Thursday, 2 December 2021

The incredible Sumerians Part 2 : The First Cities and the time of the Great Flood

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The Incredible Sumerians, part 2 

The Uruk Period, the first cities, and the Great Flood

The second period of Sumerian history is called the Uruk Period  (4100–2900 BC) and is marked by the emergence of the world’s first cities.

Part A

Characteristics of a ‘City’ and ‘Civilisation’

The term ‘civilisation’ simply comes from the Roman word for city, but even in Roman times 'being ‘civil’ acquired a value judgment (of being a good Roman citizen). 

Restored Ziggurat of Ur

In sixteenth century France (in a world on the edge of the Age of Enlightenment) ‘being civilised’ acquired other value judgments : indicating sophistication, good manners, rationality, enlightenment and ‘superior’ behaviour (as contrasted with a more ‘primitive' society).

This can cause some confusion, but remember, for the noun (especially in Archaeology, anthropology and related disciplines) pare back the value judgments. It simply refers to a culture that has built cities.

It may not sound dramatic as the more nuanced adverb, but cities and urbanisation are a quantum leap forward in social organisation.

But what defines a city (in the ancient world) rather than a large agricultural community?

Childe, in the 1936 book (and later) defined a list of characteristics which included size and population density, sophistication, specialised workforce, taxation, monumental building, ruling class, symbolic representation, science, sophistication and organisation beyond kinship.

Characteristics of Urbanisation

To simplify somewhat: a city (urbanisation) is characterised by a large specialised central settlement inside of which much of populace is not directly involved in producing food.

It requires and is characterised by several things:

A significant, available, food surplus.

Each city has to be closely connected to agricultural towns, farms, fishing villages and herding camps that supply food and other resources to the city, in exchange for finished goods and services. 

Sumer, at its height, was the most agriculturally productive region in the world, serviced by complex irrigation and transport canals and it supported previously unheard of population density.

Stratified society.

In the city there is a full-time bureaucracy, military, a stratified society and complex industry. The specialisation allows economies of scale and more rapid advances in knowledge.


Transport aids the free flow of goods and services. Sumer was well serviced by canal transport. Uruk had such an extensive network of canals it has been called the ‘Venice in the desert’.

Since the Ubaid times Sumerians had oxen carts. The donkey was a very welcome addition, arriving in the middle of Uruk period.

 Currency and sophisticated trade.

Sophisticated trade cannot occur without some form of currency

From Palaeolithic times humankind have used commodities as the first currencies.

This is sometimes confused with barter but here, individuals (who are not traders) accept a well recognised commodity which has an understood value as a means of exchange. And they are prepared to do so in quantities beyond what they need for personal consumption.

In various cultures and times cattle or other livestock have become the currency for a (noblewoman’s) bride price, or to build a defensive tower. Flint, obsidian, metal, beads, shell -jewellery, axe heads, salt and rum have all been used at various times throughout human history.

Metal had to be imported into Sumer and didn’t come into its own until a later period. The predominant commodity used during the Uruk era for large purchases was grain.

Other commodities were used for smaller purchases. (In a later period, there is even the record of payment to a labourer in beer.)

Records and accounting

How can grain be used as a currency? Did the Sumerians carry bushels of grain around to pay labourers? Then, what did they do with them? No, the answer (at least for significant purchases) was the token system.

Tokens arose during the very beginning of the Neolithic period, paralleling the cultivation of grain and communal storage. If a landowner was to deposit his surplus of grain in a community warehouse, he would definitely want some record of what was his! The first examples in Northern Mesopotamia date back to 9,000 BC.

Stamp seals (carved in stone to be pressed into wet clay) were invented soon after, as a type of official signature and this technology arrived in Sumer with the first Neolithic farmers. 

During the Uruk period (5 millennia later) tokens and seals continued to evolve into a complex accounting system. There was never any need to lug bulk grain or other commodities around. Any large transfer of ownership was achieved by the token system, a bit like transfers recorded within a bank, but in this case it was administered through the community storehouse.

