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Sumerians Called Themselves “The Black Headed People”

Sumer was the southernmost region of ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait) which is generally considered the cradle of civilization. Sumerians Called Themselves “The Black Headed People”


Top 10 Sumerian Inventions and Discoveries

1. Number System
2. The Wheel
3. Astrology and the Lunar Calendar
4. Code of Ur-Nammu
5. Monarchy
6. Cuneiform Script
7. Fabrication of Copper
8. The Sailboat
9. Board Games
10. Weapons


We all think about doing something that we will be remembered for, and it is just the same for the ancient civilizations who brought us many inventions and innovations. The Sumerians of ancient Mesopotamia were no exception and they invented many things that are a part of our daily life today, from mathematics to weaponry. So let’s have a look at the legacy the ancient Sumerians left behind:

1. Number System

Sumerians Called Themselves “The Black Headed People”

Number System, Sumerian Invention

Invented by the Sumerians in the third millennium BC, this numbering system is known as the sexagesimal system. It is named so because it has the number 60 as its base. Mathematics was developed out of necessity. The Sumerians needed to trade and create taxation policies, so there was an urgent need to keep records. Assigning symbols to large numbers was also necessary as they wanted to track the course of the night sky in order to prepare the lunar calendar. They started using a small clay cone to denote the number 1, a ball for 10, and a large clay cone for 60. An elementary abacus was invented by the Sumerians between 2700 and 2300 BC.

2. The Wheel

Sumerians Called Themselves “The Black Headed People”

Sumerian Invention, The Wheel

The oldest existing wheel in Mesopotamia can be dated back to 3500 BC. The Sumerians first used circular sections of logs as wheels to carry heavy objects, joining them together and rolling them along. Subsequently, they invented the sledge and then combined the two. Eventually, they decided to drill a hole through the frame of the cart and make a place for the axle. Now both the wheels and axles could be used separately. The Sumerians realized that logs which had worn-out centers were more manageable and soon these became wheels which could be connected to a chariot.

3. Astrology and the Lunar Calendar

Sumerians Called Themselves “The Black Headed People”

Lunar Calendar, Sumerian Invention

The Sumerians were the first astronomers to map the stars into different constellations (these were later observed by the ancient Greeks). They also identified five planets that were visible to the naked eye. They documented a rudimentary cluster of constellations and noted the movements of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury. Furthermore, they used astrological symbols to predict future battles and the fortunes of city-states. Their month began with the sunset and the first crescent of the new moon. This was seen for 18 hours after the 36 hours when the old crescent disappeared. The crescent was the thinnest of all its forms. The day consisted of 12 hours and it started and ended with sunset.

They were also the first to create a lunar calendar. Phases of the moon were used to count the 12 months of the year. The Sumerians had two seasons in their year. The first was the summer which started with the vernal equinox and the other was winter which began with the autumn equinox. Sacred marriage rites were performed on the first day of the new year. By adding an extra month every four years, they were able to define a ‘year of seasons’ which was different to the other three years.

4. Code of Ur-Nammu

Sumerians Called Themselves “The Black Headed People”

Code Of Ur-Nammu

The Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu is the oldest surviving law in the world, and a copy of it was discovered in Nippur. It is the earliest existing legal text and was created three centuries before the Code of Hammurabi. The laws are listed so that crime is followed by punishment, a way of law-making that became commonplace as time went on. Moreover, this code gives us a glimpse into the societal structure of the Sumerian civilization. Here are some of the Code of Ur-Nammu’s laws:

