This week for historic inspiration I'll be looking into Sumer, the first urban civilisation - credited with a fair amount of important developments that persist to this day! With this in mind - I'll be looking into the elements of a civilisation - things to that can help when designing a civilisation within a fantasy context.
A Word on the Provided InformationPlease note that research was done using mostly secondary and tertiary sources of information - so keep this in mind as you are reading through. What this means is that the information present is not directly from documents that speak of these events. Information used is from, not exclusively Museum visits, and online research. Whilst this information may hopefully be useful for the sake of inspiration for example - I do recommend further research to confirm the information if you are seeking solid information on the history of Malta for the sake of things such as, but not exclusively, academic work. Think of this as more of an exploration and research of an individual.
When we say that Sumer is credited to being the first urban civilisation - it is because they were the first to construct large cities - some of which housed tens of thousands of people. Given the time period of around 3500 B.C. - this is an incredible achievement. To help put this figure into perspective - a Roman census at around 508 B.C. 130,000 assumed over 17 males were counted in the Roman populace - if we were to double that to assume the female population we would have 260,000 Romans. One of the larger Sumerian cities may have very well had around 80,000 citizens.
Mesopotamia - the home region of the Sumerian - was dotted with a number of city-states that the Sumerians dwelled within. Each of these city states would be centered around the worship of a particular god or goddess - ruled over by a priest or king. The name of the region itself - mesopotamia - meaning the land between two rivers in Greek - would have offered the Sumerians a beautiful landscape with food and water being available close-by. The rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates themselves had a much deeper important to the civilization outside of food and water - it served as a major method of transportation. The waterways also became a critical component for trade routes - particularly due to the type of terrain that the civilization was located in.
Some of the city states of the Sumerians include Eridu, Bad-tibira, Larsa, Sippar, Shuruppak, Uruk, Kish, Ur, Nippur, Lagash and a number of others. After a number of hunter-gatherers began planting gardens, as well as growing crops that needed permanent settlements - this would have encouraged a more permanent residence for the societies. This needless to say - opened vast opportunities for the society to begin developing in ways that would have been difficult had they been nomadic. Building houses, planting crops, developing tools and ideas that would have been innovative at the time.
With food taken care of - individuals could begin specialising in new occupations - pottery, smithing, trading, carpentry, weaving and so on. As the Sumerian economy grew - the need to calculate and record the supplies and goods of the economy grew. So came the development of one of the oldest - if not the oldest forms of writing. Sumerian writing was done on clay tablets - using streamlined pictures to represent ideas or goods. Developing further into phonetic letters later on to develop cuneiform - for symbols of spoken sounds.
As the city-states grew - the need for land grew, more over, boundaries that once separated city states became questioned; leading to war between Sumerian city states. War acted as a major driver towards pushing the boundaries of technology with the Sumerian city-states. Warriors of the time would have been armed with mostly copper and leather based equipment. Most likely copper helmets, a spear, sword and leather shields. Certain stela designs show what seem to be a phalanx formation used by warriors of certain Sumerian kings. This would pre-date the use of the phalanx within Greek society by a fair margin.
Other equipment used and developed further by the Sumerians are chariots as well as the sickle sword that would become a standard infantry weapon used by the Egyptians at a later date. Certain socket-axe designs may have also been developed - as body armor designs improved within the region. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspect of this period is the fact that the warriors of Sumer may very well be the first standing professional army in human history.
Decline of Sumer
The decline of the Sumerians came primarily in the form of hunger, malnutrition and disease - as the land used for farming had increasing amounts of salt due to evaporating waters left behind salts in the soil after the water level had risen. The salt - having been spread due to the irrigation channels, meant that vast areas once useful to grow wheat - became far less fertile as the years went by. The salt itself - hardened by the sun, whiting the terrain and prevented further cultivation. Another large factor that lead to the spreading of illness included the fact that garbage was often burnt - if not simply left in the streets. Weakened Sumerians were ill-equipped to defend with invaders due to this. After being conquered by Sargon the Great - the Sumerians regained their independence only after the empire of Sargon fell. Only after this period of renaissance were the Sumerians again conquered by the Amorites (Westerners) did the Sumerians slowly began to vanish as an identifiable ethnicity - as the Amorites adopted the Sumerian culture. Another aspect that seemed to have lead to the decline of the civilization seemed to be due to rigidity. Whilst at the start - the Sumerians were innovators and built new ideas and concepts - they eventually seemingly became highly restricted in terms of their freedoms. As to why this was the case - is debatable. The Amorites slowly began to expand and Hammurabi was one king that began to expand his influence throughout Mesopotamia.
Like Sargon before him, Hammurabi built networks of roads and postal systems to help connect the vast cities under his rule. Delegating power to governors to rule his in stead. Babylon - became a city where trade routes crossed - becoming a centre for skilled artisans, architects, and businesses. The city was surrounded by vast fields of crops - such as melons and barley - and previous materials including timber and metals were imported - if they were not available locally. In 539 BCE - Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers Babylon. The ideas and concepts, the knowledge and techniques used by the Sumerians - rather than lost to history - continued through the Greeks and Persians.
Whilst one must keep in mind that many technologies, ideas and concepts might have developed independently through the world - be it in China, Mesopotamia, or South America for example. It is still worth noting the ingenuity of the Sumerians. For example, the Sumerians had issues of flooding - so they developed irrigation and dams that not only helped them relieve the issue of rising water levels - but also help in agriculture.
As trade flourished - the Sumerians were very fond of lapis lazuli - this lead to the creation of contracts. These first contracts were done by rolling cylinder with a relief onto a clay tablet. The relief on the clay tablet - became the contract. This eventually would lead to the creation of the first laws. The code of Hammurabi is a well preserved Babylonian code of law that helps us see what the laws of Sumerians may have involved.
Below are a few credited concepts or items to the Sumerians.
- Creation of the Wheel
- Cuneiform Writing
- Mathematical Measurements and Systems (Time Measurements for example)
- Sail Boats
- Agricultural Processes [Irrigation]
- Concept of Cities
- First Legal code
Civilisation in Fantasy
Aside from the inspiration to be taken of the Sumerians and their civilisation - as I did my research I asked the question as to what exactly qualifies a civilisation to be a civilisation? Charles Reman - based on work by Gordon Childe - create 10 characteristics that may help look at civilisation.
Primary Characteristics of a Civilization
- - Urban Settlements
- - Full Time Specialists not involved in Agricultural Activities
- - Concentration of Surplus Production
- - Class Structure
- - State-Level Organization (Government)
Secondary Characteristics of a Civilization
- - Monumental Public Building
- - Extensive Trading Networks
- - Standardized Monumental Artwork
- - Writing
- - Development of Exact Sciences
However - an important criticism or aspect to keep in mind - is that these are not always true. Aztecs did not have writing, the Mongols had little urban settlements, the civilisation that built stonehenge seemed to have no state-level organisation nor writing etc. These provide a framework - however one should not fall into the trap of thinking these are must have characteristics. Other elements we can keep in mind are;
- Art and Architecture
- Social Structure
However again - we must keep in mind that these are guidelines - and not necessarily a must have characteristic. These do however provide a means to imagine what exactly would it take to create a civilisation in a fantasy setting that feels alive in a way. That has depth and makes sense if that is the aim.
I hope you found this to be interesting as much as I did, and useful if you are looking into the creation of a civilisation! There is much more to the Sumerians that one can learn that would have likely taken up multiple posts - so I do encourage you to delve deeper into areas you may find to be of particular interest!
Until next time,