Cultural Change and the Confusion of Language in Ancient Sumer

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Excerpt Mesopotamia, literally “the land between the rivers" 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? Continue reading

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This article was published in the Winter 2004 issue of Bible and Spade.

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. [Ed: These are known as parallels.] 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 even 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 know beyond doubt, for example, that Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, that Lincoln was killed in 1865, and that the Emperor Augustus died in AD 14. But, when we deal with ancient Near Eastern history, precise dates can be more problematical. This is most true of the periods we call prehistory; the time before writing was known.1 For these periods, we must use other methods to calculate dates. There are a number of scientific tests that are regularly used to establish dates for prehistoric cultures. This is not the place to enter into a long discussion of the reliability of these tests. Suffice it to say they are not perfect by any means. There are many variables and presuppositions; results are not at all foolproof. It should be understood that the dates for the cultures we will be discussing are only scholarly estimates with a high degree of uncertainly.

Ruins of Ur as seen from the top of the ziggurat. Ur was a major Sumerian center from ca. 5600 to 2000 BC, attaining a size of at least 124 acres. Within the city were a ziggurat, temples, palaces, schools, wealthy private home and the famous “Royal Death Pits,” containing burials of the rich elite from ca. 2600–2100 BC. SPC John F. Shaw.

Hassuna Culture

The earliest major culture2 in Mesopotamia is called the Hassuna Culture, named after the place where it was first discovered, the village of Hassuna in northern Mesopotamia. The Hassuna culture dates to the [conventional] period 5500–5000 BC, and has been found at a number of places in the northern part of the river valley. It seems to have been mostly confined to the north. The Hassuna people were agricultural, and were makers of pottery, even though they did not know the potter’s wheel. Their tools were bone and stone; there has not been any trace of metal work found at Hassuna sites. Reed and clay houses have been found, but only at the type-site of tell Hassuna itself. The most common tools of the Hassuna culture were wooden sickles with flint teeth for harvesting grain.

Although there was as yet not clearly provable specialization of labor in Hassuna culture, there was some long-range trade going on, for sea shells and obsidian have been found at Hassuna sites. One interesting feature of this culture was the practice of burial of infants in large pottery urns.

Halaf Culture

Around 5000 BC, the Hassuna Culture was replaced by another northern culture, the Halaf. The Halaf Culture lasted until about 4100 BC. One again, there was no appreciable spread of this culture into southern Mesopotamia. Halaf pottery is very beautiful. Some scholars consider it the best ever made in the early Near East. It is black, brown, or orange, and it decorated with depictions of bulls’ heads and double axes. But the most striking thing about Halaf pottery is that the shapes of some vessels are definitely copied from typical shapes of metallic vessels, showing us that the Halaf people knew and used metal for the making of certain vessels. There have also been metal objects such as copper beads found at Halaf sites, proving that these people were among the first users of metal in the world. Halaf pots have another important new feature. They are often stamped with a picture, perhaps of a god or goddess of their religion. This picture is different on every pot, and evidently served as a mark of personal ownership or identification. The pictures were made with what is called a stamp seal, an object similar to the rubber stamps we use for similar purposes today.

Mesopotamian cylinder seal, upper left, on display in the British Museum. Of unknown provenance, it dates to ca. 2200–2100 BC. To the right of the seal is an impression of the scene carved on the seal; below is an enlargement of the scene. The seal depicts a banquet with a sacred tree in the center and a man and woman (?) reaching for fruit. On either side are serpents. Bryant G. Wood.

Halaf towns were much advanced over any other habitation sites in their world. Streets were paved, and two-roomed “tholos” houses were constructed. The first room of a tholos house was long and rectangular, and led from outside to the beehive-shaped tholos room, the main room of the dwelling. Religious faith was important to the Halafians as well as architecture and pottery. Many mother goddess figurines have been found at Halaf sites. One final interesting thing about the Halaf Culture is that at almost every site where this culture has been found, it ended abruptly. The cause of this is not known. Invasion by people of inferior culture of some natural disaster are the best explanations, but nothing can be said with certainty. The Biblical Flood would seem to be ruled out since there are a few Halaf sites where there is no clear break and the culture developed gradually into a new form. The Biblical Flood took place earlier than any of the cultures we are now discussing.

