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July 15, 2003 Press Contact: William Harms
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It happened first in ancient Mesopotamia

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Additional press releases:
Oriental Institute opens major gallery on ancient Mesopotamia

The Oriental Institute studies the archaeological heritage of ancient Mesopotamia

Dictionary documents ancient Mesopotamian language

Assyrian bull provides museum focal point

The country we know today as Iraq has a history as a civilization going back more than 5,000 years. The ancient Greeks, who recognized the role the Tigris and Euphrates rivers played in the area’s development, called it Mesopotamia (“land between the rivers”).

By 3,500 B.C., city-states had emerged in southern Mesopotamia. These Sumerian city-states included Ur, which according to the Bible was the birthplace of Abraham. The city of Babylon became the capital of much of the area under King Hammurabi (1,792-1,750 B.C.), who is famous for the collection of laws known as the Code of Hammurabi. The northern part of the country, known as Assyria, rose to prominence during the first half of the first millennium (900-630 B.C.). King Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 B.C.) undertook vast building projects at Babylon that brought it to the height of its splendor. Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 B.C. The Persians were, in turn, conquered by the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great, in 331 B.C.

The ancient Mesopotamians were the first known to use many things we now consider essential. Here are some examples:

  • Writing: The Sumerians developed one of the earliest writing systems in about 3,200 B.C. Although writing began as pictures, it quickly developed into a series of signs comprised of wedges and called “cuneiform” after the Latin word for wedge. Cuneiform was written using a reed or wooden stylus pressed onto the surface of a clay tablet. The earliest tablets are administrative records. However, cuneiform was soon used to record literary texts, such as the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” as well as for writings on other topics such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Writing greatly facilitated the accumulation and transmission of knowledge between distant peoples and generations.
  • Mathematics: Symbols for numbers were among the signs on the earliest written documents. The Mesopotamians were sophisticated mathematicians and were the first to develop the idea of place value based on a number’s position in a sequence.
  • Time: The Mesopotamians were the first to divide time units into 60 parts. This concept lead to our 60-second minute and 60-minute hour.
  • Urban civilization: One of the world’s earliest cities was Uruk, which by the year 3,000 B.C. had an estimated population of 50,000. People living in cities developed specialized trades, such as metalsmithing and such professions as scribes.
  • The wheel: The ancient Mesopotamians were using the wheel by about 3,500 B.C. They used the potter’s wheel to throw pots and wheels on carts to transport both people and goods. This invention had an impact on ceramic technology, trade, and warfare in the early city-states.
  • The sail: The Mesopotamians made sails to harness the wind to move boats, and eventually sailed and traded as far away as what is now India.
  • Astronomy and astrology: From a very early time, the Mesopotamians had charted the movements across the sky of the sun, moon, planets and stars. They were able to predict celestial events, such as eclipses, using that knowledge. They also divided the night sky into 12 sections and named them for nearby constellations, the names of which come down to us through Greek and later Latin translations as the Zodiac.

 

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Last modified at 05:01 PM CST on Thursday, July 31, 2003.

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