Saylor.org's Ancient Civilizations of the World/The Emergence of Sumerian Culture
Sumer was a civilization located near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on the Persian Gulf (modern day southeastern Iraq) from the time of the earliest records in the mid 4th millennium BCE until the rise of Babylonia in the late 3rd millennium BCE. The term "Sumerian" applies to all speakers of the Sumerian language. Sumer is considered the first settled society in the world to have manifested all the features needed to qualify fully as a "civilization". Settlements such as Ur and Uruk were the first to arise on Earth which could qualify as cities, where the majority of inhabitants were engaged in pursuits other than agriculture, supported by the surplus food production of surrounding lands.
Sumer was a favorable location for a civilization to arise. Watered by the annual floods of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the rich soil of the region, combined with the warm climate, offered farmers a long growing season and high productivity. Sumer also lay at a confluence of trade routes -- the Persian Gulf offered access to Arabia and lands around the Indian Ocean, while the Tigris and Euphrates were natural highways leading north and west toward Anatolia and the Mediterranean Sea. Since the first appearance of agriculture six millennia earlier, Mesopotamia had been home to a series of farming cultures of increasing number and sophistication. As populations in the region rose, leaders organized communal labor to build irrigation systems and bring more land into production. These efforts, which required coordination and record-keeping, most likely became the basis for the Sumerian state.
ca. 5300 - 4000 BCE
Saw the settlement of the first town in lower mesopotamia, Eridu, ca. 5300 BCE, by a group which brought with them the Samarran culture from the north. First settlement beyond the 5 inch rainfall isohyet - there was not enough rain to grow crops, but the water table was high enough to allow for manual irrigation of the rich alluvial soil - a project which was labor intensive and necessarily centrally coordinated. Eridu was not the first city - well-known cities such as Jericho and Çatalhöyük already existed as year-round trading colonies or for seasonal protection. Farming also existed, but was seasonal - when not farming, people continued to be mobile hunter-gatherers.
ca. 4000-3000 BCE
Archaeological sites show a gradual shift from fine quality pottery of the Ubaid period (which were often made with the help of a turntable), to plain pottery mass-produced on a true fast potter's wheel. The technology used to make the fast potter's wheel would then be used for the mill-wheel and for vehicular wheels.
Ca. 3500, the need for record keeping led to the development of writing - starting with number symbols, pictograms were added to represent what was being counted. This quickly developed into a full logographic script to represent the full range of language, not just counted objects, and the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Elamites soon developed their own logographic writing systems. At first symbols were simple carved in a medium or drawn in clay. By the end of the millennium, a triangular stylus came into use to make impressions in clay, creating the characteristic cuneiform script. With the use of the stylus, symbols became more abstract.
Jemdet Nasr period
ca. 3000-2900 BCE
Archaeology shows the Jemdet Nasr period was followed by a layer of riverine sediment throughout the Sumerian area in lower Mesopotamia, indicating what was probably a devastating flood event for the Sumerians. The Sumerian king list then picks up the "kingship" in Kish, far to the north.
Early Dynastic periods
ca. 2900 - 2334 BCE (short chronology)
Ca. 2600, the cuneiform symbols started being used to represent the sounds of individual word syllables, independent of cuneiform symbols' meanings. This syllabary would be adopted by the Akkadians, Eblaites and Elamites, and later by the Hittites and Uragitic speakers. This wide dissemination has allowed the cuneiform script, and the Sumerian language to be deciphered by modern linguists. The previously used logographic scripts, both Sumerian and Elamite, remain undeciphered, unlike the ancient Egyptian, which retained their logographic hieroglyphs well into the Hellenistic period. The Rosetta Stone, a text written in both hieroglyphs and in classical Greek was the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Because Egyptian hieroglyphs had remained essentially the same since the beginning, we are able to read Egyptian texts going back to ca. 3100 BCE. But for Sumer, the historical record only opens for us starting ca. 2600 BCE, when the syllabary came into use.