The centre of the community at that time was the temple. The leader of each city-state and its surrounding lands and towns was a king/priest. Priests and their acolytes were not only responsible for religion and holy ceremonies they were in charge of  higher learning, taxation, records, administration and running the communal granary.

Clay tablets and increasing use of symbols

Over time, different tokens were used until they covered something like sixteen important commodities. 

Tokens to aid calculations were also introduced . A small cone denoted 1, a ball was 10, and a large clay cone was 60.

Special round clay containers (bulla) were designed (like a lock box at a bank) to preserve a collection of tokens held inside. They could only be opened once (to prevent tampering). As these containers had a record of the contents and personal seals on the outside, it led to simple clay tablets being used instead for simpler records.

To improve security and to show the status of prominent dignitaries, , cylindrical seals were invented in place of simpler stamp seals. These were definitely a work of art. They were only an inch high but elaborately carved so they could be rolled onto wet clay to form an especially impressive signature.

Soon after, the Sumerians invented symbolic representation of numbers (with the main base 60) to further  assist with accounting and their solar calendar.

The whole system was becoming too cumbersome as society and trade became more complex.  

The world’s first form of writing

The need for Sumerians to represent more complex concepts led to the world's first true form of writing, pictorial writing around 3500 B.C .

Pictographs (picture words, and petroglyphs) in simpler forms date to Palaeolithic times.

This first form of Sumerian writing seemed to grow out of the token system and was logographic (each symbol represented a word (or morpheme).

Sometimes a ‘determinative’ was added (a symbol which specified semantic class) which meant the same symbol could be used for a range of items or concepts.

Drawing curves on clay is difficult, and the Sumerians soon began experimented with a range of writing systems (often concurrently and often combined).

As Sumerian writing predated Egyptian writing and the Egyptians did not show this phase of experimentation, it is generally accepted that it was the Sumerian writing that inspired Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Cuneiform, one of the world’s great writing systems

‘Cuneiform’ writing emerged around 3400 BC.  

Its name means ‘wedge shaped’ and it involved a wedge shaped stylus, elimination of curves and the use of highly stylised symbols. The writing also became from left to right (not top to bottom).

Cuneiform writing became amongst the greatest writing systems in antiquity. It lasted through to 100 AD. with many adaptations and was eventually used for writing fifteen languages.

Why was cuneiform so successful, apart from its specific adaptation to clay tablets? 

It was phonetic, or at least partly so.

Sumerian was mostly monosyllabic. If you ignore the accents, a lot of words are spelt the same way (they are homonyms). So the Sumerian šu (“hand”) could stand in for a lot of similar sounding words.

Also (in keeping with pictographs) a symbol could stand in for a series of related but different-sounding words “sun,” “day,” “bright” further reducing the number of symbols needed.

Semantic ‘determinatives’ continued to be used to keep the number of symbols within reasonable bounds, and pictographs continued to be used for names.

Contract for the sale of a field and a house
But the great problem for cuneiform writing is its complexity. There was eventually 700 different symbols and their shape and meaning could vary over time and place. 

It was finally displaced by alphabets (or at least what we call ‘abjads’ the consonant-only 'alphabets' like Phoenician writing).

These ‘alphabets’ were first invented by a group of Semitic workers and traders  living in Egyptian occupied lands of the Sinai and south Canaan around 2,000 BC. Vowels were added later to reduce ambiguities.

Alphabets were originally designed for writing on papyrus and parchment (with ink). When they are carved (e.g. wood or stone) with ancient technology, the characters have to have a more angular shape (which incidentally is one of the reasons runes were developed around 150 AD) .

Papyrus was easier to use than clay tablets but perhaps almost as important alphabets were so much simpler to learn and use.

There were attempts to simplify cuneiform writing. The best was by the clever Persians during the Achaemenid Empire (550 BC–330 BC). They used a cuneiform alphabet with 36 phonetic characters (including vowels) and 8 logograms. But the time for cuneiform writing was over and the Old Persian characters were eventually abandoned.

Even though writing emerged in the late Uruk period, we have scant written records from this time. The whole period is sometimes called the ‘proto-literary’ period because it was characterised more by the increasing use of symbols that led to the emergence of writing.

