Tuesday, April 30, 2013

History Mystery: Ur The Legendary City Of Abraham Part.IV

The children of the poor toiled beside their parents in field or workshop from an early age, unless their father and invoked his right to sell them as slaves. School, called the ‘house of writing tablets’, was open only to the children of the rich. Gaining a education involved learning the 600 odd signs of Sumerian cuneiform script, and was a long and costly process. Every day, each child would study a tablet which the master had written out the day before, and attempt to copy it. The texts included epic tales, legends, hymns, and sayings, as well as simple groups of words such as the names of animals, vegetables, and minerals, and of countries and towns. Teachers also instructed pupils in grammar and mathematics. At the lunch time meals, a ‘holder of the whip’ ensured strict discipline. One Sumerian schoolboy has left a rather miserable account of a day at school. On his arrival, he was whipped for gazing around in the street; then for being ‘improperly dressed’. During the course of the day he received four more beatings: for talking in class, for standing up, for walking outside the gate, and for producing bad work.

From this austere discipline emerged a class of scribes on whom the entire Sumerian religious an administrative system was based. Writing was a cherished and exclusive skill, which must have seemed magical to the mass of the people. Writing tablets give the names of 500 scribes and their origins, adding up to a roll-call of privilege. The list includes the sons of civic officials, ambassadors, governors, temple officials, priests, scribes, archivists, accountants, tax collectors, officers, ships’ captains, foremen, and stewards. Only one woman is mentioned in the entire list. Perhaps she was educated at home, for chilling seems to have been a male prerogative. The scribes formed the apex of the administrative hierarchy in Ur, headed by the sovereign himself. Promotion within the administration depended perhaps as much on political muscle and royal favour as on ability. Nonetheless, there seems to have been considerable social mobility. The humble role of courier, carrying messages or escorting convoys between capital and provinces, launched many and ambitious scribe on a career, came to head the whole courier service, and later also acquired the post of an ensi (governor) of six towns, and a shagin (prefect) of the eastern provinces. The wealth of Ur came partly from the tributes it received from subject towns and from the estates owned by king and priesthood. But the city also profited from industry. Wool was mass-processed in workshops by female spinners using fleeces and goats’ hair. Linen was also woven, though it was reserved for use by priests. A group of male artisans formed a class of their own, the eren.

A craft was generally passed of from father to son, and residential quarters were allocated to specific trades, such as carpentry or engraving. Guilds of goldsmiths and other metalworkers were closely supervised by state foremen. Generally free men, they worked not for themselves but for the state, which supplied them with raw materials and took charge of the finished goods. Finished artifacts were handed over to the workshop manager, who issued a receipt. A chief controller examined the item to make sure that none of the original ore had been sold off for private gain, then countersigned the receipt. Goldsmiths, like other workers, were paid in measures of barley. At the bottom of society were the slaves – prisoners of war, bankrupted free men, or people who had been sold off by their parents, usually to pay debts. The slaves’ lot was not totally abject: they had the right to set up in business, to own property, and to buy their freedom. They could also marry free citizens, and their children would be born in liberty. In Third Dynasty Ur, the state owned much of the land, as well as all of the industry.

 Most Sumerians were not city dwellers but field workers who farmed the alluvial plain. Much of the work revolved around maintaining the irrigation system: clearing channels, repairing dykes, and operating sluice – gates in times of drought. Fields were ploughed with wooden ploughshares fitted with funnels through which the seed was sown. This apparatus was the first known seed drill, which was a testament to the Sumerians’ extraordinary inventiveness – no comparable devices was used in Western Europe until the Englishman, Jethro Jull, reinvented the seed drill in the 18th century AD. A whole mythology of germination, death, and rebirth accompanied this seasonal toil. Ceremonies were held in honour of Dumuzi, the god of vegetation, whose autumn death and descent into the underworld was celebrated by a procession of female mourners, who grieved his passing to the sound of a flute. Other festivities marked Dumuzi’s resurrection, when he grew once again amid and new crop of wheat.

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