noah’s son Shem from whom all Semites are thought to be descended; and yet the syllabic values of the Akkadian script could not be linked with Semitic counterparts. He began to suspect that the script must have derived from one developed by previous non-Semitic inhabitants of Mesopotamia. Then in 1869 Oppert delivered a lecture in which he noted that inscriptions contained the phrase King of Sumer and Akkad - and thus the Sumerians were formally rediscovered.

Any lingering doubts about the existence of this non-Semitic race were soon dispelled by the recommencement of excavations, this time in southern Mesopotamia. In 1877 the French began excavations at Telloh (now recognised as the Sumerian city of Lagash), which were continued by successive French teams right through to 1933. In 1887 an American team began work at Nippur, where over the next decade one of the largest sources of mainly Sumerian texts was unearthed; in all some 30,000 fragments were removed from its sacerdotal library. A German team, working at Uruk (the biblical Erech) for nearly 50 years from the turn of the century, discovered 1000 tablets dating as far back as the start of the 3rd millennium BC; as yet these remain the oldest tablets found, and they contain the earliest forms of Sumerian 'pictographic' script. The Germans also dug a proper test pit some 20 metres deep which assisted the understanding of chronological development at this site from the earliest times. Another German team worked at Shuruppak from 1902-3; a French team at Kish from 1912-14; an Anglo-American team again at Kish from 1923-33, under Stephen Langdon; and a British team at Ur (the biblical home of the patriarch Abraham) from 1922-34, under Sir Leonard Woolley.

Having taken some time to build up from humble beginnings, the Iraqi Directorate of Antiquities was by the time of the second world war a well-established outfit quite capable of organising its own excavations. One of its earliest and most notable achievements was the re-discovery of Eridu, the oldest known Sumerian city, in 1946; here they excavated the patron god Enki’s temple down to its earliest incarnation c. 4000 BC - although unfortunately no tablets came to light. And although in the 1950’s an American team under Harvard professor Thorkild Jacobsen was allowed back to Nippur, where they uncovered two temples dedicated to the patron deities Enlil and Inanna, and 1000 more mainly literary tablet-fragments, since the war years the responsibility for continued excavation in Mesopotamia has rested primarily, although not exclusively, with the Iraqis themselves.

But let us return to the issue of the Sumerian language. Once tablets had been found, for example at Nippur and Uruk, which contained non-Akkadian cuneiform script, the decipherers faced a new challenge. But in some senses they faced an easier task than before. The Akkadians and later Assyrians not only borrowed the Sumerian script, they also treasured its literary inheritance. Not only did this mean that in their edubbas they copied hundreds of Sumerian texts into their own language and script to preserve them - albeit with some political and religious editing over the centuries which we will consider in a subsequent paper - but they also prepared detailed Sumerian-Akkadian dictionaries and lexicons which considerably assisted the Sumerologists in the translation of words and understanding of grammar. Many of these had already been found at Nineveh. Furthermore, the excavations at Nippur yielded numerous lexicons concerned with Sumerian vocabulary and grammar in its own right. This allowed scholars such as Francois Thureau-Dangin, Arno Poebel, A.H. Sayce, R.E. Brunow, and J.D. Prince to complete rudimentary modern Sumerian lexicons at the beginning of this century. However the language is complex, and our understanding of it still leaves much to be desired - again a topic to which we will return in a subsequent paper.

As a result of the profusion of archaeological activity over the last 150 years, hundreds of thousands of fragments of tablets have now been unearthed; indeed some put the estimate as high as half a million. The fact that so many apparently fragile tablets have survived at all, albeit fragmented, is in part due to the unfortunate fate that befell many of the sites in which they were preserved. When the city-states were attacked by enemies they were usually set on fire, which meant that although buildings were destroyed, the clay tablets were fired and better preserved for our archaeologists to find. This wealth of written information is backed up by hundreds of pictorial representations of early events engraved on temple walls, stone stelae, and decorative friezes. Although no doubt some are housed in inaccessible private collections, the majority of the tablets and carvings can be viewed in university and museum collections all around the world - for example in the British Museum, the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, the Vorderasiatische Museum in Berlin, the Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena in East Germany, and the Philadelphia University Museum.

