Ur: City of the Sumerian Renaissance

In Today’s post Luke from the Visitor Team looks into the history and economy of the ancient Sumerian city of Ur under its third dynasty, original home to some of the clay cuneiform tablets in the Manchester Museum’s collection.

For more information on our Archaeology collections, have a look at the curator’s blog.

ur_cropThe partially reconstructed remains of the Great Ziggurat of Ur, Dhi Qar Governate, Iraq.

Ur – City of the Moon

The oldest objects on display until very recently in our Money gallery* were a pair of clay cuneiform tablets dating from around 2037 BC. Though humble in appearance, they represent some of the oldest records of trade and financial transactions in the world. These tablets originate from Ur (๐’‹€๐’€•๐’† ), a prominent Sumerian city-state in what is now southern Iraq and one of the earliest known cities in the ancient world, being inhabited as a settlement from c.5000 BC, before being established as a true city around 3800 BC.

These tablets date from the cityโ€™s heyday when it was ruled by the 3rd Dynasty of Ur (commonly referred to as ‘Ur III’) and was the centre of a large and extremely well organised state, with the city itself even boasting a dedicated financial district subsequently dubbed an โ€˜ancient Wall Streetโ€™ by Professor Marc Van De Mieroop of Columbia University. At its peak it may have been the largest city in the world, with a population of around 65,000.

ur1An artistic reconstruction of the city of Ur during the third dynasty period, featuring the ziggurat (temple) of the moon god Nanna, theย E-gish-shir-gal (๐’‚๐’„‘๐’‹“๐’ƒฒ) or ‘House of great light’. (source)

Ancient Admin

The writing on the tablets is known as cuneiform (Latin cuneus=wedge, and forma=shape), which was written on moist clay tablets using a blunt wedge-shaped stylus and was arguably the first true system of writing developed anywhere in the world.

The administering of trade and the recording of financial transactions are among the very earliest attested uses of the script and perhaps the very reason for its invention – after all, how can one keep track of such things without being able to write them down?

maxresdefault.jpgCuneiform. Writing on clay tablets with a wedge-shaped stylus. (Source)

The earliest evidence of cuneiform is from around 3200 BC in the city of Uruk, and it went on to become by far the most common script in the Near East before eventually falling out of use and being replaced by various alphabetic forms of writing c.100 BC.

An Ancient City

Whilst being a bustling financial centre and capital of a large empire in its heyday, Ur was also a very old city, in fact it was one of the first in the world. During the Early Dynastic period, Ur was simply one of the many competing Sumerian city states, albeit a particularly prosperous, one being situated close to where both the Tigris and the Euphrates met the Persian Gulf as well as the home of the moon god Nanna/Sin. According to the Sumerian King List there were a couple of brief periods when Ur, under its first and second dynasties, held the paramount kingship of Sumer, however for most of its early history it was content to simply be one among the many city-states of the time. When the Akkadian Empire rose, Ur was absorbed along with all the other cities of the region, but it was after the fall of Akkad that Ur really began to flourish, becoming the centre of what is known as the ‘Sumerian Renaissance’.

The state founded and governed by the 3rd Dynasty of Ur would preside over the final flowering of pure Sumerian culture that the world would ever see. This was the last glorious gasp of the world’s first civilisation. One of the most notable features of this state, and the one most related to the cuneiform tablets in our own collection, is the Bala system.

KEN4925_coverS7.pdfA collection of clay cuneiform tablets detailing economic translations from the Ur III period (source)

Economics of Empire

The Bala system was the method by which the central government of the time collected and then redistributed both goods and services throughout the provinces. It was a form of taxation to which everyone in Sumerian society, regardless of rank, was expected to contribute according to their means. The poor man could contribute his time as a labourer on a state project, such as canal or temple building, while the rich man could contribute financially, a skilled man such as an artisan or craftsmen would contribute his wares or services, and a farmer could contribute a portion of his produce. The state would then collect the goods and produce together in large depots and warehouses (such as Puzrish-Dagan near Nippur) before redistributing them to support the temples, royal families, state administrators, the army, and the poor. The Bala system (literally Sumerian for ‘exchange’) operated on a huge scale utterly unprecedented for its time, the taxes on grain, for example, accounted for 188 million litres annually according to surviving records, with over 500,000 non food-producing individuals relying on the state for their daily sustenance.