Ubaid Culture

The next major culture in Mesopotamian prehistory appeared in the southern part of the river valley, close to the Persian Gulf. This was the Ubaid Culture, named from its type-site, Tell Ubaid. The southern part of Mesopotamia, Sumer, is called Shinar in the Old Testament. This region was not settled at all before 6000 BC, and its southernmost cities such as Eridu, Ur, and Oueili were not founded until 5600 BC at the earliest. The cities of northern Sumer, including Babylon, were founded later still, some time after 5000 BC (Seely 2001). The Ubaid Culture began in Sumer and spread north to sites such as Tepe Gawra, where it gradually replaced the Halaf Culture. The Ubaid Culture is noted for its increased use of metal and for the invention of the wheel. This invention was not used in transport yet, so far as we know, but was used in making pottery.

Uruk Culture

The Ubaid Culture lasted from ca. 4100–3750 BC. Out of it developed another innovative southern culture, the Uruk, which lasted until about 3200 BC. In this period a significant architectural change took place, the start of the use of beaked brick for monumental buildings. Sun-dried brick had been known and used in parts of the Near East as early as 8500 BC (Seely 2001:17; Walton 1995:163). But in the Uruk period it was discovered that brick, if heated in a kiln, became much harder and could be used to build monumental structures such as temples. This revolutionized architecture. The Uruk Culture thus produced the first great temples in Mesopotamia. It also produced another key invention, the boat. There were almost certainly other methods used for crossing the great rivers, the raft being the most obvious. But the invention of the boat was without doubt an important innovation.

Elaborate headdress of a high-level Sumerian woman, possibly a queen or a priesless. From the royal death pits at Ur, ca. 2600 BC, now on display in the British Museum. It is made of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian. Michael Luddeni.

Proto-Literate Period

Pre-history in Mesopotamia can be said to end with the next cultural period, the so-called Proto-Literate period, lasting only about 3200–3100 BC. This remarkable period saw a number of very significant changes that made the difference between prehistory and history. The major development, of course, was the invention of writing. How this was accomplished is a complicated and interesting story. Suffice it to say here that this invention enabled humans to leave records and literary works of many types, thus greatly increasing our knowledge of ancient civilization. Another invention of the Proto-Literate period was something called the cylinder seal. This small stone cylinder, with a hole bored through it so it could be worn around the neck, was carved with a highly individualized scene. When rolled on wet clay, it produced a picture that identified the object’s owner.

Finally, irrigation seems to have been introduced during the Proto-Literate period. The importance of this is twofold. First, the efficiency of agriculture was obviously improved, allowing for population growth and specialization of labor. Second, in order for irrigation to be done well, there is a need for some advanced degree of political organization and unification. This is not to say that Mesopotamia suddenly became politically unified, but pressure in that direction began. At first, city-states came into existence as political units. Only later did kingdoms and great empires rise.

How does all this relate to the basic history of the region, and to the Bible? And can we link what we see archaeologically to the account of early mankind in the book of Genesis?

Close up of the baked bricks and bitumen mortar of the ziggurat at Ur. “They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar” for the Tower of Bible (Gn 11:3).

