Socioeconomic Complexity in Ancient Mesopotamia

Map of Mesopotamia

Showing the approximate extent of Ancient Mesopotamia with modern borders.

Thousands of years ago, on the land that is now Iraq and parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Kuwait, a number of civilizations flourished in the historical region of Ancient Mesopotamia. Based around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, some of these societies were the most developed in the world at the time. In particular, Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon made their mark on the region from around 3100 until 539 B.C.E. 

These civilizations are also unique for time because of how many, and what types of artefacts survive. Specifically, as this exhibit focuses on, hundreds of thousands of written documents survive, primarily in the form of clay tablets with inscriptions in the Cuneiform writing system. The earliest of these artefacts dates from around 3200 B.C.E., with the majority of the surviving tablets being in the Akkadian language from after 2400 B.C.E.

Ziggurat of Ur

First built in the 21st century B.C.E. and restored extensively around 1400 years later, this massive step pyramid once functioned as part of the social and economic hub of the city-state of Ur in Sumer. 

Developed out of pictographic writing towards the end of the 4th millennium BCE, Cuneiform was originally used to log quantities of essential goods, but its uses expanded during the following centuries as did the variety of materials on which the script was used. Even as erasable writing boards and papyrus became widely used, though, clay and stone tablets remained essential: unlike their more convenient counterparts, tablets were far more tamper-proof and durable. This durability also allowed artefacts to survive for thousands of years without intentional preservation, and to do so in far greater quantities than the writings of other contemporaneous civilizations.

This exhibit is focused on exploring how the tablets that survive demonstrate the socioeconomic complexity of Ancient Mesopotamia, and help explain how these factors contributed to their success and prosperity.