EQ: Why do historians classify ancient Sumer as a civilization?
O: SWBAT analyze photos of artifacts and historian’s notes to determine which characteristics of civilization existed in ancient Sumer
O: SWBAT create their own cuneiform tablet and write a paragraph describing the importance of the development of written language in ancient Sumer
O: SWBAT describe the achievements and events leading to the downfall of the four empires of ancient Mesopotamia
P: Students will view video segments about the innovations and inventions of ancient Sumer, including written language.
Thousands of years ago, the ancient Sumerians built towns and cities along the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. There were four main classes of people - the priests, an upper class that included the royals, a lower class, and slaves. The ancient Sumerians believed that everything that happened to them - good and bad - was the result of a god's pleasure or displeasure. The daily life of every person was spent seeking ways to please and appease their many (many!) gods.
The center of daily life was a very tall temple, the ziggurat. You could find a ziggurat in the center of every town. Around the base of the ziggurat was a large courtyard or town square that bustled with life. You might see an artist painting, a boy racing by on his way to school, or someone milking a cow or making a basket. There were steps up the side of a ziggurat, ending in a flat top where religious ceremonies were held by the priests. From the top, you could see the protective wall built around the city, and over the wall to the farmlands beyond.
Most Sumerians were farmers. But some were craftsmen, teachers, traders, fishermen, and hunters. Kids went to school. Women kept their homes clean and tidy. Women had many freedoms. They could work in a shop or own their own business. People were paid for their work. Even the king had to pay for what he wanted.
Sumer was the land of the first real cities, and those cities required complex administration. The temples which kept people together were not only religious places but also warehouses which stored the community's collective wealth until it was needed to get through lean years. As the donations came in, scribes would count the items and draw pictures of them on clay tablets. The images quickly became abstract as the scribes needed to rush, and they also morphed to represent not just an image but the word itself - more specifically, the sound of the word, which meant that it could also be written to represent other words that sounded similar (homophones). Sumerian language often put words together to express new ideas, and the same concept applied to their writing. As people came to use this system more, the scribes began to write from left to right instead of top to bottom since they were less likely to mess up their clay tablets that way. Those who read the tablets didn't appreciate this change, so the scribes rotated the words 90 degrees allowing tablets to be rotated if the reader preferred - but this made the images even more abstract until eventually the pictograms vanished entirely to be replaced by wedge-shaped stylus marks: cuneiform. Many of Sumer's neighbors adopted this invention and helped it spread throughout the region, though completely different writing systems developed independently in cultures situated in places like China and South America!