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Describe the important achievements of Mesopotamian civilization.

Topics on the page include:

a. its system of writing (and its importance in record keeping and tax collection)

b. monumental architecture (the ziggurat)

c. art (large relief sculpture, mosaics, and cylinder seals)

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 11.48.22 AM.pngSee also AP Art History Ancient Mediterranean

  • Mesopotamian art and cultural heritage that has survived to the present day has been subject to destruction by ISIS militants.
    • What is the inherent danger of destroying links to the past?

external image Literacy.PNG

Focus Question: How did writing, architecture, and art impact the development of Mesopotamian society?

The map to the right shows Literacy in the Middle East:

The dark blue areas were literate at around 2300 BCE. The dark green areas were literate at around 1300 BCE. The light green areas were literate at around 300 BCE.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.30.11 AM.pngTimelines and Maps

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 9.36.32 AM.pngGood activator to start unit by They Might be Giants: The Mesopotamians


Screen Shot 2017-02-21 at 10.27.35 AM.pngGo on a virtual archaeological dig at Dig Into History Mesopotamia.

Assyrian King in his royal chariot
Assyrian King in his royal chariot

external image 200px-Quill_and_ink.svg.pngSargon of Akkad (Sargon the Great) was a powerful ruler and one of the world's first empire builders

lessonplan.jpgClick here for project ideas on Mesopotamian achievements.

Present day connections:
Multimedia.pngClick here for the NPR story, "Drought Reveals Iraqi Archaeological Treasures."

See also 7.6 for more resources. See also AP World History Key Concept 1.3rotating gif.gif

A. System of Writing

Disk of Enheduanna
Disk of Enheduanna

Female_Rose.pngEnheduanna (2285-2250 BCE)

  • Woman in Akkadian history
  • Author of hymns honoring the goddess Inanna
  • Oldest recorded name of any poet—male or female

Quill_and_ink.pngBiography of Enheduanna

Documents That Changed the World: The Exaltation of Inanna, 2300 BCE, University of Washington

Epic of Gilgamesh

primary_sources.PNGSee Influential Literature page The Epic of Gilgamesh

Statue of Gilgamesh, University of Sydney
Statue of Gilgamesh, University of Sydney

1) The Epic of Gilgamesh was the first great work of world literature, written around 1200 BCE as a 3,000 line poem. It tells the story of a legendary king, Gilgamesh who ruled the Babylonian city of Uruk.

In the story, the king defeats a demon and spurned the advances Ishtar, the goddess of love. The poem also tells the story of a great Flood. It was undiscovered until 1872 when George Smith found the material in the British Museum.

For more on how George Smith found the material in the British Museum, click here.

The Newly Discovered Tablet V of the Epic of Gilgamesh

For more, see The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic by David Damrosch, Henry Holt, 2007.

Rotating_globe-small.gif2) Scholars now contend that writing began independently in four separate parts of the world ("Before Twitter, Tweets Were Done in Clay," William Mullen, Chicago Tribune, October 26, 2010):
  • Mesopotamia (around 3200 BCE). This writing enabled bureaucracies and business to keep track of records for trading and commerce.
    • Egypt (around 3200 BCE). Writing was used in religious ceremonies and to affirm the supremacy of the Egyptian king.
      • China (around 1200 BCE). Writing related to religious practices.
        • Mesoamerica (present-day southern Mexico and Guatemala during the first millennium). Writing connected to Mayan gods and the Mayan calendar.

Writing propelled the transition from primitive society to urban areas featuring more complex systems of law, commerce and thinking.

3) Writing began in the Middle East between 8000 and 3200 BCE when the Mesopotamians used clay "tokens" to count their goods.
  • Each shape represented a word, or logogram.
  • However, the rise of the state in about 3200 BCE increased the complexity of the information they wished to store, and so clay tablets were used to record script composed of the symbols on the tokens.
  • From 3100 BCE, the state required each person to record their name along with details of their goods.
    • As writing personal names, logographically was very difficult, a system of phonetic writing was developed which gradually evolved into Cuneiform (the script used by the Babylonians and Assyrians).

Cuneiform Writing

primary_sources.PNGLink here for the evolution of writing in Mesopotamia.
  • Click here for a guide to Cuneiform.
    • Click here for examples of Cuneiform including numbers 1-20.
  • Cuneiform tablet, British Museum, London
    Cuneiform tablet, British Museum, London

  • Cuneiform writing described a game with white and black pieces and blocks that was popular in Mesopotamia.
    • In a grave in Ur, a board game was discovered, which was the game described in writing. Click here to play the game.
  • Write Like a Babylonian is a UPenn site where students can see what their initials would be in Cuneiform.

