National Geographic : 1951 Jan
The National Geographic Magazine many centuries in which copper was used sparingly with stone, but real metallurgy had not as yet been introduced. In other words, the first phase in the career of Mesopotamia takes in the last Neolithic settlements and the whole of the Chalcolithic, or Copper-Stone, period. That this was not, however, a primitive phase is clear from numerous facts. We find here several distinctive and individual cul tures, each of which has perfected its own special type of painted pottery and maintains lively relations with the neighboring cultures, the combined territory involving a consider able portion of western Asia. The advance is recorded plainly, in mate rial remains if not in actual words, in the successive occupations which the mounds of Mesopotamia have preserved, layer upon layer, for our own age to decode. The number of such prehistoric levels varies from site to site. In each instance there may be a time lag of varying duration between two given strata. Nevertheless, we have seen that some sites may contain as many as a score of successive prehistoric settlements. The total length of this phase cannot have been less than 2,000 years. The Third Millennium The historic age is ushered in by the two revolutionary factors of metallurgy and writ ing. The first of these, which had begun well back in prehistoric times, brought a profound change in the old concept of space; it stimu lated geographic exploration by forcing man to look for new and ever more distant sources of the precious metal (page 64). The other, and this time specifically Mesopotamian development, revolutionized the existing idea of time by forging indestructible links between the past and the present and between the pres ent and the future (page 66). History can now embrace faraway lands and ages. The principal actors now come to be known by name as well as by deed. In Lower Meso potamia, the region at the head of the Persian Gulf-which at that time reached much far ther up the valley than it does now-the domi nant ethnic group used the Sumerian language and called its land Sumer (Biblical Shinar; Genesis 10:10). Although this language has disclosed the secrets of its structure to the patient efforts of modern scholarship, no relative of it, either ancient or modern, has yet been discovered. Its users were evidently a people apart, in an ethnic no less than in a linguistic sense; we shall see presently that they were also highly distinctive in culture. The most plausible way to explain this situ ation and account for the absence of kindred elements is by assuming that the Sumerians had come a considerable distance, having left their immediate relatives somewhere in farther Asia. Be that as it may, the particular gifts and abilities of the Sumerians blended so well with the other cultures of Mesopotamia that the resulting product was to have a decisive bearing on the evolution of civilization in general. The eastern neighbor of Sumer was the Iranian land of Elam. To the north dwelt numerous mountain peoples who appear to have been akin to the Elamites (Cenesis 10:22). Adjoining Sumer in a westerly semi circle were the Semites; their contacts with the Sumerians were to become ever more close and intimate. The earliest representatives of the Semitic family of peoples are known in Mesopotamia collectively as the Akkadians (Genesis 10:10). Later on they come to be distinguished in the south as the Babylonians, in the northwest as the Assyrians, and in the west as the Amorites. The greater part of the third millennium was under the political and cultural domina tion of the Sumerians. It constituted the brilliant Early Dynastic period. This phase is featured by written and material illustra tions from Ur (of the Chaldees),* Lagash, Uruk (Biblical Erech; Genesis 10:10), Khafaje (the ancient name of this site is in doubt), and Eshnunna, among others (pages 68, 70 and 72). Following this long phase of Sumerian as cendancy came the first period of established Semitic supremacy, under the vigorous dy nasty founded by Sargon of Akkad. Sumerian and Semite might contend interminably with each other for political leadership in the land, but the prevailing culture was very much of a joint effort. Toward the end of the millennium there was a brief resurgence of Sumerian dominance, under Gudea of Lagash (page 78) and the founders of the Third Dynasty of Ur. This last assertion of Sumerian political power is known as the Neo-Sumerian period. The people responsible for it soon disappeared as a distinctive ethnic element. The Second Millennium The culture of which the Sumerians had been the prime catalysts spread, however, to more and more distant reaches. Their lan * See "New Light on Ancient Ur," by M. E . L. Mallowan, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, January, 1930.