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The Sumerians

[This is a lecture written for the course 'HIST 262: History of the Ancient Near East,' taught Fall 2023 at God's Bible School and College, a regionally accredited College in Cincinnati, Ohio. Bibliographical material will be posted under Research on this site.]

Early Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Mesopotamia, from ca. 3000-1200 B.C. (Paulette 2012: 163), was a time of both innovation and destruction. The changes that occurred in the Late Chalcolithic Period in Mesopotamia, specifically those related to urbanization, developed an organization that would carry through to the Bronze Age and beyond (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 61). Because of these organizations, recurring issues like flooding, drought, and even locusts were planned for, counteracted, and withstood (Paulette 2012: 163). Cities were connected by roadways as an established trade network was reimagined (Ur 2009: 187-88). Overall, the Bronze Age was the basis for all future state organizations, and the Early Bronze Age, specifically, was the beginning stage.


During the Early Bronze Age in both northern and southern Mesopotamia, there existed a series of city-states. These were not nations or even kingdoms as one may assume, but each city was its own organization, though some cities held influence over others. Key among these cities early on was Uruk, whose Late Chalcolithic ingenuity carried over into the Early Bronze Age. Other major cities include Nippur, Larsa, Adab, and Eridu in the south (Ur 2012: 540) and Ebla, Nabada, Nagar, and Mari in the north (Ur 2009: 199). 


Of particular interest to the Early Bronze Age was the region of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, including many settlements that were established in the Chalcolithic but came to prominence in the Early Bronze Age as urban centers, about thirteen cities in all (Narev 2014: 74). During the Late Uruk period, more than half of the southern Mesopotamian inhabitants had already moved to urban areas (Algaze 2001: 2009), and this grew during the Early Dynastic Period, at the expense of smaller, countryside settlements, to about seventy percent (Ur 2012: 540). 


This move toward urbanization brought with it a series of benefits. For one, those living under the authority of a city benefit from a rich water supply. In fact, the Sumerians derived their economic power from water, primarily in the cultivation of cereals due to organized systems of irrigation canals (Wilkinson 2013: 33). The differing cities of the region may have even formed something of a type of economic and even militaristic confederation (Ur 2012: 540) at times, though each city remained its own entity.

The urban lifestyle came with benefits beyond simple water supply, including that of more accessible trade. Items of importance could be traded within each city, but they could also be traded between cities, even over long distances. These early trade networks included metal goods such as gold, silver, tin, and copper, prestige goods such as precious stones, but also basic necessities such as grain, wool, and additional foodstuffs (Wayne 2012: 13). Unfortunately, with trade comes competition, and with competition comes the aspect of war.


Concerning competition, a city down river was somewhat dependent upon the city farther up river in that the optimization of water in the latter affects the former, causing conflict between the two (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 93). Additionally, the abandoning of smaller sites in favor of larger urban centers in effect created buffer zones between cities, and further conflict arose concerning resources, such as canals and farmland, in these areas (Algaze 2001: 9). The escalation of economic, political, and territorial rivalry between urban centers only grew as cities grew in scale, which continued to occur during this period as locals not only saw the attraction of larger, urban areas in the form of resources but in defense (Algaze 2001: 75). Of course, defense is not possible without the socio-political organization and leadership of a strong ruler and the city walls that he built or maintained (Narev 2014: 75). 





Dark Age

New Kingdom

Middle Bronze




Old Babylonian


Second Intermediate


Middle Kingdom





First Intermediate

Early Bronze




Dynasty of Akkad

Old Kingdom


Early Dynastic III



Early Dynastic II

Early Dynastic I


Early Dynastic






Even with looming hostilities, large-scale production gave way to innovation. Although these cities were largely populated by farmers, shepherds, and fishermen (Ur 2012: 553), and whereas in smaller settlements (cf. Crawford 2013: 2), one must be a farmer, weaver, potter, etc. for one’s family in order to survive, the over abundance of goods meant that not every individual needs be a farmer. Instead, time permits other endeavors such as the advances in craft specialization. Though an exact social stratification in Sumerian cities is unknown, it is known that non-agricultural related individuals worked as priests, merchants, brewers, craftsmen, weavers, and the like (Narev 2014: 80). 

Craft Specialization

Full-time devotion to these specializations lead to technological progression, including the above mentioned complex bureaucracy, but also the invention of writing, monumental architecture and art (Brisch 2013: 114), and even the invention of the wheel, which made transport of goods over land more practical (Margueron 2013: 521). This also meant that Sumerian farmers, who were no longer held to the time constraints of additional occupations, could now create secondary products, such as beer from barley and wheat, and develop special breeds of domesticated animals, such as sheep for the production of textiles (Wright 2013: 395).