Literary Evidence

When we first see written documents in the Proto-Literate period, they are written in the cuneiform script on clay tablets, and in what scholars call the Sumerian language. The people who wrote this script spoke a language unrelated, so far as we know, to any other language; and, again as far as we know, were the creators of civilization in Mesopotamia. But there is something of interest and vital importance in the Sumerian documents. While they are in the Sumerian language, the names of rivers, indigenous plants and animals, and some cities are not Sumerian words. They are words in some unknown language, unrelated to any other language. This tells us that they were borrowed words, much like we would find in some parts of our own country. We find in some parts of our nation American Indian names, borrowed by early settlers when they first came and encountered the native peoples. In the case of Mesopotamia, the non-Sumerian words tell us that the Sumerians were not the first inhabitants of the river valley. When they entered (whenever that was) they met other peoples, peoples who had named plants and animals, the rivers, and the earliest cities. Rather than rename these things, the Sumerians merely kept the existing terms.

The ziggurat at Ur. The best preserved of the Mesopotamian ziggurats, the interior is of sun dried mud bricks while the exterior is of baked bricks. It had three stories, the first accessible by three monumental staircases, with a temple, probably to the moon god Nanna, on top. It was built ca. 2100 BC and remained in use until the Persian Period, 539–332 BC. SPC John H. Shaw.

The “Sumerian Problem”

The series of questions that all this raises is what scholars call the “Sumerian Problem” (Jones 1969). Simply put, the problem comprises questions such as: Who were the Sumerians? Where did they come from? What role did they play in the creation of Mesopotamian civilization? And for our purposes, perhaps the most important question, when did they enter Mesopotamia?

Scholars working on the Sumerian Problem can be divided into two major groups. First, there are the archaeologists. These researchers, led by Henri Frankfort in the 1930s and J. Oates more recently, have made a detailed study of the material and skeletal remains from early southern Mesopotamia. In summary, their conclusion is that the first major group of settlers in the region, the ancestors of the Ubaid people, exhibits physical and material culture continuity with the later inhabitants of the valley. In other words, the Ubaid people, the Uruk people, the Proto-Literate people (also called the Jemdat Nasr Culture), and the Sumerians were the same people. They see no great invasion by a new people, nor are there any changes in material culture the cannot be explained by normal development. To the archaeologist, the earliest major inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia were the Sumerians, even if they were unable to tell us so themselves.

The second group of scholars is the professional philologists, the students of the Sumerian language. Many of these linguistic experts have never excavated, just as the archaeologists are not necessarily readers of Sumerian. It must be remembered that these fields are highly specialized. E.A. Speiser and B. Landsberger, who insisted that many of the words in Sumerian documents are not Sumerian words at all, led the linguists and philologists in the early days. Landsberger pointed out that this is especially true of words pertaining to agriculture, showing that the basic farming vocabulary and common farming techniques used in southern Mesopotamia were the invention of non-Sumerian people.

To the philologists, then, there must have been an invasion or at least an infiltration by Sumerians into the river valley, an event or series of events that they date to the start of the Uruk period. Philologists draw this conclusion because there is clear evidence in Sumerian texts that there was an older language in use for farming, etc., in Mesopotamia before Sumerian was used.

To summarize: professional archaeologists say that the earliest major people in southern Mesopotamia were the Sumerians; there is no archaeological evidence that there was anyone else. Thus, the Ubaid people were Sumerians. On the other hand, experts on the Sumerian language say that the Ubaid people must have been of some other ethnic and/or linguistic group, whose language is mainly lost today, and that the Uruk people must have been Sumerian-speaking newcomers. Thus, Sumerian history starts not with the Ubaid period but with the Uruk Culture.

This so-called Sumerian Problem has become one of the most debated issues of early ancient history, and has seemingly reached an impasse. Some scholars have even gone so far as to say that the problem cannot be resolved without new information.

A Biblical Answer

Although the Bible does not mention this issue, it is clear that, although ignored by the secular scholarly community, the Bible does provide an answer to the Sumerian Problem. Note some things told to us in the early chapters of Genesis. Genesis correctly places the seat of early Near Eastern civilization in southern Mesopotamia. After the great Flood, when all human life began to develop anew as descendants of Shem, Ham, and Japheth spread from the mountains of Ararat (Urartu of Assyrian records), we find a large number of Semitic and Hamitic names having connections with place names in Mesopotamia. In fact, the Tower of Babel was obviously built in the Babylon region, as is demonstrated by its name and the fact that the Bible tells us it was constructed in the Plains of Shinar (Sumer).