If A Man Commits Murder, That Man Must Be Killed.
If A Man Commits Robbery, He Will Be Killed.
If A Man Commits A Kidnapping, He Is To Be Imprisoned And Pay 15 Shekels Of Silver.
If A Slave Marries A Slave, And That Slave Is Set Free, He Does Not Leave The Household.
If A Slave Marries A Native (Free) Person, He/She Is To Hand The Firstborn Son Over To His/Her Owner.
If A Man Violates The Right Of Another And Deflowers The Virgin Wife Of A Young Man, They Shall Kill That Male.
If The Wife Of A Man Follows After Another Man And He Sleeps With Her, They Shall Slay That Woman, But The Male Shall Be Set Free.
If A Man Proceeds By Force And Deflowers A Virgin Slave Woman Of Another Man, That Man Must Pay Five Shekels Of Silver.
If A Man Divorces His First-Time Wife, He Shall Pay Her One Mina Of Silver.
If It Is A (Former) Widow Whom He Divorces, He Shall Pay Her Half A Mina Of Silver.

5. Monarchy

Sumerians Called Themselves “The Black Headed People”

System Of Monarchy In Sumer

Sumerians called their land the “land of black-headed people.” These people with black heads were responsible for developing the first ruling system of monarchy. The earliest of their states needed a ruler to govern many people living in a wide area. Before the monarchy came into existence, Sumerian states were ruled by priests. The priest-kings had bureaucrats who were also priests. They assigned fields to people after surveying the land and also distributed the harvest among them. They also judged disputes, organized important religious rituals, administrated trade, and led the military.

However, there was the need for a legitimate authority which was beyond the tribal concepts of chieftainship. Therefore, the Sumerians judged that the authority of monarchs should be based on divine selection. Later they started believing that the monarch himself was a divine power who must be worshiped. In this way they legitimized the authority of the ruler who was in a dominant position, both ruling the current population and serving later generations which settled in the Sumerian states. The first confirmed monarch was Etana of Kish who ruled around 2600 BC. He was described as the man who stabilized the land.

6. Cuneiform Script

Sumerians Called Themselves “The Black Headed People”

Cuniform: First Writing System

Developed between 3500 and 3000 BC, cuneiform script was the first writing system to be developed by the Sumerians. This style of writing was wedge-shaped. A stylus was used to produce different figures and pictorials by making cuts into soft clay. Descendants of the Sumerians such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Akkadians used the cuneiform style of writing in order to keep records. They started with a pictorial cuneiform known as proto-cuneiform which later became much more complex. Symbols for cities, gods, nature, etc. were known as determinatives, and by 3000 BC, their representations had become much simpler. The marks now conveyed the idea of words instead of signs. There was also a reduction in the number of characters from 1,000 to 600. With this reduction came a more phonetic style. In archaic cuneiform, the direction of writing was from left to right, and gradually a wedge-topped stylus was introduced which gave clearer strokes. People used the script for more than three millennia until an alphabetical form replaced it during the Roman era.

7. Fabrication of Copper

Sumerians Called Themselves “The Black Headed People”

Fabrication Of Copper, Sumerian Invention

Copper was the earliest non-precious metal first used by the Sumerians, and somewhere around 5000 BC they developed the ability to fabricate it. The discovery of this process is one of the greatest inventions in Mesopotamia which also helped with the growth of various cities like Uruk, Sumer, al’Ubaid, and Ur. At first, copper was used to made arrowheads, razors, harpoons, and other small objects, but as the years passed, the Sumerians also started making copper jugs, vessels, and chisels. The objects which they made showcased the excellent craftsmanship of the Sumerians. The Imdugud Relief of 3100 BC is a great example of copper craftsmanship. Discovered in al’Ubaid, it depicts an eagle with a lion’s head with two stags either side which appear to be held up by the eagle. Copper was beaten to form the images of these creatures and then framed in wood.

8. The Sailboat

Sailboats were invented in order to expand Sumerian trade. Wood and papyrus were used to make lightweight sailboats so that it was easy for them to move on water. The sails were given a square shape and were made of linen. For battle, the platforms were raised so that the arrows could be aimed at the enemy with more accuracy. This invention in 1300 BC changed the face of trading and war, and the Sumerians were able to both advance their economy and provide protection for their people.

