Ancient Mesopotamia was a powerhouse of agriculture and trade, giving rise to some of the most powerful empires and kingdoms the world had ever seen. During the third and second centuries BC, a huge number of inventions emerged out of Mesopotamian civilization, many counting among the most important developments in human history. This article covers ten of the most significant, and most surprising, Mesopotamian inventions that arose from their ancient culture.
Ancient Mesopotamian civilization was situated in the Fertile Crescent, where the countries of Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, and Syria now lie. It was first settled by humans during the Paleolithic era, and within thousands of years became home to some of the world’s first formal civilizations and cities formed by the Sumerian people, who controlled most of the region. This then gave way to a series of rulers and empires, some more infamous than others, including Gilgamesh, Sargon, and the Akkadians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians. Throughout this time Mesopotamia became a tremendous output for art, literature, religion, and many other scientific or cultural pursuits.
The Mesopotamians were the first people to mass-produce bricks, which allowed them to build up the greatest civilization the world had yet seen. The earliest examples of this Mesopotamian invention go as far back as the seventh millennium BC when the people of what is now Northern Iraq formed settlements with buildings constructed out of blocks of clay, shaped by hand and dried in the sun. These primitive building blocks continued to be used throughout the subsequent millennia, even though they limited the size and stability of their structures.
Thousands of years later, during the mid-first millennium BC, ovens (or kilns) came into use as a means of mass-producing much stronger and more uniform bricks. King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled Babylon from 605 to 564 BC, and famously led the conquest of Judah recorded in the Bible, was a great patron of the kilns. Determined to build the greatest city on earth, he sponsored the creation of thousands of bricks, many of which were inscribed with his name and a message of protection.
With all those bricks, the building potential of the Mesopotamians was practically endless, and they applied it on a scale never before seen. Cities may seem like a natural and ubiquitous part of human life now, but they only came into existence when natural shifts forced disparate and nomadic peoples to band together into larger groups. Out of this necessity was born not only the settlements themselves but also many of the trappings of urban life that persist today.
These larger groups that settled together gradually organized governments, made laws, and began to form a social hierarchy. The cities themselves became more than just collections of houses, constructing temples, public gardens, trading places, and administrative centers, with the surrounding lands used mainly for farming to provide the inhabitants with food. The greatest Mesopotamian city was without a doubt Babylon, which dates back to around 1800 BC and soon after expanded its boundaries to become a highly powerful city-state. It is perhaps most famous for its Hanging Gardens, built by Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
From written records, we know that the Mesopotamian cities were home to inns, taverns, and pubs, where travelers and residents alike came together to socialize, eat, and enjoy a drink or two. These drinks were almost inevitably beers, which were available in many different variations, including golden, dark, sweet dark, red and strained. This Mesopotamian invention was made with the same base of fermented barley, with the taste modified by the addition of emmer wheat, date syrup, or a number of other flavorings, although hops (a key ingredient in modern beer) do not seem to have been in use. In fact, the earliest evidence of beer comes from a 6000-year-old Mesopotamian tablet, which shows revelers drinking from a great vat through long straws.
There are ongoing debates about the alcoholic content of ancient beer, but the drink certainly made the Mesopotamians happy: it was consumed at religious festivals, public ceremonies and private feasts, honored in songs and poems, and even used to pay workers’ wages. So important was the drink to Mesopotamian culture that in their great poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh, one character decides to emerge from the wild and join civilization after drinking seven jugs of the stuff!
To provide some entertainment while they were enjoying their beers, the Mesopotamians came up with a number of new leisure activities, including drinking games, dance and musical performances, and board games. Evidence of the latter was found in the 1920s when a British archaeologist named Sir Leonard Woolley unearthed several well-preserved examples of an ancient board game in some Mesopotamian tombs.
Made in the mid-third millennium BC, the Royal Game of Ur is considered the world’s first strategic board game. It was played by two players, who raced to get their tokens to the end of a course, moving them each time they rolled the dice and attempting to capture each other’s pieces by landing on the same square.
The game proved so popular that examples have been discovered as far afield as Crete and Sri Lanka, and it is thought that the Royal Game of Ur continued to be played throughout antiquity, eventually developing into an early form of backgammon.
Primitive rafts and floating vessels have formed key methods of transportation and travel for as long as humans have been moving about the world, but it was the Mesopotamians who revolutionized water travel by inventing sails. The very name of the region means ‘between rivers’, referring to the great Euphrates and Tigris between which Mesopotamia was situated. The importance of these arterial waterways meant that it was in the Mesopotamians’ interests to find a way of navigating them quickly and efficiently.
While the hulls were still made of wood and constructed in a similar design to the boats of the past, Mesopotamian ships had the unparalleled addition of sails, large squares of cloth that caught the wind and pushed them forwards. Unlike later vessels, the angle of the sails could not be changed, meaning that Mesopotamian sailors had to rely on a favorable wind to get to their destination. Sails were nonetheless intrinsic to the development of seafaring in the ancient world.
