Our Ancient Mesopotamia Unit study was the first we did in our little homeschool. We have added to it over the years. My goal with this post is to give you a rich variety of resources, activities and learning opportunities to choose from. Enjoy!
Mesopotamia means the land between two rivers and is situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. One of the earliest developed civilisations, it benefited from the yearly flooding of the rivers, with highly fertile land. Fertile land meant that the Mesopotamian people were able to farm, and therefore remain in one place.
The Fertile Crescent
The Fertile Crescent is the arc of land which encompasses Mesopotamia and stretches west to the Mediterranean Sea. It is thought that settlers have inhabited this area since before 9500 BC and that they grew the world’s first crops and bred the first domesticated animals. These settlers grew in size to create small communities. Between 7000 and 4000 BC these villages expanded. As farmers learnt how to irrigate their land through the invention of the shaduf. This increased the amount of crops they could grow, leading to a surplus.
As farmers grew more food, they were able to trade with neighbouring villages. This trade could be food for food or food for tools or pottery. At the gulf, where both the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers empty into the sea, the villages grew to towns and then cities. These cities needed increased organisation to prevent chaos ensuing, leading to the formation of rulers, palaces and temples. Each city was built around a temple. The area in which the cities developed was known as Sumer, and the city states were known as Sumerian city states.
The main city states in the area of Sumer were Eridu, Urek, Kiss, Ur, Nippur and Lagash. People who lived in this area were known as Sumerians. Sumerian civilisation thrived until around 2500 BC. In 2334 BC a man named Sargon, from Akkad, seized the throne from the king of Kish and gradually defeated all the city states in Sumer. In doing so, he founded a new Akkadian civilisation.
Resources for an Ancient Mesopotamia Unit Study
Non-Fiction Books for Studying Ancient Mesopotamia
Fiction Books for Studying Ancient Mesopotamia
In addition, I bought these which we enjoyed as add ons but aren’t really essential:
For literature we enjoyed learning about Gilgamesh, using the following children’s editions:
I always try to sneak in a biography related to the period. The following one about Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur, Treasure Under The Sand was wonderful. This lead to a fascination in archeology, so we also read:
Even now the children maintain an archaeological site at the bottom of our garden!
Ancient Mesopotamia Unit Study: Recording the Children’s Work
Until I began a blog and started to photograph the children’s work, we kept all their work in huge A4 files:
I loved using folders to keep all their work. They work well. Students can keep all their Mesopotamia work together, regardless of whether it was written in 2010, 2015 or 2020. They simply date it and place it with the historically similar work.
We use note pages. Some we print off from the Notebooking Fairy, others from Notebooking Pages and some I make myself. The longer I homeschool, the more I like the simpler notepages which the children can be creative with.
Notepages can be drawn on, written on, used to stick things in. They can contain separate lap-book pieces, which may be preferable to actual lap-books which are necessarily limiting due to their size. And photographs and article clippings from magazines or newspapers can also be stuck in. Literally, they are about the most flexible means of expressing learning.
Ancient Mesopotamia Unit Study: Map Work
Each time we start a civilisation we do a map. I prefer the children to do their own map. They can choose from a simple draw and colour, a file folder map (below) or a paper mache map. I have made a couple of note pages with a drawing of a map of Mesopotamia. This can be used to help the students with their own map making or simply to label and write notes on.
Mesopotamia Map Note Pages
Mesopotamia File Folder Map
We cut a file folder down to a size that will fit in our note books. When shut it simply has the civilisation written on it. When opened out full it reveals a picture map of the whole area we are learning about, including photos of any well known historical land marks and also geographical land marks.
For Mesopotamia, we included the surrounding countries, the two main rivers (Tigris and Euphrates), the marshlands of the Madan people, the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges, steppe areas and the major cities of the past (Ninevah,Mosul, Babylon, Ur).
