The Sumerian Society: The Sumerian City

Sumerian civilization was essentially urban in character, although it rested on an agricultural rather than an industrial base. The land Sumer, in the third millennium B.C., consisted of a dozen or so city-states, each having a large and usually walled city surrounded by suburban villages and hamlets.

The outstanding feature of each city was the main temple situated on a high terrace, which gradually developed into a massive staged tower, a ziggurat, Sumer’s most characteristic contribution to religious architecture.

The temple usually consisted of a rectangular central shrine, or cella, surrounded on its long sides by a number of rooms for the use of the priests. In the cella there was a niche for the god’s statue, fronted by an offering table made of mud brick. The temple was built largely of mud bricks, and since this material is unattractive in texture and color, the Sumerian architects beautified the walls by means of regularly spaced buttresses and recesses. They also introduced the mud-brick column and half-column, which they covered with patterns of zigzags, lozenges, and triangles by inserting thousands of painted clay cones into the thick mud plaster. Sometimes the inner walls of the shrine were painted with frescoes of human and animal figures as well as a varied assortment of geometrical motifs.

The temple was the largest, tallest, and most important building in the city, in accordance with the theory accepted by the Sumerian religious leaders and going back no doubt to very early times that the entire city belonged to its main god, to whom it had been assigned on the day the world was created. In practice, however, the temple corporation owned only some of the land, which it rented out to sharecroppers; the remainder was the private property of individual citizens.

In early days political power lay in the hands of these free citizens and a city-governor known as ensi, who was no more than a peer among peers. In case of decisions vital to the city as a whole, these free citizens met in a bicameral assembly consisting of an upper house of “elders” and a lower house of “men.” As the struggle between the city-states grew more violent and bitter, and as the pressures from the barbaric peoples to the east and west of Sumer in-creased, military leadership became a pressing need, and the king, or as he is known in Sumerian, the “big man,” came to hold a superior place. At first he was probably selected and appointed by the assembly at a critical moment for a specific military task. But gradually kingship with all its privileges and prerogatives became a hereditary institution and was considered the very hall-mark of civilization.

The kings established a regular army, with the chariot-the ancient “tank”-as the main offensive weapon and a heavily armored infantry which attacked in phalanx formation. Sumer’s victories and conquests were due largely to this superiority in military weapons, tactics, organization, and leadership. In the course of time, therefore, the palace began to rival the temple in wealth and influence. But priests, princes, and soldiers constituted after all only a small fraction of the city’s population.

The great majority were farmers and cattle breeders, boatmen and fishermen, merchants and scribes, doctors and architects, masons and carpenters, smiths, jewelers, and potters. There were of course a number of rich and powerful families who owned large estates; but even the poor managed to own farms and gardens, houses, and cattle. The more industrious of the artisans and craftsmen sold their handmade products in the free town market, receiving payment either in kind or in “money,” which was normally a disk or ring of silver of standard weight. Traveling merchants carried on a thriving trade from city to city and with surrounding states by land and sea, and not a few of these merchants were probably private individuals rather than temple or palace representatives.

The view that the Sumerian economy was relatively free and that private property was the rule rather than the exception runs counter to the claim of a number of Oriental scholars that the Sumerian city-state was a totalitarian theocracy dominated by the temple, which owned all the land and was in absolute control of the entire economy.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of tablets from pre-Sargonic Sumer, that is, the Sumer of about 2400 B.C., are inventory documents from the temples of Lagash, which deal solely with temple land and personnel, has led scholars to the unjustified conclusion that all the land of Lagash-and presumably, of the other city-states-was temple property. It is also true, however, that there are quite a number of documents from Lagash as well as from other sites which indicate quite clearly that the citizens of the city-states could buy and sell their fields and houses, not to mention all kinds of movable property.

Thus, for example, several documents from about 2500 B.C. have been unearthed in Fara and Bismaya that record real estate sales by private individuals, and they are no doubt but a small fraction of those still under ground. From Lagash comes a stone tablet recording a sale of land to Enhegal, a king of Lagash and a predecessor of Ur-Nanshe, which shows that even a king could not merely confiscate property whenever he wished but had to pay for it. Another stone document has been found in which one Lummatur, a son of Enannatum I, purchases land from various individuals and families.

In the Urukagina reform text we find that even the poor and lowly own houses, gardens, and fishery ponds. But the idea of a temple theocracy in absolute control of the city had taken hold in the minds of several key scholars, and in order to uproot it, a thorough re-study of the hundreds of available economic documents, especially those from Lagash, was an urgent necessity. This has now been achieved by I. M. Diakanoff, a Russian scholar who has devoted much time and labor to the task and whose detailed study appeared in 1959.

Following, then, is a sketch of the economic structure of the Sumerian city-state based primarily on Diakanoff’s illuminating analysis.

The fundamental error which led to the assumption that the temple of each city-state owned all its land was made by the late Anton Deimel, a highly productive scholar who devoted many years to the study of the Lagash documents and contributed significantly to cuneiform studies as a whole. By adding together all the parcels of land mentioned in them, he estimated that the total area of the temple estates in Lagash was between two and three hundred square kilometers, a quite justifiable figure, which, if anything, is too low.

But he then goes on to make the assumption that this was the total area of the city-state of Lagash, a claim that is quite unwarranted by the data. In studying more carefully all the available Lagash documents, Diakanoff estimates that the territory of Lagash probably comprised some three thousand square kilometers of which about two thousand consisted of naturally irrigated land. The total area of the temple estates, even if Deimel’s estimate were doubled-as there is some reason to believe it should be-would comprise a considerable fraction of the territory of the city-state, but only a fraction.

This temple land, which could not be bought, sold, or alienated in any way, was divided into three categories: ( 1) nigenna-Iand that was reserved for the maintenance of the temple; (2) kurra-Iand allotted to the farmers working the nigenna land and also to artisans and some of the administrative personnel of the temple in payment for their services (this land could not be inherited and could be exchanged or taken away altogether by the temple administration whenever it decided to do so for one reason or another); and (3) urulal-Iand allotted in exchange for a share of the crop to different individuals, but especially to personnel of the temple to supplement their income.

As for the land which did not belong to the temple and which comprised by far the larger part of the territory of the city-state, the documents show that much of it was owned by the “nobility,” that is, the ruling princes and their families and palace administrators as well as the more important priests. These noble families often possessed huge estates measuring hundreds of acres, much of which they obtained by purchase from the less fortunate citizens. The labor on these estates was performed by clients or dependents, whose status resembled that of the dependents of the temple, who were clients of the more prosperous temple officials and administrators.

The rest of the land-that is, the land not owned by the temple or the nobility-belonged to the ordinary citizens of the community, probably more than half of the population. These free citizens or commoners were or-ganized in large patriarchal families and also in patriarchal clans and town communities.

The hereditary land in the possession of the patriarchal families from the earliest days could be alienated and sold, but only by some member or members of the family-not necessarily the head-who acted as the chosen representative of the family community. Ordinarily, other members of the family participated in the transaction as witnesses, thus indicating their agreement and consent; these witnesses received a payment, just as the sellers themselves did, although it was usually more or less nominal. In many cases unpaid witnesses on the side of the buyer were also recorded, and sometimes representatives of the gov-ernment took part in the transactions.

All in all, as a result of Diakanoff’s detailed and imaginative investigations, we get a picture of the socioeconomic structure of the Sumerian city-state that is quite different from that currently in vogue among Oriental scholars. We see that the population consisted of four categories: nobles, commoners, clients, and slaves. The nobility owned large estates, partly as private individuals, partly in the form of family possessions, which were worked by free clients or dependents as well as slaves. It was the nobility, too, which controlled the temple land, although this land gradually came under the domination of the ruler and later even became his property. The upper house of the assembly, or “town meeting,” probably consisted of the members of the nobility.

The commoner owned his own plot of land in the city-state, but as a member of a family rather than as an individual; it was the commoners who probably constituted the lower house of the assembly.

