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Sumerian language and culture take center stage in a new anthropological analysis

The Sumerians

Paul Collins
University of Chicago Press
208 pp.
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“A narrative history of the early Near East is virtually impossible,” confessed archaeologist Paul Collins, the curator for the ancient Near East at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in his 2016 study, Mountains and Lowlands: Ancient Iran and Mesopotamia. I was reminded of this comment while reading his stimulating new book, The Sumerians, the latest contribution to the Lost Civilizations series, which eschews narrative in favor of separate chapters on, for example, “The first cities” and “The first writing.” Even the book’s opening chronology refers to “Sumerian” only as a descriptor of language and script, not as a people, state, dynasty, or empire.

As Collins frankly concludes, “the Sumerians were never actually lost, and in fact could never be lost, since they may never have existed, at least not as a distinct ethno-linguistic population. What was lost and rediscovered was the Sumerian language as preserved in the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia.” Documented on clay tablets in Uruk in the late fourth millennium BCE, and first used at Ur to write Sumerian around 2800 BCE, if not before, cuneiform was later used to write Akkadian, a Semitic language (unlike Sumerian, which was an isolate) spoken in Assyria and Babylonia, along with many other languages of the Near East, until it finally disappeared as a script soon after the first century CE.

The Sumerians, for all their doubtful status as a formal society, have a remarkable list of achievements to their credit. Besides being the world’s earliest attested civilization in the fourth millennium BCE, they invented cuneiform—the world’s earliest writing—and the sexagesimal system of mathematics. Their cities, such as Uruk and Ur, were the headquarters of the world’s earliest city-states, with bureaucracies, legal codes, divisions of labor, and a money economy.

Sumerian art, literature, and theology had a profound influence on culture and religion, long after their language died, around 2000 BCE, serving as the prototype of Akkadian, Hurrian, Canaanite, Hittite, and eventually biblical literature. The Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh was based on a legendary Sumerian king of Uruk, and the Hebrew patriarch Abraham hailed from Ur, according to the Bible. In the 20th century CE, notes Collins, the sculptor Henry Moore ranked Sumerian sculpture—appealingly illustrated throughout the book—among the greatest in world history for its “richness of feeling for life and its wonder and mystery.” Meanwhile, science fiction writers, including astronomer Carl Sagan, speculated that Sumerian civilization might provide evidence of extraterrestrial contact.

A fine example of the complexity of Sumerian history is the famous “Great Death Pit” in the royal tombs at Ur, dating to around 2400 BCE, that were excavated between 1922 and 1934. One of the site’s best-preserved tombs revealed a queen, beside whom was found a lapis lazuli cylinder seal inscribed with three cuneiform signs giving her name. On the assumption that she was Sumerian, the first two signs were originally read as shub and ad, and the third as nin, meaning “queen”: Queen Shub-ad. But later analysis suggested that the first two signs make more sense if read in Akkadian as pu and abi or, more correctly, as “Pu-abum,” the Akkadian for “word of the Father,” while the third sign is read as eresh (Akkadian for “queen”): Queen Pu-abi. The most celebrated Sumerian queen “turns out to be Akkadian!” observes Collins.

By the second millennium BCE, when Sumerian was no longer spoken in the street or in the court, it continued to inspire Akkadian-speaking rulers. At least nine Sumerian narrative poems based on the heroic kings of Uruk were composed by royal scribes. Among the best known is “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta,” in which king Enmerkar sends a messenger across seven mountains to Aratta, demanding that the unnamed king of this region supply lowland Uruk with skilled workers and the region’s precious metals and stones. The message proves too long for his messenger to memorize, so Enmerkar writes it on a clay tablet, thus inventing writing. Although the lord of Aratta cannot read the tablet, he realizes that he has been outwitted by a cleverer king—a suitably enigmatic comment on writing’s still-mysterious origins from a civilization made vivid by Collins’s clear and expert text.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009).