Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Sumerian Economy

A mosaic from the city of Ur showing the activities 
of Sumerians such as weaving, herding, and farming

Laid in one of the most fertile regions in the ancient world and using this to their advantage to the fullest, the Sumerians established an organized, bountiful, and directed economy.

The area that became Sumer began to be settled between 4,500 to 4,000 BCE. Situated in the region known as Mesopotamia, which meant land between rivers in Greek, a group of people known as the Ubaidians first occupied the region. They developed agriculture before being joined by new groups of migrants from Anatolia around 3,000 BCE. Eventually, these settlements grew to become powerful and independent city-states, 12 of which rose like Sumer, Uruk, and Ur. These cities flourished such as Uruk growing to a huge population ranging from 40,000 and 80,000 during its peak around 2,800 BCE.

The cities, however, failed to establish a unified kingdom or state continuing the tradition of independence and later rivalry between themselves. Nonetheless, the turbulent fighting between the Sumeria city-states did not hinder them from establishing an organized economy.

Primary Sector

Agriculture maintained the backbone of the Sumerian economy. Besides providing the food needs of the city-state, it also generates a surplus that could be traded with other city-states or countries for other needed materials. Wheat and barley filled most of the Sumerian fields, but vegetables such as lettuces and onion also grew alongside. Sumerian farmers also cultivated beans and grapes as well as orchards for dates and plum. Fishing and grazing of cattle, sheep, and goats provided meat and dairy for Sumerians.

The sector employed the majority of the population of Sumer as laborers as well as clerks. Fields required additional laborers to maintain and build canal and dikes. They also assisted in plowing and harvesting the field. In the process of developing the sector, the Sumers invented the wheel and their most celebrated writing - the cuneiform. Wheels allowed laborers to work faster, while the cuneiform allowed the recording of inventory and later other business transactions as well.

Secondary Sector

Sumerian city-states also offered opportunities for craftsmen and breweries, creameries, and metallurgy flourished alongside the vibrant agricultural industry. For instance, breweries either in mass production or for household consumption operated in Sumer. Archaeological evidence dated back from the 4th millennium BCE attested to the existence of beer in Sumerian civilization and even showed that they preferred ale as their favorite alcohol. The existence of the goddess Ninkasi showed the reverence of the Sumerians to their beer.

Cheese also found an association with the Sumerian pantheon. Becoming part of the Sumerian diet from the late 3rd millennium BCE, milk from cattle, goat, and sheep turned into various cheeses – either as “white cheese,” rich cheese,” or even a sharp cheese.” The dairy product has been widely associated with the love goddess Inanna and the shepherd god Dumuzi as the temples dedicated to these gods dedicate cheese to their community.

Leather tanners and metallurgists as well as different smiths found employment within the city-states. Tanner sourced their leather from the hind of cattle while metallurgist provided their expertise to produce tools such as the plow or weapons for the army.

On the other hand shipbuilding, pottery-making, brick making, weaving, and jewelry making provided jobs for many Sumerians. As Sumer traded with ease by river and sea, shipbuilding boomed to provide transports as well as repair for damaged ships. Sumer also left vast quantities of jewelry that exemplified their skills in using gems and famous ancient world stone lapuz lapilli.

Tertiary Sector

Parts of the Sumerian economy provided their services instead of a product and this included scribes and masons. With the development of cuneiform, business, temples, and the government had the means to record their transactions, prayers, and decrees. Sumer’s cuneiform systems found employment in various sectors of Sumer society. Thus, their skills left pieces of evidence of their civilization’s advancements for archaeologists and historians today to see and analyze.

On the other hand, masons and builders found a roaring trade in Sumer cities. Masons led the construction of massive walls and temples called ziggurats of Sumeria. They also assisted in other infrastructures such as canals, granaries, and warehouses.

Slavery existed in Sumeria with temples owning hundreds for domestic labor. Slaves worked to maintain temples, but also to deal with pottery making and weaving of textiles for the clergy.

Role of the Temple

Ziggurat temples dominated the skyline and the laid in the center of Sumer cities. It symbolized a place of religion or at least a priest to the society of Sumerians. During the early millennium of the existence of Sumer city-states, priests ruled with them owing all the lands and resources including manpower.