Many of the texts which the tablets represent are still incomplete in varying degrees, and many more fragments undoubtedly remain as yet undiscovered. But we already have a vast inheritance, and it is of course not only due to the efforts of the linguists who originally deciphered the Akkadian and Sumerian scripts that we are able to read them now. Arguably even greater scholarly effort has had to be expended in piecing together the fragments. This job is far more difficult than completing a conventional jigsaw. Remember that the pieces were often found at different times by different expeditions, and sometimes taken to be housed in different collections in different countries. Imagine that you have a jigsaw where you don’t know the complete size and shape, where the pieces can be mutilated at the edges, and where the picture is very uniform (that is, all writing).

The only saving grace was that multiple copies of especially literary texts were often found, many of which were, for example, exercise tablets from edubbas that were preserved for us by being dumped and used as in-fill for building foundations. Although this in turn presented problems in that the scholars had to attempt to identify any errors made by poor or inexperienced students, it did mean that where one copy was incomplete, another might fill in the gaps if it overlapped enough to be recognisable as the same text. One other factor which assisted the identification process was that colophons were often inscribed at the end of each tablet to identify them: these recorded the title of the text (which was not a separate title but based on the opening line); the number of the tablet within the series (equivalent to a page or chapter number); and an 'identifying phrase' which was usually made up of several lines of the text which would be repeated at the beginning of the next tablet.

In any case, the decades of painstaking work undertaken on Akkadian and Sumerian tablets by scholars such as George Smith, L.W. King, Stephen Langdon, E.A. Speiser, Alexander Heidel, Samuel Noah Kramer, W. Lambert, A. Millard, Adam Falkenstein, Thorkild Jacobsen and Stephanie Dalley, among others, has ensured that the multiple pieces of the various jigsaws have been progressively slotted into place. And among the wealth of information revealed has been concrete proof that some of the biblical versions of early events in mankind's history are edited highlights of far earlier versions which contain considerably greater detail. Most obvious of these is the story of the Deluge, and we will examine all of the main texts in subsequent papers.

Reconstructing History

There are two main paths to follow in reconstructing early Mesopotamian history. The first is the conventional archaeological one of digging down into successive layers of remains at key sites. Anyone who has watched the popular television programme 'Time Team' on Channel 4 in the UK will by now have become familiar with this approach, which involves digging test trenches and sinking test pits. Once a trench or pit has been dug in the correct place, now often revealed by geophysical surveys, the various artifacts discovered at each level are dated by reference to finds at other sites. However when archaeologists commenced their investigations of Ancient Mesopotamia they did not have this cross-referencing capability, since the whole area was a 'green-field' site. So to what could they turn for assistance with date verification?

Radiocarbon dating of animate remains is often used under these circumstances, but it tends to be more useful for older remains where accuracy to, say, the nearest couple of hundred years is acceptable. However in the case of Ancient Mesopotamia scholars have been looking for better results than this, and they have had a second path to follow which is not always available elsewhere, especially when going back to the 3rd and 4th millennia BC: and that is the written evidence. We have already seen that the considerable written heritage of Mesopotamia contains not only literary texts (on which we will concentrate in subsequent papers but which are of lesser importance here), but also administrative and historiographic texts which have provided scholars with an invaluable source of information with which to construct a chronological framework. The following are the major types of non-literary document which have been bequeathed to us, as listed by Kramer:12

Votive Inscriptions: From at least as far back as c. 2750 BC the ensis of the various city-states had personal memorials inscribed just about everywhere: on stone and clay tablets, building bricks and stones, stelae and plaques, statues and statuettes, and bowls and vases. Echoing the self-laudatory tone of their hymns, these inscriptions listed the ensi’s major accomplishments in terms of subjugating other races and cities, and of building, rebuilding and refurbishing temples and palaces. Not only did they often include useful descriptions of religious offerings and ceremonies, but they also indicated which gods were being worshipped in a given place at a given time. Prime examples of these include the Sargon Inscriptions, a contemporary record of all the inscriptions on statues and stelae in the reign of the first king of the Akkad Dynasty c. 2300 BC, prepared meticulously by a scribe and found on tablets at Nippur; and the Gudea Temple Inscriptions, consisting of two long tablets of 54 columns, found at the city of Lagash over which Gudea ruled c. 2100 BC. These inscriptions often included 'date-formulas', used from c. 2500 BC by the Sumerian scribes, which commemorated significant religious and political events not via an absolute year reference but by the number of years into an ensi’s reign in which they occurred.

