Reading the “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in its entirety rekindled a long dormant interest in the Sumerians, the ancient Mesopotamian people that my school textbooks once boldly proclaimed as inventors not only of the written word, but of civilization itself! One of the pleasures of having a fine home library stocked with eclectic works is that there is frequently a volume near at hand to suit such inclinations, and in this case I turned to a relatively recent acquisition, The Sumerians, a fascinating and extremely well-written—if decidedly controversial—contribution to the Lost Civilizations series, by Paul Collins.
“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is, of course, the world’s oldest literary work: the earliest record of the five poems that form the heart of the epic were carved into Sumerian clay tablets that date back to 2100 BCE, and relate the exploits of the eponymous Gilgamesh, an actual historic king of the Mesopotamian city state Uruk circa 2750 BCE who later became the stuff of heroic legend. Most famously, a portion of the epic recounts a flood narrative nearly identical to the one reported in Genesis, making it the earliest reference to the Near East flood myth held in common by the later Abrahamic religions.
Uruk was just one of a number of remarkable city states—along with Eridu, Ur, and Kish—that formed urban and agricultural hubs between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is today southern Iraq, between approximately 3500-2000 BCE, at a time when the Persian Gulf extended much further north, putting these cities very near the coast. Some archaeologists also placed “Ur of the Chaldees,” the city in the Hebrew Bible noted as the birthplace of the Israelite patriarch Abraham, in this vicinity, reinforcing the Biblical flood connection. A common culture that boasted the earliest system of writing that recorded in cuneiform script a language isolate unrelated to others, advances in mathematics that utilized a sexagesimal system, and the invention of both the wheel and the plow came to be attributed to these mysterious non-Semitic people, dubbed the Sumerians.
But who were the Sumerians? They were completely unknown, notes the author, until archaeologists stumbled upon the ruins of their forgotten cities about 150 years ago. Collins, who currently is Curator for Ancient Near East, Ashmolean Museum*, at University of Oxford, fittingly opens his work with the baked clay artifact known as a “prism” inscribed with the so-called Sumerian King List, circa 1800 BCE, currently housed in the Ashmolean Museum. The opening passage of the book is also the first lines of the Sumerian King List: “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridu. In Eridu, Alulim became king; He ruled for 28,800 years.” Heady stuff.
“It is not history as we would understand it,” argues Collins, “but a combination of myth, legend and historical information.” This serves as a perfect metaphor for Collins’s thesis, which is that after a century and a half of archaeology and scholarship, we know less about the Sumerians—if such a structured, well-defined common culture ever even existed—and far more about the sometimes-spurious conclusions and even outright fictions that successive generations of academics and observers have attached to these ancient peoples.
Thus, Collins raises two separate if perhaps related issues that both independently and in tandem spark controversy. The first is the question of whether the Sumerians ever existed as a distinct culture, or whether—as the author suggests—scholars may have somehow mistakenly woven a misleading tapestry out of scraps and threads in the archaeological record representing a variety of inhabitants within a shared geography with material cultures that while overlapping were never of a single fabric? The second is how deeply woven into that same tapestry are distortions—some intended and others inadvertent—tailored to interpretations fraught with the biases of excavators and researchers determined to locate the Sumerians as uber-ancestors central to the myth of Western Civilization that tends to dominate the historiography? And, of course, if there is merit to the former, was it entirely the product of the latter, or were other factors involved?
I personally lack both the expertise and the qualifications to weigh in on the first matter, especially given that its author’s credentials include not only an association with Oxford’s School of Archaeology, but also as the Chair of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. Still, I will note in this regard that he makes many thought-provoking and salient points. As to the second, Collins is quite persuasive, and here great authority on the part of the reader is not nearly as requisite.
Nineteenth century explorers and archaeologists—as well as their early twentieth century successors—were often drawn to this Middle Eastern milieu in a quest for concordance between Biblical references and excavations, which bred distortions in outcomes and interpretation. At the same time, a conviction that race and civilization were inextricably linked—to be clear, the “white race” and “Western Civilization”—determined that what was perceived as “advanced” was ordained at the outset for association with “the West.” We know that the leading thinkers of the Renaissance rediscovered the Greeks and Romans as their cultural and intellectual forebears, with at least some measure of justification, but later far more tenuous links were drawn to ancient Egypt—and, of course, later still, to Babylon and Sumer. Misrepresentations, deliberate or not, were exacerbated by the fact that the standards of professionalism characteristic to today’s archaeology were either primitive or nonexistent.
None of this should be news to students of history who have observed how the latest historiography has frequently discredited interpretations long taken for granted—something I have witnessed firsthand as a dramatic work in progress in studies of the American Civil War in recent decades: notably, although slavery was central to the cause of secession and war, for more than a century African Americans were essentially erased from the textbooks and barely acknowledged other than at the very periphery of the conflict, in what was euphemistically constructed as a sectional struggle among white men, north and south. It was a lie, but a lie that sold very well for a very long time, and still clings to those invested in what has come to called “Lost Cause” mythology.
But yet it’s surprising, as Collins underscores, that what should long have been second-guessed about Sumer remains integral to far too much of what persists as current thinking. Whether the Sumerians are indeed a distinct culture or not, should those peoples more than five millennia removed from us continue to be artificially attached to what we pronounce Western Civilization? Probably not. And while we certainly recognize today that race is an artificial construct that relates zero information of importance about a people, ancient or modern, we can reasonably guess with some confidence that those indigenous to southern Iraq in 3500 BCE probably did not have the pale skin of a native of, say, Norway. We can rightfully assert that the people we call the Sumerians were responsible for extraordinary achievements that were later passed down to other cultures that followed, but an attempt to draw some kind of line from Sumer to Enlightenment-age Europe is shaky, at best.
As such, Collins’s book gives focus to what we have come to believe about the Sumerians, and why we should challenge that. I previously read (and reviewed) Egypt by Christina Riggs, another book in the Lost Civilizations series, which is preoccupied with how ancient Egypt has resonated for those who walked in its shadows, from Roman tourists to Napoleon’s troops to modern admirers, even if that vision little resembles its historic basis. Collins takes a similar tack but devotes far more attention to parsing out in greater detail exactly what is really known about the Sumerians and what we tend to collectively assume that we know. Of course, Sumer is far less familiar to a wider audience, and it lacks the romantic appeal of Egypt—there is no imagined exotic beauty like Cleopatra, only the blur of the distant god-king Gilgamesh—so the Sumerians come up far more rarely in conversation, and provoke far less strong feelings, one way or the other.
The Sumerians is a an accessible read for the non-specialist, and there are plenty of illustrations to enhance the text. Like other authors in the Lost Civilizations series, Collins deserves much credit for articulating sometimes arcane material in a manner that suits both a scholarly and a popular audience, which is by no means an easy achievement. If you are looking for an outstanding introduction to these ancient people that is neither too esoteric nor dumbed-down, I highly recommend this volume.
*NOTE: I recently learned that Paul Collins has apparently left the Ashmolean Museum as of end October 2022, and is now associated with the Middle East Department, British Museum.
The Sumerian Kings List Prism at the Ashmolean Museum online here: The Sumerian King List Prism
More about “The Epic of Gilgamesh” can be found in my review here: Review of: Gilgamesh: A New English Version, by Stephen Mitchell
I reviewed other volumes in the Lost Civilizations series here: