Archaeology of Sumeria


Before the mid-19th century AD, the existence of the Sumerian people and language was not suspected. The first major excavations leading to the discovery of Sumer were conducted (1842-1854) at Assyrian sites such as Nineveh, Dur Sharrukin, and Calah by the French archaeologists Paul Émile Botta and Victor Place; the British archaeologists Sir Austen Henry Layard and Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson; and the Iraqi archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam. Thousands of tablets and inscriptions dating from the 1st millennium bc, the vast majority written in Akkadian, were uncovered. Thus, scholars assumed at first that all Mesopotamian cuneiform inscriptions were in the Akkadian language. Rawlinson and the Irish clergyman Edward Hincks made a study of the inscriptions, however, and discovered that some were in a non-Semitic language. In 1869 the French archaeologist Jules Oppert suggested that the name Sumerian, from the royal title King of Sumer and Akkad appearing in numerous inscriptions, be applied to the language.

In the late 19th century, a series of excavations was undertaken at Lagash by French archaeologists working under the direction of the Louvre and at Nippur by Americans under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania. The French excavations at Lagash were conducted from 1877 to 1900 by Ernest de Sarzec; from 1903 to 1909 by Gaston Cros; from 1929 to 1931 by Henri de Genouillac; and from 1931 to 1933 by André Parrot. The excavations at Nippur were conducted (1889-1900) by John Punnett Peters, John Henry Haynes, and Hermann Vollrat Hilprecht. Since 1948, excavations have been conducted by archaeologists working under the direction of the University of Pennsylvania, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and the American Schools of Oriental Research (after 1957 under the sole direction of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago). Other Sumerian excavations have been conducted at Kish, Adab, Erech, Eridu, Eshnunna, Jemdet Nasr, Shuruppak, Tell al-Ubaid, Tutub, and Ur. The canalled city of Kish, which was situated 13 km (8 mi) east of Babylon on the Euphrates River, is known to have been one of the most important cities of Sumer. Extensive excavations since 1922 have uncovered an invaluable sequence of pottery. Archaeologists also unearthed a temple of Nebuchadnezzar II and Nabonidus (r. 556-539 BC) and the palace of Sargon of Akkad, ruins that date from the 3rd millennium BC to about 550 BC.