Ancient Mesopotamia

This page was designed by teachers to be used by fourth grade students when studying the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia. It has been created in response to the Massachusetts State Frameworks which suggests the study of ancient civilizations in grade four. You will also find a list of resources and classroom activities for teacher use.



On the Web
Classroom Activities







Mesopotamia was approximately 300 miles long and 150 miles wide. It was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. These rivers flow into the Persian Gulf. The word Mesopotamia means "The land between the rivers".

Activity: Find a map and see if you can locate Mesopotamia.


The climate for the region ranged from seasons of cool to hot seasons with temperatures often over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Mesopotamia experienced moderate rainfall.

Most of Mesopotamia was located in the present day country of Iraq. The land of Mesopotamia was once dominated by floods, but today is mostly desert. The seasonal flooding was a challenge to the farmers of Mesopotamia. These farmers learned to control the flooding to some degree. The fertile land along the rivers produced such crops as wheat, barley, sesame, flax, and various fruits and vegetables.

The land that was once marshes and channels that provided food, protection, and life to the people there, no longer exists.


Back to top





In Mesopotamia, each town and city was believed to be protected by its own, unique deity or god. The temple, as the center of worship, was also the center of every city.

Around the year 2000 B.C., temple towers began to be built to link heaven and earth. The towers, called ziggurats, were very large, pyramid-shaped structures on top of which the temple was built. The ziggurats were built of mud bricks with 3 to 7 terraced levels.

The Mesopotamians believed that these pyramid temples connected heaven and earth. In fact, the ziggurat at Babylon was known as Etemenankia or "House of the Platform between Heaven & Earth". The ziggurats were often decorated with pillars and other ornamentation.
At first, religious events were held at the temple. Later, as a priesthood developed, the temple became the center of both religion and learning for the entire community.


The people of Mesopotamia had very many gods, called dingir in Sumerian. Their gods and goddesses looked and acted just like people. They had feasts, marriages, children, and wars. They could be jealous, angry, joyful, or kind. The gods and goddesses had supernatural powers.

Every single city had its own patron god or goddess who owned everything and everyone in the city. Everyone was expected to sing hymns, say prayers, make sacrifices and bring offerings to the local temple (ziggurat) for the gods. The people trusted the priests and the priestesses in the temples to tell them what the gods or goddesses wanted, and they dutifully carried out their wishes. They believed that the gods could be annoyed at what you did and punish you, or they could be pleased and reward you.This made the leaders in the temples almost as powerful as the kings.

In Mesopotamia the people looked to religion to answer their questions about life and death, good and evil, and the forces of nature. The dingir followed themes, or divine laws, that governed the universe. The Sumerians believed in divine order, that is, everything that occurs is preplanned by the gods.
There were four all-powerful gods that created and controlled the universe. An was the god of heaven, Enlil was the air-god, Enki was the water-god, and Ninhursag was the mother earth-goddess. Each of these gods created lesser gods who were also important in Mesopotamia. Utu, the sun-god, lit the world with rays shooting from his shoulders. He moved across the sky in a chariot. Nanna was the moon-god who used a boat to travel by night.

Back to top



What did the Sumerians wear?

The Sumerians made their clothing by using the natural resources that were available to them. Clothing was made from wool or flax which Sumerians could raise and harvest. (Flax is a plant with blue flowers. The stems of these plants are used to make the clothing.) How thick or how coarse the clothing was meant the season in which the clothes would be worn. Like us, heavier clothing would be worn in the winter and lighter clothing would be worn in the summer.

Men were barechested and wore skirt-like garments that tied at the waist. Women usually wore gowns that covered them from their shoulders to their ankles. The right arm and shoulder were left uncovered. Men were either clean shaven or had long hair and beards. Women wore their hair long, but they usually braided it and wrapped it around their heads. When entertaining guests, women would place headdresses in their hair.

Although both rich and poor Sumerians wore the same style of clothing, the wealthier Sumerians wore clothing that was made out of expensive and luxurious materials. Wealthy women and princesses also wore clothing that was colorful and bright.

Both men and women wore earrings and necklaces. During celebrations, even more jewelry was worn. The wealthier Sumerians often wore beautiful gold and silver bracelets and earrings. Necklaces were also worn and were set with bright, precious stones. Some of these stones were the lapis lazuli and the carnelian.


Back to top


How did farmers learn the secrets of trading?
Trade and commerce developed in Mesopotamia because the farmers learned how to irrigate their land. They could now grow more food than they could eat. They used the surplus to trade for goods and services. Ur, a city-state in Sumer, was a major center for commerce and trade. Temples were the chief employer and location for commercial activity.

What if you needed some important things. How could you get them?
The system of trade developed from people's need. People in the mountains needed wheat and barley. Mountain people could give timber, limestone, gold, silver, and copper. Flax was grown in the river valley and then woven into cloth. Linen garments were worn by priests and holy men. Wool and wool cloth was also important for trade. Wood was used for ships and furniture.

Imagine having to take your boat apart after traveling down a river. Read on to find out why these people had to do this.
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers made transport of goods easy and economical. Riverboats were used to transport goods for trade. Strong currents moved the boats downstream, but because of the current they could travel in one direction only. The boats had to be dismantled after the trip downstream.

