Technology and Inventions

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Technology and Inventions


Accomplishments. The ancient Mesopotamians are credited with a host of original technological accomplishments. They built canal systems for irrigation and transportation, created the first man-made glass objects, and produced new wheeled war machines, movable siege towers, belfries with battering rams, and war chariots. They recorded the world’s first recipes for perfume, beer, dyes, medicines, and bronze, and they invented a new cuisine.

Ziggurats. The Mesopotamian ziggurat stands out as a striking innovation in architectural design. Evolving from the early practice of building and rebuilding temples on earthen or brick platforms, the ziggurat resembled a multi-leveled, stepped pyramid. It was made of mud brick, clad in burnt brick set in bitumen mortar, and presumably topped with a temple or shrine. Ziggurats were a distinctive feature on the Mesopotamian skyline. The remains of more than thirty ziggurats have been found so far. Ur-Namma, king of Ur circa 2112 - circa 2095 B.C.E., was the builder of the first true ziggurats in southern Mesopotamia, and examples of his building projects can be found at Eridu, Nippur, and Uruk. His best-known ziggurat, and the best preserved today, is the one at Ur. Even though only two lower stages are partially preserved, images on reliefs and seals make it possible to reconstruct its original appearance. It was designed with a rectangular base and three stairways that converge midway up to become a single staircase leading to the top level, some fifty feet above the ground. A large ziggurat dedicated to the god Enlil was built during the fourteenth century b.c.e. at the fortified Kassite city of Dur-Kurigalzu (modern Aqar Quf), near Babylon. The remains of this ziggurat, now eroded to its core of mud brick and layers of reeds, lie within the remnants of a fortress once

rich in Egyptian gold. In Babylon the ziggurat E-temenanki (“the foundation-platform of heaven and under world”) was built by Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 B.C.E.) for the national god Marduk. It inspired Herodotus of Halicamassus (fifth century B.C.E.) to write a glorious description of it in his Histories, and it may have served as the archetype for the Tower of Babel in the Hebrew Bible. It was laid out on the foundations of an Old Babylonian-period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 B.C.E.) ziggurat that had been successively rebuilt over the centuries. Nebuchadnezzar’s ziggurat had seven stories that rose some three hundred feet to the top. The upper dwelling place of the god was said to have been clad with blue-glazed enameled bricks. According to Diodorus, a Roman historian of the late first century B.C.E., the ziggurat tower in Babylon was used for astronomical observation. This use is a distinct possibility, but there is no evidence to confirm it. Today only the foundations of the once-great tower survive. The largest ziggurat in Mesopotamia was the Anu ziggurat at Uruk, built during the Seleucid period (311–129 B.C.E.); only the remains of its sides, some one hundred meters in length, have survived.

The Amorite Wall. Incursions into Mesopotamia at the end of the third millennium B.C.E. by the Amorites (Akkadian: Amurru; Sumerian: Martu), a Semitic-speaking people from the West, posed an imminent danger for the empire of the Third Dynasty of Ur. After rescuing his city from attack and causing the marauders to flee, Shu-Sin (circa 2037 - circa 2029 B.C.E.) built an enormous defensive wall designed to fend off future infiltration. Called Muriq-Tidnim, “Keeping away the Tidnim” (one of the Amorite tribes), the Amorite wall was said to have been about 170 miles long. Although no remnant of the wall has been identified by archaeologists, it apparently stretched across both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers at a point just north of the modern city of Baghdad. At the time of its construction, the wall was of such significance that its construction provided the names of Shu-Sin’s fourth and fifth regnal years: “The year Shu-Sin the king of Ur built the Amurru wall, Muriq-Tidnim” and “The year after the year Shu-Sin the king of Ur built the Amurru wall, Muriq-Tidnim.” For a brief period, even Shu-Sin’s sixth regnal year was called “The year after the year after the year. …” In the end, this wall was a futile effort. Under Shu-Sin’s son, Ibbi-Sin (circa 2028 - circa 2004 B.C.E.), the Ur III empire fell to the Amorites from the west, and Ur was sacked by the Elamites from the east.

Zimri-Lim’s Icehouse. The palace of the Amorite king Zimri-Lim (circa 1776 - circa 1761 B.C.E.) at Mari on the middle Euphrates in Syria had nearly three hundred rooms at ground level and perhaps as many on the second floor. Many rooms were grouped around one of several large open courtyards. The palace included workshops, reception rooms, shrines, living quarters, storerooms, and kitchens. At Terqa, about seventy kilometers north of Mari, Zimri-Lim built an “icehouse” (Akkadian: bit shuripim) to store ice that was collected from the highlands during the winter. The ice was used to chill the royal family’s wine, and it was presented at dinner to foreign diplomatic visitors and traveling merchants. A reference to the construction of the icehouse is found in Zimri-Lim’s only surviving royal inscription. Two fragmentary letters from the governor of Terqa to Zimri-Lim mention the problem of preventing the ice from melting.

Synthetic Basalt. The southern alluvial plain of Mesopotamia lacks such basic raw materials as hardwoods, hard stone, and metal ores. By and large, such materials were obtained from the more-mountainous regions to the north and east through trade or plunder. However, a novel solution to the problem of obtaining hard stone was found at the site of Mashkan-shapir (modern Tell Abu Duwari), an early second millennium b.c.e. Old Babylonian city. All across the site, archaeologists recovered large rectangular slabs, whole and fragmentary, that appeared to be made of basalt, a dark-colored, fine-grained volcanic rock. Most of these stones were shaped for use as grinding stones, one of which was found with a handstone of the same material. A few pieces appeared to have been used for building construction. Chemical analysis revealed that the stones were not basalt, but rather must have been made from local alluvial silt that had been heated in a kiln to its melting point (about 1200°C) and then allowed to cool slowly. Such technology testifies to the abilities of the potters or metal workers of the day. Producing locally the stone needed for such everyday activities as grinding grain to make bread and beer must have been much more cost effective than having to import such stones, especially since grinding stones and handstones became worn with use and needed to be replaced periodically.