Royal Lists: By contrast these contained lists dealing with more than one ruler. Examples include the Tummal Inscription, which catalogued the rulers in charge of the building and rebuilding of the patron god Enlil’s temple complex at Nippur; and the Lagash Inscriptions, which listed the various rulers of Lagash starting with Ur-Nanshe c. 2500 BC. This is just as well, because indubitably the most important royal list of all, the Sumerian King List, records the rulers of all the Sumero-Akkadian dynasties except those of Lagash and Larsa - perhaps because these dynasties were not regarded as ruling the whole of Sumer-Akkad. This latter list, compiled from about 15 different but fragmented copies found mainly at Larsa and Nippur, has played a pivotal role in the development of the chronology of Ancient Mesopotamia - albeit that the task was complicated by the fact that the dynasties it records sometimes overlapped considerably.

Law Codes: We have already mentioned these briefly, but the major texts of this type are as follows: The Urukagina Reform Text, prepared at the instigation of the ensi of Lagash c. 2350 BC, describes how the common people were freed of the burden of unnecessary taxes, and records laws for the punishment of various crimes. This was followed by the similar Law Code of Ur-Nammu, the founder of the 3rd Dynasty of Ur c. 2100 BC; the Law Code of Lipit-Ishtar, a ruler of the Isin Dynasty c. 1900 BC; and the Law Code of Hammurabi, the great conqueror who established the Assyro-Babylonian empire in the early 18th century BC. The latter three all follow a similar format, with a prologue, the laws themselves - which lay out basic rules regarding such issues as property, slaves, marriage and inheritance - and an epilogue.

Royal Letters: The earliest of these date to c. 2400 BC. Particularly useful is the correspondence of the last ruler of the 3rd Dynasty of Ur, Ibbi-Sin, revealing how his one-time courtier turned rival Ishbi-Erra built up the Dynasty of Isin until Ibbi-Sin was forced to capitulate at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BC.

Court Decisions: Also known as ditillas, these contained judgements regarding divorce, land, livestock and other disputes.

Admittedly some of these records were of an administrative nature, and assisted the understanding of cultural more than of chronological history; and even the historiographic records were insufficient on their own. However, when enough of them had come together it proved possible to attempt to work backwards from independently verified history. The chronology from 911 BC onwards is more or less exact in that it was possible to corroborate astronomical records of eclipses on Assyrian tablets with those recorded by the Greek Ptolemy. Although when working backwards from here some of the pieces of written evidence seem to contradict each other, and it is not always clear whether events are consecutive or overlapping, the current orthodox view appears to be that dates going back to c. 3000 BC can vary from source to source, but not materially for the purposes of most research.

In order that the various references to periods and rulers in subsequent papers may be placed in context, the results of this reconstruction are summarised in the following table. The dates are taken from the chronological tables prepared by Georges Roux, a former medical officer with the Iraq Petroleum Company turned Assyriologist, in his excellent reference work Ancient Iraq.13 Although his book was originally published in 1964, this information is taken from the updated third edition published in 1992.

Period or Era

Approx. Date BC

Description and Key Events



Earliest occupation at Eridu c. 5000 BC

Early Dynastic (Sumerian)


Sumerian dominance, primarily under dynasties of Kish I-II-III-IV, Uruk I-II-III and Ur I-II

Heroes of epics rule in early dynasties; e.g., Etana and Aka during Kish I; Enmerkar, Lugalbanda and Gilgamesh during Uruk I

Alternation of power caused by warring between city-states, whose inhabitants felt more allegiance to their city than to Sumer as a whole; various rulers attempt to keep it keep it united, but Sumer’s power gradually weakened by these internal disputes, leaving it open to attack by external invaders

Dynasty of Akkad (plus Gutium and Ur III)


