There Were Giants Upon The Earth (cont.)
By Zecharia Sitchen
IV - Sumer: Where Civilization Began
Sumer, it is now known, was the land of a talented and dexterous people in what is now southern Iraq. Usually depicted in artful statues and statuettes in a devotional stance (Fig. 28), it was the Sumerians who were the first ones to record and describe past events and tell the tales of their gods. It was there, in the fertile plain watered by the great Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, that Mankind’s first known civilization blossomed out some 6,000 years ago—“suddenly,” “unexpectedly,” “with stunning abruptness,” according to all scholars. It was a civilization to which we owe, to this day, virtually every ‘First’ of what we deem essential to an advanced civilization: The wheel and wheeled transportation; the brick that made (and still makes) possible high-rise buildings; furnaces and the kiln that are essential to industries from baking to metallurgy; astronomy and mathematics; cities and urban societies; kingship and laws; temples and priesthoods; timekeeping, a calendar, festivals; from beer to culinary recipes, from art to music and musical instruments; and, above all, writing and record keeping—it was all first there, in Sumer.
We now know all that thanks to the achievements of archaeology and the decipherment of ancient languages during the past century and a half. The long and arduous road by which ancient Sumer moved from complete obscurity to an awed appreciation of its grandeur has a number of milestones bearing the names of scholars who had made the journey possible. Some, who toiled at the varied sites, will be mentioned by us. Others, who pieced together and classified fragmented artifacts during a century and a half of Mesopotamian archaeology, are too many to be listed.
And then there were the epigraphers—sometimes out in the field, most of the time poring over tablets in crammed museum or university quarters—whose persistence, devotion, and abilities converted pieces of clay incised with odd ‘cuneates’ into legible historical, cultural and literary treasures. Their work was crucial, for while the usual pattern of archaeological and ethnographic discovery has been to find a people’s remains and then decipher their written records (if they had them), in the case of the Sumerians recognition of their language—even its decipherment—preceded the discovery of their land, Sumer (the common English spelling, rather than Shumer). And it was not because the language, ‘Sumerian’, preceded its people; on the contrary—it was because the language and its script lingered on after Sumer was long gone—just as Latin and its script had outlived the Roman empire thousands of years later.
The philological recognition of Sumerian began, as we have illustrated, not through the discovery of the Sumerians’ own tablets, but through the varied use, in Akkadian texts, of ‘loan words’ that were not Akkadian; the naming of gods and cities by names that made no sense in Assyrian or Babylonian; and of course by actual statements (as that by Ashurbanipal) about the existence of earlier writings in ‘Shumerian’. His statement was borne out by the discovery of tablets that rendered the same text in two languages, one Akkadian and the other in the mysterious language; then the next two lines were in Akkadian and in the other language, and so on (the scholarly term for such bilingual texts is ‘interlinears’).
It was in 1850 that Edward Hincks, a student of Rawlinson’s Behistun decipherments, suggested in a scholarly essay that an Akkadian ‘syllabary’—the collection of some 350 cuneiform signs each representing a full consonant + vowel syllable—must have evolved from a prior non-Akkadian set of syllabic signs. The idea (which was not readily accepted) was finally borne out when some of the clay tablets in the Akkadian-language libraries turned out to be bilingual ‘syllabarial’ dictionaries—lists that on one side of the tablet gave a cuneiform sign in the unknown language, and a matching list on the other side in Akkadian (with the signs’ pronunciation and meaning added, Fig. 29). All at once, archaeology obtained a dictionary of an unknown language! In addition to tablets inscribed as a kind of dictionaries, the so-called Syllabaries, various other bi-lingual tablets served as invaluable tools in deciphering the Sumerian writing and language.
In 1869 Jules Oppert, addressing the French Society of Numismatics and Archaeology, pointed out that the royal title “King of Sumer and Akkad” found on some tablets provided the name of the people who had preceded the Akkadian-speaking Assyrians and Babylonians; they were, he suggested, the Sumerians. The designation has been applied ever since—although, to this day, museums and the media prefer to name their exhibits or title their articles and programs “Babylonian” or at best “Old Babylonian” rather than the unfamiliar “Sumerian.” Though virtually everything that we consider essential to a developed civilization has been inherited from the Sumerians, many people still respond with a blank “Who?” when they hear the word ‘Sumerian’ . . .
The interest in Sumer and the Sumerians constituted a chronological as well as a geographical shift: From the 1st and 2nd millennia B.C. to the 3rd and 4th millennia B.C., and from northern and central Mesopotamia to its south. That ancient settlements lay buried there was indicated not only by the numerous mounds that were scattered over the flat mudlands, mounds that resulted from layers of habitats built upon layers (called strata) of the remains of previous habitats; more intriguing were odd artifacts that local tribesmen dug up out of the mounds, showing them to the occasional European visitors. What we know now is the result of almost 150 years of archaeological toil that brought to light, to varying degrees, Sumer’s fourteen or so major ancient centers (map, Fig. 30), virtually all of which are mentioned in the ancient texts.