Section 3, Chapt. 2 of John Heise's 'Akkadian language', about the protohistory of the Ancient Near East, including Sumerian King Lists, The Flood story, First cities (Jemdet Nasr), Old Sumerian Age, Early Dynastic.

III. Protohistory in Mesopotamia

A bird's eye view: important time periods, famous city names, dynasties, terminology, as an invitation to see the literature on the Ancient Near East.

See literature on the Ancient Near East.

Contents of this section

  1. Protohistory in Mesopotamia
    1. Protohistory as described in later texts
      1. Sumerian King Lists
      2. The Flood story
    2. The first cities(Jemdet Nasr period)
    3. Old Sumerian Age
      1. The city Kish, Early Dynastic-I, the Golden Age (2900-2700 BCE)
      2. The city Uruk, Early Dynastic-II, the Heroic Age (2700-2500 BCE)
      3. The cities Ur and Lagash, Early Dynastic-III (2500-2350 BCE)

Protohistory, introduction

History starts per definition with the invention of writing (around 3200 BCE). However, the first written documents are scarce, difficult to read, mostly economic in nature and thus revealing little about the political situation. Most of the oldest records are still undeciphered. The earliest historic period is often called protohistory, the period of scarcely written documents. In Europe for example the period of the Carolines and Merovines in the early middle ages are called the protohistory.

Some scholars emphasize the literary component in those societies and speak about the protoliterate which is divided in several parts, called A, B, C and D.

The small amount of available documents is supplemented by texts written many centuries later but referring to these early stages. In combination with archeological records, these should be taken seriously. A legendary king becomes real when e.g. votive inscriptions carrying his name are found.

The most important aspects of the society in the protohistory are the beginning of monumental buildings (temples, palaces, fortifications), the accumulation of capital and the economic use of metal and writing, leading to the first city states. As in the neolithic one speaks about the agricultural revolution, this age witnesses the urban revolution.

Sumerian protohistory is divided into the Jemdet Nasr period (the foundation of the first city states) for which no contemporary records are available and the Old Sumerian period. The Old Sumerian period lasts until the seizure of power by the Semitic king Sargon of Akkad (around 2350 BCE). The period is divided into dynastics determined by the hegemony of a certain city.

1. Protohistory as described in later texts

Sumerians are very conscious about their civilization and held a high opinion of it. The urban revolution starting around 3100 BCE has impressed the Sumerians themselves. It was a heroic age. The circumstances in those times are a source for many myths and legends. An epic tradition started with heroic poems going back to real social phenomena. In origin historical events (at least in part) are chanted and told from generation to generation, adding and deleting with literary freedom. Many centuries later stories from oral tradition were written down, usually schematically and as loose fragments. Still later (a millennium, in the Old Babylonian period, 19th century BCE) the fragments were arranged and composed into complete epics. They got standardized into canonical literature, when they were written and copied by generations of scribes (often in schools). There is a general analogy with other 'heroic ages' in later times, (Homer, the Indian Maghabharata, the Germanic Heroic age). The similarity probably shows a common political and social structure.

The Sumerian epic bear witness to a political structure in which a leader as king of a city or small state (city with subordinate cities) maintains hegemony by personal courage. The king has a retinue of armed and loyal supporters. Kings of different city states are in competition, but basically have a good relation. They form an aristocracy, separated from ordinary people. The divine world is structured in a similar way.