The clients consisted of three categories: (1) the well-to-do dependents of the temple, such as the temple administrators and more important craftsmen; (2) the great mass of the temple personnel; and (3) the dependents of the nobility. Most of the clients in the first two categories got small plots of temple land (but only as temporary possessions), although some got rations of food and wool. The clients of the nobles, who worked their estates, were no doubt also paid in accordance with similar arrangements.

Sumerian’s slaves

Slavery was a recognized institution, and temples, palaces, and rich estates owned slaves and exploited them for their own benefit. Many slaves were prisoners of war, although not necessarily foreigners since they could be fellow Sumerians from a neigh-boring city defeated in battle. Sumerian slaves were recruited in other ways. Freemen might be reduced to slavery as a punishment for certain offenses. Parents could sell their children as slaves in time of need, or a man might turn over his entire family to creditors in payment of a debt, although for no longer than three years.

The slave was the property of his master like any other chattel. He could be branded and Hogged and was severely punished if he attempted to escape. On the other hand, it was to his master’s advantage that his slave stay strong and healthy, and slaves were therefore usually well treated. They even had certain legal rights: they could engage in business, borrow money, and buy their freedom. If a slave, male or female, married a free person, the children were free. The sale price of a slave varied with the market and the individual involved; an average price for a grown man was twenty shekels, which was at times less than the price for an ass. The basic unit of Sumerian society was, as with us, the family, whose members were knit closely together by love, respect, and mutual obligations. Marriage was arranged by the parents, and the betrothal was legally recognized as soon as the groom presented a bridal gift to the father. The betrothal was often consummated with a contract inscribed on a tablet. While marriage was thus reduced to a practical arrangement, there is some evidence to show that surreptitious premarital love-making was not altogether unknown. A woman in Sumer had certain important legal rights: she could hold property, engage in business, and qualify as a witness. But her husband could divorce her on relatively light grounds, and if she had no children, he could marry a second wife. Children were under the absolute authority of their parents, who could disinherit them or even sell them into slavery. But in the normal course of events they were dearly loved and cherished and at the parents’ death inherited all their property. Adopted children were not uncommon, and they, too, were treated with utmost care and consideration. As can be gathered from what has already been said about social and economic organization, written law played a large role in the Sumerian city. Beginning about 2700 B.C., we find actual deeds of sales, including sales of fields, houses, and slaves. From about 2350 B.C., during the reign of Urukagina of Lagash, we have one of the most precious and revealing documents in the history of man and his perennial and unrelenting struggle for freedom from tyranny and oppression. This document records a sweeping reform of a whole series of prevalent abuses, most of which could be traced to a ubiquitous and obnoxious bureaucracy consisting of the ruler and his palace coterie; at the same time it provides a grim and ominous picture of man’s cruelty toward man on all levels-social, economic, political, and psychological. Reading be-tween its lines, we also get a glimpse of a bitter struggle for power between the temple and the palace-the “church” and the “state” -with the citizens of Lagash taking the side of the temple. Finally, it is in this document that we find the word “freedom” used for the first time in man’s recorded history; the word is amargi, which, as has recently been pointed out by Adam Falkenstein, means literally “return to the mother.” However, we still do not know why this figure of speech came to be used for “freedom.” Of the events which led to the corrupt, lawless, and oppressive state of affairs in Lagash as depicted in the Urukagina reform document, there is not a trace in the text itself. But we may surmise that they were the direct result of the political and economic forces unloosed by the drive for power which characterized the ruling dynasty founded by Ur-Nanshe around 2500 B.C. Smitten with grandiose ambitions for themselves and their state, some of the rulers resorted to imperialistic wars and bloody conquests. In a few cases they met with considerable success, and for a brief period, one of them, Eannatum, extended the sway of Lagash over Sumeras a whole and even over several of the neigh-boring states. The earlier victories proved ephemeral, however, and in less than a century Lagash was reduced to its earlier boundaries and former status. By the time Urukagina came to power, Lagash had been so weakened that it was a ready prey for its unrelenting enemy to the north, the city-state of Umma.

It was in the course of these cruel wars and their tragic aftermaths that the citizens of Lagash found themselves deprived of their political and economic freedom; for in order to raise armies and supply them with arms and equipment, the rulers found it necessary to infringe on the personal rights of the individual citizen, to tax his wealth and property to the limit, and to appropriate, as well, property belonging to the temple. Under the impact of war, they met with little opposition. And once introduced, the palace coterie showed itself most unwilling to relinquish the domestic controls, even in times of peace, for they had proved highly profitable. Indeed, our ancient bureaucrats had devised a variety of sources of revenue and income, taxes and imposts, which in some ways might well be the envy of their modem counterparts. Citizens were thrown in jail on the slightest pretext: for debt, non-payment of taxes, or trumped-up charges of theft and murder.

But let the historian who lived in Lagash more than forty-two hundred years ago, and who was therefore a contemporary of the events he reports, tell it more or less in his own words. Three duplicating versions of his text, and there may well have been more, have been unearthed in Lagash indicating that Urukagina and his fellow reformers were proud, and not unjustifiably so, of the social and moral revolution that they had brought about.

In the days preceding Urukagina, or as the author puts it rather pompously, «formerly, from days of yore, from (the day) the seed (of man) came forth,” palace appointees practiced such abuses as seizing, presumably without right or warrant, property belonging to the citizens of Lagash-their donkeys, sheep, and fisheries. Other citizens were mulcted more or less indirectly of their goods and possessions by being compelled to have their rations measured out in the palace, much to their disadvantage, or to bring their sheep to the palace for shearing and to pay in «cold cash” for the service, at least in certain specified cases.

If a man divorced his wife, the ensi got five shekels, and his vizier got one shekel. If a perfumer made an oil preparation, the ensi got five shekels, the vizier got one shekel, and the abgal (palace steward) got another shekel. As for the temple and its property, the ensi took it over as his own. To quote our ancient narrator literally: “The oxen of the gods plowed the ensi’s onion patches; the onion and cucumber patches of the ensi were located in the gods’ best fields.” In addition, the more important temple officials, particularly the sanga’s, were deprived in one way or another of many of their donkeys and oxen as well as of much of their grain and wearing apparel.

Even death brought no relief from levies and taxes. When a dead man was brought to the cemetery for burial (there were two grades of cemeteries-an ordinary one and another called “the reeds of Enkf’), quite a number of officials and parasites made it their business to be on hand to relieve the bereaved family of quantities of barley, bread, and date wine, and various furnishings. From one end of the state to the other, our venerable reporter observes bitterly, “there were the tax collectors.” No wonder, then, that the palace waxed fat and prosperous. Its lands and properties formed one vast, continuous estate. In the literal words of our Sumerian commentator: “The houses of the ensi and the fields of the ensi, the houses of the palace harem and the fields of the palace harem, the houses of the palace nursery and the fields of the palace nursery crowded each other side to side.”

Also prevalent were other abuses seemingly not directly attributable to the palace bureaucracy but resulting no doubt from the general state of injustice, cynicism, and self-aggrandizement induced by its corrupt and oppressive actions: artisans and apprentices were reduced to abject poverty and had to beg for their food. Blind men-presumably, prisoners of war and slaves who had been blinded in order to prevent them from attempting to escape-were seized and put to watering the fields like animals and were given only enough food to keep them alive. The rich, “the big men” and the supervisors, were getting richer and richer at the expense of the less fortunate citizens, such as the shub-lugal’s (perhaps Originally, “king’s retainers”), by forcing them to sell their donkeys and houses at low prices and against their will. The indigent, the poor, the orphaned, and the widowed were mistreated and deprived in one way or another of what little they had by men of power and influence.

