Sumer was a civilization in ancient Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Sumerians arrived in Mesopotamia around 5000 BCE. Historians believe they may have originally come from central Asia or India. The Sumerians spoke a language unrelated to any other in the region.
At first the Sumerians were farmers. They drew water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to irrigate their farms. They dug canals to carry the water.
The Sumerians used oxen to plow their fields, and they raised barley and wheat. Later they formed city-states along the rivers and built stepped temples called ziggurats. (A city-state is an independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory.) Their most important achievement, however, was a system of wedge-shaped writing called cuneiform.
The Sumerians began to form large city-states along the rivers around 3000 BCE. Their chief cities were Ur, Kish, and Erech. Archaeologists believe that their largest city, Ur, had a population of around 24,000 residents.
Each city-state had its own defensive wall, villages, and farmland. Each had its own deity (god), whose ziggurat (temple) was the central structure of the city. These were built of mud bricks, not stone or marble.
There were four main classes of people in Mesopotamia: the powerful priests, the wealthy upper class, the lower class, and slaves. A slave usually cost less than a donkey but more than a cow. Political power originally belonged to the citizens, but later, each city chose a priest-king. There was also a large assembly of officials that made sure the rules of the city were obeyed. The assembly selected the king and the king appointed government officials to help him enforce the rules of the city-state.
Sumerians were skilled at making gold, silver, and copper tools. They invented many things such as the harp, the wheel, the frying pan, pottery, the plow, the sailboat, and kilns. They used razors and cosmetics. Children had a variety of toys to play with, including whistles, rattles, toy wagons, and toy animals on wheels.
The Sumerians’s greatest achievement was writing. They used a stylus (pointed stick) on soft clay tablets. They carved wedge-shaped symbols into the tablets. Writing done in this way is called cuneiform.
Sumerians liked to keep written records of land sales and livestock purchases. They made lists of household goods and repairs. They issued receipts for purchases and barley rations. They kept track of their kings and their court’s activities, too. It was important for boys to learn to read and write cuneiform, so they could be successful in Sumerian society.
The Sumerians also knew a lot about numbers. Historians have traced the use of 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour back to the Sumerians.
Conquered by the Elamites
The Sumerians were eventually conquered by the Elamites sometime between 2530 and 2450 BCE. Akkadian king Sargon I ruled Sumer from 2334 to 2279 BCE. His dynasty lasted only about 100 years. (A dynasty is a series of rulers from the same family.)
Then, after the Sumerians recovered from an invasion by the Gutians, the city-states once again became independent for a time. The high point of this final era of Sumerian civilization was during the reign of King Ur-Nammu. The Sumerians lost their separate identity after 1900 BCE, but much of their culture survived, because the peoples who came after them embraced a number of Sumerian technologies, such as the first wheeled vehicles, the potter’s wheel, cuneiform writing, and written codes of law.