Sumerian King Lists

Some early texts are the Sumerian King Lists, known in ancient times by the first line or the first few opening words: (Sumerian) nam.lugal meaning 'kingship' with lugal 'king', the sign nam introduces an abstract noun in Sumerian (and later in Akkadian compound logograms). These lists are composed in the 22th century BCE, many centuries after the times they refer to. The lists are copied by generations of scribes and standardized in this process until in the Old Babylonian time a canonical version exists extended with kings up to that time period. The Lists are first studied by Jacobsen and published in 1939. It is a basic tool in the earliest history of Mesopotamia. The purpose of these lists was probably to show that Sumer and Akkad ''always'' served under one kingship and consequently may have distored the truth to serve the purpose. The lists sometimes contradicts other epic stories. E.g. certain kings should be contemporaneous, whereas they don't show to do so in the King Lists.
In the lists Kingship is seen as a divine institution: it descended from heaven. The opening line of the text is:
'When kingship was lowered from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu.'
Because of this, kingship is seen as an institution that is shared by different cities. Each city takes its turn during a certain period. The Sumerian sign for 'government' or 'year(s) of government' is the same sign for 'turn', bala taken as loan word by the Akkadians as palû. It is written with the sign BAL which in later New Assyrian orthography is BAL. In Akkadian it is used as a logogram. The sign developed from a pictogram of the shuttle of a loom (the rotating part, to weave tissue, together with the determinative for 'wood' it still means 'shuttle of a loom') and was used for words meaning 'to rotate', 'turn' and thus also 'government'. The hegemony of a city in the Sumerian King Lists does not always mean that the cited kings really had supremacy over kings in neighboring city states.

From the lists an important caesure becomes apparent, the great Flood or Deluge. Names and events are either antediluvial or postdiluvial. In later epics the Flood signals the end of mythological times, when things were formed, and inaugurates the beginning of historical times. About eight (in other versions ten) antediluvial kings are mentioned together with their periods of government. Extremely large ages were attributed to the kings before the Flood. Added together they would have ruled for 241200 years..... The antediluvial period is also seen as the era of divine revelations, such as the invention of agriculture, the invention of writing etc. Some of the antediluvial cities mentioned are Eridu, Sippar and Šurruppak.

Eridu, the first city mentioned, is the city of the water god Enki/Ea (one of the top three deities in the Sumerian pantheon). It is situated in the extreme south of Mesopotamia near the sea or a lagoon. It is said that the 'principle of agriculture' was revealed by a god to the first king of Eridu: Emmeduranki.

Sippar was to become the city of the sun god, Sumerian utu, later called Šamaš in Akkadian. It is said that the secrets of divination were shown to a king of Sippar, also by divine revelation. Gods make their will, intentions and answers known to the people by supernatural means: numerous omens and signs that needed explanation. The exegesis of omens was seen as a discipline ('science') to inquire the gods. It was an official institution, used by the king to collect information. No decision of any importance was taken without proper consulting. The sun god utu is in particular connected with the discipline of divination. He is in a position to oversee everything, so also the future.

Šurrupak is a city on the banks of the Euphrates, near modern Fara. The last king of Šurruppak was the hero in the Flood story.

The Flood story

The motive of the Flood, a ''word wide'' catastrophe, circulates in all of antiquity. All kinds of versions of the catastrophe are passed down from generation to generation and from country to country. There are Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Hittite versions and probably independently in much of the world's folklore elsewhere. When the first texts about the Flood (Akkadian abübum, a devastating storm surge) were discovered in 1872 by George Smith, it made headline news in all papers, because of the similarities with the story in the bible (dated almost two millennia later). Fantasy was further stirred by the English archeologist Sir L. Woolley. He found (1929) in excavations a deposit of silt of a few meters thickness, under which artifacts were found dated to the 5th millennium. These deposits, however, are always localized to a small area, as Woolley himself has later discovered. Time, place and extend of this flood are inconsistent with the literary tradition. A local breakthrough of the river is a sufficient explanation.

All alluvial plains and river deltas in the world have suffered from major floods. A serie of floods in the 15th century CE, called the The St. Elisabeth Floods, has shaped part of the Netherlands in the Rhine delta. Millions of people even now are in constant danger because of flood threat, so it is not surprising that the story still addresses the imagination. There is no doubt that floods did have a great impact on the Mesopotamian civilization and that some of them occurred around 2900 BCE.

The various versions and fragments of the epic point to different traditions in Flood stories. The Sumerian Flood hero (the early Noah) is called Ubar-Tutu ('Friend of the god Tutu'), in other versions Ziusudra ('Life of long days') In the Akkadian version he is called Utnapištim ('he has found (everlasting) life') elsewhere also Atrahasïs ('exceedingly wise'). The epic named after the latter is very famous and is in Old Babylonian form dated to 1635 BCE. It exists also in later traditions.