At this low point in the political and social affairs of Lagash, our Sumerian historian tells us, the new and god-fearing ruler, Urukagina, was chosen by Ningirsu, the tutelary deity of the city, out of the whole multitude of Lagash citizens and enjoined to re-establish the “divine laws” which had been abandoned and neglected by his predecessors. Urukagina held close to Ningirsu’s words and carried out the god’s commands to the full. He banned such practices as the seizure of donkeys, sheep, and fisheries belonging to the citizens, and the exaction of payment to the palace in one way or another for measuring their rations and shearing their sheep. When a man divorced his wife, neither the ensi nor his vizier got anything. When a perfumer made an oil preparation, neither the ensi nor the vizier nor the abgal got anything. When a dead man was brought to the cemetery for burial, the various officials received considerably less of the dead man’s goods than formerly, in some cases a good deal less than half. As for the temple property that the ensi had appropriated for himself, he, U rukagina, returned it to the proper owners, the gods; in fact, it now seems that the temple administrators were put in charge of the palace of the ensi as well as the palaces of his wife and children. From one end of the land to the other, our contemporary historian observes, “there were no tax collectors.”

But removing the ubiquitous bailiffs, tax collectors, and other parasitic officials was not Urukagina’s only achievement. He also put a stop to the injustice and exploitation suffered by the poor at the hands of the rich and mighty. Permanent rations of food and drink were allotted to the craftsmen guilds, certain blind laborers and other workers, and also various gala-priests (probably temple singers). Artisans and apprentices no longer had to beg for their food. To prevent the supervisors and “big men” from taking advantage of less fortunate citizens, such as the shublugal’s, he promulgated two ordinances forbidding them to force their more lowly brethren to sell their donkeys or their houses against their will. He amnestied and set free the citizens of Lagash who had been imprisoned for debt or failure to pay taxes or on trumped-up (presumably) charges of theft or murder. As for the orphan and the widow, ready and helpless victims of the rich and powerful, “Urukagina made a covenant with the god Ningirsu that a man of power must not commit an injustice against them.”

Finally, in one of the versions of the Urukagina document (see pages 321-22), we find a series of regulations which, if correctly translated and interpreted, should be of no little significance for the history of law; they indicate that great stress was laid by the Sumerian courts on the need of making manifest to all, by means of the written word, the guilt for which the accused was punished. Thus, the thief and the woman who marries two husbands must be stoned with stones on which their evil intent has been inscribed; and the woman who has sinned by saying something to a man which she should not have said (the text giving her words is unfortunately unintelligible) must have her teeth crushed with burnt bricks upon which, presumably, her guilty deed has been inscribed.

As is apparent from the Urukagina reform text, the promulgation of laws and legal regulations by the rulers of the Sumerian states was a common phenomenon by 2400 B.C. and probably even considerably earlier. It is not unreasonable to infer, therefore, that in the three centuries that followed, more than one official judge, or palace archivist, or professor of the edubba must have come upon the idea of writing down the current and past laws or precedents either for purposes of reference or teaching. But, as of today, no such compilations have been recovered for the period between the days of Urukagina and those of Ur-Nammu, the founder of the Third Dynasty of Ur, who began his reign about 2050 B.C.

The Ur-Nammu law code was originally inscribed no doubt on a stone stele, not unlike that on which the Akkadian law code of Hammurabi was inscribed some three centuries later. But what has been unearthed to date is not this original stele, nor even a contemporary copy of it, but a poorly preserved clay tablet prepared several hundred years later. This tablet was divided by the ancient scribe into eight columns, four on the obverse and four on the reverse. Each of the columns contained about forty-five small ruled spaces; fewer than half of these are now legible. The obverse contains a long prologue which is only partially intelligible because of the numerous breaks in the text. Briefly summarized, its contents may be reconstructed in part as follows.

After the world had been created and after the fate of the land Sumer and of the city Ur had been decided, An and Enlil, the two leading deities of the Sumerian pantheon, appointed the moon-god, Nanna, as the king of Ur. Then one day, Ur-Nammu was selected by the god as his earthly representative to rule over Sumer and Ur. The new king’s first acts were concerned with the political and military safety of Ur and Sumer. In particular, he found it necessary to do battle with the bordering city-state of Lagash, which was expanding at Ur’s expense. He defeated and put to death its ruler, Namhani, and then “with the power of Nanna, the king of the city,” he re-established Ur’s former boundaries.

Now came the time to turn to internal affairs and to institute social and moral reforms. He removed the chiselers and grafters, or as the code itself describes them, the “grabbers” of the citizens’ oxen, sheep, and donkeys. He then established and regulated honest and unchangeable weights and measures. He saw to it that “the orphan did not fall a prey to the wealthy,” “the widow did not fall a prey to the powerful,” and “the man of one shekel did not fall a prey to the man of one min a (Sixty shekels).” And, al-though the relevant passage is destroyed, this side of the tablet no doubt contained a statement to the effect that Ur-Nammu promulgated the laws which followed to insure justice in the land and to promote the welfare of its citizens.

The laws themselves probably began on the reverse of the tablet and are so badly damaged that only the contents of five of them can be restored with some degree of certainty. One of them deals with an accusation of witchcraft and involves a trial by the water ordeal; another treats of the return of a slave to his master.

But it is the other three laws, fragmentary and difficult as their contents are, which are of very special importance for the history of man’s social and spiritual growth; for they show that even be-fore 2000 B.C., the law of “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth” had already given way to the far more humane approach in which a money fine was substituted as a punishment. These three laws read as follows:

If a man has cut off with an .. -instrument the foot of another man whose …. , he shall pay 10 shekels of sliver.

If a man has severed with a weapon the bones of another man whose …. , he shall pay 1 mina of silver.

If a man has cut off with a geshpu-instrument, the nose of another man, he shall pay % of a mina of silver.

As of today, no law codes have been uncovered from any of the other rulers of the Third Dynasty of Ur, the dynasty founded by Ur-Nammu. But for the thirty-eight-year period beginning with the thirty-second year of Shulgi, Ur-Nammu’s son and successor, and ending with the third year of the tragic and pathetic Ibbi-Sin, we have a group of over three hundred court records which are highly revealing for the legal practices and court procedures of the Sumerian city-states as well as for their social and economic organization. To be sure, these records all stem from a time when the Sumerians were approaching the end of their history, but there is little doubt that they reflect to some degree the customs and modes of earlier days.

The great majorities of these court archives were excavated in Lagash and have been copied, published, and partly translated by French scholars, especially Charles Virolleaud and Henri de Genouillac. In 1956, new transliterations and translations of all these court documents were published by Adam Falkenstein, together with a detailed commentary and discussion-thus adding another to his significant series of contributions to Sumerology. The following sketch of the legal procedures current in the Sumerian city-state is based almost entirely on Falkenstein’s publication.

The court records are designated by the ancient scribes them-selves as ditilla’s, a word which means literally «completed law-suits.” At least thirteen of these, however, are not lawsuits at all, but merely court notarizations of agreements or contracts involving marriage, divorce, support of a wife, gifts, sales, and the appointment of various individuals to temple offices. The remainder, which are all records of actual lawsuits, concern marriage contracts, divorces, inheritance, slaves, hiring of boats, claims of all sorts, pledges, and such miscellaneous items as pretrial investigations, subpoenas, theft, damage to property, and malfeasance in office.

Theoretically-at least by the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur-it was the king of the whole of Sumer who was responsible for law and justice, but in practice the administration of law was in the hands of the ensi’s, the local rulers of the various city-states. In the earlier court documents only the ensi’s name appears as a kind of official signature; later the ensi’s name appears together with the names of the judges who decided the case; and still later the names of the judges appear without the name of the ensi. However, in the inscription on the tablet containers, where these documents were stored and filed in chronological order, the name of the ensi is usually given along with those of the judges.

The temple, to judge from the available material, played practically no role in the administration of justice, except as the place where oaths were administered. There is one instance, however, in which an individual is described as “the judge of the house of Nanna” (that is, the main temple at Ur), and this might indicate that there were special judges appointed by the temple for one reason or another.

