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Ancient Near East

THE BIRTH OF CIVILIZATION

DISCOVERIES
BEFORE THE
BIRTH OF
CIVILIZATION

 

AGRICULTURE
METALLURGY
Extracting copper from oxide ores
Making bronze from copper and tin
PLOWING

Harnessing cattle and oxen to pull plows
TRANSPORTATION
Land transportation: pack animals
Wheeled vehicles (e.g., war chariots)
Water transportation: sail boats
POTTER'S WHEEL
CIVILIZATION
DEFINED
  An advanced state of intellectual, cultural, and material development in human society, marked by progress in the arts and sciences, the extensive use of writing, and the appearance of complex political and social institutions.


LIFE IN SUMER

OUTSIDE
THE CITY
  FARMERS worked in their fields with ox-drawn plows.
WORKERS used bronze sickles.
The River was dotted by BOATS carrying produce to and from the city.
A ZIGGURAT (a terraced tower, built in the shape of a pyramid, crowned by a sanctuary) dominated the flat countryside
INSIDE
THE CITY
  SPECIALISTS pursued their appointed tasks as agents of the community.
Some craftsmen cast bronze tools and weapons.
Others fashioned their wares on the potter's wheel.
Merchants arranged to trade grain and manufactured goods for the metals, stone, lumber, and other essentials not available in Sumer.

SCRIBES

Tablets were memoranda used in administering the temple (the warehouse and workshop of the entire community).
Some scribes made an inventory of the goats and sheep received that day for sacrifice.
Others drew up wage lists using a system of counting based on the unit 60.


CHARACTERISTICS OF LIFE IN
ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA

GOVERNMENT   CITY-STATES ruled by kings or priest-kings.
Led the army.
Administered the economy.
Served as judges and as intermediaries between their people and the gods.

At first KINGS were representatives of the gods. Later, on some occasions and for short periods of time, they instituted cults and were worshipped as divine.

CENTRALIZED
POWER
  UNION OF CHURCH AND STATE  in the person of the king.
ECONOMY managed from the center by priests and king.
Each year, land surveyed, fields assigned to specific farmers, amount of seed designated.
Government estimated size of crop and planned its distribution.

CENTRALIZATION process required:

A large and competent staff
The ability to observe and record natural phenomena
A good knowledge of mathematics
A system of writing (i.e., cuneiform).
RELIGION   Worshipped GODS WITH HUMAN FORMS (usually local deities)
Frivolous
Quarrelsome
Selfish

Vague and gloomy picture of the AFTERWORLD.
Religion dealt with PROBLEMS OF THE WORLD.
Used prayer, sacrifice, and magic to achieve their ends.
Armies of SCRIBES kept great quantities of records.
Religion inspired the architectural achievement: the ZIGGURAT.

PRIESTHOOD flourished:

Priests possessed the wisdom and ritual needed to influence the gods.
High percentage of cuneiform writing devoted to prayers, incantations, curses, and omens.

ASTROLOGY: a way to seek evidence of divine action in the movements of the heavenly bodies.

MYTH played a large part in the literature and art.

Tales of the creation of the world, of a great flood, an island paradise from which the god Enki was expelled for eating forbidden plants.
The Epic of Gilgameh tells of a hero who performed great feats in his travel
SOCIETY   Legally divided into three CLASSES:
Nobles
Commoners
Slaves

PUNISHMENT for crimes against freemen harsher than for those against slaves.

LAWS related to family, land tenure, and commerce:

MARRIAGE arranged by parents. It started out MONOGAMOUS but a husband whose wife was childless or ill for along time could take a second wife.
EXTRAMARITAL RELATIONS between husband and concubines, female slaves, and prostitutes were common and accepted. (The wife did not have similar privileges.)
DIVORCE was relative easy and not entirely inequitable.
WOMAN'S PLACE was in the home. One law stated that if a wife "has made up her mind to leave in order to engage in business, thus neglecting her house and humiliating her husband, he may divorce her without compensation."

SLAVERY arose from debt

Parents could sell their children into slavery or pledge themselves and their entire family as surety for a loan.
In case of default, they would all become slaves of the creditor for a stated period of time.
Some slaves worked for the king and the state, others for the temple and the priests, and still others for private citizens.
Most temple slaves were women who were probably used to spin thread, weave cloth, and grind flour.
Sometimes the royal slaves did the heavy work of building palaces, canals, and fortifications.
Private owners used their slaves chiefly as domestic servants.
Some female slaves were used as concubines.


FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

ONLINE
RESOURCES

 

The Nippur Expedition: Archeological excavation of  Nippur, for thousands of years the religious center of Mesopotamia, where Enlil, the supreme god of the Sumerian pantheon, is said to have created mankind.
Sumerian Mythology FAQ: Focuses on religion and deities.
Ancient Tablets, Ancient Graves: Assessing Women's Lives in Mesopotamia. Women in World History Curriculum - Lesson of the Month by Lyn Reese.
Assyro-Babylonian Mythology FAQ: Makes comparisons to Sumerian mythology.
Babylonian and Egyptian Mathematics: Interesting study of early mathematical concepts.
Cuneiform Writing System (Babylonian and Assyrian cuneiform texts): Excellent tutorial on cuneiform texts.
Origin and Development of Writing in Mesopotamia: Economic interpretation with illustrations.
Ziggurats: Ziggurats from Archimedia:
Gilgamesh:  Babylonia epic poem.
The Code of Hammurabi: Ancient legal code.
DISCUSSION
QUESTIONS
 
How important do you think each of these discoveries was to the establishment of civilization: agriculture, metallurgy, plowing, transportation, the potter's wheel?
What do you think prompted people to initiate the first civilizations?
What advantages do people get from civilization? What do they lose?
Why was the discovery of writing so important to the development of civilization?
To what extent do the characteristics of life in Ancient Mesopotamia correspond to the definition of civilization?
In 1939, the American writer Henry Miller defined civilization as: "drugs, alcohol, engines of war, prostitution, machines and machine slaves, low wages, bad food, bad taste, prisons, reformatories, lunatic asylums, divorce, perversion, brutal sports, suicides, infanticide, cinema, quackery, demagogy, strikes, lockouts, revolutions, putsches, colonization, electric chairs, guillotines, sabotage, floods, famine, disease, gangsters, money barons, horse racing, fashion shows, poodle dogs, chow dogs, Siamese cats, condoms, pessaries, syphilis, gonorrhea, insanity, neuroses, etc., etc."
What do you think prompted such a pessimistic view of civilization?
What words and phrases would you use to define American civilization in year 2000?
 


Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: July 11, 2000