The Sumerians were a group of people who lived in Mesopotamia -- now southern Iraq -- from approximately 3500 to 1750 B.C. They were known for their rich, varied culture that included farming, trading and playing music, and some of their instruments have been discovered by modern archaeologists. Before their civilization ended, the Sumerians were responsible for several important inventions.

Writing

Babylonian clay tablet with text

The Sumerians invented a form of communication known as pictographs, which were images and pictures drawn on rocks or stone. The pictographs evolved into a writing system known as cuneiform. In this system, wedge-shaped strokes were impressed on a wet clay surface to create symbols, then baked to leave a permanent impression. The Sumerians subsequently developed a system of identification by creating symbols that looked similar to the object they represented. The Sumerian writing system was originally written from top to bottom, but changed to left to right, and by 2800 B.C. it included the use of phonetics.

Mathematics

Close-up of a pocket watch

The Sumerians were responsible for developing a mathematical system referred to as sexagesimal, which had a base figure of 60, and is the reason modern civilization measures an hour in 60 minutes and one minute in 60 seconds. The sexagesimal system enabled the Sumerians to calculate roots, multiply into millions and use fractions. Modern-day math still uses aspects of this system. For example, 360 degrees in a circle, 12 inches in a foot, and measurements made by the dozen are either divisible by 60 or can be divided evenly by the number 60.

Law

US Supreme Court, Washington, DC, USA

The Sumerians also invented the first system of conflict resolution and punishment through a legal authority, also known as the law. The Sumerian Ur-Nammu law code is the oldest known set of laws in history, and featured 57 codes. The laws covered the punishment for murder, robbery, kidnapping, adultery, rape, practicing sorcery, lying and rudeness. In Sumerian society, gods and goddesses were seen as the ultimate rulers, but normal citizens had the power to make decisions in assemblies. Disputes were settled by laws, many of which were written to protect the weakest, most vulnerable members of a city from the rich and powerful.

Other Inventions and Achievements

Cart

The Sumerians were also involved in other inventions and achievements. Historians disagree whether the Sumerians invented the wheel, but they were certainly the first civilization to refine its use. The Sumerians constructed carts with wooden wheels and attached them to horses for use in plowing and hauling items to the market. They were also adept at using wheels to build chariots for warfare, and invented the pottery wheel to spin clay into useful items such as bowls and earthenware. The Sumerians also invented the first city-states, which were huge cities that had their own government and military. These cities were operated as countries and were usually ruled by kings who collected taxes and enforced the law. Sumerians also invented the architectural design known as an arch, built the first sailboats, invented the use of ox-driven plows to ensure their food supply and fashioned tools and weapons from metals such as gold, silver and copper.