The fifteenth century was an age of great discoveries. Columbus tried to find a way to the island of Kathay and stumbled upon a new and unsuspected continent. An Austrian bishop equipped an expedition which was to travel eastward and find the home of the Grand Duke of Muscovy, a voyage which led to complete failure, for Moscow was not visited by western men until a generation later. Meanwhile a certain Venetian by the name of Barbero had explored the ruins of western Asia and had brought back reports of a most curious language which he had found carved in the rocks of the temples of Shiraz and engraved upon endless pieces of baked clay.

But Europe was busy with many other things and it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the first "cuneiform inscriptions" (so-called because the letters were wedge-shaped and wedge is called "Cuneus" in Latin) were brought to Europe by a Danish surveyor, named Niebuhr. Then it took thirty years before a patient German schoolmaster by the name of Grotefend had deciphered the first four letters, the D, the A, the R and the SH, the name of the Persian King Darius. And another twenty years had to go by until a British officer, Henry Rawlinson, who found the famous inscription of Behistun, gave us a workable key to the nail-writing of western Asia.

Compared to the problem of deciphering these nail-writings, the job of Champollion had been an easy one. The Egyptians used pictures. But the Sumerians, the earliest inhabitants of Mesopotamia, who had hit upon the idea of scratching their words in tablets of clay, had discarded pictures entirely and had evolved a system of V-shaped figures which showed little connection with the pictures out of which they had been developed.

A few examples will show you what I mean. In the beginning a star, when drawn with a nail into a brick looked as follows:
This sign however was too cumbersome and after a short while when the meaning of "heaven" was added to that of star the picture was simplified which made it even more of a puzzle.
In the same way an ox changed from
and a fish changed from
The sun was originally a plain circle
and became
If we were using the Sumerian script today we would make an
look like
This system of writing down our ideas looks rather complicated but for more than thirty centuries it was used by the Sumerians and the Babylonians and the Assyrians and the Persians and all the different races which forced their way into the fertile valley.

The story of Mesopotamia is one of endless warfare and conquest. First the Sumerians came from the North. They were a Caucasian people who had lived in the mountains. They had been accustomed to worship their gods on the tops of hills. After they had entered the plain they constructed artificial little hills on top of which they built their altars. They did not know how to build stairs and they therefore surrounded their towers with sloping galleries. Our engineers have borrowed this idea, as you may see in our big railroad stations where ascending galleries lead from one floor to another. We may have borrowed other ideas from the Sumerians but we do not know it.

The Sumerians were entirely absorbed by those races that entered the fertile valley at a later date. Their towers however still stand amidst the ruins of Mesopotamia. The Jews saw them when they went into exile in the land of Babylon and they called them towers of Babillli, or towers of Babel.

In the fortieth century before our era, the Sumerians had entered Mesopotamia. They were soon afterwards overpowered by the Akkadians, one of the many tribes from the desert of Arabia who speak a common dialect and who are known as the "Semites," because in the olden days people believed them to be the direct descendants of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah.

A thousand years later, the Akkadians were forced to submit to the rule of the Amorites, another Semitic desert tribe whose great King Hammurabi built himself a magnificent palace in the holy city of Babylon and who gave his people a set of laws which made the Babylonian state the best administered empire of the ancient world.

Next the Hittites, whom you will also meet in the Old Testament, over-ran the Fertile Valley and destroyed whatever they could not carry away. They in turn were vanquished by the followers of the great desert god, Ashur, who called themselves Assyrians and who made the city of Nineveh the center of a vast and terrible empire which conquered all of western Asia and Egypt and gathered taxes from countless subject races until the end of the seventh century before the birth of Christ when the Chaldeans, also a Semitic tribe, re-established Babylon and made that city the most important capital of that day. Nebuchadnezzar, the best known of their Kings, encouraged the study of science, and our modern knowledge of astronomy and mathematics is all based upon certain first principles which were discovered by the Chaldeans.

In the year 538 B.C. a crude tribe of Persian shepherds invaded this old land and overthrew the empire of the Chaldeans. Two hundred years later, they in turn were overthrown by Alexander the Great, who turned the Fertile Valley, the old melting-pot of so many Semitic races, into a Greek province.

Next came the Romans and after the Romans, the Turks, and Mesopotamia, the second center of the world's civilization, became a vast wilderness where huge mounds of earth told a story of ancient glory.


Study the lesson for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the story.
  • Review the synopsis.
  • Study the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.
  • Answer the review questions.


The Sumerians were notable for their cuneiform inscriptions consisting of the wedge-shaped letters of their alphabet. The Sumerians came to Mesopotamia from the mountains to the north. Traditionally worshiping their gods from the tops of hills, they constructed their altars on artificial hills reached by inclined galleries. These hills were called the towers of Babel by the Jewish people. The Fertile Valley was occupied by many groups of people over the years, including the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, the Persians, the Romans, and the Turks.


Cuneiform: An ancient Mesopotamian writing system, originating as pictograms in Sumer around the 30th century BC, evolving into wedge shapes.
Plain: A relatively flat expanse of land.
Altar: A flat-topped structure used for religious rites.
Galleries: Sloping ramps.


Activity 1: Narrate the Lesson

  • After you read or listen to the lesson, narrate the events aloud using your own words.

Activity 2: Examine a Real Cuneiform Inscription

  • Zoom in to study the stone inscription of Sumerian nail writing.
  • Imagine how difficult it was for Grotefend to decipher its meaning.

Activity 3: Complete Copywork, Narration, Dictation, and Art   

Click the crayon above. Complete page 21 of 'World History Copywork, Narration, Dictation, and Art for Third Grade.'

Activity 4: Sketch Cuneiform Shapes from the Chapter   

Click the crayon above. Read the below instructions and complete page 22 of 'World History Copywork, Narration, Dictation, and Art for Third Grade.'

Sketch each of the cuneiform shapes. Label each shape with its name.

  • Star
  • Ox
  • Sun
  • Fish
  • Heaven
  • Invent your own cuneiform figure out of wedge shapes for an object such as an apple, a doll, or a bird.


Question 1

Describe the appearance of cuneiform.
1 / 4

Answer 1

Cuneiform consists of wedge-shaped letters.
1 / 4

Question 2

Who developed cuneiform?
2 / 4

Answer 2

The Sumerians developed cuneiform.
2 / 4

Question 3

Who built the towers of Babel?
3 / 4

Answer 3

The Sumerians built the towers of Babel.
3 / 4

Question 4

What is the defining architectural characteristic of the towers of Babel?
4 / 4

Answer 4

The galleries, or spiraling ramps encircling the towers of Babel are the defining architectural characteristic of the towers of Babel.
4 / 4

  1. Describe the appearance of cuneiform. Cuneiform consists of wedge-shaped letters.
  2. Who developed cuneiform? The Sumerians developed cuneiform.
  3. Who built the towers of Babel? The Sumerians built the towers of Babel.
  4. What is the defining architectural characteristic of the towers of Babel? The galleries, or spiraling ramps encircling the towers of Babel are the defining architectural characteristic of the towers of Babel.