Mesopotamia Paper Mache File Folder Map
For my younger girls, I helped them to make file folder maps but using paper mache. You can see Becca pasting on places of interest, just like the older children did on their hand drawn file folder map above:
Each map making activity is useful learning, so just pick the best method for you and your children. All three will fit into your three ring binder, unless you choose to go big with the paper mache map. In which case, take a photo and create a note page from the photo and have the children write about it. Keep the large paper mache map for your end of unit presentation, just like we did:
Right from the start I did copywork and narration. I have always had one reluctant writer. For that child, thinking, composing their thoughts and then be expected to write them down was simply too much. Even now, three years later, it’s a struggle. To cut down on the number of things they had to do at one time, I had them tell me what they knew. Then I typed their narrations out and the children stuck them in the note page.
Hands on Activities for an Ancient Mesopotamia Unit Study
However, our homeschool has always been about much more than just writing. Since leaving ACE we have always done a stack of hands on learning. It may not be pretty, it may not be sophisticated but hands on learning has really helped to cement everything in my children’s minds.
The Invention of Shadufs and How They Revolutionised Farming:
The Mesopotamians used the shaduf as a simple irrigation tool which moves water from one place (usually the river) to another (usually a channel leading to crops). It was first used in Mesopotamia 3000 years ago:
A Shaduf as a Simple Machine
A shaduf is an example of a lever. The lever is one of six simple machines (lever, wheel, inclined plane, screw, wedge, pulley) all of which reduce the effort required to do a job. In this case, a lever is used to make it easier to lift water from a low area (ie a river) and transport it to a higher level (usually a channel which feeds it onto the fields). A shaduf is extremely efficient and easy to use. It is estimated that a shaduf can help to move over 2500 litres in one day, with very little effort. I have included a photo of the simple lever info sheet I made for my guys:
Make Your Own Mesopotamia Shaduf!
The children made a few shadufs themselves. I can’t find the photo of the one they made outside but I do remember it worked perfectly and they were out there, dressed up as Mesopotamians, irrigating their ‘fields’! We also made a small one which we used in our presentations and a larger one made out of junk:
I have made a STEM design sheet for students to use to design their own shaduf using junk around the house. Whilst it needs to be workable, I have not made it a requirement that it needs to actually carry water, but feel free to alter it:
Shaduf Printable Note Pages
I have also made some note pages for you to download should you wish. The first is to write notes about the shaduf, the second is for sticking a photo of their home made shaduf as well as writing some notes about how it works, the third is a copy of the information page I made for my guys:
As mentioned previously, both Sumerian and Akkadian city-states were built around a central temple. Temple platforms are known to have been built as early as 5000 BC in Eridu. However, the huge structures which can be seen in almost their entirety were built during the great age of Ziggurat building which began during the reign of Ur-Nammu (2112-2095 BC).
Ziggurats are often confused for pyramids. However, they are not stone tombs, they are more temple platforms. That said, they do look a bit like step pyramids and can have between 2 to 7 levels. Ziggurats was part of a temple complex alongside many other buildings. Each temple (built atop the ziggurat platform) was built to honour the main god of that particular city. For example, Enki was the main god of Eridu and Ishtar was the god of Ninevah.
According to Herodotus, each ziggurat housed a shrine to the specific god its city worshipped. This shrine was at the highest point of the ziggurat, as close to heaven as possible. It was here that the priests performed holy rituals and sacrifices to the god. There is no physical evidence of the shrine existing because erosion from the top down means the shrines were likely to have been the first part to have eroded away.
Make Your Own Ziggurat
The children filled in a note page about city life and ziggurats. They also built a simple ziggurat out of lego and another one made from things found around the house:
I created some note pages for your children to make some notes about ziggurats and room to stick a photo of their home-made version.
The city states grew from the central temple outwards according to importance, with general housing furthest away on the outskirts of the city. The ancient Mesopotamians lived in simple mud brick houses.
It is interesting to note that the Babylonians were the first people to fire clay, In Sumer, clay was abundant and was mixed with mud, sand, water and organic material such as hay or straw. The mixture was formed into brick shaped moulds and allowed to dry. Once dry enough to remain brick-like, they were removed from the moulds and placed in the sun to bake until hard and fully dried.