As well as facilitating trade by allowing the transportation of heavy goods, sailboats also enabled the Mesopotamians to develop more sophisticated fishing practices. The larger, stable ships could sail into deeper and more treacherous waters, let down nets and wait for hordes of fish to swim in. Along with expanding trading opportunities, this led to prosperity and a higher quality of life for those living in ancient Mesopotamia. Sailboats were so important to the culture that they were even given their own god, Shamash.
With individual communities growing ever more powerful, and people traveling further and further afield, the Mesopotamians began to consider the world as a whole, and their own place within it. These contemplations resulted in the world’s first map, which dates from the 6th century BC and shows the world as a two-dimensional disc surrounded by a ring of water. Several cities and geographical regions, including Babylon and Assyria, are identified within, as are several mountains and the great River Euphrates, besides which the tablet was unearthed two and half millennia later.
Although not a particularly helpful tool for navigating either land or sea, the Babylonian map of the world represents a huge breakthrough in the field of cartography. The excursions of armies and the travels of traders allowed scribes to chart the surrounding areas, and even though there was no attempt to systematically map the entire region, the Mesopotamians introduced the concept to the world.
After they had figured out how to capture and convey the concept of space, the Mesopotamians moved onto time. They developed the sexagesimal system by which units of time are divided into 60 parts and its factors, which eventually gave us our minute of 60 seconds and an hour of 60 minutes. It is also from the Mesopotamians that we inherit the 24 hours of the day and the 12 signs of the zodiac, corresponding to the lunar months. To make these fit with the number of days in the solar year, the Mesopotamians added not leap days but leap months!
All this information was often displayed on circular calendars: the Mesopotamians were also the first to divide the circle into the 360-degree measurement so seminal to modern mathematics and geometry. With their invention of the lunisolar calendar, which served as the foundation for most later systems, the Mesopotamians founded and developed the very concept of time that is used to record, measure and plan life today.
Arguably history’s most important inventions, the Mesopotamians were responsible for the introduction and development of the written word, which has its origins in the latter half of the 4th millennium BC. Cuneiform, which literally means ‘wedge shape’ and refers to the tools used to inscribe letters onto the writing surface, was invented by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia. It began as a pictographic system, with each symbol representing a specific object, person, action or idea, but later developed into a combination of alphabetic, syllabic, and pictographic symbols. It is even thought that Cuneiform influenced later Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Modern excavations have unearthed over one million cuneiform tablets, most a little bigger than an iPhone in size, only a small fraction of which have been read, translated, or exhibited. The most famous and widely-studied of the Cuneiform texts is the Epic of Gilgamesh, a great poem generally considered the earliest extant work of literature. The story has been found written across various tablets, discovered across the region, and tells the story of King Gilgamesh, who encounters and defeats a range of enemies before the death of his closest companion drives him to uncover the secrets of eternal life. Although Gilgamesh never succeeds in finding immortality, his name and glory live on in posterity, largely thanks to the Mesopotamian invention of writing.
Cuneiform writing was not created with the direct intention of producing some of the world’s greatest literature. On the contrary, the driving force behind the invention of the written word was far less exciting: the earliest records indicate that it came about because of the need to keep accurate records of sheep sales.
As opportunities for travel increased and trade subsequently expanded, merchants and farmers needed a more reliable way of keeping track of their produce. Using a wedge-shaped stylus and a tablet made of clay, stone, metal, or wax, early traders would take note of their produce and sales, listing what was sold, the quantity, date, and buyer. Later, in larger cities, the uses of Cuneiform extended to urban planning, contracts and taxation. And so, while it may be associated with epic poetry and mysterious runes, the earliest writings found in Mesopotamia are actually just the first example of accounting!
The most surprising thing about the greatest Mesopotamian, the wheel, is that it was initially designed to be horizontal. Instead of the upright at the bottom of a cart or chariot, the earliest wheel was actually positioned on its side and used to help craftsmen shape their pottery. The potter’s wheel has its origins around the same time as Cuneiform, in the latter half of the 4th millennium, proving that this was a time of huge innovation in human thought and design.
The potential of the wheel must have been apparent to the Mesopotamians almost immediately, as they soon invented the first wheeled vehicles in the form of rudimentary wooden carts. The wheels too were made of wood, sometimes simply solid discs cut straight from tree trunks, but they gradually developed to become more efficient: by cutting out much of the material and leaving only a cross-beam and spokes to connect the center to the rim, the Mesopotamians made their wheels much lighter. Eventually, they also created the axle, which saved a great deal of time and energy by turning both wheels simultaneously, with force applied to the central rod. From simple carts, the Mesopotamians could then make chariots, which made them a formidable force in military conflicts.
All these inventions prove just how crucial the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia has been to human history. The long history of cultural, engineering and intellectual development in the region goes to show why it is frequently known as the Cradle of Civilization. Where would we be today without the wheel, the sailboat, writing, maps or, let’s be honest, beer?
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