The system of writing that was founded at the end of the 4th millennium (Huehnergard 2020: 341) carried over into the Early Dynastic Period, which is named as such due to the fact that the names of kings, their dynasties, and their seats of power are available to the scholar in the form of the Sumerian King List, a document dated to around ca. 1800 B.C. (Snell 1998: 17) that covers the time periods at hand. This list of one hundred and forty rulers over southern Mesopotamia (Arnold and Beyer 2002: 150) conceptualizes the governance of this period as independent polities, each with their own ruler (Algaze 2001: 209-10) and therefore their own will.

Interestingly, the emergence of ‘palaces,’ possibly seen as early as the Jemdet-Nasr period (Matthews and Matthews 2017: 361), appear to be absent in Early Dynastic I (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 89). Question has arisen as to whether or not this period even had true kings, as evidence for such is limited (Matthews and Matthews 2017: 361). Instead, there may have been a form of early democracy where prestige individuals made decisions by consensus (Snell 1998: 17). Another option for these early years is that these cities were lead by a kind of ‘priest-king’ (Crawford 2013: 80), combining the roles of city administrator with those of religious duty. Additionally, many scholars are leery that the Sumerian King List is accurate concerning these early periods, suggesting instead that the king list may had been an attempt to legitimize later kings, particularly those of Isin (Brisch 2013: 117). 

Whereas the prior Uruk/Jemdet-Nasr phases of southern Mesopotamia were periods of expansion and growth, the Early Dynastic I was, in some ways, a period of regression (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 89). Cities continued to grow, and in fact the Ur-Eridu area was not urbanized until later (McC. Adams and Nissen 1972: 89), but the millennium-long process of collapse (Garfinkle 2012: 116) began here. Having reached the apex of urbanization during the Early Dynastic I period, the population of the Sumerian cities soon began to decline (Ur 2012: 544). 

First Real Kings

By Early Dynastic III (ca. 2600 B.C.), true palaces were built (Matthews and Matthews 2017: 361-62), and with them came the first royal inscriptions and therefore the earliest evidence of established kings (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 99). Textual records speak of the king as a shepherd (Garfinkle 2012: 108), and the duties of these kings were primarily the management of economic activities and the defense of the people; how well he did these jobs would determine how long he continued as king (Liverani and Tabatabai 2014: 107).

With the rise of kingship, the previous inward-focus of city-states in Early Dynastic I gave way to a renewed interest in external engagement with other polities (Matthews and Matthews 2017: 360). Kings increased both local and interregional trade in an attempt to exact any missing goods of which the people had need (Paulette 2012: 171).

Ration lists, pay scales for laborers in Sumerian cities, began to appear at this time, and these give a glimpse into the dietary habits of the average Sumerian. These lists include what materials were given, usually barley, and how much to differing professions and their families (Ellison 1981: 37). Exactly who received these rations is not completely understood, but the lists include such occupations as shepherds, weavers, and brewers, and they include differences on the basis of both sex and age (Ellison 1981: 37). 

Another aspect of the duty of a king comes in the form of preparing for and mitigating differing hazards, such as droughts, floods, locusts, and even enemy armies (Paulette 2015: 1). Throughout the third millennium B.C., the Mesopotamian region entered into a drying phase, culminating at its driest around 2000 B.C. (Ur 2015: 75). Throughout the millennium-long Early Bronze Age in Mesopotamia, it is estimated that between five and ten major climatic events occurred causing droughts that lasted six years or longer (Paulette 2012: 169), and the fact that these cities survived these times is a testament to their leadership. 

Of note, barley, the crop of choice in ancient Mesopotamia, is both drought and salinity resistant (McMahon 2013: 470), and although whether a king or simply observant farmers chose this crop is unknown, it was up to the centralized government to store and maintain agricultural surpluses (Paulette 2012: 171). Grain storage became key for survival and therefore a highly effective means of institutional control, as well as symbols of economic strength and divine sanction (Paulette 2015: 2). The Sumerian king held the important roles of transporting food to affected areas and even salvaging failing crops (Paulette 2012: 171), thus maintaining strength and status. Interestingly, palaces at both Eridu and Kish were located some distance away from the main temples, even separated by water courses, establishing what would become standard from that time forth, namely a separation between the religious and the secular (Matthews and Matthews 2017: 362).


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