Sumer temples held the position of a landlord in a Sumer city. They then rented out their farmlands called nig-en-na to farmers who called their piece of land as apin-lal. They then paid their rent in kind and store their produce to granaries and warehouses or processed in mills owned by the temple.

The temple also controlled other aspects of the economy setting quotas after which the crafts could sell the surplus. Thus, weavers, pottery makers, smith, etc. produced their products to meet the specified amount needed to be paid to the temple before being able to sell their goods. People obeyed the quotas in fear of being divinely punished, hence, the fear of the divine led the temples to be the power in the land. Besides the fear of the divine, failure to comply also meant the withholding of their ration of necessities – food, clothing, beer, etc.


Because of agriculture and industry surpluses, Sumer city-states trade with other countries for needed materials such as timber. This led to new developments that created a mark in world history.

Other than cuneiform, Sumerians developed other aspects of modern society through trade. As stated before cuneiform led to the recording of business transactions, moreover it also led to the recording and promulgation of law – laws that regulated trade and safeguard trust and security. Sumerian trade led also to the development of measurements based on sixty, a basis that remained in computing time in the modern age. Mathematics also saw its advancement through Sumerian trade.

Trade relied on rivers as paved roads did not exist then. Land routes through the treacherous and sultry heat of the deserts relied on camels. Also, land routes placed merchants in danger of attacks from bandits or a rival city-state. Nonetheless, the journey did not prevent merchants to access the markets of Anatolia, the Levant, and modern-day Afghanistan. Most Sumer traders then relied on rivers and ships to ferry their goods. Some city-states developed a water route that led to Anatolia or a place called Dilmun in modern-day Bahrain, Oman, and India.

The export of agricultural produce bought the Sumerians timber, in particular cedar wood, especially from Lebanon, precious stones such as gold and gems from Oman and India, copper from Dilmun, and lapis lazuli from lands of modern-day Afghanistan.

Summing Up

The Sumerian city-states managed to survived and even flourish through the development of its agriculture and crafts as well as trade. The progress of their economy led to advancement in human civilization with the development of the wheel, cuneiform, measurement, mathematics, as well as law. It also displayed the early versions of a direct economy led by cities’ religious community and later its kings and queens. Sumer’s prosperity traveled far and wide making it a ripe target for conquest which led the earliest empire builder Sargon to annex Sumeria to its growing and fledgling Akkadian Empire. 

Updated on January 1, 2020

See also:
The Economy of Mauryan Empire
The Famous Phoenician Dye
Symbol of Lebanon in the Ancient World



Blainey, G. A Very Short History of the World. Australia: Penguin Group, 2004. 

Fattah, H. & F. Caso A Brief History of Iraq. New York: Fact on File, Inc., 2009. 

Hunt, C. The History of Iraq. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005. 

Wang, T. History of the World. Nebraska: iUniverse, Inc., 2003.

General Reference:

Dalby, Andrew. "ancient civilizations." The Oxford Comparison to Cheese. Edited by Catherine Donnelly. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.  


Andrews, Evan. “9 Things You May Not Know About the Ancient Sumerians.” Accessed on December 31, 2019. URL: 

Anirduh. “10 Facts on the Sumerian Civilization of Ancient Mesopotamia.” Learn No Do Newtonic. Accessed on December 31, 2019. URL:

Crawford, Gary. “Origins of Agriculture.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on December 31, 2019. URL:

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Sumer.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on December 31, 2019. URL:

Von Soden, Wolfram Th. “History of Mesopotamia.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on December 31, 2019. URL:


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  5. Eh the paragraph could've been sorter im writing this stuff down int my notebook i cant write all of this stuffdown with out doing all of that work like come one now be more sensable almost everybody that reads this is an kid or a colloge student about to get copy written
    so please be better :) thanks

  6. it seemed like a really good website at first but like im too lazy to write all that stuff, nevermind reading it. please make it shorter next time. thanks and have a good day :)

  7. bish who wants to read that

  8. great article Lots of very helpful info but could of been shortened LOTS of repeats.

  9. Please help me answer this question.
    Justify the claim that the economic basis of Sumerian civilization laid in its highly productive.