Before we attempt to fit the Biblical narrative into the above-discussed archaeological picture and into the context of the Sumerian Problem, it would be helpful to examine the origins of urban life and architecture in southern Mesopotamia. Paul H. Seely has pointed out (2001:16) that until the Uruk period (ca. 3500 BC) there were no cities as such in the southern river valley, and that there was no monumental architecture either. But with the advent of baked bricks, the ability to make large (and high) buildings arose. With the rise of cities and massive temples, a new form of building was born, one that would symbolize Mesopotamia through the times of Nebuchadnezzar II, the ziggurat. The ziggurat, as Seely points out, was the most important and visible structure in any Mesopotamian city. It was a pyramid-shaped temple base (not meant to be a tomb or a building with interior rooms), with a flight of stairs up one face. Atop this structure was placed a temple to the city’s chief deity.

The Tower of Babel spoken of in Genesis was certainly a ziggurat, since it was built with baked brick and bitumen (Gn 11:3). These materials were reserved for religious and ceremonial buildings, and were/are used for simple military towers (Seely 2001:18). Also, the terminology used of the Tower of Babel in Genesis was typical ziggurat terminology, of which Seely gives several examples. In the Enuma Elish story, the building of the great ziggurat at Babylon is described just as the Tower is in the Bible. The builders start by making baked bricks, and then move to the building of the city and ziggurat (cf. Gn. 11:3–4). In other texts from other periods, ziggurats are described as being high and lofty. They also clearly represent the reputation and prestige of the city and its god. So the Tower of Babel was without much doubt an early ziggurat; and ziggurats first appear in the Uruk period, ca. 3500–3100 BC.

Base of the ziggurat at Babylon, thought to be the location of the Tower of Babel described in Genesis 11.

What does this have to do with the Sumerian Problem, especially the part of that problem regarding the date of entrance of the Sumerians into southern Mesopotamia? The archaeologists tell us that no new people came into southern Mesopotamia after the start of the Ubaid culture; the linguists tell us that the Uruk people must be a new people, and are the Sumerians. But notice what the Bible tells us; people of Shinar built a great tower, so God confounded their speech. And that tower, most probably a ziggurat, can best be dated according to our current archaeological information to the Uruk Culture. Perhaps what happened is this: the people of Mesopotamia spoke a now unknown language, a few words of which are preserved in place names, river names, and the words for some plants and animals. The Tower of Babel was built as a monument to human pride and independence from God. God then confounded their speech, and several new language families (including Sumerian) were created. The Sumerian speakers stayed in Shinar, but the other groups moved on. Only the few words now found in Sumerian survive from the first language.

If this solution is accepted, both the archaeologists and the linguists are correct. While many people left the area after God changed language, no new major group came in, so the archaeologists are right. But a new language, Sumerian, came into existence, so the philologists are also correct.

The Confusion of Language in Mesopotamian Tradition

There are two known cuneiform accounts that deal with the confusion of language and undoubtedly derive from the Tower of Babel episode of Genesis 11. The earliest, probably from the early third millennium (Kramer 1970:108), is part of longer epic called “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.” In it, “The Spell of Nudimmud” is quoted, which deals with the confusion of language. According to the spell, there once was a “golden age” when everyone spoke one language. The god Enki, leader of the gods, put an end to this era by confusing the speech of mankind. The critical passage read,

In those days...the people entrusted [to him] could address Enlil, verily, in but a single tongue. In those days...did Enki...estrange the tongues in their mouths as many as were put there. The tongues of men which were one (Jacobsen 1997; cf. Kramer 1968, 1970; Cohen 1973).

