Technology and Art of Ancient Sumer

Sumerian temple

The history of art is often traced to the ancient civilizations of the Middle East, and especially to the city-states of Mesopotamia. Among these, the first and most advanced culture was that of the Sumerians, who inhabited southern Mesopotamia from perhaps as early as 4000 BC until their final abandonment of their strongholds around 1900 BC.

The rise, peak, and decline of this civilization are almost exactly coincident with those of the first urban society in human history. This article presents a brief overview of the art and technology achievements of ancient Sumer.


The architectural legacy of Mesopotamia is rich and varied. Temple buildings, palaces, and city walls, as well as less monumental structures, have all been subjects of archaeological investigation. Sumerian architecture was strongly influenced by other cultural traditions, and its evolution is marked by a constant striving to harmonize indigenous Mesopotamian traditions with the artistic achievements of other, often more advanced, societies.

The earliest Sumerian buildings were probably built of sun-dried, unbaked bricks which have not survived. The baked bricks used in later buildings were made of clay mixed with chopped straw or reeds which were longer lasting.

The most interesting and unusual architectural feature of Sumerian cities was the use of the stepped-tower temple, called a ziggurat. This type of building first appeared in the northern city of Tell Asmar about 3100 BC. Ziggurats were made of baked bricks that were often stamped with the mark of the ruler who had commissioned the building. These bricks were probably made in special royal workshops.

Ziggurats were built which had many steps leading up to the place where the gods were thought to dwell. They were often built on a square base, with the corners of the base rising above the ground level to form towers. A common form of decoration was the use of human and animal figures.

Developments in Art

In the earliest (pre-Sargonic) cuneiform texts, there are references to Sumerian artists who decorated the walls and doors of palaces and temples with scenes of people and animals, as well as geometric designs of fish, birds, and lozenges. The later art of the Early Dynastic Period includes representations of Sumerian kings and gods, as well as scenes from daily life, such as mythological and religious stories, sports, battle scenes, and scenes of daily occupations.

Cylinder seals and their distinctive images, used as seals to stamp clay tablets and other objects, are another representative art form of ancient Sumer. In the later stages of Sumerian culture, statuary, both in the round and in relief, became increasingly important, especially after the introduction of the use of the harder and longer lasting copper by the Semitic peoples who gained ascendancy in Sumer during the 2nd millennium BC.

Sumerian statues were carved from many types of stone, including sandstone and limestone. Among these, the most characteristic were statues of seated persons, both male and female, that were placed on graves as a mark of respect to the deceased. Whilst these were often made of ordinary stone, some were carved from the rare and valuable greenish-blue stone called lapis lazuli.

Sumerian Technology: Agriculture and Irrigation

For thousands of years, the Sumerians depended on the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to water their crops. They built elaborate irrigation systems to bring the water to their fields. Besides irrigating the land, they also used the water to transport goods and other materials along the rivers and across the land.

Early Sumerian farmers used the flood waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to irrigate their crops. However, over time the flow of water became less predictable. Farmers came to depend on artificial irrigation systems to bring water to their fields instead.

During the Uruk period (circa 4000–3100 BC), the Sumerians created sophisticated irrigation systems, such as the Haji-I-Suk Water Apparatus in the Hakim River valley and the Bad-Tibira Irrigation System.

Sumerian Technology: Craft Production

Sumerian rulers controlled craft production by means of administrative laws such as those listed on the so-called “stela of the Standards” (known from the many clay impressions of it found on the site of the city of Lagash). This stela lists the various professions, the quality of products each is expected to produce, and the quantity of goods each profession is expected to deliver to the state.

Weaving, leather working, basket making, metal working, and pottery were some of the crafts carried out by the Sumerians. They also traded with neighboring civilizations, bringing goods with them when they traveled.

The Sumerians were the first people in the world to use smelted iron in their daily life. They were also the first people to master the use of tin-bronze for casting highly durable objects.

Iron had been known in the world since prehistoric times, and was smelted in limited quantities at a few places in the ancient world. Sumerian ironworkers were the first to produce the metal on a large scale, using a bellows to increase the heat of their furnaces. The Sumerian production of iron was the first example of industrial-scale production in human history.

Sumerian tin-bronze was an alloy of tin and copper. It was created in large quantities and used to cast a wide variety of tools, weapons, and ritual objects.

Sumerian Transportation Infrastructure

In order to maximize the benefits of the rivers, the Sumerians built canals to connect them. Between the Tigris and the Euphrates, they built the first known bridge, a large structure with a wooden frame anchored in rocks at each end, to span the distance between the two rivers. This allowed them to travel by boat between these two rivers, as well as to connect their network of canals. The Sumerians also built long-distance roads and a network of way stations. They were excellent engineers and were able to build very large-scale projects.

Sumerian Advancements in Engineering and Technology

The Sumerians had to solve many engineering problems in order to transform the wild and uninhabitable marshes of southern Mesopotamia into the cradle of mankind. To control the water flow, they built dikes, canals, and reservoirs. To irrigate the land, they dug canals and connected the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Using the abundant supply of water, they also built large-scale artificial reservoirs and managed a complex network of canals and waterways on which they transported both people and goods. These hydraulic engineering projects are remarkable because they were built with only the simplest tools, such as wooden shovels, and probably by people who had no knowledge of mathematics.


The ancient Sumerians are known as the first civilization to develop a writing system, including both cuneiform and alphabetic writings. They are also credited by some historians with the invention of the wheel, the invention of the potter's wheel, the invention of the sailboat, and many other technological and architectural achievements.

These discoveries and inventions made the Sumerians the most advanced civilization of their time, and set the foundation for many other civilizations to come.