This so-called ‘neo-Sumerian’ state may have looked back to the Early Dynastic period for legitimacy but it did not abandon the previous Akkadian dynasty’s improvements in the management and organisation of large-scale state machinery. On the contrary such principles were even more rigorously applied, and developed yet further to create an even more centralised and bureaucratic dirigiste state than had ever been attempted before in the ancient world. Approximately 50,000 bureaucratic records have so far been translated that help us to form this opinion, written on damp clay tablets using the cuneiform script just like the example in our collection, with as many as three times that number still awaiting study. Staggeringly, it is estimated that up to 100 times that number likely still lie beneath the desert sands of southern Iraq waiting to be found. With no political purpose administrative tablets such as these simply record the facts of economic and social transactions, allowing us to fill in the details left out of official propaganda and royal inscriptions to build up a more complete picture of this ancient society using information that is otherwise never overtly described. However we cannot allow such a wealth of governmental records to blind us to the small-scale free trade that no doubt flourished alongside the Bala system.

Ur-accountsA pair of cuneiform clay tablets, dating from the Ur III, period detailing economic transactions. As seen on display in our former Money Gallery*

Scholars used to write of the third dynasty of Ur as presiding over a totalitarian economic enterprise so tightly controlled that it made the Soviet Union look like a free-market economy. Further study of the state records has led to the abandonment of such a view as, for instance, though there are many records detailing the distribution of grain, bread, meat, and oil, there is no trace of where people may have obtained things like clothing, furniture, tools or even vegetables, indicating that private trade must also have flourished outside of the state distribution system and was thus left unrecorded by the government. From this it is reasonable to surmise that the Sumerian economy of the Ur III period operated a hybrid economic system, that at a stretch you could hesitantly call a kind of temple-Socialism.

At its peak the third dynasty of Ur governed almost the entire Fertile Crescent, ‘the cradle of civilisation‘ from Ur itself in the deep south near the Gulf coast, right up to the great trading city of Mari in the northern Syrian plains, even beyond its borders many of the neighbouring states still paid tribute to the King of Sumer and Akkad.

600px-Map_of_Ur_III.svgA map of the Ur III ‘Empire’ during the 22nd century BC. (source)

Beyond the economic the Ur III state is also known for its law code โ€“ the Code of Ur-Nammu (first discovered by noted archaeologist Samuel Kramer in 1952 beneath the ruins of Nippur). It is the world’s earliest known law code of which copies survive. Despite its tremendous age the code is noted for certain features which even today could be considered advanced. For instance in emphasising fines over the corporal or capital punishment that characterised the the later Code of Hammurabi‘s ‘eye for an eye’ philosophy (although murder, robbery, and rape remained capital offences punishable by death in Ur-Nammu’s code). The most telling aspect of the law code is its opening invocation calling for ‘Equity across the land…’ Fairness and the smooth functioning of society were at the heart of the Sumerian legal system.

Ur_Nammu_code_IstanbulA surviving copy of the Code of Ur-Nammu, on display in Istanbul Archaeological Museum. (source)

Pride goeth before a fall…

The late Sumerian state existed a very, very long time ago, and yet in some respects it appears so elaborate and sophisticated that such a political entity would hardly seem out of place somewhere in the world today. But pride goeth before a fall, and the Ur III state, much like the Soviet Union, was situated in the middle of a rapidly changing world, and maintaining such a highly centralised and overly bureaucratic state is no easy task in the long-term, especially when faced with hostile and competitive neighbours that put a further strain on resources. The centralising compulsion to regulate every aspect of life would, in the end, have its downside, and just as we saw in the terminal years of the Soviet Union, when the state itself is so intertwined with its particular economic and political system it is difficult for it to survive when this system begins to falter โ€“ when one goes the other is often not far behind. And so we come to the fateful reign of Ibbi-Sin, the last of the Ur III kings and the treachery that would end the Sumerian state forever…

ur4A photograph of U.S. soldiers ascending the main steps of the partially reconstructed Great Ziggurat of Ur in Iraq, 2010. (source)


