A page for short answers to all sorts of questions children may have about Sumer!

Parents, Teachers, feel free to ask your own questions.

The page will be updated on Wednesdays

Series of questions about Sumerian houses – following the session “My house in Sumer” (Year 5 – Spinney; Years 5 and 6 – Les Petits Caméléons)

Why don’t they use stones to build their houses?

A brickyard
A brickyard

Sumerians use mudbricks to build their houses (and every other buildings) because they are no stones in the Land of Sumer – it is a desert steppe.

On the other hand, mud is an unlimited raw material, cheap and convenient. Bricks were made of earth, water and chopped straw (to give them some consistency); the mixture is “moulded” in a rectangular wooden frame, and left to dry in the sun.

The only problem with mudbricks is that it deteriorates fast: the houses need to be kept in good repair and to be well protected by plaster that covers the outer walls. If not, the walls will “melt” in the rain, and the house will fall in ruins… This is one of the reasons why so many Mesopotamian buildings have disappeared: as soon as nobody maintain them, they crumble back to earth.

What if there are very small holes in the walls and the rain can go through them?

Sumerians put mud plaster or lime plaster on their outer walls to protect them. When they were building the walls, they also paid much attention to the fact that the joints between bricks would not coincide. On top of this, they put (clay) mortar in the joints.

There were no holes in the walls of a Sumerian house, and the walls would not fall under the rain, unless there is a huge storm.

But do they have windows ?

Yes. Usually rectangular ones, and they were very small. All the best to keep the walls safe and to protect the inhabitants from the heat.

How often do they have to repair the plaster on their walls?

Very good question! Regularly, at least once a year, maybe twice a year, because plaster is so essential to protect walls. Plaster is made of lime, gypsum or mud. Mud plaster is used for common houses. Lime or gypsum plasters are used in more refined houses or monumental buildings: it is white and it can be smoothed or polished, even painted.

Home 2

What are the roofs like?

Roofs are flat. They were made of palm trunks covered with (reed) mats and layers of mud, each closely and firmly tight to make the whole waterproof.

Only temples and palaces were roofed with imported timbers.

Do Sumerians go to school? (Year 5 – Spinney primary school)

Sumerians were going to “school” to learn the cuneiform writing, the Sumerian language and mathematics! But not all of them were going. The school was called “house of the tablet” (é.dub.ba), even though it was not a building in itself: teaching was given in private houses to a small group of children. Such schools have been excavated in the cities of Ur and Nippur, for instance. The houses might be identified as schools when some types of school tablets are found in them, such as round clay tablets on which the young scribes were writing their first cuneiform signs.

Why do they write on an object that nobody can see? (year 5 – Spinney primary school)

Building a temple was one of the main duties of a Sumerian king. Numerous inscriptions tell us about kings building temple(s). Some of them were on the walls or on statues, but others were written on objects buried in the foundations or on nails hammered in the walls.

These were for the gods, as proofs or reminders of the identity of the king who has built the temple. Hence, the kings made sure that the gods will remain favourable to their kingdoms. These inscriptions often ended with a curse: the best way to dissuade any ennemy king to destroy the temple.

Foundation peg of Gudea
Foundation peg of Gudea

Are there horses in Sumer? (Emily - year 4)

Horses are known to Sumerians: they call them “donkey of the mountain” (anše.kur.ra). But horses are from Anatolia and Iran, where they were first domesticated probably around the IVth millennium BC.  There were no horses in Sumer until the very end of the period during the so-called Ur III dynasty. Even then, they remain rare. A text that lists various kinds of the horse family in a city’s farms counts 38 horses for 2,204 donkeys. The donkey was by far most popular in Sumer: charriots were donkey-drawn and kings were riding donkeys.

Donkey-driven charriot (Standard of Ur - detail)
Donkey-driven charriot (Standard of Ur - detail)

How do Sumerians bury their kings? (year 5 – Spinney primary school)

Sumerians do not build pyramids for their kings. Only few royal graves have been unearthed: the most famous ones are from Ur, and date from the Sumerian period (ca 2500 BC). More than thousand graves were excavated in the so-called Royal Cemetery of Ur, but only seventeen of them were considered as royal tombs because the material they contained was exceptionnaly rich. Two kings, Akalamdug and Meskalamdug, and one queen, Puabi, have been identified. In two of the tombs, there were evidence of human sacrifice: 74 servants were buried with their master (king?) in the “Great Death Pit” and in the “King’s tomb” soldiers with their weapons together with ox-driven charriots and 50 more servants, both men and women, were buried with the king. This practice is unparalleled in Mesopotamia.

What were they doing in the ziqurrat? (year 5 - Spinney primary school)

Reconstitution of Ur ziqurrat
Reconstitution of Ur ziqurrat

Nothing! The ziqurrat was a plain building: things were happening only on the steps and in the temple at the top. However we are not sure either on what was happening up there. See here for more about the ziqurrat.