9. Board Games

Sumerians Called Themselves “The Black Headed People”

Board Game: Sumerian Invention

The Royal Game of Ur was invented sometime between 2600 and 2400 BC. The remains of the game were found by Sir Leonard Woolley in the Royal Tombs of Ur, Iraq, during the 1920s. It was also known as the Game of 20 Squares or the Egyptian game Aseb. One of the two boards that were excavated is kept in the British Museum in London.

The game used four tetrahedral dice with seven markers and comprised of two sets, one white and the other black. The original rules are not known, and the game’s format has been reinvented over time, as seen in a cuneiform tablet dating back to approximately 177 BC. Historians believe that, similar to the ancient Egyptian game Senet, the Royal Game of Ur was a racing game, and possibly a precursor to backgammon.

10. Weapons

According to ancient records, it was the Sumerian people who used copper weapons for the first time, and they invented spears, swords, maces, slings, and clubs. Sickles were commonly used in battle alongside axes and spears. The socketed axe was the most influential weapon to be invented by the Sumerians. They even used chariots for warfare, and putting their invention, the wheel, to use in this way was a huge contribution to the military world.


The Sumerians met the needs of their people by inventing things way before other civilizations even came into existence, and many of these inventions such as soap and irrigation are still in use today. The invention of the calendar still helps us keep track of our lives, and the development of weaponry has been crucial both in making war and keeping the peace. All of these inventions have stood the test of time and continue to serve mankind thousands of years later.

The name comes from Akkadian, the language of the north of Mesopotamia, and means “land of the civilized kings”. The Sumerians called themselves “the black headed people” and their land, in cuneiform script, was simply “the land” or “the land of the black headed people”and, in the biblical Book of Genesis, Sumer is known as Shinar.

According to the Sumerian King List, when the gods first gave human beings the gifts necessary for cultivating society, they did so by establishing the city of Eridu in the region of Sumer. While the Sumerian city of Uruk is held to be the oldest city in the world, the ancient Mesopotamians believed that it was Eridu and that it was here that order was established and civilization began.

The Ubaid Period

The region of Sumer was long thought to have been first inhabited around 4500 BCE. This date has been contested in recent years, however, and it now thought that human activity in the area began much earlier. The first settlers were not Sumerians but a people of unknown origin whom archaeologists have termed the Ubaid people – from the excavated mound of al-Ubaid where the artifacts were uncovered which first attested to their existence – or the Proto-Euphrateans which designates them as earlier inhabitants of the region of the Euphrates River.

Whoever these people were, they had already moved from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian one prior to 5000 BCE. Excavations from al-Ubaid and other sites throughout southern Iraq have uncovered stone tools from the Ubaid people such as hoes, knives, and adzes and clay artifacts which included sickles, bricks, painted pottery, and figurines.

These people were the first agents of civilization in the region. At what point the people who came to be known as Sumerians entered the area is not known.

The Sumerian King List

According to the scholar Samuel Noah Kramer, “The first ruler of Sumer, whose deeds are recorded, if only in the briefest kind of statement, is a king by the name of Etana of Kish, who may have come to the throne quite early in the third millennium B.C. In the King List he is described as he who stabilized all the lands” (The Sumerians, 43). The Sumerian King List is a cuneiform document, written by a scribe of the city of Lagash, sometime around 2100 BCE which lists all of the kings of the region, and their accomplishments, in an attempt to show continuity of order in society dating back to the beginning of civilization.

As the Mesopotamians generally, and the Sumerians specifically, believed that civilization was the result of the gods’ triumph of order over chaos, the King List is thought to have been created to legitimize the reign of a king named Utu-Hegal of Uruk (r. c. 2100 BCE) by showing him as the most recent in a long line of rulers of the region. Etana is famous from the myth of the man who ascends to heaven on the back of an eagle and, like other kings mentioned in the list (Dumuzi and Gilgamesh among them) was known for superhuman feats and heroism.