The Mesopotamians were clever people and used interesting types of boats.
The Mesopotamians used three types of boats: wooden boats with a triangular sail, the turnip or Guffa boat which was shaped like a tub, made of reeds and covered with skin, and the kalakku which was a raft of timbers supported by inflated animal skins. The invention of the wheel by the Sumerians revolutionized the transportation. Wagons could be used to carry heavy loads.

If you lived back then, you would not need money to get things you needed.
Money wasn't used to trade goods and services. The Mesopotamians used the barter system instead. They developed a writing system to keep track of buying and selling. Scribes kept accurate records of business transactions by writing on clay tablets. Business contracts were sealed with a cylinder wheel.


Back to top





The Beginnings of Writing

Farmers needed to keep records.
The Sumerians were very good farmers. They raised animals such as goats and cows (called livestock). Because they needed to keep records of their livestock, food, and other things, officials began using tokens.

Tokens were used for trade.
Clay tokens came in different shapes and sizes. These represented different objects. For example, a cone shape could have represented a bag of wheat. These tokens were placed inside clay balls that were sealed. If you were sending five goats to someone, then you would put five tokens in the clay ball. When the goat arrived, the person would open the clay ball and count the tokens to make sure the correct number of goats had arrived.

The number of tokens began to be pressed on the outside of the clay balls. Many experts believe that this is how writing on clay tablets began.

A system of writing develops.

The earliest form of writing dates back to 3300 B.C. People back then would draw "word-pictures" on clay tablets using a pointed instrument called a stylus. These "word-pictures" then developed into wedge-shaped signs. This type of script was called cuneiform (from the Latin word cuneus which means wedge).

Who used cuneiform?
Not everyone learned to read and write. The ones that were picked by the gods were called scribes. Boys that were chosen to become scribes (professional writers) began to study at the age of 8. They finished when they were 20 years old. The scribes wrote on clay tablets and used a triangular shaped reed called a stylus to make marks in the clay. The marks represented the tens of thousands of words in their language.

Back to top





  1. What is the latitude and longitude of Mesopotamia? Locate and name places in the world with either similar latitude or longitude.
  2. How would you describe in geographical(i.e. mountains, rivers, etc.) terms what Mesopotamian landscape was like?
  3. What do you think were methods of transportation in Mesopotamia?
  4. What are some differences in topography of ancient Mesopotamia and modern day Iraq?
  5. WATER WATER EVERYWHERE - The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers would periodically flood the land of Mesopotamia. Have students research the positive and negative effects of these floods.
  6. MUD AND CLAY - Have students research how mud and clay were important to the people of Mesopotamia. - You may want to have students build model homes out of mud and clay writing tablets.
  7. Comparison and use of map scale Mesopotamia is approximately 300 miles long by 150 miles wide. Have students find states in America with a similar size.
  8. Find a site for a City-State. - Use a topography map of Mesopotamia without cities. Have groups of students examine the topography map and determine where they would locate a city. Remind students of the various needs of a city, including water, food, transportation, and protection. Students would then present their recommendation to the class and justify their reasons for their location.


  1. Student-created skits. Have students work in cooperative groups to think of something that happens in nature, such as the change of seasons or the flooding of a river. Students should choose at least one Mesopotamian deity and create a myth to explain the natural happening. They can act out their skits for the rest of the class.
  2. Have students illustrate on a chart the main gods and goddesses of Mesopotamia and their realms.


  1. Map trade routes using a map of Mesopotamia. Students can calculate the distance traveled on these trade routes. have students label the natural, human, and capital resources found in each region by creating a key or legend.
  2. Set up a simulation where students choose a different profession and list the possible products they have to use for trade. Have them figure out how they would barter with others, so that they can get everything they need for a comfortable life. (For example: How would a shipbuilder buy one pottery item?)
  3. Name classroom jobs using ancient professions (scribe, priest, fisherman). Assign a "value" for each job. Students can keep track of their value points with cuneiform writing.
  4. Create a card game using ancient professions and the goods they produced. Have players determine the value of their goods before they start the play. Design some "unexpected" hardships to go along as game cards to be drawn from a deck.

Back to top



Burrell, Roy. Oxford First Ancient History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Chisholm, Jane and Anne Millard. Early Civilization. London: Usborne, 1991.
Landau, Elaine. The Assyrians. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, 1997.
Landau, Elaine. The Babylonians. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, 1997.
Landau, Elaine. The Sumerians. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, 1997.
Martell, Hazel Mary. The Kingfisher Book of the Ancient World: From the Ice Age to the Fall of Rome. New York: Kingfisher, 1995.
Mesopotamia: The Mighty Kings. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1995.
Millard, Anne. The First Civilisations: From 10,000 B.C. to 1500. London: Usborne, 1990.
Roaf, Michael. Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East. New York: Facts on File, 1990.
The Visual Dictionary of Ancient Civilizations. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1994.


Cradles of Civilization, CD-ROM Society for Visual Education, 1996.
Time Machine Trivia, CD-ROM Instructional Fair, 1997.


The Mesopotamian Collection of Artifacts


Why do Civilizations Collapse?

Medicine in Ancient Mesopotamia

The History of Plumbing - Babylonia

Ancient Mesopotamia

The Ziggurats

Accessing Women's Lives in Mesopotamia

Mesopotamian Mathematics

Mr. Donn's Ancient History

Ancient Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia Map

Judge Hammurabi's Code

The Epic of Gilgamesh

Back to top