Education in Ancient Sumer
You can have a Lord.
You can have a King
But the man to fear
is the tax collector
- Sumerian proverb
The Sumerians were the first people to develop a system of arithmetic. Adding,
subtracting and multiplying were important skills when handling goods such as
grain or cattle in any quantity. The Sumerians also developed an efficient
system of weights and measures and their supreme invention - that of writing -
arose from the practical need to keep records of goods for the purposes of trade
or tax collection.
Those records began in the simplest of forms - picture images of the item - an
ox head, for example - and a number of dots to indicate the quantity. Symbols
were drawn on a soft clay tablet using a sharpened reed. The tablet was then
baked in a kiln to harden it. Originally lists of items were arranged in
vertical columns starting from the top right hand side. Around 3000 BCE,
however, scribes found that they could write better by turning the tablets and
writing from left to right, in horizontal rows.
At the same time, the original, pointed stylus was abandoned in favor of one
with a wedge shaped tip. Scratching with a point was prone to leave untidy
ridges; the new wedge shaped stylus could be pressed into the clay to leave a
crisper impression. Stylized images, composed entirely of cuneiform, or 'wedge
shaped' marks made up the writing system used in Mesopotamia.
By about 2500 BCE, the original picture signs were reduced to such stylized
symbolism that the original objects could hardly be recognized. The scribes also
started to use characters to represent ideas, actions, feelings and so on,
rather than just concrete objects alone. Ambiguities began to creep in and
sometimes resulted. The picture image of a foot, for example, might mean to come
or go or stand and so on. Thousands of different characters were invented to
encompass the full range of words in use.
The eventual solution was to use signs phonetically - to indicate sounds rather
than actual object. Using a fairly limited repertoire of syllables it was
possible to build up most any word. The Sumerian system included some 600 - 700
signs which had to be memorized. The system was not condensed further by
breaking syllables down into the two dozen or so letters that make up our modern
day alphabet but their own method proved remarkably flexible. It permitted a
rich literature to flourish alongside workday texts such as bills of sale and
legal contracts. The Sumerian system of arithmetic was based on the unit of 60
and has survived through the centuries in our hour of 60 minutes and circle of