Mesopotamia, meaning “between the rivers,” was the cradle of civilization. Explore the people who lived here thousands of years ago with a couple of our favorite Mesopotamia lesson plans. These two lessons are designed to give a sense of time and place for ancient Mesopotamia, while integrating critical thinking, math, and social studies goals.
Books for this study:
- DK Eyewitness Books: Mesopotamia
- Gilgamesh the King
- You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Sumerian Slave!: A Life of Hard Labor You’d Rather Avoid
- The British Museum has an interactive site with extensive basic information and images.
- University of Chicago‘s interactive site
- Mr. Donn’s Mesopotamia
- The MET has a lesson on literacy in Mesopotamia
- They also have an interesting lesson on political power.
- LookLex timeline
Economics: Needs and Opportunities
The area called Mesopotamia is a stretch of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers:
Have students identify this area on modern maps and list the nations that currently exist in this area.
In 3100 BC, when people in Mesopotamia began writing, people had already lived there for a long time. The Sumerians lived there some 7500 years ago, and the Assyrians, Babylonians, and ancient Persians were among the other civilizations that made this part of the world their home. The region became part of the Roman Empire in 114 or so. Later the Ottoman Turks controlled the area, and it has been part of Iraq since 1932.
It was a good place to live all that time because it allowed people to meet their basic needs. Try our Cookie Geography lesson to make this point. Have students cut the shape of your state from gingerbread, use icing to show the rivers or other bodies of water, and add chocolate chips to show the major cities. You’ll find that the oldest, largest cities are nearly always on the water, and usually on a river. Discuss the ways in which rivers satisfy basic human needs for food, water, and transportation. Then look at the map of Mesopotamia and note how the rivers made it a good place to live.
Older students can research the weather in the area. They’ll find that there was regular rainfall and predictable growing seasons, a set of circumstances which encouraged agriculture. While hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants will produce enough food to sustain life, agriculture is a more reliable and efficient way to produce food.
Propose this as a hypothesis and have students figure out how they can support or reject it. For example, they might compare the amount of food produced by wild plants with the amount produced by cultivated plants. They might calculate the amount of time searching for 1,000 calories of wild foods would take, compared with the amount of time required to produce 1,000 calories of food from a garden. They could estimate the amount of fish or game an individual with simple tools such as a spear or net could bring home in a day, compared with the amount of food a day’s farming could produce.
Once students are convinced that agriculture is an efficient means of satisfying people’s need for food, point out that the rise of agriculture allowed specialization. If all the people have to spend most of their time coming up with food, they won’t have the leisure to develop other special talents. If fewer people can be farmers and produce enough food for all, then some people can work on pottery, metalcrafting, and even just coming up with ideas for useful things like ships and calendars.
This is what happened in Mesopotamia. With enough leisure to specialize, people came up with writing, laws, new forms of transportation, government, and other technologies. The rivers allowed trade with other growing civilizations, bringing new goods and also new ideas to the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians who lived there.
Have students use resources like Material World: A Global Family Portrait to identify nations or areas where much of people’s attention has to be devoted to basic survival. Compare the level of specialization in careers in these places with that in more affluent nations. Use this information to develop context for a discussion about how the natural resources and climate of Mesopotamia influenced the history of the societies there. The resources linked above will provide background information.
Play Civilization or any other history simulation game and discuss how the game’s creators have tried to replicate the effects of differing access to resources.
Alternatively, have students use Google Earth with cities and building layers turned off to identify good places for building a civilization. They could imagine that they are beings from another planet coming to what they think is an uninhabited earth and choosing a likely spot to form a colony. Have students create a Google Earth Tour to show the places they recommend to their commander back on their home planet.
Mesopotamia is the home of mathematics. People began to count, using their fingers and thus coming up with a base 10 system of arithmetic. They also developed a calendar. At first, they divided their years by agricultural events, deciding that a new year would begin with the barley harvest in what we would now call May and June. Events like the time to plant could be identified as a fairly regular and predictable time. This led to the development of the 360 day year.
360 is a tidy number that can be divided in many ways. We still divide a circle into 360 degrees, and Math Forum has an interesting discussion of this fact which includes Mesopotamia’s relationship to it. Have students draw or cut big circles and divide them into 360 days– and they’ll notice a striking resemblance to an analog clock, which has 60 minutes, each with 60 seconds.
360 divided by 12 gives 30, roughly the number of days in a month measured by the changes of the moon. And it takes just about 360 days for the earth to circle the sun, so it seemed to be a pretty good length of time for a year.
It’s not perfect, though. After some years of using this base 60 calendar, people would find that the harvests weren’t falling at “harvest time” any more. Various lunar and solar calendars were used in different places, and then the Julian calendar became popular in much of the world. It has largely been replaced by the Gregorian calendar, which has been in use in the United States since September of 1752.
Students can find a lot of detail about various calendars at Calendar FAQ.
There is a new proposed calendar called the Hanke-Henry Calendar which would have 30 days in each month and then have an extra week every few years.
Divide students into groups and assign each one a particular calendar from the links above. Have each group prepare a timeline showing an overview of the history of Mesopotamia using their assigned calendar. Compare the various timelines.
Finish up by determining how a change of calendar might affect your lives. For example, the new Hanke-Henry calendar would put an end to Hallowe’en as we know it.
Add all the Mesopotamian information you’ve discovered to your classroom timeline and map.