The decline and fall of the Ur III empire happened for a variety of reasons, not least of which was likely a hangover of the same drought that felled the Akkadian Empire before it, another factor was the continuous and increasing incursions of the largely hostile nomadic Amorite tribes from the north-west, ‘those who do not bend their knees, who eat raw meat, who have no house during their lifetime’, as the Sumerians imperiously referred to them. These factors more than any other combined to put tremendous strain on the Sumerian state’s vaunted Bala system as the countryside became unsafe and the price of grain rocketed to 60 times its usual value. In the second year of King Ibbi-Sin’s reign all of the above mentioned records and economic tablets so meticulously kept for so long simply ceased, the Bala system had finally collapsed. The Sumerians, like the Qin Chinese after them and the East German authorities long after that, had tried to build a wall to keep the unwanted and destabilising influences out of their state โ€“ the so-called ‘Wall of Martu’, but just like those other later walls all it could do was to slow down the oncoming tide at best. The Sumerian wall, stretching between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers was too long to be properly manned, and without an anchor at either end the Amorites simply went around it.

Standard_of_Ur_-_WarThe ‘War Standard of Ur’ (actually one side of a hollow wooden box discovered in a royal tomb), dating from c. 2600 B.C.

Enter stage right Ishbi-Erra. He was the provincial governor of Isin (๐’‰Œ๐’‹›๐’…”๐’† ), and apparently ‘a man of Mari’. There are surviving records of correspondence between Ibbi-Sin and Ishbi-Erra as their relationship deteriorated. He was charged by his king with shipping grain back to the capital city of Ur, perhaps sensing an opportunity he seems to have dissembled and delayed, claiming not to have the resources to ship the grain south and requesting a further 600 boats to transport it, while at the same time requesting the additional governorship of the holy city of Nippur. King Ibbi-Sin was in no mood to promote so troublesome a governor during such turbulent times or give in to extortion and yet it seems that within a few years Ishbi-Erra was not only still in place but had indeed expanded his influence, even issuing his own proclamations in the royal style while assigning his own regnal year names.

By now it becomes all too clear that the empire was slipping from the king’s grasp one piece at a time. Ibbi-Sin, in other surviving royal correspondence bitterly railed against his erstwhile official as ‘not even being of Sumerian seed’ and stated his belief that ‘Enlil has stirred up the Amorites out of their land, and they will strike the Elamites and capture Ishbi-Erra’. But this was not to be. Instead, the Amorites continued to pour into the Sumerian heartlands of the Ur III state and within 12 years the great King of Sumer and Akkad governed little more than the city of Ur itself. Despite the dire situation they had created, the final nail in the coffin came not from the Amorites but from the Elamites, long-time rivals of the Sumerians from the neighbouring Zagros mountains, who sensed an opportunity and marched an army down into the plains, sacking Ur and carrying off its last king to an uncertain fate in the land of Elam. Ishbi-Erra had played the long game against his own king and won, shortly after the Elamite attack he finally sent his own forces out from Isin to drive off the marauding Amorites and Elamites and secure Ur for himself. The time of the Sumerians had passed, and though the Sumerian language, religion, and culture would continue to strongly influence Mesopotamia for millennia yet to come, the hegemony had passed to the Amorites and their new city of Babylon, who’s greatest king Hammurabi would eventually conquer Isin, Ur, and all the other illustrious old cities finally reunifying the land some 200 years after the last king of Ur.

Luke A. Williamson


*This space will reopen as our new Chinese Culture Gallery as part of Manchester Museum’sย  #MMhellofuture redevelopment.

Find our more:
Sumerian civilisation: Inventing the future
Mesopotamia and the rise of cities
Merchants of Sumer
The Ur online project
Inventions of the Sumerians
Babylon, by Paul Kriwaczek (ISBN: 1848871570)
Mesopotamia and the Invention of the City, by Gwendolun Leick (ISBN: 0140265740)


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