Water Clocks. The water clock (Akkadian: dibdibbu) is mentioned in both astronomical and mathematical texts. It was a container of water with a hole in the bottom. Time was measured by the amount of time it took the water to seep out of the opening. The original use of the water clock seems to have been marking off the three “watches” into which nighttime was divided. At sunset, the start of the first watch, water was poured into the water clock, and when the water clock was empty, the watch was over. Since the length of the night varies through the year, the water clock was filled with different quantities of water in each season. The earliest tables of quantities of water for the water clock date to the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 B.C.E.). They are based on an ideal year of 360 days, and the amount of water changed only four times a year. Later texts are less primitive. The astronomical compendium MUL.APIN, probably composed near the start of the first millennium B.C.E., changes water quantities at intervals of fifteen days, while a Late Babylonian tablet, dated about 500 B.C.E., specifies intervals of five days.

A Mobile Battering Ram. City walls were intended to provide protection from attackers. During the first millennium B.C.E., as it worked to implement the expansionist policies of the Neo-Assyrian kings, the Assyrian army developed methods to undermine the resistance of those

seeking refuge within walled cities. These strategies included siege, storming the ramparts, breaching walls and gates, scaling walls, and tunneling under walls, as well as propaganda and psychological warfare. The palace reliefs of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 B.C.E.) at Nimrud depict the use of a battering ram mounted on a mobile six-wheeled wooden frame covered by wicker shields. The machine appears to have been almost twenty feet long. Mounted at the front of the carriage was a round-domed, perhaps metal, turret, almost twenty feet tall, inside of which the battering beam was slung from a rope, like a pendulum. The head of the ram was shaped somewhat like that of an axe. It was apparently driven between the stones or bricks of the wall and then levered back and forth in an effort to dislodge them, ultimately bringing about the collapse of that portion of the wall. Additional protection for the ram operators was provided by archers perched within mobile fortified towers wheeled alongside the rams. Scenes of sieges in the palace reliefs of later Assyrian kings indicate that army engineers continued to develop the ram, experimenting with four- and six-wheeled versions and with a variety of different forms of armor.

Sennacherib’s Aqueduct. When the Assyrian king Sennacherib (704–681 B.C.E.) moved his capital to Nineveh at the beginning of his reign, he restored the ancient city to magnificent splendor. At the same time, because the Tigris River was situated too low to be used for the large-scale irrigation his new city and parklands needed, he provided for the city’s water supply with several ambitious building projects. In addition to an intricate system of canals to bring water from distant mountain streams to the city, he built an aqueduct of huge proportions. Bridging a valley, it was three hundred yards long and twenty-four yards wide. Standing on a layer of enormous rough boulders, it was built of some two million stone blocks, each weighing a quarter of a ton.

The Na-Gauge. The rise and fall of the level of the Euphrates River must have been observed since the earliest settlers made their home in Mesopotamia. Exactly when the height of the river began to be recorded can only be surmised. Certainly by the middle of the sixth century B.C.E., scribes were writing down changes of river levels in Babylon almost daily in astronomical diaries. Probably near the close of the fourth century B.C.E., the na-gauge was introduced as a means of accurately measuring the river level. From what little is known about the use of the na-gauge, it is assumed to have been something like a modern ruler. Measurement was taken relative to some benchmark, perhaps the top of a sluice gate in the Euphrates at Babylon, and read from top to bottom. There may have been more than one location at which na measures were taken. The two sluice gates mentioned in the astronomical diaries are possibilities. A high na value meant a low water level; a low na represented a high level; no na meant the water was ready to pour over the apertures of the sluice. Changes in river level were measured in units of fingers and cubits. During the Late Babylonian period, 1 cubit (approximately 50 centimeters or 20 inches) equaled 24 fingers. One na, which equaled four fingers or one-sixth of a cubit, is thought to have been the thickness of a layer of bricks, a standard measure. Recorded na values ran from 1 to 39.


Stephanie Dalley, Mari and Karana: Two Old Babylonian Cities (London & New York: Longman, 1984).

Susan B. Downey, Mesopotamian Religious Architecture: Alexander through the Parthians (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

C. J. Gadd, “Babylonia c. 2120–1800 B.C.,” in The Cambridge Ancient History, third edition, volume 1, part 2: Early History of the Middle East, edited by I. E. S. Edwards, Gadd, and N. G. L. Hammond (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp. 595–643.

Hermann Hunger and David Edwin Pingree, MUL.APIN: An Astronomical Compendium in Cuneiform, Archiv für Orientforschung, Beiheft 24 (Horn, Austria: Berger, 1989).

Abraham Joseph Sachs and Hermann Hunger, Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia, volume 1 (Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1988).

E. C. Stone, D. H. Linsley, V. Pigott, G. Harbottle, and M. T. Ford, “From Shifting Silt to Solid Stone: The Manufacture of Synthetic Basalt in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Science, 280 (26 June 1998): 2091–2093.

D. J. Wiseman, Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon (London: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 1985).

Yigael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Study, translated by M. Pearlman, 2 volumes (New York, Toronto & London: McGraw-Hill, 1963).

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Technology and Inventions

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Technology and Inventions