Akkadians from north conquer Sumer under Sargon the Great c. 2334 BC

Gutians from further north conquer Sumer-Akkad c. 2150 BC

Ur III briefly comes to prominence c. 2112 BC until fall of Ur c. 2004 BC signals end of Sumer’s predominance as political force in Mesopotamia



Dynasty of Isin commences under Ishbi-Erra

Old Assyro-Babylonian


Hammurabi conquers whole of Assyria and Mesopotamia and rules from Babylon, signalling final collapse of weakened Sumerian civilisation as an independent political force

Assyro-Babylonian Empire forms a Semitic state built on a Sumerian foundation



Babylon conquered by Hittites c. 1595 BC

Middle Assyro-Babylonian


Babylon continues its pre-eminence

Late (Neo-) Assyro-Babylonian


Sargon II and Sennacherib transfer power to Nineveh c. 700 BC; set up Royal Library which contains copies of many Sumerian texts

Ashurbanipal adds to library at Nineveh c. 650 BC

Sumerian cultural influence still in evidence; like Latin now, Sumerian language still used in some scholarly and liturgical documents even though it had not been spoken for over a millennia


Source References

1. For example, see Georg Feuerestein, Subhash Kak and David Frawley, In Search of the Cradle of Civilisation (Quest, 1995).

2. For example, see Andrew Collins, Gods of Eden (Headline, 1998), Chapter 15, pp. 212-230.

3. Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians (University of Chicago Press, 1963), Chapter 2, pp. 39-40.

4. The information that follows comes primarily from ibid., Chapter 3.

5. Ibid., Chapter 8, p. 276. Kramer argues that Magan and Meluhha, which are frequently mentioned in texts from earliest times as places with whom Sumer had important trade connections, correspond to Egypt and Ethiopia. Previously scholars had attempted to get round the problem that this implied an advanced seafaring capability by claiming that, originally, these names referred to lands on the much nearer east and south-east Arabian coasts, and that their usage was subsequently translocated. Kramer finds this unlikely, as do I. It is interesting to note that Sumerologist Thorkild Jacobsen goes as far as to say that "modern scholars tend to think that in earlier times it (Meluhha) denoted India", which would make the seafaring capability all the more impressive (Jacobsen, The Harps that Once…, Yale University Press, 1987, p. 363, Note 7).

6. Ibid., Appendix I, pp. 340-2.

7. Of the form "Name of owner’s patron god, or ruler; owner’s name; owner’s father’s name; owner’s title".

8. A brief introduction as to the various terminology used is appropriate at this point for those unfamiliar with Mesopotamian history. The Sumerians were pre-eminent, especially in Southern Mesopotamia, in the 4th and most of the 3rd millennia BC. However for much of that time they co-existed with the Akkadians, so-called after their capital city of Agade or Akkad, who lived to the north. They in turn came to dominate the area for the latter part of the 3rd millennium BC, but their reign was short-lived, lasting only a few hundred years before they were usurped by the Assyrians, also known as the Babylonians after their capital city of Babylon. Hence the compound terms often used: 'Sumero-Akkadian' and 'Assyro-Babylonian'. However, to further complicate matters, it was the Akkadian language which was still used for writing in the Assyro-Babylonian era; indeed on occasion the Sumerian language was still used in some formal writing at this late stage as well - or at least certain Sumerian words were still used. This parallels the way in which Latin continued as a dominant written language long after the collapse of the Roman Empire, with certain words still used by us today. Both the Akkadian and Sumerian languages were written using the distinctive wedge-shaped script which is known as 'cuneiform'. Note also that scholars of Ancient Mesopotamian history are often referred to as 'Assyriologists' because Assyrian artefacts and texts were those first discovered during excavations, even though the term is now used to cover the study of earlier civilisations.

9. As expressed in Kramer, op. cit., Chapter 7.

10. See Map 2 in Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (Penguin, 1992).

11. The distinction between the numbers of tablets and fragments is in my view worth making, if only because many sloppily written books fail to - leaving one with the initial impression that far more complete tablets have been found than is in fact the case.

12. Kramer, op. cit., Chapter 2.

13. Roux, op. cit., "Chronological Tables".