Utu-Hegal, it is thought, was trying to link himself to such earlier hero-kings through the creation of the King List. Since the Mesopotamians believed that the gods had set everything in motion, and that human beings were created as co-laborers with the gods to maintain order and hold back chaos, the early writers of history in the region concentrated more on the links between the rulers and their gods.

Writing down the history of human accomplishments seems to have been considered a matter of little importance for these writers and, as a result, the early history of Sumer has been deduced from the archaeological and geological record more than a written tradition and much information is still unavailable to modern scholars.

The Rise of Cities

Whenever the Sumerian civilization was first established in the region, by 3600 BCE they had invented the wheel, writing, the sail boat, agricultural processes such as irrigation, and the concept of the city (though China and India also lay claim to `the first cities’ in the world). It is generally accepted that the first cities in the world rose in Sumer and, among the most important, were Eridu, Uruk, Ur, Larsa, Isin, Adab, Kullah, Lagash, Nippur, and Kish.

The city of Uruk is held to be the first true city in the world. It has been noted, again by Kramer, that these names are not Sumerian but come from the Ubaid people and so were founded, at least as villages, much earlier than c. 5000 BCE. Other cities in Sumer were Sippar, Shuruppak, Bad-tibira, Girsu, Umma, Urukag, Nina, and Kissura. All were of varying size and scope with Uruk the largest and most powerful at its prime.

With the establishment of the cities of Sumer, their history unfolds from approximately 5000 BCE to 1750 BCE when “the Sumerians ceased to exist as a people” (Kramer) after Sumer was invaded by the Elamites and Amorites. After the Ubaid Period (c. 5000-4100 BCE) came the Uruk Period (4100-2900 BCE) in which cities began to emerge across the landscape and the city of Uruk rose in prominence. Though the period is named for the `first city’ of Uruk, Eridu was considered the first city by the Sumerians themselves, as previously noted.

Trade was firmly established with foreign lands at this time and writing evolved from pictograms to cuneiform script. It is thought that trade was the main motivator in the development of writing as there now had to be some means for accurate, long-distance, communication between the merchants of Sumer and their agents abroad. The kingship also arose at this time and the city-states of Sumer came to be ruled by a single monarch who was assisted by a council of elders (which included both men and women). The kings following Etana were Semites, not Sumerians, as attested to by their names such as Enmebaraggesi of Kish. It is not until after the rule of eight kings passed that Sumerian names begin to appear in the King List.

The Akkadian Empire in Sumer

The Early Dynastic Period (2900-2334 BCE) saw the subtle shift from a priest-king (known as an ensi) to a more modern-day concept of `king’ known as a Lugal (`big man’). The city-states of Sumer during this time fought for control of arable land and water rights until the rise of the First Dynasty of Lagash in 2500 BCE. Under their king Eannutum, Lagash became the centre of a small empire which included most of Sumer and parts of neighboring Elam.

This empire was still extant under the king Lugal-Zage when a young man, who later claimed to have been the king’s gardener, seized the throne. This was Sargon of Akkad who would go on to found the Akkadian Empire (2234-2218 BCE), the first multi-national empire in the world and, it is thought, based on the model set by Eannutum.

The Akkadian Empire ruled over the majority of Mesopotamia, including Sumer, until a people known as the Gutians invaded from the north (the area of modern-day Iran) and destroyed the major cities. The Gutian Period (c. 2218-2047 BCE) is considered a dark age in Sumerian history (and Mesopotamian history overall) and the Gutians were universally reviled by Sumerian writers in later histories, most of which consider them a punishment sent by the gods.