4) Record keepers were very important and busy people. Since only a few people could write, scribes had one of the most valuable skills in the ancient world. Scribes held positions of great respect. These scribes recorded sales and taxes, tax payments, gifts for gods, and marriages and deaths.
  • Click here to explore a scribe's life. Includes photos of tools used for writing and their descriptions.
  • Click here for a short YouTube video of a professor demonstrating Cuneiform as used by scribes
  • Click here for a short video on Writing Cuneiform
external image Red_apple.jpg 5) For an excellent lesson plan on the emergence of writing, see The Cuneiform Writing System in Ancient Mesopotamia

See also Write Like a Sumerian from Middle Tennessee State University

Female_Rose.pngThis activity uses translations from cuneiform tablets to teach students more about women's lives in ancient Mesopotamia.

B. Monumental Architecture

ISIS Has Destroyed a Nearly 3,000-Year-Old Assyrian Ziggurat in the ancient city of Nimrod, Iraq (Smithsonian, November 15, 2016)

  • Go here for an online game Building a Ziggurat
  • Click here for the British Museum website on Ziggurats. Includes pictures, a game, and the history of ziggurats.

2. Examples of Ziggurats
Ruins of a ziggurat in Ebla, Syria
Ruins of a ziggurat in Ebla, Syria

  • Were a form of temple common to the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians of ancient Mesopotamia.
  • Built in receding tiers upon a rectangular, oval, or square platform, the ziggurat was a pyramidal structure. Sun-baked bricks made up the core of the ziggurat with facings of fired bricks on the outside.
  • The number of tiers ranged from two to seven, with a shrine or temple at the summit.
  • Access to the shrine was provided by a series of ramps on one side of the ziggurat or by a spiral ramp from base to summit.
  • The Mesopotamian ziggurats were not places for public worship or ceremonies. They were believed to be dwelling places for the gods.
  • Through the ziggurat the gods could be close to mankind and each city had its own patron god. Only priests were permitted inside the ziggurat and it was their responsibility to care for the gods and attend to their needs.
    • As a result the priests were very powerful members of Sumerian society.
  • There are 32 known ziggurats near Mesopotamia. Four of them are in Iran, and the rest are mostly in Iraq. The most recent to be discovered was Sialk, in central Iran.

Multimedia.pngThis video recreates the construction of the Ziggurat of Ur to scale in time lapse.

C. Art

the worship of the sun-god, Shamash. Limestone cylinder-seal, Mesopotamia
the worship of the sun-god, Shamash. Limestone cylinder-seal, Mesopotamia

Mesopotamian art is one of the earliest forms of art. It dates back to 3500 BCE. Most art from Mesopotamia was meant to glorify leaders and their connection to the gods. Art was commonly made from natural resources, such as stone, shell, marble, etc. The art usually was not signed, as the art was about the subject, not the creator.
Click here for a more detailed history and examples of art from Mesopotamia.
Click here for an interactive look at how gods, goddesses, demons, and monsters were portrayed in Mesopotamian religious and textual traditions.
To see examples of Mesopotamian art, visit this link for the Beijing World Art Museum.

Large Relief Sculptures
  • A piece of art that projects from, but belongs to, the wall.
  • While there are many different types of relief sculptures, Mesopotamians were most known for their large relief sculptures.
    • The most common of these was the Ishtar Gate, which was built under Nebuchadnezzar around 575 B.C. While a miraculous piece of art, it also served a purpose in protecting the city of Babylon.

For more see Art and Architecture from Ancient Mesopotamia: This History, Our History from the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

Cone Mosiacs
  • In the 4th-3rd millennium BCE, Mesopotomians developed a type of mosaic composed of slender cones of baked clay with some base ends painted red, black, and white.
  • These were embedded in mud brick walls to create a decorative protective coating in geometric patterns, perhaps derived from textile or matting materials.

Cylinder seal and impression: cattle herd in a wheat field. Limestone, Mesopotamia, Uruk Period (4100 BC–3000 BC
Cylinder seal and impression: cattle herd in a wheat field. Limestone, Mesopotamia, Uruk Period (4100 BC–3000 BC

Cylinder Seals

  • Cylinder seals were first made in Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, soon after 3500 BC.
  • Paper had not been invented, so documents were written in cuneiform on clay tablets and then wrapped in clay envelopes.
  • The seals were used to make an impression (or 'seal') in the soft clay, to indicate that the message on the tablet was genuine. People continued to use cylinder seals to 'seal' ancient documents for about three thousand years. The seals are comparable to modern-day notarization.

Female_Rose.pngThe Role of Women from Ancient Mesopotamia: This History, Our History from the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

Female_Rose.pngLove, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Mesopotamia

book.pngBook Recommendation:
This book includes chapters about the people, achievements and legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia:
//Ancient Mesopotamia: The Sumerians, Babylonians, and the Assyrians// by Virginia Schomp. Scholastic, Inc. 2004.
ISBN: 0-531-16741-0