The courts usually consisted of three or four judges, although in some cases only of one or two. There were no judges by profes-sion; of the thirty-six men listed as judges in the documents, the majority were important temple administrators, sea merchants, couriers, scribes, constables, inspectors, augurs, prefects, archivists, city elders, and even ensi’s. There are, however, several individuals designated as “royal judges,” and one of the documents ends with the words “the ditilla of the seven royal judges of Nippur,” which points to the existence of a special court at Nippur, perhaps a kind of court of last appeal. Nothing is known of the methods or criteria governing the appointment of the judges, the length of their service, or how much, if any, remuneration they received.

Immediately preceding the names of the judges on the court archives, there usually appears the name of the mashkim, who seems to have been a kind of court clerk and bailiff who was charged with the preparation of the case for the court and with taking care of the details in the court procedure. More than one hundred mashkim’s are listed in the ditilla’s, and they all come from the same social stratum as the judges; the role of mashkim, therefore, was also not a regular and permanent profession. There is some indication that the mashkim was paid for his services; thus there is a statement in one of the documents which reads:

“1 shekel of silver and 1 lamb were (payment) for what the mashkim did.”

In some of the ditilla’s, the names of the judges and mashkim are followed by a list of individuals described as witnesses of one type or another, who seem to represent not the litigants but the public at the court trials.

In a lawsuit, Sumerian court procedure was as follows: A suit was initiated by one of the parties or-if the state’s interests were involved-by the state administration. The testimony brought be-fore the court might consist of statements made by witnesses, usually under oath, or by one of the parties under oath; or it might be in the form of written documents or statements made by “experts” or important officials. The verdict was conditional and became operative only after an oath had been administered in the temple to the party of whom the court demanded it as proof of their claim. This oath was usually given to the witnesses-one or two in number-rather than to the litigants, except in cases where the testimony of the witnesses was denied by the litigant.

No oath was necessary if a written document was available to one of the parties. At times the mashkim who had participated in an earlier court action relevant to the issue on hand took the oath.

The verdict was usually expressed quite tersely with such phrases as “it (that is, the object or slave involved in the litigation) was confirmed as belonging to X (the winning party) ,” or “X (the winning party) has taken it (the object or slave) as his due,” or even “Y (the losing party) must pay.” Sometimes, but by no means always, the reason for the verdict was stated. Following the verdict, the document occasionally contained a clause of renunciation and abjuration.

Some two hundred years after Ur-Nammu, a ruler from the dynasty of Isin named Lipit-Ishtar promulgated a law code, which has been unearthed in the form of fragments of one large twenty-column tablet originally containing the entire text and four “excerpt” tablets used for school practice. Like the Akkadian code of Hammurabi, it consists of three sections: a prologue, the laws themselves, and an epilogue. The prologue begins with a statement put in the mouth of the king, Lipit-Ishtar, that after An and Enlil had given Nininsinna, the goddess who was the tutelary deity of Isin, the kingship of Sumer and Akkad, and after they had called him (Lipit-Ishtar), “to the princeship of the land” in order to bring “well-being to the Sumerians and the Akkadians,” he promulgated a code of justice in Sumer and Akkad. He then cites some of his achievements in regard to the welfare of his subjects: he freed “the sons and daughters of Sumer and Akkad” from slavery which had been imposed upon them and re-established a number of equitable family practices. The end of the prologue is unfortunately destroyed.

As for the laws themselves, the available text permits the restoration wholly or in part of some thirty-eight, practically all of which belong to the second half of the code, the first half being almost entirely destroyed. The subject matter treated in these laws includes the hiring of boats; real estate, particularly orchards; slaves and perhaps servants; defaulting of taxes; inheritance and marriage; rental of oxen. Immediately after the last of the laws comes the epilogue, which is only partially intelligible because of the numerous breaks in the text. It begins with a reiteration by Lipit-Ishtar that he established justice in the land and that he brought well-being to its people. He then states that he set up “this stele” -the code was, therefore, as might have been expected, inscribed on a stele of which the tablets were copies-and proceeds to pronounce a blessing on those who will not damage it in any way and a curse against those who will.

Turning from the socioeconomic structure of the Sumerian city to its more material aspects, we might start by trying to estimate the size of its population. This can hardly be done, however, with any reasonable degree of exactness since there was no official census; at least no traces of any have as yet been found. For Lagash, Diakanoff (see above, page 75), after studying the rather incomplete and indirect data provided by the economic texts, estimates a free population of about 100,000. And for Ur, at about 2000 B.C., when it was the capital of Sumer for the third time, C. L. Woolley, in his recent article, “The Urbanization of Society,” estimates a population of some 360,000 souls. His figure is based on tenuous comparisons and dubious assumptions, and it might be wise to cut it by about half, which would still give Ur a population of close to 200,000.

Except for the temenos, the sacred area of the city with its main temples and ziggurat, the Sumerian city was hardly an attractive site. To quote Woolley, “If the residential quarters excavated at Ur give, as presumably they do, a fair sample of the city as a whole, we see something that has grown out of the conditions of the primitive village, not laid out on any system of town-planning. The unpaved streets were narrow and winding, some-times mere blind alleys leading to houses hidden away in the middle of a great block of haphazard buildings; large houses and small are tumbled together, a few of them Hat-roofed tenements one storey high, most of them two storeys, and a few, apparently of three. Lanes sheltered by awnings and lined with open booths correspond to the bazaars of the modern Middle Eastern town.”

Nevertheless, to judge from passages in the “Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur” (see below, pages 142-44) it had its attractions: “lofty gates” and avenues for promenading as well as boulevards where feasts were celebrated. And from “A Scribe and His Perverse Son” and “Love Finds a Way” (see below, pages 243-46 and 250-52), we learn that the city had a public square which was not devoid of appeal to the young and the pleasure-seeking.

The average Sumerian house was a small one-story, mud-brick structure consisting of several rooms usually grouped around an open court. The well-to-do Sumerian, on the other hand, probably lived in a two-story house of about a dozen rooms, built of brick and plastered and whitewashed both inside and out. The ground floor of the two-story house consisted of a reception room, kitchen, lavatory, servants’ quarters, and sometimes even a private chapel. For furniture there were low tables, high-backed chairs, and beds with wooden frames. Household vessels were made of clay, stone, copper, and bronze; there were also baskets and chests made of reeds and wood. Floors and walls were covered with reed mats, skin rugs, and woolen hangings. Below the house there was often a family mausoleum where the family dead were buried, although there also seem to have been special cemeteries for the dead out-side the cities.

The economic life of the Sumerian city depended primarily on the highly developed skills of farmers and husbandmen, artisans and craftsmen. The Sumerians developed no theoretical “science”; we know of no general laws of a scientific character formulated by their men of learning. Sumerian thinkers classified the natural world into the following categories: domestic animals, wild animals (from elephant to insect), birds (including some flying insects), fishes, trees, plants, vegetables, and stones. Lists of all possible items in these categories were compiled as textbooks for use in the edubba; these lists consist, however, of nothing but names, although the teachers no doubt added explanations-lectures, as it were-for the benefit of the students. This is apparent to some extent from the literary texts in which the “shepherd-bird,” for example, is described in these words:

The “shepherd-bird” says ri-di-ik, ri-di-ik, The “shepherd-bird” (has) a variegated neck like the dar-bird,

He has a crest upon his head.

Or the mur-fish-probably the skate or ray-is described as:

The head, a hoe, the teeth, a comb, Its bones, a tall fir tree, Its stomach, the water-skin of Dumuzi, Its slender tail, the whip of the fishermen, Its scaleless skin needs no processing …. , The sting serves as a nail.

Or the contrast between the cat’s patience and the directness of the mongoose is noted in these words:

A cat-for its thoughts, A mongoose-for its actions.

Astronomy, which in the last half of the first millennium B.C. became one of the highest scientific attainments of the Sumerians’ cultural heirs, the Babylonians, was practically unknown in ancient Sumer; at least as of today we have only a list of about twenty-five stars and nothing more from Sumer. Observation of the heavenly bodies must have been practiced in Sumer for calendrical purposes if for no other reasons, but if the results of these observations were ever recorded, they are not preserved. Astrology, however, must have had considerable vogue to judge from Gudea’s dream (see below, page 138) in which the goddess Nidaba appeared, studying a clay tablet on which the starry heaven was depicted, thus indicating that Gudea was to build the Eninnu temple in accordance with the “holy stars.”