The Sumerian Renaissance

The last period in Sumerian history is known as The Ur III Period (2047-1750 BCE) so named for the Third Dynasty of the city of Ur. This period is also known as The Sumerian Renaissance due to the remarkable advances in culture – touching upon virtually every single aspect of civilized human life – which were made. The kings of Ur, Ur-Nammu (r. 2047-2030 BCE) and Shulgi (r.2029-1982 BCE)), set cultural advancement as the goal of their administrations and maintained a peace which allowed for art and technology to flourish. Whether invented before or during the Ur III Period, the tools, concepts, and technological innovations in place during the Third Dynasty of Ur solidified the Sumerian’s place in history as the creators of civilization as we know it.

In Samuel Noah Kramer’s book History Begins at Sumer he lists 39 “firsts’ in history from the region among which are the first schools, the first proverbs and sayings, the first messiahs, the first Noah and the Flood stories, the first love song, the first aquarium, the first legal precedents in court cases, the first tale of a dying and resurrected god, the first funeral chants, first biblical parallels, and first moral ideas. The Sumerians also essentially invented time in that their sexigesimal system of counting (a system based on the number 60) created the 60-second minute and the 60-minute hour.

They also divided the night and day into periods of 12 hours, set a limit on a `work day’ with a time for beginning and ending, and established the concept of `days off’ for holidays. The historian Bertman writes, “The hand of Mesopotamia still determines the hourly length of the traditional workday and even the length of our electronic entertainment (half-hour or hour TV shows) when our workday has stopped” (334). Bertman further notes that the modern day practice of checking one’s horoscope comes from ancient Sumer and that the astrological signs one is born under were first noted and named by the ancient Mesopotamians.

Ur-Nammu wrote the first legal code in Sumer which became the precedent for the much later, and better known, Code of Hammurabi of Babylon. The historian Paul Kriwaczek writes, “Ur-Nammu’s universal legal pronouncements present a good example of the unifying drive of Ur’s kings: the compulsion to regulate every aspect of life” (149). Sumer, under the unifying force of the Third Dynasty of Ur, became a Patrimonial State (“meaning one constructed on the pattern of the patriarchal family ruled by a father figure”, as Kriwaczek notes) in which the monarch served as the father figure who guided his children along a proper path toward prosperity.

Ur-Nammu’s son, Shulgi, is considered the greatest of the Neo-Sumerian kings who continued his father’s policies but went further. In an effort to both impress his people, and distinguish himself from his father, Shulgi ran 100 miles (160.9 kilometres) between the religious centre of Nippur and the capital city of Ur and back again – in one day – in order to officiate at the festivals in both cities. Though some have considered the hymn which recounts his achievement as a kingly boast and highly exaggerated, scholars have determined that he could, in fact, have made his famous run and, further, that it was in keeping with the spirit of Shulgi’s rule. Creating a sense of awe and admiration in their subjects seems to have been central to the governing power of the kings of Ur at this time.

Sumer’s Decline & Legacy

Under Shulgi’s reign, a wall was constructed 155 miles long (250 kilometres) to keep out the Semitic-speaking tribes known as the Martu or Tidnum but better known by their biblical name of Amorites. Shulgi’s son, grandson, and great-grandson all renovated and strengthened the wall to keep those they called `the barbarians’ out of Sumer proper but the barrier proved ineffective. The wall could not be properly manned or maintained and, further, was not anchored to any solid barrier at the end points and so invaders could simply follow the wall on the one side to either end point and then walk around it.

The forces of neighboring Elam breached the wall and marched on Ur, sacking it and carrying away the king c. 1750 BCE. The Amorites now established themselves in the land but, with the fall of Ur and a severe famine resulting from climate change and the over-use of the land, many migrated for points south. Among these migrating Amorites, it is thought, was Abraham the patriarch who left Ur to settle in the land of Canaan.

Following the Ur III Period and the fall of Ur, many Sumerians migrated north. Sumerian was no longer spoken as a language (though it was still written), having been largely replaced by the Semitic Akkadian, and the Sumerian culture was ended. Their legacy, however, continues in many aspects of civilization which those in the modern day take for granted as always existing. Even so, something as basic as the twenty-four hour day was invented, once upon a time, in Sumer.

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