We built a couple of models of a Mesopotamian house. The first is a simple on made from plastercene, the other is made from clay:
I made some Mesopotamia House themed note pages, feel free to print them out and use them!
Make Your Own Mud Bricks
Mud is abundant and therefore readily available. It is also a good insulator so would have kept the houses warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We had a go at making our own bricks. We made mini ones, about the size of ice cubes:
What we could have done (but didn’t) was test the strength of bricks made with different ‘ingredients’. Just in case you would like to make and test your own bricks, I have created a STEM experiment for you to do just that!
Mesopotamia Writing System of Cuneiform
Cylinder Seals and Signatory Seals
We made our own cylinder seals by creating a cylinder in clay and marking it however we wanted. We left the cylinders to dry. Once dry, the children rolled it onto wet clay. This leaves behind the seal’s mark.
The Mesopotamians made the signatory seals in much the same way. Using clay we formed our initial to stand out and left to dry. The children then pressed the initial into wet clay to form a ‘signature’ of sorts:
We dressed up some paper dolls with felt material and woolly hair:
Leisure and Games
We made our own Royal Game of Ur:
The Standard of Ur
The Standard of Ur held great fascination for my children and they still remember the lapis lazuli that it was made from. We attempted to replicate it using an everyday scene from our lives and coloured card:
Next week I will do a post on our wrap-up Mesopotamia night and our visit to the British museum in London. My final post on Mesopotamia will be all about our end of term presentation the children did, after that very first term doing school our way!
At the end of our studies we try to go on some sort of field trip. As Mesopotamia, by its very geography, is out of reach for us, we traveled up to the British Museum in London:
Then we had an evening of trying out lots of food from Mesopotamia. The children, of course, had to dress up and play their part as Mesopotamia people:
Lots of unusual food:
This was our first EVER presentation, so we were still finding our feet a little. The children had made a papier-mache map of how they imagined a river civilisation to look like using newspaper and a flour & water glue. On closer inspection I may have dyed desiccated coconut green and stuck it on the map for the fields! I think it was L10 (who would have been about 7 then) who did her presentation on rivers and civilisations. I teach everything through history and of course that includes geography. The children learnt that all early civilisations grew up around a river. They discovered how rivers were formed and learnt all about the water cycle and about river features.
Lillie: Presentation on Rivers and Civilisations
L10 (7) had built a shaduf, a water collector which allowed irrigation, resulting in a more planned farming year and reducing the need to move on hunting and gathering. It was an important feature in these first civilisations in Mesopotamia. She also built a clay house and placed it on the river bank, up on the higher ground to be safe from the yearly flood:
Charlotte Presentation: Cuneiform
C10, also 7 at the time, chose cuneiform as her topic. Here is her display board, cuneiform and stylus
Thomas Presentation: Warfare
T10, probably 8 at the time, did a presentation on Warfare at the time of Sargon, the world’s first ever dictator. I wish I had photos of him in his costume, but I can’t find them. He made his own black papier-mache helmet and a cloak of thick black cotton with foil covered card discs to represent the type of primitive armour they wore then. In addition to his dress up he made a selection of weapons found at the time:
And that’s it! All our work for Mesopotamia. It has been so good, looking back at all we have achieved. Hope you enjoyed it!
Ancient Mesopotamia Unit study: Extra Activities
This was an intensive week long study into the leadership skills of Hammurabi and includes many activities, least of which was creating Mesopotamia dress up out of only a black bin bag and sellotape!
I am beginning to slowly go through world history again, this time with my little two. The following four posts I wrote for 123homeschool4me, so the links will take you there 🙂 They are chock full of activities and authentic food suggestions. This time I based their studies on the Gilgamesh trilogy.
Learning about Ancient Mesopotamia through Literature using the Epic of Gilgamesh: Part Three – The Revenge of Ishtar (Goats yogurt and honey snack, Mesopotamian relief art, Royal Game of Ur, map work, copy work):