Tokens would become almost obsolete and contracts, vouchers, payrolls, accounts and private ownership was all recorded on clay tablets. Some of these were intended as temporary records, but there are something like tens of thousands of Sumerian and other tablets in the back rooms of museums around the world, some not yet not fully translated.

First urbanisation

Most will accept that world's first urbanisation was achieved early in the Uruk period (4100–2900 BC). 

For reasons already explained, archaeology is difficult in Sumer. Wood and stone were in short supply and most construction was mudbrick. There was a tendency to recycle and build on top of older layers. The oldest ruins ended up deep under layers of silt and overlain by more recent, but still important, archaeological remains.

But wasn’t there cities in the Neolithic period?

Some people have been tempted to claim Neolithic settlements as the world’s first cities. One example is Çatalhöyük in Turkey, but it never achieved urbanisation.



Jericho has also been suggested as the world’s first city or 'the world's oldest continually occupied settlement'. Unfortunately it is neither.

It is an impressive settlement dating back to the dawn of the Neolithic period but did not reach urbanisation until the early Bronze Age (maybe by 2600 BC.) when the Eastern Mediterranean coast and surrounding lands were coming into their own.

Jericho has often been abandoned, and so fails the test for the world’s longest continuously occupied settlement.

For instance, it was completely destroyed maybe in the 17th or 16th centuries BC. 

Likely this was by the Egyptians. 

Ahmose I defeated the Canaanite ‘Hyksos’ (foreign rulers of northern Egypt) around 1550 BC. and then campaigned as far as Byblos in Lebanon. A reasonable assumption is that he expelled many Canaanites from Egypt (or they fled before his armies), perhaps inspiring the Biblical story of the Exodus.

A small unwalled settlement was rebuilt there in the 15th century BC but it was soon abandoned and Jericho is said to have been empty till the 10th/9th centuries BC. despite claims that the Israelites under Joshua sacked it (probably in the mid-late 13th century BC).

Was Eridu the world’s first city, then?

In Sumerian tradition the old port city of  Eridu was Sumer’s (and hence the world’s) first city.

It was certainly one of the oldest Sumerian settlement of any substance, being established by famer-settlers in 5,400 BC and was a major settlement in the Ubaid period.

It was very well favoured, being well suited for irrigation and was by the sea for food and trading, handy to marshes and herding. Unfortunately the sea marched (a considerable distance) south under the influence of silting, falling sea levels in the first thousand years and the shallow fall of the land. The low basin where it was situated was especially prone to flooding and Eridu's fortunes fluctuated considerably. It was abandoned at times, but estimates of when this was vary enormously.

One gain from its growing distance to the sea was a massive expansion of the nearby marshes which (during the flood season) formed a giant lake the size of Galilea.

Sumer , with new coast line (Wiki)

Max Mallowan described Eridu as an 'unusually large city' of  ‘not less than 4000 souls’ covering 8-10 ha (20-25 acres) during the Ubaid period. Kate  Fielden said suggested it reached this size  ‘by 2900 BC’.

These estimates are over a thousand years apart ,showing just how murky our knowledge of this period is and how different estimates often contradict each other.

A more important question is, how a settlement of less than 10,000 could be called a ‘city’?

Uruk, the favourite

In Sumerian legends Inanna, the young (but mischievous) patron Goddess of Uruk, challenged her father, Enki, to a drinking competition. While he was drunk, she tricked him into giving her the important  Mes’ (the essence of civilisation) which she took from Eridu to Uruk.

The Mes’s form and characteristics were not specified, though it had some sort of physical form and she was able to put it on display. It was sometimes called a (minor) God in its own right. It included the knowledge, institutions, technology, laws and culture, anything that the Sumerians thought made civilisation possible.

It seems the Sumerians believed the main civilising force had passed from Eridu, the important settlement of Ubaid times to Uruk, the star of the Uruk period.

And impressive, it certainly was for its time, establishing cultural hegemony over a vast region.

White temple and Ziggurat (wiki)

It began around 5,000 BC. and soon absorbed a neighbouring town, resulting in not one but two temple districts. 