The Sumerians divided the year into two seasons: emesh, “summer,” beginning in February-March, and enten, “winter,” beginning in September-October. The new year was probably supposed to fall sometime in April-May. The months were strictly lunar; they began with the evening of the new moon and were 29 or 30 days in length. The names of the months, which were often derived from agricultural activities or from feasts in honor of certain deities, varied from city to city. To take care of the difference in length between the lunar and solar years, an intercalary month was introduced at regular intervals. The day began with sunset and was twelve double-hours in length. The night was divided into three watches of four hours each. Time was measured by a water clock, or clepsydra, shaped like a cylinder or prism; the shadow clock or rod clock was also probably known.

The Sumerian system of numeration

The Sumerian system of numeration was sexagesimal in character, but not strictly so since it makes use of the factor 10 as well as 6 thus: 1, 10, 60, 600, 3600, 36,000, etc. From the point of view of writing, there were actually two systems of numeration; the one used normally, which has special signs for each order of units (see Fig. 1, page 92), and the “learned” system, the only one used in the mathematical texts, which is purely sexagesimal and positional, like our decimal system. Thus, while according to the decimal system, the number written 439, for example, stands for (4 X 102) + (3 X 10) +9, in the sexagesimal system, the same number would stand for (4 X 602) + (3 X 60) + 9, or 14,589. The zero was unknown to the Sumerians, and the absolute value of the units was not indicated in the writing, so that a number written

sumerian number

which we may transcribe as 4, 23, 36, can be read either (4 X 602) + (23 X 60) + 36 = 15,816, or as (4 X 603) + (23 X 602) + (36 X 60) = 948,960, etc.; or it can be read as (4 X 60) +  23 +  (36/60) = 236%, or as 4 +  (23/60) +  (36/3600) = (59/4150), etc. Like our decimal system, therefore, the sexagesimal system permits a flexibility in number writing which is highly favorable to the development of mathematics.

Sumerian Numerical Signs
FIC. 1. Sumerian Numerical Signs

The mathematical school texts which have come down to us are of two types: tables and problems. The former include tabulations of reciprocals, multiplications, squares and square roots, cubes and cube roots, the sums of squares and cubes needed for the numerical solution of certain types of equations, exponential functions, coefficients giving numbers for practical computation (like the approximate value of ), and numerous metrological calculations giving areas of rectangles, circles, etc. The problem texts deal with Pythagorean numbers, cubic roots, equations, and such practical matters as excavating or enlarging canals, counting bricks, and so on. As of today, almost all problem texts are Akkadian, although they must go back in large part to Sumerian prototypes since nearly all the technical terms used are Sumerian. (Fig. 2, reproduces a Sumerian tablet of about 2500 B.C., excavated at Fara, which contains a table for calculating the surface of square-shaped fields.)

Sumerian medicine

Until quite recently practically nothing was known of Sumerian medicine, although there were hundreds of Akkadian medical texts from the first millennium B.C. utilizing all kinds of Sumerian medical words and phrases.

Even today we have only two Sumerian medical tablets, and one of these is a small piece containing only one prescription. The other, however, is a tablet 3 ¾ X 6 ¾ inches in size, inscribed with fifteen prescriptions, which is of no little importance for the history of medicine. To judge from the careful, large, and elegant script, the tablet was inscribed some time in the last quarter of the third millennium B.C. and contains, therefore, what is by all odds the oldest pharmacopoeia known to man.

Although the tablet was excavated some sixty to seventy years ago, it did not become known to the scholarly world until 1940. Since then several translations of the text, which is replete with linguistic difficulties because of the technical phraseology, have been published, the last and most trustworthy being that prepared by Miguel Civil, then research associate in the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.

The Sumerian-Mathematical Text from Fara
FIG. 2. Mathematical Text from Fara (after A. Deimel, “Schultexte am Fara,” No. 82)

The document contains 145 lines, or rather, cases. The first 21 lines are so badly damaged that it is impossible to get a clear idea of the contents. A priori, and on analogy with the cuneiform medical documents of the first millennium B.C., it was hoped that they might contain a statement such as “if a man suffers from,” followed by the name of this or that illness. But the relatively few signs and phrases that are preserved, such as “root of a . . . . plant” (cases 1 and 2), “head of …. ” (cases 3 and 5), “wool” (cases 9 and 10), and “salt” (case 15), do not point in this direction. The prescriptions themselves, fifteen in all, begin with line 22 (near the bottom of the first column of the tablet). They may be divided into three classes in accordance with the manner in which the remedies were applied.

The first class consists of eight prescriptions in which the application is in the form of a poultice. In general their content runs as follows: first a list of the simples to be utilized in each prescription; then the direction to pulverize them and mix them with a liquid in order to form a paste which is to be fastened as a poultice to the sick part of the body after the latter has been rubbed with oil, an action performed either for its intrinsic therapeutic value or to keep the paste from clinging to the skin. Here are literal translations of the last five of these poultice prescriptions (the first three are too fragmentary for translation).

Prescription No.4. Pulverize the anadishsha-plant, the branches of the “thom”-plant (probably the Prosopis stephaniana), the seeds of the duashbur (perhaps the Atriplex halimus L.), (and) . . . . (names of at least two simples destroyed); …. pour water-diluted beer over it (the mass of pulverized simples); rub (the sick spot) with vegetable oil, (and) fasten (the paste formed by pouring the liquid over the pulverized simples) as a poultice.

Prescription No.5. Pulverize river mud (and) …. ; knead it with water; rub with crude oil, (and) fasten as a poultice.

Prescription No.6. Pulverize pears (?) (and) “manna,” pour the lees of beer over it; rub with vegetable oil, (and) fasten as a poultice.

Prescription No.7. Pulverize the lees of the dried vine, pine tree, and plum tree; pour beer over it, rub with oil, (and) fasten as a poultice.

Prescription No.8. Pulverize the roots of the … -tree, …. , and dried river bitumen; pour beer over it; rub with oil, (and) fasten as a poultice.

The second group of prescriptions, three in number, consists of remedies which are to be taken internally. The first is somewhat complicated and involves the use of beer and river bitumen oil: Prescription No.9. Pour strong beer over the resin of …. -plant; heat over a fire; put this liquid in river bitumen oil, (and) let the (sick) man drink. In the remaining two, the process is identical; the instructions are to pulverize two or three simples and dissolve them in beer for the sick man to drink: Prescription No. 10.

Pulverize pears (?) ( and) the roots of the “manna”-plant; put (the pulverized simples) in beer, (and) let the (sick) man drink. Prescription No. 11. Pulverize the seeds of the nignagar-vegetable, myrrh (?), (and) thyme; put in beer, (and) let the (sick) man drink. The third set of prescriptions is introduced by a difficult and enigmatic passage which reads: “Arrange (?) the rushes over the hands and feet of the (sick) man.” It is by no means clear at present what this operation refers to and why it was placed at this particular point. In spite of its obscurity, the line is of para-mount importance since it gives at least an inkling of the ailing parts of the body to be treated. The prescriptions themselves follow this introductory statement.

They are four in number, and their components are more complex and less homogeneous than those of the preceding eleven. In the first three, the operations prescribed consist primarily of washing the ailing organ with a specially prepared solution and then immediately covering (?) it with a substance which, in two cases, seems to be burnt ashes. The fourth and last prescription, whose initial lines are destroyed, seems to contain only the names of a series of simples followed immediately by the covering (?) operation, and it is not impossible, therefore, that the writer had inadvertently omitted at least one intervening operation.

Following is a translation of the last four prescriptions: Prescription No. 12. Sift and knead together-all in one-turtle shell, the sprouting (?) nagaplant (a plant used to obtain soda and other alkalies), salt, (and) mustard; wash (the sick spot) with quality beer ( and) hot water; scrub (the sick spot) with all of it (the kneaded mixture); after scrubbing, rub with vegetable oil (and) cover (?) with pulverized fir. Prescription No. 13.

