The History of Ancient Sumeria (Sumer) including its cities, kings, religions culture and contributions or civilization
The Art of Sumeria
†by:† Liliana Osses Adams
Other Mesopotamian Peoples
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Four periods of
Sumerian can be distinguished: Archaic Sumerian, Old or Classical
Sumerian, New Sumerian, and Post-Sumerian.
Sumerian covered a period from about 3100 BC, when the first Sumerian
records make their appearance, down to about 2500 BC. The earliest
Sumerian writing is almost exclusively represented by texts of business
and administrative character. There are also school texts in the form of
simple exercises in writing signs and words. The Archaic Sumerian language
is still very poorly understood, partly because of the difficulties
surrounding the reading and interpretation of early Sumerian writing and
partly because of the meagerness of sources.
The Old, or
Classical, period of Sumerian lasted from about 2500 to 2300 BC and is
represented mainly by records of the early rulers of Lagash. The records
are business, legal, and administrative texts, as well as royal and
private inscriptions, mostly of votive character; letters, both private
and official; and incantations. These sources are much more numerous than
those of the preceding period, and the writing is explicit enough to make
possible an adequate reconstruction of Sumerian grammar and vocabulary.
period of the Sargonic dynasty, the Semitic Akkadians took over the
political hegemony of Babylonia, marking a definite setback in the
progress of the Sumerian language. At this time the Akkadian language was
used extensively throughout the entire area of the Akkadian empire, while
the use of Sumerian gradually was limited to a small area in Sumer proper.
After a brief revival during the 3rd dynasty of Ur, the New Sumerian
period came to an end about 2000 BC, when new inroads of the Semitic
peoples from the desert succeeded in destroying the 3rd dynasty of Ur and
in establishing the Semitic dynasties of Isin, Larsa, and Babylon.
The period of
the dynasties of Isin, Larsa, and Babylon is called the Old Babylonian
period, after Babylon, which became the capital and the most important
city in the country. During this time the Sumerians lost their political
identity, and Sumerian gradually disappeared as a spoken language. It did,
however, continue to be written to the very end of the use of cuneiform
writing. This is the last stage of the Sumerian language, called
In the early
stages of the Post-Sumerian period the use of written Sumerian is
extensively attested in legal and administrative texts, as well as in
royal inscriptions, which are often bilingual, in Sumerian and Babylonian.
Many Sumerian literary compositions, which came down from the older
Sumerian periods by way of oral tradition, were recorded in writing for
the first time in the Old Babylonian period. Many more were copied by
industrious scribes from originals now lost. The rich Sumerian literature
is represented by texts of varied nature, such as myths and epics, hymns
and lamentations, rituals and incantations, and proverbs and the so-called
wisdom compositions. For many centuries after the Old Babylonian period,
the study of Sumerian continued in the Babylonian schools. As late as the
7th century BC, Ashurbanipal, one of the last rulers of Assyria, boasted
of being able to read the difficult Sumerian language, and from an even
later period, in Hellenistic times, there are some cuneiform tablets that
show Sumerian words transcribed in Greek letters.
Around the time
of Christ, all knowledge of the Sumerian language disappeared along with
that of cuneiform writing, and in the succeeding centuries even the name
Sumer vanished from memory.
Babylonia, and Egypt, whose histories and traditions are amply documented
in biblical and classical sources, there was nothing to be found in
non-Mesopotamian sources to make one even suspect the existence of the
Sumerians in antiquity, let alone fully appreciate their important role in
the history of early civilizations.
decipherment of cuneiform writing was achieved in the early decades of the
19th century, three languages written in cuneiform were discovered:
Semitic Babylonian, Indo-European Persian, and Elamite, of unknown
linguistic affiliation. Only after the texts written in Babylonian had
become better understood did scholars become aware of the existence of
texts written in a language different from Babylonian. When the new
language was discovered it was variously designated as Scythian, or even
Akkadian (that is, by the very name now given to the Semitic language
spoken in Babylonia and Assyria). It was only after knowledge of the new
language had grown that it was given the correct name of Sumerian.
affinity of Sumerian has not yet been successfully established.
Ural-Altaic (which includes Turkish), Dravidian, Brahui, Bantu, and many
other groups of languages have been compared with Sumerian, but no theory
has gained common acceptance. Sumerian is clearly an agglutinative
language in that it preserves the word root intact while expressing
various grammatical changes by adding on prefixes, infixes, and suffixes.
The difference between nouns and verbs, as it exists in the Indo-European
or Semitic languages, is unknown to Sumerian. The word dug alone means
both "speech" and "to speak" in Sumerian, the difference between the noun
and the verb being indicated by the syntax and by different affixes.
sounds (phonemes) of Sumerian consisted of four vowels, a, i, e, u, and 16
consonants, b, d, g, , h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, s, s, t, z. In Classical
Sumerian, the contrast between the consonants b, d, g, z and p, t, k, s
was not between voiced (with vibrating vocal cords) and voiceless
consonants (without vibrating vocal cords) but between consonants that
were indifferent as to voice and those that were aspirated (pronounced
with an accompanying audible puff of breath). The semivowels y and w
functioned as vocalic glides.
In the noun,
gender was not expressed. Plural number was indicated either by the
suffixes -me (or -me + esh), -hia, and -ene, or by reduplication, as in
kur + kur "mountains." The relational forms of the noun, corresponding
approximately to the cases of the Latin declension, include: -e for the
subject (nominative), -a(k) "of" (genitive), -ra and -sh(e) "to," "for"
(dative), -a "in" (locative), -ta "from" (ablative), -da "with" (commitative).The
Sumerian verb, with its concatenation of various prefixes, infixes, and
suffixes, presents a very complicated picture. The elements connected with
the verb follow a rigid order: modal elements, tempo elements, relational
elements, causative elements, object elements, verbal root, subject
elements, and intransitive present-future elements. In the preterite
transitive active form, the order of object and subject elements is
reversed. The verb can distinguish, in addition to person and number,
transitivity and intransitivity, active and passive voice, and two tenses,
present-future and preterite.
Sumerian dialects are known. Of these the most important are eme-gir, the
official dialect of Sumerian, and eme-SAL, the dialect used often in the
composition of hymns and incantations (see also cuneiform).
Arno Poebel, GrundzŁge der sumerischen Grammatik (1923), partly out of date, but still the only full grammar of Sumerian in all its stages; Adam Falkenstein, Grammatik der Sprache Gudeas von Lagas, 2 vol. (1949-50), a very thorough grammar of the New Sumerian dialect, and Das Sumerische (1959), a very brief but comprehensive survey of the Sumerian language; Cyril J. Gadd, Sumerian Reading Book (1924), outdated but the only grammatical tool in English; Samuel N. Kramer, The Sumerians (1963), provides a general introduction to Sumerian civilization.