From 4000 BC the settlement had a massive ziggurat dedicated to Anu, the sky God. This went through 14 phases of construction, including, in the late Uruk period the erection of a great white temple on top  plastered with gypsum. 

This was 20 metres above the city and would have been able to be seen from a great distance. .

The second temple district,  Eanna (500 metres away) had more modern  temples and monumental buildings. Between the two were busy workshops and residential districts.

Throughout the whole period, which bears its name, Uruk grew rapidly. Unfortunately, the time periods are extremely imprecise but it seems to have reached urbanisation sometime in the early Uruk period. 

By 3700 BC it was said to have reached between 175–250 ac (70–100 ha). After Uruk, but still during this period, the culture of Uruk (and urbanisation) began to spread to other sites.

Uruk eventually managed to expand its sphere of influence as far as Upper Mesopotamia, northern Syria, western Iran and south-eastern Anatolia. The actual mechanism of this ‘Uruk Expansion’ is not fully understood but it seemed to be a combination of military expansion and cultural and trading dominance.  

The greater region and its surrounds was not exactly the one culture, there were regional difference and differences in language in places like Elam and Northern Mesopotamia.

By the end of the period, Uruk had reached 40-50,000 citizens with 80,000-90,000 in its surrounds.

Tell Brak, a little known contender

A team of American and British archaeologists surveying Tel Brak in Syria, believe they have found the world’s first city, and it was in Syria (Upper Mesopotamia) instead.

They published (in 2011) the culmination of over thirty years work and publications.

The original name of the city is  unknown but it was later called Nagar. It was founded during the earlier northern Halaf culture. Situated on a river crossing between Anatolia, the Levant and Sothern Mesopotamia it became an important trading and manufacturing hub absorbing the earlier ‘northern Ubaid’ culture.

During the Ubaid and Uruk period, its growth mirrored that of Sumer and it became the largest city of  Northern Mesopotamian at that time.

In the late Uruk period it had an Uruk enclave and considerable Uruk influence. Interesting this enclave was abandoned and levelled at the end of the Uruk period and the city suffered a significant contraction.

At the start of the Uruk period Tell Brak was already 55 hectares. 

It was bigger the Nineveh, then known as Ninua, not far from Mosul in northern Iraq. It was destined to become famous and the world's largest city by around 700 BC. Back then , it came second at 'only' 40 hectares. 

By the end of the Uruk period 'Brak' had reached 130 hectares, making it a serious contender with Uruk as the world’s first city.

It had a sophisticated temple which was wood panelled inside and a semi-colonnaded façade, the first of its kind. It is called the ‘eye’ temple for the particular alabaster and bone votive figures found inside thought to be representing the local all- seeing Goddess. It had strong walls and the presence of four mass graves suggest periods of warfare.

A similar but smaller city, Hamoukar, to the east was destroyed in around 3500 BC after a siege. The culprits are unknown but most suspect a military expedition from Uruk.  Civilisation had brought the wonderful benefits of siege warfare and the wholesale capturing of the defeated as slaves.

And the winner is?

Sadly due to the problems of excavation in Sumer, it is impossible to decide if the first city was Uruk or Tell Brak, but by the early Uruk period the world’s cities had begun to emerge.

The Sudden Collapse

Around 3100 BC. just when Uruk was at the height of its power, it and the cities of Southern Sumer faced some sort of relatively sudden catastrophe.

Uruk’s influence collapsed, long distance trade in and out of Sumer dwindled to a trickle

The Uruk culture ceased, only to be replaced by the inward looking  Jemdet Nasr Culture (3100 to 2900 BC ) which had been in the north but now showed an influence over the southern cities, even Uruk. 

Settlements became less dense and hand painted pottery emerged, suggesting the end of cheaper mass production.

Exactly what happened politically during this period is unclear but at the start of the next period, the early dynastic period 2900–2350 BC hegemony had already passed to the northern city of Kish which for a time controlled Uruk.

Kish was ruled by Akkadian (Semitic) kings and presumably had at least a strong Akkadian influence, if not a majority Akkadian population.  

Was it an invasion from the north?

