We learn about ancient Sumerian culture from art, artifacts, archaeological discoveries, and cuneiform tablets found along the way....

Social and Family life

Pottery was very plentiful, and the forms of the vases, bowls and dishes were manifold; there were special jars for honey, butter, oil and wine, which was probably made from dates, and one form of vase had a spout protruding from its side.

Some of the vases had pointed feet, and stood on stands with crossed legs ; others were flat-bottomed, and were set on square or rectangular frames of wood. The oil-jars - and probably others also - were sealed with clay, precisely as in early Egypt. Vases and dishes of stone were made in imitation of those of clay, and baskets were woven of reeds or formed of leather."

A feathered head-dress was worn on the head. Beds, stools and chairs were used, with carved legs resembling those of an ox. There were fire-places and fire-altars, and apparently chimneys also.

Knives, drills, wedges and an instrument which looks like a saw were all known, while spears, bows, arrows and daggers (but not swords) were employed in war.

Tablets were used for writing purposes, and copper, gold and silver were worked by the smith. Daggers with metal blades and wooden handles were worn, and copper was hammered into plates, while necklaces or collars were made of gold.

Time was measured in lunar months.

There is considerable evidence that the Sumerians loved music, which seems to have been an important part of religious and civic life in Sumer. Lyres were popular in Sumer.

Inscriptions describing the reforms of king Urukagina of Lagash (ca. 2300 BC) say that he abolished the former custom of polyandry in his country, by which a woman who took multiple husbands was stoned with rocks upon which her crime had been written.

Though women were protected by late Sumerian law and were able to achieve a higher status in Sumer than in other contemporary civilizations, the culture was male-dominated. The Code of Ur-Nammu, the oldest such codification yet discovered, dating to the Ur-III "Sumerian Renaissance", reveals a glimpse at societal structure in late Sumerian law. Beneath the lu-gal ("great man" or king), all members of society belonged to one of two basic strata: The "lu" or free person, and the slave (male, arad; female geme). The son of a lu was called a dumu-nita until he married. A woman (munus) went from being a daughter (dumu-mi), to a wife (dam), then if she outlived her husband, a widow (numasu) who could remarry.

Stories of Gods and Heroes

As the people in a city-state became familiar with the gods of other cities, they worked out relationships between them, just as the Greeks and Romans did in their pantheons of gods centuries later. Sometimes two or more gods came to be viewed as one. Eventually a ranking order developed among the gods. Anu, a sky god who originally had been the city god of Uruk, came to be regarded as the greatest of them all--the god of the heavens. His closest rival was the storm god of the air, Enlil of Nippur. The great gods were worshiped in the temples. Each family had little clay figures of its own household gods and small houses or wall niches for them.

The Sumerians believed that their ancestors had created the ground they lived on by separating it from the water. According to their creation myth, the world was once watery chaos. The mother of Chaos was Tiamat, an immense dragon. When the gods appeared to bring order out of Chaos, Tiamat created an army of dragons. Enlil called the winds to his aid. Tiamat came forward, her mouth wide open. Enlil pushed the winds inside her and she swelled up so that she could not move. Then Enlil split her body open. He laid half of the body flat to form the Earth, with the other half arched over it to form the sky. The gods then beheaded Tiamat's husband and created mankind from his blood, mixed with clay.

The longest story is the Gilgamesh epic, one of the outstanding works of ancient literature. The superhero Gilgamesh originally appeared in Sumerian mythology as a legendary king of Uruk. A long Babylonian poem includes an account of his journey to the bottom of the sea to obtain the plant of life. As he stopped to bathe at a spring on the way home, a hungry snake snatched the plant. When Gilgamesh saw the creature cast off its old skin to become young again, it seemed to him a sign that old age was the fate of humans.

Another searcher for eternal life was Adapa, a fisherman who gained wisdom from Ea, the god of water. The other gods were jealous of his knowledge and called him to heaven. Ea warned him not to drink or eat while there. Anu offered him the water of life and the bread of life because he thought that, since Adapa already knew too much, he might as well be a god. Adapa, however, refused and went back to Earth to die, thus losing for himself and for mankind the gift of immortal life. These legends somewhat resemble the Bible story of Adam and Eve. It is highly probable, in fact, that the ancient legends and myths of Mesopotamia supplied material that was reworked by the biblical authors

It was during the Sumerian era that a great flood overwhelmed Mesopotamia. So great was this flood that stories about it worked their way into several ancient literatures. The Sumerian counterpart of Noah was Ziusudra, and from him was developed the Babylonian figure Utnapishtim, whose story of the flood was related in the 'Epic of Gilgamesh'. Immortal after his escape from the flood, Utnapishtim was also the wise man who told Gilgamesh where to find the youth-restoring plant.

The Last of the Sumerians

Within a few centuries the Sumerians had built up a society based in 12 city-states: Kish, Uruk (in the Bible, Erech), Ur, Sippar, Akshak, Larak, Nippur, Adab, Umma, Lagash, Bad-tibira, and Larsa. According to one of the earliest historical documents, the Sumerian King List, eight kings of Sumer reigned before the famous flood. Afterwards various city-states by turns became the temporary seat of power until about 2800 BC, when they were united under the rule of one king--Etana of Kish. After Etana, the city-states vied for domination; this weakened the Sumerians, and they were ripe for conquest--first by Elamites, then by Akkadians.

The Sumerians had never been very warlike, and they had only a citizen army, called to arms in time of danger. In about 2340 BC King Sargon of Akkad conquered them and went on to build an empire that stretched westward to the Mediterranean Sea. The empire, though short-lived, fostered art and literature.

Led by Ur, the Sumerians again spread their rule far westward. During Ur's supremacy (about 2150 - 2050 BC) Sumerian culture reached its highest development. Shortly thereafter the cities lost their independence forever, and gradually the Sumerians completely disappeared as a people. Their language, however, lived on as the language of culture. Their writing, their business organization, their scientific knowledge, and their mythology and law were spread westward by the Babylonians and Assyrians.