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The ancient Sumerians, the ‘black-headed ones,’ lived in the southern part of what is now Iraq. The heartland of Sumer lay between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in what the Greeks later called Mesopotamia. This territory, once skilfully irrigated, proved very fertile, and major cities had long been in existence before the period when archaeologists can identify the Sumerian people themselves.
The Sumerians were characteristically inventive, and are likely to have been responsible for the development of the first writing. Well before 3000 BC Sumerians were recording their language using simple pictures. They wrote on tablets of clay, later evolving the script that to us is known as cuneiform, or ‘wedge-shaped.’
They were energetic farmers, traders and sailors. Their religion recognised many gods, whose feats and escapades were described in stories that were often preserved for generations. Rituals as well as parties were enlivened by skilful harpists and singers, and Sumerian musical instruments have even been excavated by modern archaeologists.
Book-keeping was a feature of Sumerian life, and very detailed records on clay tablets of offerings, rations, taxes and agricultural work have come down to us. Their favourite board game achieved popularity throughout the whole Middle Eastern world. Imported lapis lazuli and carnelian was much prized for inlays and jewellery.
Archaeology has shown that in about 2500 BC the ruling elite in the city of Ur went to their final resting place surrounded by their wealth and the attendant bodies of their court personnel.