Lesson 2: Early Mesopotamia

Getting Started

Archaeologists have learned that people first began farming about 12,000 years ago in a crescent-shaped area between the Mediterranean sea and the Persian Gulf — an area known as the Fertile Crescent. Two important rivers flow through that region — the Tigris and the Euphrates — and the land between those two rivers became home to some of the earliest civilizations. Historians call this region Mesopotamia, which comes from the Greek words for "middle" and "river." In this lesson, you'll be learning about the earliest ancient peoples of Mesopotamia.

Stuff You Need

  • The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of the Ancient World by Jane Bingham, Fiona Chandler, et al.
  • chopstick with a square end, available at many restaurants
  • colored pencils, crayons, or markers
  • play dough
  • scissors
  • tape, glue stick, or glue
  • timeline binder and timeline cards

Ideas to Think About

  • How did the environment (landforms, locations, natural resources, and climate) influence the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia and Egypt?
  • How were the cultures of the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia and Egypt similar to or different from one another?

Things to Know

  • Scholars believe that farming developed in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East about 12,000 years ago.
  • Mesopotamia comes from the Greek words for "middle" and river" and is the name historians use to refer to the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The region was home to several early civilizations.
  • In addition to agriculture, ancient Mesopotamian people developed the potter's wheel and adapted the wheel for use in transportation. They also developed writing, first using pictographs and then cuneiform writing. Phoenicians eventually created a form of the alphabet to simplify writing.
  • Hammurabi's Code was a set of laws established by the Babylonian king Hammurabi during his reign, which began in 1792 BC.


  • Trace the development and assess the achievements in the arts, sciences, and technology of early river civilizations. (SS)
  • Analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the early civilization of Mesopotamia. (SS)
  • Locate and describe the major river systems and discuss the physical settings that supported permanent settlement and early civilizations. (SS)
  • Trace the development of agricultural techniques that permitted the production of economic surplus and the emergence of cities as centers of culture and power. (SS)
  • Know the significance of Hammurabi's Code. (SS)
  • Trace the evolution of language in its written forms. (SS)

Introducing the Lesson

In this lesson, your child will begin learning about the ancient people of Mesopotamia. She will map the geography of Mesopotamia, begin work on a timeline of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, explore Hammurabi's code of laws, and practice cuneiform writing. As your child works through the readings and activities in this two-day lesson, encourage her to think about how archaeologists may have learned about the people of Mesopotamia.

In this lesson, your child will also begin learning note-taking skills during the readings portion of the lesson. Throughout this unit, some readings will be accompanied by questions to answer, while in other lessons your child will be instructed to use graphic organizers, charts, and other tools to take notes on specific topics related to later activities in the unit.
Note-taking is an important skill — taking notes can be a valuable tool for recording important details and also for allowing the reader to remain active and engaged while reading. Instead of passively looking over the words on the page, the active reader is engaged with the text, thinking about questions, jotting down ideas, and noting important concepts. That kind of reading can lead to deeper understanding, and notes that are thoughtfully taken can serve as useful resources for later study or research purposes. Students who are new to note taking often aren't sure what they should write down or how much they should write, and they either don't write down anything at all or they write down so much that it feels like they are simply copying the book (a tedious process to be sure!). The activities in this unit will help your child think critically about what she has been asked to read before she reads it, remain an active thinker as she reads, and record information that will help her synthesize what she has read in meaningful ways.
Reading and Questions
Materials: The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of the Ancient World by Jane Bingham, Fiona Chandler, et al.
Throughout this unit, you'll be learning more about effective reading and note-taking strategies for non-fiction sources. In some lessons, instead of completing questions about the readings, you will take notes using different kinds of organizers or complete other types of activity pages as you read. In other lessons, you will complete the readings and then answer questions about them, but feel free to also take notes on your reading for those lessons if you wish.

For this lesson, you'll focus on pre-reading a text. When you read a novel or a magazine for fun, you probably just dive right in on page 1 and read straight through to the end, and that can be a great way to read. But sometimes when you're reading to try to learn about something new, looking over what you plan to read before you actually read it can give you a preview of what's to come, help you think of questions you have about the reading, and give you some insights into what you're about to learn that will help you understand and enjoy the reading more deeply. Before you start reading the text for today, follow the instructions in Questions 1-3 for an introduction to pre-reading.

This reading will introduce you to the early civilizations of Mesopotamia, from the first farmers who settled along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to Sumerian city-states to the Akkadian Empire and the rise of Babylon.
  1. For today's reading assignment, you'll be reading pages 10-31 in The Usborne Internet-Linked Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. Look through those pages and notice how the book is organized. There is usually a section title in the top left-hand corner of the pages on the left side of the book. On each two-page spread, there is a large bold-faced heading in all capital letters indicating the main topic of those pages and then smaller underlined sub-headings on each page. Read each of these headings and sub-headings (without stopping to read the text underneath them) and write down your impressions of what these pages will be about.
    Answers will vary, but your child may mention early farmers and civilizations and the importance of water, inventions, trade, and writing. She may also mention city-states, the royal tombs of Ur, early empires (Akkad, Ur, Sumer, Elam), the rise of Babylon, trade, and warfare.
  2. Authors and editors choose the artwork that will accompany the text in a book carefully and, in most books, the images are not just there for decoration. The images convey important ideas that will enrich what you're reading in the text itself. Exploring the pictures before you read can help you get a sense of what will be covered in the reading. Look at the pictures on pages 10-31 and read the captions for each. Describe one picture that looks particularly interesting to you and write one question you have about what is shown in that picture. Be sure to mention the page number on which the picture appears.
    Answers will vary. Your child should have provided the page number of the image so that you can review the image and her description of it.
  3. Having reviewed the headings and images in this section of readings, take a few minutes to think about questions that you have or things that you are wondering about regarding what you will read and jot them down below. Circle or underline the one question that is most interesting to you. If you are responding to the questions online, use text editing tools to underline that question or change the text of that question to bold type. After you answer this question, complete the reading before going on to Question 4.
    Answers will vary.
  4. What was the answer to the question that you circled, underlined, or converted to bold type above?
    Answers will vary.