The earliest people for whom we have significant records are the Sumerians. They were dark skinned people who settled in the Middle East – around the area we now call Iraq – by around 5000 BC. They remained there until approximately 2000 BC. The Sumerians were mostly farmers and builders, and had learned to work with metal. Since there wasn’t much useful stone in the region, they learned to make bricks from mud and then left them in the sun to dry. As cities developed these used these to build houses.
Similar mud bricks were used for many centuries, even into the 20th century in some countries. Some of the Sumerian houses were small, with two or three rooms only; others were built around a central courtyard – a style that can still be seen in the Middle East today. There were no windows, but airy doors, sometimes curtained with reeds, would have let in some light. See Sumerian homes for more details and a diagram.
The Sumerians also started trading with their neighbours, so they were sometimes able to swap some of their surplus farm goods for stone. They were probably the first people to develop a potter’s wheel, which of course made it much easier to make pots, bowls, jars, and so on. They did not just make these utilitarian: they decorated them, very often, with intricate and attractive designs.
Another milestone in early civilization was that the Sumerians built boats from reeds, covered with animal skins. These enabled them to travel further away, perhaps up and down the big rivers of the region,the Tigris and Euphrates. This enabled them to do more trading with other people, and eventually to develop ‘city-states’ – which happened around 3500 BC.
The city of Ur
In the 20th century a city known as Ur was excavated in this region, on the eastern bank of the River Euphrates. It had a brick wall around it, and a harbour on the river which would probably have been for the trading boats.
The city had many narrow streets which were paved with hard earth, baked in the sun. Along each one were houses, shops, and other buildings. Near the centre was a ziggurat – a large tower, a bit like part of a pyramid with stepped sides. Here’s a site with photos of the ziggurat of Ur, and further detail.
The Sumerians believed on gods who ruled natural forces such as the sun, the rain and the sky. Although they were all worshipped, each city had its own main god. In Ur, the ziggurat temple was for Nannar, god of the moon.
Since ancient gods were supposed to look and behave somewhat like people, the temple was well-equipped with furniture and clothes. Several priests lived in the temple, and were considered very important, since the gods had to be appeased continually if disaster was to be kept at bay.
Classes of Sumerian society
Families were important to the Sumerians, and there were three main classes of people. The upper class consisted of the government, the army and the priests. The middle class was mainly farmers, craftsmen and traders, and the lower class were slaves.
There were no kings in the early days of Sumerian civilisation; priests took on the roles of decision-making and organising. However, as the population grew, a wise and intelligent man was chosen as king. He would have managed everything that was not connected with the temple. The king would lead the army if necessary, ensured that roads stayed in good condition, and generally looked after law and order.
Slavery was common; often slaves were defeated enemy soldiers. They had to do menial tasks such as cleaning the rubbish from the streets. Slaves also worked in houses and on lands which were owned by wealthier families.
Early writing – cuneiform
We know so much about the Sumerians because they developed the first form of writing, which we call cuneiform. This was like little pictograms, or outlines of objects drawn on clay tablets. The clay was baked, and thus survived over the millennia.
Cuneiform developed into a mixture of symbols and pictures, with the symbols representing certain syllables of words. If you want to know more about cuneiform writing, see Ancient Scripts: Sumerian.
If you want to know about pre-history – that time before we have clear records – you can visit the page pre-historic times. To read about another important early society, see the page on Ancient Egyptians.
Other useful links:
Sumerian gods and goddesses – lots of information, and some pictures
Sumerian artefacts – click the word ‘Sumerian’ under the picture to see an extensive selection
Sumer – the Wikipedia article giving facts and information about this period of history
Ancient Sumer – a lengthy page from the history-world site