How People Lived
These people were very similar to the westward-moving farmers, and enjoyed more or less everything we described in Lesson #1. What they no longer had was mobility. They were forced by rulers into tight clusters; that is, into cities, where they could be watched. (One of the oldest words for “city” meant “watched place.”) Many of these people left the city in the morning to tend crops and fields, then returned home at night.
The temples in these cities grew and became centers of grain storage. Most of all, however, they became centers of record-keeping. A complete archive was unearthed at a city called Ebla, dating from 2350 BC, containing some 2,100 clay tablets. On the tablets were administrative records of textiles (fabrics), metals, taxes, temple offerings, state reports, wool production and tribute payments to a larger city. (Tribute was a payment to a superior king… a “king of kings.” If it wasn’t paid, he’d bring a small army, kill the current rulers and replace them with others.)
Still, these people were so productive that the rulership imposed upon them didn’t stop their progress.
Sumerians dressed well. Men typically wore skirts and cloaks, women wore a sort of dress/shawl garment, with their right shoulder uncovered. Both men and women parted their hair in the middle and wore it long. Women typically braided their hair, then wound it around their heads. They might also wear ribbons, beads and pendants in their hair.
There were many kinds of musical instruments, including harps, lyres, drums, tambourines, and pipes (like flutes and other wind instruments). Here’s an image (from 2,500 BC) of a Sumerian playing a lyre:
There were fine sculptures produced during this period. There were jewelers who turned out excellent work in silver, gold and precious stones. (Their favorite was a blue stone called lapis lazuli.) And despite the lack of trees in Mesopotamia, there were skilled carpenters, working on wood brought in by long-distance traders.
One of the largest efforts of the era was textile manufacture: making cloth. Thousands of tons of wool were worked into fabric every year, in the city of Ur alone. There were several types of looms, which were worked primarily by three-woman teams. (Making fabric was nearly always done by women, until mechanical looms were developed in recent times.)
You can see two women working a loom at the center-left of the image below. It’s from ancient Greece – a much later period than the people we’re covering here – but that’s probably what Sumerian looms looked like. The other women are busy with the other parts of fabric-making.
The division of work within families was mostly like it has always been: Mothers taking care of the young children, preparing food for the family (there were community ovens for baking in each town, as there are in some places still) and making fabric. The fathers worked long hours in the fields. The older children helped one or both of the parents, tended to the younger ones, and so on.
These people used wagons (two-wheeled and four-wheeled), they had boats large and small. They had systems of canals, dikes and reservoirs. They had leveling and measuring instruments. They made careful drawings and maps. They published farming manuals.
The Sumerian day began at sunset, and like ours it was divided into two twelve hour periods. Time was kept with water clocks and they generally referred to time periods called “watches,” instead of hours. A “watch” was four hours, so there were three watches of the night, and three watches of the day.
Here’s a drawing of a water clock. It was a large ceramic bowl with a small hole in the bottom or on the side. It would drip water at a steady rate. So, if you filled it up to the top line as the sun was straight overhead (noon), you could tell time based upon how low the water sank. (You’d have to inscribe lines on the inside of the bowl, of course.)
These people were also the first to use writing as we know it. They didn’t yet have an alphabet; instead they used symbols for whole words, beginning at about 3,300 BC. They would write on clay tablets, with a wedge-shaped stylus. This type of writing is called cuneiform, and they had a well-functioning numbering system as well. Here, illustrating both, is a contract for the sale of a house, from about 2,600 BC:
They also used little clay seals for their signatures. Very many of these have survived, and here’s one (with its imprint) from about 3,100 BC:
The most popular beverage among Sumerians was beer, which they took quite seriously.
These people had the same medicines as the people from Lesson #1, but with more types, and more carefully documented. Sumerian doctors carefully tested their medicines, tried new formulations and kept records of how their treatments succeeded or failed, always trying to improve their results.
And, of course, there were midwives: older women experienced in birth, who helped the younger women through it. That seems always to have been the case, and we have midwives even today.
These people had clear thoughts on the nature of our world. They thought the Earth was a flat disk, surrounded by an immensely vast space called heaven. They called the whole thing heaven-earth. At the end of the heaven, somewhere, far, far away, there was a solid barrier in the shape of a vault, and beyond that an infinite sea.
Directing this universe, they thought, were a large number of gods. They also believed that gods could “speak things into existence.”
They were further convinced that the ultimate purpose of mankind was to supply the gods with food, drink and shelter, so they could attend to their godly duties without interruption.
Their views on life after death featured a dreary sort of underworld… a dark cavern where everyone went after they died. People lived in that underworld as ghost-like beings called shades. Relatives of the dead were expected to make religious offerings of food and drink to ease their conditions. If they didn’t, the shades might make them have accidents or become sick.
At the same time, the Sumerians were deeply interested in goodness, truth, justice, freedom righteousness, honesty and compassion.
The Sumerian’s had law courts that functioned more or less as ours do, with oaths, witnesses and decisions.
There were other groups of people in the area, of course. In particular, we know of “tent people” living outside of the Mesopotamian cities. They seem to have raised animals for meat and sold it into the cities. In other words, they were a group of outsiders who were necessary but carefully kept as “other.” And, as we mentioned earlier, there were the long-distance traders, the forgotten heroes of history. They brought goods in and out of the Mesopotamian city-states.
The Sumerians were aware of people as far away as what are now India, Armenia, Anatolia, the Mediterranean (perhaps Cyprus and Crete), Egypt and Ethiopia.
And, of course, these people could be just as foolish as modern people. We have, for example, the recording of a long argument between two young scribes. They fight, back and forth, saying, more or less:
“No I don’t! And beside, you stink worse!”