Cultural Change and the Confusion of Language in Ancient Sumer -- By: Charles F. Aling

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 17:1 (Winter 2004)
Article: Cultural Change and the Confusion of Language in Ancient Sumer
Author: Charles F. Aling


Cultural Change and the Confusion of Language in Ancient Sumer

Charles F. Aling

One of the primary areas of the Near East where civilization began is the Tigris-Euphrates river valley, comprising portions of modern Syria and Iraq. This region, the fertile valley between the two rivers, has been known since the times of the ancient Greeks as Mesopotamia, literally “the land between the rivers.” This area of course was the home of many peoples familiar to us from general ancient history and the Old Testament, such as the Assyrians and Babylonians. Before these peoples a group known as the Sumerians, the creators of classic Mesopotamian culture, inhabited the southern part of the valley. How and when did civilization start in this region? In order to at least partially answer this question, we will need to examine both written and archaeological source material. The earliest of that archaeological material comes from cultures in the valley that did not as yet know the art of writing.

Archaeological Evidence

In looking at archaeological material from these early cultures, we must make several preliminary observations. First, we should remember that people sharing the same basic culture tend to produce similar and in some cases identical material objects. This trend is particularly apparent with pottery, the basic food and drink storage medium of ancient times. This trend is very helpful to the archaeologist. If he or she is digging in a ruined city and finds a certain style and color of pottery, this pottery can be compared to pottery found elsewhere. Connections can thus be established between the two sites sharing pottery styles. Such conclusions must of course be supported by other material finds, but such similarities can show how a particular culture spread over a geographical area.

This leads to a second introductory observation. When archaeologists discover a particular culture, it is often given a name by modern scholars. Without written material, we have no idea what the people of that culture called themselves. This name is normally the modern Arabic place name of the site where the culture was discovered. It should never be thought that the “type-site” (the site which gives the culture its name) was necessarily the most important city of the culture, or the place where the culture began. It is simply the first place where modern humans have found an example of that particular culture.

Finally, a word about dates. The best way to establish dates is to have written documents, and event then establishing chronology can be a complex and difficult business. For many periods of modern history we have such rich written material that basic dates are not a problem. We kn...

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