2. The first cities (Jemdet Nasr period)

The urban revolution, the building of the first cities, took place in 3100-2900 BCE in the transition from prehistory to history. The change in human settlement pattern from isolated settlements to larger village communities, described before, continued. The dry climate at the end of the 4th millennium now allowed habitation of the great plains in the extreme south of Mesopotamia, the area later called Sumer. Inadequate rainfall stimulated the continuing development of irrigation works. The production of bronze, an alloy of copper and other metals, mainly tin, allows the manufacturing of new weapons, for which protection was sought by the construction of fortifications around the villages and walls around cities.

3. Old Sumerian Age

The bloom and further development of the city states is called the Early Dynastic period (2900-2400 BCE) or Old Sumerian period. It is divided into three periods in which different cities dominate. The Old Sumerian period is characterized by strong rivalry between city states and an increasing division between state and religion. Monumental buildings that should be called palaces as opposed to temples are attested for the first time. Despite the rivalry there are strong similarities in architecture, building materials, motives of ornaments etc., The people shared a common religion and spoke the same language. So in general one could speak of a Sumerian art and culture.

Old Sumerian is the language used in the Old Sumerian age. A large fraction of texts in Old Sumerian and most of our knowledge on this language is derived from texts already found before 1900 CE in Nippur, a holy city, the religious capital of Sumer, seat of Enlil, the supreme god of the Sumerian pantheon. These tablets (more than 30000) can now be found in Istanbul, Jena and Philadelphia. These tablets include the oldest versions of literary works, such as the Gilgamesh Epic and the Creation Story, as well as administrative, legal, medical and business records, and school texts.

3.1 The city Kish, Early Dynastic-I, the Golden Age (2900-2700 BCE)

Kish, a city in the north of Babylonia near modern Tel el-ehêmir, is the first postdiluvial city mentioned in the Sumerian King Lists. After the great Flood, 'kingdom lowered again from heaven'. The first kings had Semitic names. It is an age in which 'the four quarters of the world' lived in harmony.

From excavations it appears indeed that Kish has been an important city. It is the center of the first Sumerian dynasty, called Early Dynastic-I. The findings point to a specialization in labor and a high quality of craftsmanship, which must have been the result of a long tradition. Beautiful golden daggers and other artifacts are found in tombs. In Kish archeologist found the first monumental building which must have been a palace, rather than a temple. The king is in power, and not the en the high priest.

The title King of Kish. The importance attached to Kish is also shown in the title 'King of Kish', in Akkadian šar kiš šati. This title was used by kings even many centuries later to show prestige, as if it meant 'king of the whole world'. The title was even used when another king was actually the king of Kish and also long after Kish had ceased to be the seat of kingship. It is possible that the title was more than just prestige. Kish is situated in the north of the plains of southern Mesopotamia on a critical spot at the Euphrates river. A breakthrough of the river to the lowlands in the direction south west (to modern An Najat, where the Euphrates flows nowadays) would mean that a whole system of irrigation channels would be without water supply. The control of the Euphrates in the neighborhood of Kish thus was of vital importance to the rulers in the south of Mesopotamia. The title 'king of Kish' could have indicated the ruler that exercised this control.

3.2 The city Uruk, Early Dynastic-II, the Heroic Age (2700-2500 BCE)

Uruk (Sumerian unug, in the bible Erech) is situated near modern Warka (still showing the same root consonants *'rk but with a different vocalization). This period under the hegemony of Uruk is also called the Heroic Age. Dynasties are known from epics written some time later. Uruk is the city of the goddess Inanna and the supreme god An. Kings of Uruk are called en 'lord'. A reconstruction from later mythology shows this period to be a primitive democracy. Major decisions are taken by the king after consultance of a counsel of elderly men

Enmerkar, king of Uruk and Kullub, has as epithet 'he who build Uruk' and is known from two epics. There is no known inscription or plaque that bears his name, so there is no archeological proof of his existence. The texts refer to commercial and military contacts with a city called Aratta (not yet localized, probably in Iran), where the Sumerian goddess Inanna (later Akkadian Ištar) and Dumuzi were also worshiped. These epics are seen as a proof of trade contacts, e.g. the trade in precious stones, like lapis lazuli. Enmerkar was the first, according to legend, to write on clay tablets.

Lugalbanda (lugal 'king', banda 'small', so 'junior king') was the third king in the first dynasty of Uruk, and also featuring in heroic-epic Sumerian poems, the so called Lugal banda-epic (two parts, together 900 lines).

Gilgameš is grandson of Enmerkar. His fame spread over a large region through the Gilgamesh-epic. An Assyrian version is found in the library of Aššurbanipal (around 650 BCE) and probably dates back to 1700 BCE. Smaller Sumerian fragments with only a few hundred lines are dated around 2000 BCE. The spread in time and location indicates that the epic was known for more than 15 centuries in a large region up to Anatolia. It is nowadays (as one of the few Mesopotamian epics) still played on stage. The Gilgamesh epic is further explained elsewhere on the Web.

Gilgamesh was responsible for the construction of the city walls of Uruk. Indeed, it appears from archeological records that these walls were expanded around 2700 BCE with its typical plano-convex type of bricks. Archeologists take the use of this material as a characteristic for the start of Early Dynamic-II. There is no archeological evidence for the existence of Gilgamesh. An other royal name in this dynasty, Mesannepada, has been found written on a golden plate (dated to 2600 BCE) with a votive inscription.

3.3 The cities Ur and Lagash, Early Dynastic-III (2500-2350 BCE)

The Early Dynastic-III period is outside protohistory and usually considered to be part of history. Many source and archives are known. One of them, contemporaneously with the archeological stratus of Uruk-IVa with archaic pictographical texts, is found in Šuruppak (modern Fara). Another site is only known by its modern name, the village Abu salabih, with Old Sumerian texts. The majority of these texts have an economical/administrative nature.

Ur. Officially, according to the Sumerian King Lists, Ur has the hegemony in this era, the Early Dynastic-III. In practice 'hegemony' probably was fairly marginal. Ur is a port with connection to the Persian Gulf.

Lagaš and the religious metropolis Girsu are both cities in the extreme south of Mesopotamia. Many Old Sumerian texts have been found here, mostly on hard materials like albast, copper and gold, e.g. the royal inscriptions of Lagash and texts about the eternal border conflicts between Lagash and the nearby city Umma. The conflicts often concern water rights and were sometimes settled by mediation of the king of Kish.

The patron deity of Lagash is Ningursu, later associated with Ninurta, a warrior god and central in the elimination of demons. Some of the kings of lagash are:

Eannatum , (E-ana-tum) the first king who called himself 'King of Kish', 'he who overrules the countries'. He boasts that his territory extends from Kish in the north, to Mari in the west, Uruk in the south and Elam in the east, although it is not clear what the 'ruling' over these cities actually means. He has had a long reign, but after his reign his territory was reduced again to its original size.

Famous is the victory depicted on the so called vulture stela of Eannatum, (see figure of the vulture stela at UCLA Art History). It is the oldest direct witness of the political and military power of a king, of which 1/3 is preserved. The texts announces new borders and the victory of Eannatum of Lagash over the ruler of Umma. It depicts military high lights, imprisoning of the enemy, the burial of the dead and the vultures who escape with the bones of the dead. It is shown as a serie of unrelated pictures. It is either an artist impression of a historical battle or just expresses the intention of such a battle.

Urukagina is the last and pious king of the dynasty in Lagash, also called uru-inimgina. The name is written with the sign ka 'mouth', which also stands for inim 'word'. Proper names often do not give enough context to know the correct reading of the sign. He was the last king of the first dynasty of Lagash, and introduced many reforms ('social reforms of Uru-inimgina') and enacted edicts related to the problem of enslavements which were caused by running up debts. High extortionate rates of the interest on capital (often 33.3 percent) had to be paid by enslaving one's children until the debts were paid off. Uru-inimgina remits the debts by decree.

Maintained and updated by John Heise
first installation on jan 6, 1995
last modification on Feb 17, 1996