Pour water over a dried and pulverized water snake, the amamashumkaspal-plant, the roots of the “thom”-plant, pulverized naga, powdered fir turpentine, ( and) the feces of the garib (?) -bat; heat (the infusion), (and) wash (the sick spot) with this liquid; after washing with the liquid, rub with vegetable oil (and) cover with shaki. Prescription No. 14.

Pour water over the dried (and) pulverized hair of the inner lining (?) of a cow, branches of the “thorn” -plant, the “star” -plant, the roots of the “sea” .tree, dried figs, (and) ib-salt; heat ( and) wash with this liquid; after washing with the liquid, cover (?) with the ashes (?) of rushes. Prescription No. 15 ….. (a number of signs destroyed) which you have extracted from the willow, the dregs (?) of the girbivase, the lees of wine, the nigmiplant, the arina-plant-roots and trunk-(and) cover (?) with ashes (?). As our document shows, the Sumerian phYSician, not unlike his modem counterpart, went to botanical, zoological, and mineralogical sources for his materia medica. His favorite minerals were sodium chloride (salt), river bitumen, and crude oil.

From the animal kingdom he utilized wool, milk, turtle shell, and water snake. But most of his medicinals came from the botanical world, from plants such as thyme, mustard, plum tree, pears, figs, willow, Atriplex halimus L., Prosopts stephaniana, “manna”-plant, fir, and pine, and from processed products such as beer, wine, and vegetable oil. Our ancient document, it is well worth noting, is entirely free from the magic spells and incantations which are a regular feature of the cuneiform medical texts of later days; not a Single deity or demon is mentioned in the text. The physician who wrote this document, therefore, seems to have practiced his medicine along empiricorational lines. To be sure, it is hardly likely that he resorted to consciously planned experimentation and verification. Nevertheless, it would seem reasonable to assume that the treatments he prescribed had considerable therapeutic value, since his professional reputation was at stake, and it is not inconceivable that they might prove of some practical value to modem medical research.

Sad to say, our ancient phannacopoeia does not provide us with any clear idea of the diseases or maladies for which the prescriptions are intended. The introduction preceding the prescriptions, which takes up most of the first column of the tablet, is badly damaged; in any case, to judge from the few preserved signs, it did not contain names of diseases. In the badly broken first prescription we find the Sumerian words for ”back” and ”buttocks,” but in a fragmentary, unintelligible passage. Introducing the third set of prescriptions is a passage mentioning hands and feet, but in this case, too, the context is obscure and enigmatic. We do not even know whether each prescription was intended for a specific malady or whether several were intended for the same malady.

It is not impossible, however, that these details, and many others, were explained orally to the reader of the tablet, which brings us to the purpose of the document and the motives which prompted its compilation and inscription. The ancient physician who prepared our pharmacopoeia, it is worth stressing, was not just a narrow practitioner of his profession but an educated and cultured humanist. To learn to write correctly and elegantly the complex cuneifonn syllabary, with its hundreds of signs and thousands of readings, he had to spend much of his youth in the Sumerian school, or edubba, where he studied and absorbed whatever scientific and literary knowledge was current in his day.

The “textbooks” consisted primarily of compilations of words, phrases, paragraphs, extracts, and whole compositions prepared by the ummia’s, or professors, of the academy, which the student had to copy and recopy until he knew them by heart. These compilations, which were concise, terse, and unadorned, were no doubt accompanied by oral explanations, or lectures.

Our ancient phannacopoeia may well have been a compilation of this sort prepared by a practicing physician who was a ‘1ecturer” on medicine in the academy. If this supposition should prove to be correct, our Sumerian document could not inaptly be described as a page from the oldest known textbook in the history of medicine.

The content of the second medical tablet was published as early as 1935, but was treated as a business document and remained unrecognized until 1960, when Michel Civil, as a result of his work on the larger tablet discussed above, identified it and translated it as follows: Having crushed turtle shell and … , and having anointed the opening (of the sick organ, perhaps) with oil, you shall rub (with the crushed shell) the man lying prone (?). Mter rubbing with the crushed shell you shall rub (again) with fine beer; after rubbing with fine beer. you shall wash with water; after washing with water, you shall fill (the sick spot) with crushed fir wood. It is (a prescription) for someone afflicted by a disease in the tun and the nu. The tun and the nu are probably two still unidentified parts of the sexual organs, and the treatment may therefore have been intended for some type of venereal disease.

As the reader will note, the treatment described in this tablet is very similar to Prescription No. 12 in the larger medical document discussed above. The medical doctor is known in Sumerian as the a-zu, the literal translation of which may be the “waterknower.” The first physician on record is a practitioner named Lulu; the words “Lulu, the doctor” are found on a tablet excavated at Ur by the late Sir Leonard Woolley, which dates from as early as about 2700 B.C. The doctor must have had a relatively high social status to judge from the fact that one of the Lagash physicians by the name of Urlugaledinna, whose cylinder seal and stone votive inscription have been preserved, held an important position under Ur-Ningirsu, the son of Gudea. There were also veterinarians known as “the doctor of the oxen” or “the doctor of the donkeys”; but they are only mentioned in the lexical texts, and nothing else is known about them as yet from Sumerian times.

the Sumerians Art

In the field of art, the Sumerians were particularly noted for their skill in sculpture. The earliest sculptors tended to be abstract and impressionistic. Their temple statues show great emotional and spiritual intensity rather than skill in modeling. This came gradually, however, and the later sculptors were technically superior, although their images lost in inspiration and vigor. Sumerian sculptors were quite skillful in carving figures on steles and plaques and even on vases and bowls.

It is from this sculpture that we learn a good deal about Sumerian appearance and dress. The men either were clean shaven or wore long beards and long hair parted in the middle. The most common form of dress was a kind of flounced skirt, over which long cloaks of felt were sometimes worn. Later the chiton, or long skirt, took the place of the flounced skirt. Covering the skirt was a big fringed shawl, which was carried over the left shoulder, leaving the right arm free. Women often wore dresses which looked like long tufted shawls, covering them from head to foot and leaving only the right shoulder bare. Their hair was usually parted in the middle and braided into a heavy pigtail, which was then wound around the head.

They often wore elaborate headdresses consisting of hair ribbons, beads, and pendants. Music, both instrumental and vocal, played a large role in Sumerian life, and some of the musicians were important figures in the temples and court. Beautifully constructed harps and lyres were excavated in the royal tombs of Ur. Percussive instruments, such as the drum and tambourine, were also common, as were pipes of reed and metal. Poetry and song flourished in the Sumerian schools. Most of the recovered works are hymns to gods and kings for use in the temple and palace; but there is every reason to believe that music, song, and dance were a major source of entertainment in the home and market place.

One of the most original contributions of the Sumerians to the arts was the cylinder seal, a small cylinder of stone engraved with a design that became clear and meaningful when rolled over a clay tablet or the clay sealing of a jar. The cylinder seal became a sort of Mesopotamian trade-mark, although its use penetrated Anatolia, Egypt, Cyprus, and Greece.

The Sumerian artists were highly ingenious in devising suitable designs, especially when the seal was first invented. The earliest cylinder seals are carefully incised gems depicting rows of animals or fairy-tale creatures and monsters and such scenes as the king on the battlefield and the shepherd defending his cattle against wild beasts. Later the de-signs became more decorative and formalized. Finally one design became predominant, almost to the exclusion of all others: the presentation scene in which a worshipper is presented to a god by his “good angel.”

In spite of the fact that Sumer was destitute of metal and stone and poor in timber, the craftsmen of Sumer were among the most highly skilled in the ancient world, although it is not improbable that, at least originally, many of them came from foreign parts to practice their skills in connection with the construction of temples. We get a rather vivid and illuminating glimpse of the Sumerian artisans and craftsmen at work from a large tablet excavated at Ur by Leonard Woolley, in which two supervisors of the temple workshops, or ateliers, give a resume of the work completed during the twelfth year of the reign of Ibbi-Sin, who ruled about 1975 B.C. Eight ateliers are listed in this tablet: the “houses” of the “chisel-worker,” or sculptor, the jeweler, the lapidary, the carpenter, the smith, the leatherworker, the fuller, and the basket maker. First in the list is the chisel-worker, whose job was to sculpt the figurines and other small objects of ivory and rare wood.