The second account conforms more closely to the Genesis account (Strickling 1974). Dated only as “Assyrian” (Smith 1876:160), the legend tells of the destruction of a building on a mound in Babylon by a god. The god also confounded the speech of the builders (Boscawen 1877:303; Smith 1880:166). The badly damaged tablet has been translated as follows:

... he the father of all the gods had repudiated; the thought of his heart was evil. ... of Babylon he hastens to the submission (?), [small] and great he confounded (on) the mound. ... of Babylon he hastens to the submission, [small] and great he confounded (on) the mound. Their walls all the day he founded; for their destruction (punishment) in the night ... he did not leave a remainder. In his anger also (his) secret counsel he pours out; [to] confound (their) speeches he set his face. He gave the command, he made strange their counsel ... (as revised by Sayee in Smith 1880:164; cf. Smith 1876:160–61; Boscawen 1876:131–132, 1877:304–308).

A strong link between the Assyrian tradition and the Biblical Tower of Babel account is the use of the word uballu, translated “confounded.” This is the same word as Hebrew balal used in Genesis 11:7, meaning to confound, confuse, or mix (Boscawen 1877:311; Smith 1880:166).

In the conclusion, what is important to note here is that when we theorize and do research on historical problems we need to take the biblical account of history seriously, rather than ignoring it or attempting to explain it away. In many cases, such as the Sumerian Problem, the Bible can provide solutions to otherwise vexing difficulties of historical interpretation.

(Reprinted by permission from the Spring 1993 issue of Artifax, with new material added.)

Editorial Footnote:

1. It is ABR's view that there is no such thing as pre-history in the modern, long-age, evolutionized sense of the term. Mankind has been able to write since Adam, and was created at "the begininning of creation," as Jesus himself affirmed (Mark 10:6). Additionally, ABR does not accept all of the conventional dates attributed to the early cultures of Mesopotamia. All cultural artifacts are post-Flood, and should probably be dated to around 3000 BC or later.


2. On these cultures, see the first volume of the Cambridge Ancient History; Perkins 1949; Mellaart 1965; Nissen 1998; Roux 1992.


Boscawen, W. St. Chad
1876 The Legend of the Tower of Babel. Records of the Past 7:129–32.
1877 The Legend of the Tower of Babel, Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology 5:303–12.

Cohen, Sol
1973 Emmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

Jacobsen, Thorkild
1997 Emmerkar and the Lord of Aratta (1.170). Pp. 547–50 in The Context of Scripture vol. 1: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo, Leiden. The Netherlands: Brill.

Jones, Tom B.
1969 The Sumerian Problem. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Kramer, Samuel N.
1968 The “Babel of Tongues”: A Sumerian Version, Journal of the American Oriental Society 88:108–11
1970 Enki and His Inferiority Complex, Orientalia 39:103–10.

Mellaart, James
1965 Earliest Civilizations of the Near East, London: Thames & Hudson.

Nissen, Hans J.
1988 The Earliest History of the Ancient Near East, 9000–2000 BC, trans. Elizabeth Lutzeier with Kenneth Northcott, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Perkins, Ann L.
1949 The Comparative Archaeology of Early Mesopotamia, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Roux, Georges
1992 Ancient Iraq. third cd. London: Penguin.

Seely, Paul H.
2001 The Date of the Tower of Babel and Some Theological Implications, Westminster Theological Journal 63:15–38.

Smith, George
1876 Chaldean Account of Genesis. New York: Scribner and Armstrong.
1880 Chaldean Account of Genesis, New edition, revised and corrected with addition, by Archibald H. Sayee, New York: Scribner.

Strickling, J.E.
1974 Legendary Evidence for the Confusion of Tongues, Creation Research Society Quarterly 11:97–101.

Walton, John
1995 The Mesopotamian Background of the Tower of Babel. Bulletin for Biblical Research 5:155–75. Reprinted in Bible and Spade 9 (1996): 77-96.

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