Many Archaeologists believe that the fall of Uruk was due to migration of Semitic people into the northern regions but what does ancient DNA studies tell us about this?

It is harder to extract viable DNA from ancient samples in a warm climate, but recent studies show that the ancient natives of the Levant were distinct from the ancient people of Zagros (Iran) and Anatolia (Turkey).

They had connections with people of Arabia and north western Africa but had diverged from them by 13,000 BC or maybe even as early as 22,000 BC . 

The bulk of the DNA for modern day Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanians and Syrians (speakers of Levantine Arabic) come from this group. There has been the addition of other DNA over time (which is not too surprising in such a busy corridor for people movement).

In other words, the ancestors of the ('Levantine') Semitic and related people arose in the Levant in Late Palaeolithic times and were part of the Mesolithic Natufian culture (which began in 13,000 BC). 

It was they who were responsible for the earliest Neolithic culture beginning 10,000 BC. 

By 7,500 BC Neolithic culture had spread decisively across the whole fertile crescent including into what is now Syria, north of Sumer, giving rise to a number of Neolithic and Copper Age settlements and cultures. 

As soon as we have written records for these regions, the people north of Sumer were Semitic. Their languages were Eastern Semitic, which included Akkadian.

It seems most likely they were already there in Mesolithic, Natufian times and if not, they spread out in Neolithic times. So it wasn't they that invaded at the end of the Uruk period, they were already there. 

Climate change

Due to the loss of the ‘Indian’ Monsoon, Arabia had continued to dry out throughout the Uruk period, settlements withdrawing to oases and favourable areas of the coast.

For the rest of the Middle East, the Uruk period was colder and wetter (under the ‘Piora Oscillation’ 3900-3000 BC.)  Some archaeologists postulate the Uruk culture fell due to  a dry spell at the end of this period, causing a rise in salination.

Other invaders from the north?

In the north of the Levant between the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age the West Semitic people had a major genetic influx from the Zagros (Iran) region and the Caucasus.

While we don’t have data from the Syrians from this time, they show a similar genetic influence, so it is seems reasonable that a similar thing was happening to them about the same time.

As long distance trade seems to have been disrupted and Tell Brak and other northern settlements went into serious decline at this time, it was unlikely to be a peaceful process.

We can then postulate a drought affecting Sumer also affected surrounding regions and displaced people from the North and they worsened whatever the 'Urukians' and their northern Semitic neighbours were facing.

The Jemdet Nasr Culture can be traced back into Uruk times. It was the native culture of Northern Sumer  and most prominent in 'back water' settlements which had less influence from the dominant Uruk culture, so whatever disruption these invaders into the north caused, they did not displace the existing natives.

Rise of the Semitic People

The Sumerians (whatever their origin) were facing rising dominance of and competition from the Semitic people.

After all Kish was dominant in the early Dynastic period and Sumer was destined to be conquered by Akkad (which was close to Kish) in 2334 BC.  

The Mediterranean Bronze Age (beginning 3300 BC. ) is synonymous with the rise in power of the Semitic people, especially in the Levant. 

Bronze is not possible without long distance trade, especially by sea. Tin (for bronze) was variously sourced from places like Turkey and eventually Cornwall (2,000 BC).

With increasing sea and land travel, Egypt, the other great producer of grain, was no longer isolated and came into its own. It, like Sumer, became very wealthy but was short of wood and still used reed boats.

The eastern part of the Mediterranean was particularly favourable to sea transport due to the combinations of winds, currents, and general topography. Semitic people of the Levant (ancestors to the Phoenicians and others) had the cedar of Lebanon and other sources of wood.

They also stood across the land routes to and from Egypt and the important ports of the Eastern Med. 

They became the great sea and land traders achieving a dominance that would last millennia, through till the fall of Carthage in 146 BC.

Early in this period, the Southern Canaanites set up trading colonies in Egypt and they briefly conquered (as the Hyksos) the lower Nile (1650-1550 BC).

We can assume Tell Brak was a Semitic city, but it was not the last great city they built in the Levant or to the north of Sumer.

