Sumerian Culture and the Stele of Hammurabi

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Kevin Jamieson

Art 2.1 – Research Paper

Sumerian Culture and the Stele of Hammurabi

To understand the true impact of the Stele of Hammurabi, and the Code contained within its text, we must explore the complete cultural context in which it was created and presented. Ancient Mesopotamia was a truly fascinating place. Modern scholars and researchers have a tremendous resource when investigating this ancient culture – thousands of clay tablets impressed with writing, which we now call “cuneiform”, that records many aspects of everyday life. From records of business transactions, to contracts and political agreements, as well as religious and simple descriptive texts we can assemble an amazingly accurate picture of what life was like so far in the past.

Sumerian civilization seems to have begun between 3500 and 3000BC, between what we call the Tigris and Euphrates rivers located in present-day Iraq. By 2900BC we begin to see the evidence of fortified towns, city-states, palaces, metalworking, and recognizable cuneiform writing. Cuneiform was originally logographic writing, similar in concept to Egyptian hieroglyphics, with pictures representing objects. This is most clearly evident in tablets used to record transactions – pictures of grains, animals, and marks signifying their number. Eventually this evolved into simpler, more linear representations, and progressed into the sharp wedge-and-line shape we will see used not just by the Sumerians but later cultures like the Akkadians. The development of such language and writing allowed for record keeping and documented administration of civic records, enabling the efficient managing of ancient urban life.

It is difficult to gain perspective on a culture as old as this one, but it helps to think of their accomplishments on a timeline. Western culture is very narrowly focused on recent ‘modern’ history. Think that as of this writing, it has been roughly two thousand years since the birth of Christ – a time and place that, through reading various texts and accounts, seems very, very long ago. Now, leap another step, even farther; when Mesopotamian civilization had reached the stage of empires, horses, and ziggurats, the birth of Christ was as far away in the future as it is to us in the past! That these people managed so much so long ago is a testament to their organization and tenacity.

If the Egyptians can be considered a civilization of stone, Sumerians must be considered a civilization of mud. Sumeria was first and foremost an agrarian society, with crops harvested after being irrigated by the two great rivers. Mud collected on the banks of these rivers could be formed into tablets, impressed with the pointed end of a cut river reed to form writing, and fired in an oven to make the document official and extremely durable. That same mud could be gathered into bricks and fired, to form walls for houses and temples. The fundamental elements of water, earth, and sun, combined with river reeds and crops, form the basis of the Sumerian outlook on the world.

The mud that provided for their tablets then provided for centralized government, and records show cases tried before judges in civil and criminal matters. This sets the stage for examining the Code of Hammurabi, a code of laws engraved on a seven foot tall pillar of diorite in 1760BC that now resides in the Louvre in Paris. Figure 1 provides an excellent perspective to see the stele relative to human size. At the top, we see Hammurabi himself standing in front of the seated sun god Shamash, who is holding objects of royalty and justice. Beneath, in fifty-one neatly lettered columns of text, is inscribed the Code itself. It begins with a list of praises to a complex arrangement of Gods, and ends with a series of ominous proclamations of woe that will befall anyone who defiles the stele or disregards its rules. The content of the near three hundred rules is comprehensive for the times; it dictates the terms of crimes and the punishment that shall be meted out. Examined from a modern perspective, much of it seems quite harsh, such as rule number 22 from the 1910 translation by L.W. King, “If any one is committing a robbery and is caught, then he shall be put to death.” This is but one example of numerous rules of behavior that can result in penalty of death. There is the famous example of rule 196, which states “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.” Many of our modern political scholars have taken inspiration from this first code of laws. There are numerous rules devoted to the discussion of proper behavior for married couples along with the custody of children. Still other rules dictate the prices that are felt justly paid in the daily life of a structured agricultural society, such as rule 268: “If any one hire an ox for threshing, the amount of the hire is twenty ka of corn.”

The design of this statue means that it could have been viewed easily in public by different people. This was not so much what we consider an object of artistic interest as a public posting of rules and what is expected of civilized men and women. At seven feet tall, even the tallest of men would have been smaller than The Code – no one is above the law, as it were. The delicate, nearly three-dimensional relief engraving puts Hammurabi and Shamash into our world – rather than a shallow relief that would merely hint at their shape and form. Hammurabi was well respected as a ruler, and this code was considered his masterpiece. Placing the engraved scene at the top, above the inscribed laws, attempts to add authority to the words conveyed.

My research on this subject revealed some interesting facts that I was previously unaware of. Attempting to define what is and is not Sumerian is difficult because of the subsequent invading cultures that in many ways assimilated facets of Sumeria such as cuneiform writing. Sumerian, as a language, is completely unrelated to anything we have seen before or after – linguistically, it is unrelated even to Akkadian, which is the actual language of Hammurabi himself. Sumerian is an agglutinative language, meaning it is constructed of the assembling of syllables to form words. It is difficult to ascertain the complete symbol vocabulary of the written language, but five hundred different symbols have been analyzed and identified. Couple that with later languages using cuneiform for their writing as well, and it can become very confusing very quickly.

Perhaps the most important element I gained was a sense of historical perspective. It is mind-bending to think about events so far removed in the past. It seems near impossible to study the history of Sumer and Babylon with the same level of historical detail that we do our recent history; while looking at a series of military victories and successions of rulers, entire centuries can be glossed over in the blink of an eye. I am entirely fascinated not just with the development of their language and art, but by the fact that such a complex civilization’s history can be so proficiently documented by the people of that time. It seems like an unlimited number of chapters in history have been opened up by Sumerian translation projects that are waiting to be explored.


Janson, H.W. and Anthony F. Janson. History of Art. Prentice Hall, 2001

Nemet-Nejat, Karen Rhea. Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. Greenwood Press, 1998

Hooker, Richard The Code of Hammurabi (1996).

Ellwood, Alexandra Stele with the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (November 4, 2003).

Various Authors, Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature at Oxford (November 3, 2003).

Horne, Charles F. The Code of Hammurabi: Introduction (1915).

Figure 1

Ellwood, Alexandra, John and the stele with the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, Louvre (November 4, 2003)

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