In the year with which we are concerned, twenty-one pounds of ivory were worked into such objects as figurines, both male and female, small birds, boxes, and rings. The jeweler worked largely in gold and silver, although he also set semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli, carnelian, and topaz. He did excellent foundry work with three and four-piece molds, and hammered metal sheets over a wooden core, finishing them with repousse or stamping. He knew how to fasten pieces of gold and silver with pins or rivets as well as by soldering and was expert in making use of filigree work and granulation.

The lapidaries-in our tablet-worked only on semiprecious stones for the jeweler, but they could also, no doubt, prepare stones for building. Carpenters were always quite numerous in Sumer, for in spite of the dearth of wood, it was utilized on a large scale for making all kinds of furniture as well as boats, wagons, and chariots. In the atelier recorded in our tablet, the carpenters built a dais of ivory weighing no less than forty pounds, not to mention objects made of oak, fir, ebony, and willow. Other woods used by the carpenter, not mentioned in our tablet, are cedar, mulberry, tamarisk, and plane. The most common tree found in Sumer, the palm, was little used by the carpenters since its wood is of poor quality.

Tools, Implements, and Vehicles as Represented in the Early Pictographs
FIG. 3. Tools, Implements, and Vehicles as Represented in the Early Pictographs.

To make up to some extent for the difficulty of obtaining wood, old furniture was constantly reused. Thus in the atelier described in the Ibbi-Sin tablet, three old table tops and four fir boxes were reused to make one table, two beds, and one small box. In the year recorded on the tablet, the carpenters mainly made chairs of various types, tables, beds, and boxes. Among the tools used by the Sumerian carpenter were the saw, chisel, hammer, and drill bit.

Metals used by Sumerians artists

The list of metals used in the foundry of the smith recorded in our tablet includes almost all those known at the time: gold, silver, tin, lead, copper, bronze, and a metal called sugan (perhaps antimony) utilized in small quantities as an alloy. Copperworking was highly developed as early as the beginning of the third millennium B.C.; not only was copper casting well known, but also such other techniques as hammering, annealing, filigree, and granulation. The smith, or metallurgist, had at his disposal a special type of bellows which could be worked by hand or foot to raise the temperature of his furnace to a degree of heat that would melt copper. Wood and reeds were used as kindling, and it took two pounds of wood and three “reed bundles” -or six reed bundles if no wood was used-to melt half a pound of copper.

The more common products made of copper and bronze were tools such as hoes, axes, chisels, knives, and saws; arms such as lance points and arrowheads, swords, daggers, and harpoons; vessels and containers; nails, pins, rings, and mirrors. The leatherworker in our tablet received during the year a large number of skins of bulls, calves, pigs, and especially sheep. From the skin and leather quite a number of objects were manu-factured: water-skins, bags, harnesses and saddles, tires for chariot wheels, slings, and above all, shoes and sandals. For tanning purposes, the leatherworker utilized alkalies, sumac, and other still unidentifiable substances. Fat was used to make the skins supple and impermeable.

The leatherworker mentioned in our Ur tablet made use of Hour to finish off certain special skins and also “powder of gold” to decorate some of the manufactured pieces. The fuller of our tablet seems to have had only a small shop, and little is said about him. The last of the artisans is the basket maker. He received quantities of reeds, a very important commodity in Sumer, and bitumen in order to manufacture baskets and boats. The textile industry, not mentioned in our Ur tablet, was prob-ably the largest in the land and the most important from the point of view of commerce.

Many thousands of tons of wool were worked annually in Ur alone. Tremendous flocks of goats, sheep, and lambs were raised to obtain wool. The “shearing” was done by plucking. A spindle was used to spin the wool, and the weaving was done on both horizontal and vertical looms; usually, these two operations were performed by a team of three women, who would take as many as eight days to prepare a piece of material 3~ X 4 meters. The woven cloth was then turned over to the fullers, who soaked it in an alkaline solution in large vats and then trampled it by walking over it with their feet.

Although wool was by all odds the most common textile used for cloth, flax was also cultivated, and linen garments seem to have been used especially by certain priests and holy men. Materials and goods were transported in Sumer by man and beast or with the help of such implements as sledges, wagons, chariots, and boats. The sledges were probably used especially to carry very heavy loads, such as large blocks of rocks. The wagons were both four-wheeled and two-wheeled and were usually drawn by oxen.

The chariots were rather heavy, small in size, and drawn by onagers. Transportation by boat was quite feasible and economical, and one boat of a little over five register tons could haul as heavy a load as a hundred minas. There were also very large boats constructed of wood in speCial shipyards, and these were no doubt used for long sea voyages to such lands as Meluhha and Dilmun. The common boat in use was the one known today in Iraq as the guffa and in ancient times as “the turnip”; it was made of reeds, covered with skin, and shaped like a basket. The sailboat, too, was probably known in ancient Sumer, to judge from the model of a boat found in Eridu. Oars and punting poles were in common use from earliest times. Along the river banks, however, the boats were often pulled by men or oxen. Some of the more far-reaching technological achievements of the Sumerians were connected with irrigation and agriculture.

The construction of an intricate system of canals, dikes, weirs, and reservoirs demanded no little engineering skill and knowl-edge. Surveys and plans had to be prepared which involved the use of leveling instruments, measuring rods, drawing, and map-ping. Farming, too, had become a methodical and complicated technique requiring foresight, diligence, and skill. It is not sur-prising, therefore, to find that the Sumerian pedagogues had com-piled a “farmers’ almanac” that consisted of a series of instructions to guide a farmer throughout his yearly agricultural activities begiIlning with the inundation of the fields in May-June and ending with the winnowing and cleaning of the freshly harvested crop in the following April-May.

The text of this document, which consists of 107 lines of instructions preceded by a one-line introoduction and followed by a three-line colophon, has been pieced together from more than a dozen tablets and fragments, of which one of the most important is a still unpublished piece excavated at Ur by the late Leonard Woolley more than a quarter-century ago. This fragment has now been copied by C. J. Cadd, formerly a Keeper in the British Museum and now professor emeritus of the University of London, who has generously made it available for the better restoration of the text as a whole.

The translation of the text is quite difficult and hazardous, in particular because of its technical terminology, and the present effort (which is given in Appendix I) is to be taken as tentative and provisional; it was prepared in collaboration with Thorkild Jacobsen and Benno Landsberger of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chi-cago, and Miguel Civil, then of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.

An extensive paraphrase of the text follows. Our farm manual is introduced with the following line: “In days of yore a farmer instructed his son.” The directions which follow concern all the more important chores and labors that a farmer must perform to ensure a successful crop. Since irrigation was the prime essential for Sumer’s parched soil, our ancient mentor begins by advising that care must be taken that the in-undating waters do not rise too high over the field. When the waters subside, shod oxen are to be let loose to trample the wet ground, thus stamping out the weeds and leveling the surface of the field, which must then be dressed with small, light axes until it is even.

Since the hoofs of the oxen have left their mark on the still wet ground, men with pickaxes must go all around the field and smooth it out, and the crevices made by the oxen must be worked over with a drag. While the field is drying, the farmer is counseled to have his household prepare the essential tools; particular stress is laid on whips, goads, and other “disciplinary” instruments which serve to keep both laborers and beasts working strenuously and con-stantly. He is also advised to have an extra ox for the plow since this will payoff well in the long run-he will succeed in planting the rather large amount of three gur over one bur of ground.

Before actually beginning to till the ground, the farmer is told to have it thoroughly plowed up twice with two different deep-soil plows (the shukin-and bardil-plows), then harrowed and raked three times, and finally pulverized with hammers. During the performance of these labors, the farmer is urged to keep the workers under constant surveillance so that they may not slacken their efforts for one instant.