If it was the northern Semitic people who recovered from the catastrophe first, so an invasion from the north couldn't be the main cause of whatever catastrophe Uruk faced. 

It had to be something particularly affecting the south. We need to turn back to the effects of climate change. Drought and salinisation is a definite possibility, but was there something else?

Does the Great Flood Myth refer to a real event?

Climate change sometimes brings a period of climate instability, not just drought, maybe floods.

The Sumerians believed this period ended with the Great Flood.

Of course, the Sumerians were not the only ancient people to have a flood myth,  but it was their version that inspired many of the others including the Dravidians (Indians), the Romans, the Greeks ... and the Flood Myth in the Bible. 

Gustave Dore, Bible Illustration
The early books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, book of Numbers and Deuteronomy) are now thought to be first recorded when many Israelites were held captive in Babylon (from around 598 BC). 

They show multiple examples of Mesopotamian influence.

There are different versions of the Sumerian myth. They all include the tradition that previous Sumerian leaders lived for many centuries. 

The Sumerian ‘Noah’ was called Ziusudra and was the leading priest/king of all of Sumer.

 One later version bears an uncanny resemblance to the Biblical story. In this, the ‘Sumerian Noah’ lands on Mt. Nisir, ( meaning ‘mount of salvation’, where-ever that was) unlike the previous versions where he was washed down to Dilmun (part of nearby Arabia in the Persian Gulf) .   

Most modern archaeologists do not take this idea seriously. Part of the argument is that if the flood was a real event we should have records mentioning it earlier and the earliest version dates to 1600 BC  (Nippur)

Perhaps not.

Most versions of the ‘Sumerian Kings List’ take the flood as the starting point for Kish (some give a list the mythical kings before the flood), so we can push this date back many hundreds of years. It is also suspected that the original ‘SKL’ was written some time during the Akkadian empire (2334 – 2154 BC) but those copies have been lost, so that might get us a little closer.

It also goes without saying that (in this context) absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

After a great catastrophe (at a time when writing was only emerging and possibly followed by a time of cultural weakness in the South) it may not be surprising that we don’t have good records. In fact, this sort of situation is not unique in archaeology. 

One thing we know for sure about Sumer is that we have only recovered a small fraction of what was written, especially from the earliest of times.

Archaeological evidence on the other hand, shows there was not one, but several truly catastrophic floods between 4,000 and 2,000 BC. Some of these affected different parts of Sumer and some happened during the period of writing, and were recorded.

In 1964, Sir Max Mallowan  (eminent archaeologist and husband of Agatha Christie) was amongst several archaeologists who pointed to one apocalyptic flood, around 2900 BC, which fits the end of the Uruk Era.

It also involved a large area in the south, with silt and interrupted settlement at several sites.

If this was the ‘big one’ and the source of the myth, it wasn’t a once in a thousand year flood. It was Armageddon, the end of the world. It was sent by the Gods to eliminate mankind, or at least that’s the way it must have seemed to the people of Sumer.

They were well used to damaging floods, their settlements had massive dykes and flood defences, but they would have been overwhelmed. Crops, livestock, livelihoods, important food stores and infrastructure would have been gone.

They had plenty of reed boats, (canals were the main form of transport after all) but its hard to  know how effective they were in such a massive flood, and the ensuing chaos.

Following the fall of the Southern cities of Sumer, it was the Northern (Semitic) cities like Kish, Jemdet Nasr and Akkad that were amongst the first to recover. Whatever catastrophe struck, hit southern Sumer harder.

Not that the Flood Myths are anything like a historical account, but it is easy to believe such an event was imprinted on the Mesopotamian psyche with scars so deep that the legend lives on today, even five millennia later.

Whatever was the cause of the fall of Uruk, climate seemed to play a huge part. The Sumerians had taken their inhospitable land and with massive labour and ingenuity had  turned it into one of the most fertile places in Earth, but it was always ready to turn on them.

One thing about the Sumerians was their ability to recover, but even as they did, time was running out for them and their land.

I hope you have enjoyed this second blog on the Incredible Sumerians. 

Part 3 of this 4 part series will look at the Early Dynastic Period' : Recovery, Kings and Emperors 

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