hands-on history: ancient mesopotamia – sumer

As we wade through history, I’m doing my best at a regional/chronological progression—a bit like a mastery-spiral approach.  I’m attempting to spend several lessons exploring one particular period of a culture, then circling around to see what surrounding cultures were doing at the same time.  After we circle around a region for a while, touching on the same cultures again and again over time, we can take a break to jump to far-flung regions of the world and see how they were developing during the same time span.  It sounds logical, right?  Well, we’ll see how it goes.

After learning about prehistoric humans and the transition to farming and city life, we moved on to study ancient Sumer.  Here were the highlights of our study:

  • Overview
    • We got an overview of Sumerian life and historic contributions by reading in our Usborne Ancient History Encyclopedia.  This University of Chicago interactive website also provides a fun look at life in Ancient Mesopotamia and how archaeologists work.
    • We did some map work and pondered the many contributions of Sumerians using this mom-made worksheet: First Civilization -Sumer.
    • We read Ludmila Zeman’s illustrated version of Gilgamesh to get a glimpse into the lives and beliefs of folks in ancient Sumer.
  • Ziggurats
    Our ziggurats were very colorful!

    Our ziggurats were very colorful!

    • We did some ziggurat research and reading, primarily by wandering around this website.
    • We pondered ziggurat construction using wooden blocks to show how a ziggurat looked.  We also talked about how cities gradually became raised tells (or tels, as I always saw it before now).
    • We made our own ziggurats out of card stock. If you want to do the same, you’ll need some graduated squares.  (I used my paper cutter to make squares of 8, 6, 4, and 2 inches.  You’ll need to use two sheets of standard-size paper.)  Your budding ruler-user can make a line ¾ inch from the edge of each side.  You’ll slit each corner and fold on the lines to make a ¾ inch high square platform.  (You may want to make your top layer only ½ inch high–like the one on the left–to make the folding easier.)  My kids chose to decorate their papers first—colorful ziggurats are much more exciting.  We simply used tape to hold the corners together and secure one layer to the next.  If you wanted to be really detailed you could add a pair of stair-stringers–only upside-down, fitted into the steps of the ziggurat–with a piece across them to create a ramp on which to draw a gazillion tiny steps going up the side.
  • Cuneiform
    • We read about cuneiform. I did a bunch of cuneiform research and condensed my findings into kid-sized bites.  (You can enjoy the fruit of my labor via the link below this section.)  For our first round, we read about cuneiform and inspected the examples of how it changed over time.
    • The kids thought it was pretty fun to translate the cuneiform message.

      The kids thought it was pretty fun to translate the cuneiform message.

      We translated cuneiform. I used a cuneiform-style alphabet I found online (on this teacher’s blog) to make a page for the kids to decode.  (This is also included in the PDF packet linked below.  The message reads: “Cuneiform means wedge shaped.  The Sumerians invented writing.”)  To make this a bit simpler because my kids are young, I had each of them decode half of the message.  They thought they were pretty cool, “translating” cuneiform symbols to read the message.

    • We wrote our own cuneiform. Using the cuneiform alphabet sheet from the last activity, each of the kids wrote their name in cuneiform.  Then I had each of them pick three words to depict, creating their own cuneiform-style symbols.  They drew a simple image for each word, changed it to all lines and wedges, turned it sideways, and further simplified it, imitating the real changes to cuneiform writing.  (The worksheet we used is also included in the link below.)
    • Our finished clay tablets and our very-authentic-looking stylus

      Our finished clay tablets and our very-authentic-looking stylus

      We made clay tablets. I was going to have the kids dig up clay in the yard for uber-authenticity, but it happened to be thunderstorming when we got to this lesson, so thankfully I had air-dry clay as a backup.  Since we were also unable to look for sticks to use as styluses, I substituted those no-roll triangle-shaped crayons, which worked respectably.  Each kid chose one or two cuneiform symbols to inscribe on their clay tablet.  It’s harder than it looks to get those lines and wedges—the kids had a hard time remembering to make sure the point of the crayon was down rather than the flat side and understanding how to press the crayon down to make a line without squashing the whole crayon into the clay.  They practiced once or twice before making the final product.

Here’s a PDF of my packet for Cuneiform–background reading, translation, and invention.


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