On the other hand, he himself must show self-discipline and not demand from them the usual at-tendance upon his person. The actual plOWing and sowing can now begin; the two opera-tions are carried on simultaneously by means of a seeder, that is, a plow with an attachment that carries the seed from a container through a narrow funnel down to the furrow. The farmer is instructed to plow eight furrows to each garush (a strip between six and seven meters long).

He must see to it that the seed is placed at an even depth of two “fingers.” If the seed fails to penetrate properly, he must change the share, “the tongue of the plow.” There were several kinds of furrows, according to our ancient expert, but except where he talks of straight and diagonal furrows, the text is rather obscure on this point.

Following the planting of the furrows, the field had to be cleared of all clods and ground elevations and depressions had to be leveled off so that the sprouting of the barley would not be impeded in any way. “After the sprout had broken through the (surface of) the ground,” the handbook continues, the farmer should say a prayer to Ninkilim, the goddess of field mice and vermin, lest they harm the growing grain; he should also scare off the Hying birds. When the barley has grown suffiCiently to fill the narrow bottoms of the furrows, it is time to water it; and when it “stands high as (the straw of) a mat in the middle of a boat,” it is time to water it a second time.

Sumerian Measures and Their Equivalents
FIG. 4. Sumerian Measures and Their Equivalents (translations are given when known).

He is to water it a third time when it is “royar’ barley, that is, when it has reached its full height. Should he then notice a reddening of the wet grain, it is the dread samana-dis-ease, which endangers the crops. If the barley is doing well, how-ever, he is to water it a fourth time and thus obtain an extra yield of 10 per cent. The time has now come for harvesting. The fanner is cautioned not to wait until the barley bends under its own weight but to cut it “in the day of its strength,” that is, at just the right moment.

Three men are to work as a team on the standing stalks of barley: a reaper, a binder, and a man who arranges the sheaves. There then follows a passage which, if correctly translated, is of no little ethical and Biblical significance: it exhorts the fanner to leave on the ground some of the fallen ears of barley for the “young” and the “gleaners”, a charita-ble deed for which his god will show him lasting favor. The threshing, which follows immediately upon the harvesting, is done in two stages. First, the mounds of barley are trampled down by wagons drawn back and forth over them for five con-secutive days. Then a thresHing sled, consisting of beams with teeth fastened with leather strips and held secure by bitumen, is used to “open the barley.” Here follows another Biblical parallel, an exhortation that the oxen should be fed to satiety during the threshing when their mouths are watering, as it were, for the tempting, fresh-smelling barley.

The time has now come for winnowing, which is to be performed by two “barley lifters.” From here on, the text is not al-together clear, but we can gather that the winnowing process consisted of lifting the “dirty” mixture of barley and chaff as it came off the threshing Hoor on forks or shovels, thus freeing the barley from the straw and husks which, in a sense, contaminated it. The document closes with a three-line statement intended to impress the reader and student with the claim that the instructions which the farmer has given to his son are actually those of the god Ninurta, who, according to the Sumerian theologians, was the “trustworthy fanner of Enlil,” the leading deity of the Sumerian pantheon. The author of this unique agricultural document, in spite of its introductory lines, was not a fanner; fanners were probably illiterate and in any case would hardly have had the time or the desire to prepare an agricultural manual.

It was undoubtedly composed by one of the professors, or ummia’s, of the Sumerian school, the edubba-his literary mannerisms are evident in not a few of its passages. The purpose of the composition was pedagogic; it was intended to teach the students of the edubba-espeCially the more advanced among them-all about the art and skill of successful fanning. This is proved by the fact that the composition has been found inscribed on numerous duplicates and extracts, and needless to say, many more are probably still lying buried in the ruins of Sumer. We may conclude, therefore, that it was quite popular with both professor and student, and no wonder, since it probably helped the graduate of the edubba to get a good job and hold it, as we can see from a hitherto practically unknown essay which may be entitled “Colloquy between an ugula and a Scribe,” which shows the edubba-graduate in the role of a successful and articulate manager of a large estate. The cereals raised by the Sumerians were barley-by all odds the most important-wheat, millet, and emmer.

Quite a number of vegetables were grown, including chick-peas, lentils, vetches, onions, garlic, lettuce, turnips, cress, leeks, mustard, and various kinds of cucumbers. The use of a belt of trees to protect the garden from the withering sun and desiccating winds was known to the Sumerians and was even made into a mythical theme (see pages 162-64). The most extensively used tool for gardening was the hoe, and there was a special type of harrow known as the « d h ” gar en arrow. The tree that played a predominant role in Sumerian economic life was the date palm, from which a sweet substance known as wI, or «honey,” was extracted. Artificial fertilization of the female palm was known and practiced in Sumerian times. And from the early second millennium B.C., there are Sumerian lexicographical lists containing close to one hundred fifty words for the various kinds of palms and their different parts. Animal husbandry, like agriculture, was fundamental to the Sumerian economy-it was the source of transportation, food, and clothing.

The animal commonly used for transportation was the donkey; the horse was apparently known in late Sumerian days but was never used extensively. The most useful of the domesticated animals was undoubtedly the ox, the only draft animal that was more or less properly harnessed in those early days. It was used for plowing, pulling carts and sledges, and carrying heavy loads. Bulls, cows, and calves were invaluable for their meat and skin. Some two hundred Sumerian words designating the various types and varieties of sheep have come down to us, although most of them cannot be identified as yet. From the economic point of view, the most important-in addition to the ordinary ones-were the fattened sheep, the fat-tailed sheep, and the mountain sheep, probably the mouflon.

Goats and kids were also plentiful, and goat hair was used extensively for weaving carpets and large cratelike containers. Pigs were used for their fat and skin as well as their meat-pork was looked on with favor by the Sumerians-and there was a special swineherd as well as a swine butcher in charge of slaughtering and preparing the meat. Animal husbandry was supplemented by hunting, and there are texts recording the deliveries of deer, wild boars, and gazelles.

There was also the fowler, who caught birds with a whole arsenal of nets, and there are recorded deliveries of as many as fifty-four roasted birds. Fishing, too, was a very important food-producing industry, although to a much greater extent in earlier than in later Sumerian times to judge from the fact that over fifty different types of fish are mentioned in texts dating earlier than 2300 B.C. and only half a dozen or so after that. The net was the implement most commonly used for catching fish, although traps and fishing lines are also mentioned. The most popular beverage among the Sumerians was beer, the drink that rejoiced the “hearts” and “lives” of both gods and men, not to mention its medicinal value.

The brewing techniques are still rather obscure, and what is known has been admirably treated by Leo oppenheim in his monograph “On Beer and Brewing Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia.”s The preparation of beer was closely related to the fabrication of cereal cakes from sprouted barley; it was this malting that gave a greater nutritional value to the grain that now had a large content of carbohydrates and protein.

There was a special goddess in charge of beer preparation called Ninkasi, a name which seems to mean literally «the lady who fills the mouth.” Although she was a goddess «born in sparkling-fresh water,” it was beer that was her first love; and she is described in a hymn of glorification addressed to her by one of the devotees of the Inanna cult as the brewer of the gods who “bakes with lofty shovel the sprouted barley,” who «mixes the bappir-malt with sweet aromatics,” who «bakes the bappir-malt in the lofty kiln,” and who «pours the fragrant beer in the lahtan-vessel which is like the Tigris and Euphrates jOined.” It is evident then that even beer had its divine and sublime qualities for the Sumerian poets and sages.


  1. Diakanoff, Sumer: Society and State in Ancient M esnpotamia (Moscow, 1959; in Russian with English resume).
  2. Journal of World History, IV (1957),246-47.
  3. Revue d’Assyriologie, LIV (1960),59-72. See also Ciba Journal, No. 12, pp. 1-7.
  4. “Love Finds a Way,” pp. 250-52.
  5. Supplement No. 10 to the TournaI of the American Oriental Society (1950).

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