This research project provided a close examination of the earliest cuneiform sources related to water management and examines its technological and social aspects in the Sumerian city-state economies of Southern Mesopotamia.


Beginning with the invention of cuneiform ca. 3300 BC, the society and economy of Southern Mesopotamia are abundantly documented by thousands of cuneiform texts, mostly written in Sumerian. The vast majority consists of administrative records from the archives of large, state-run economic households. These households held the property of almost all resources, such as arable land, orchards, reed-thickets and livestock including cattle, swine, sheep and goats, and employed and provided for large parts of the population. Thousands of archival records testify to their activities in agriculture, horticulture, breeding, fishery, and crafts.

As early Mesopotamian societies were essentially agrarian, administrative texts pertaining to agricultural production constitute a large part of all economic records. As the alluvium was located beyond the dry-farming belt, water levels were low during the sowing in September to November, peaked immediately prior to harvest in April or May, and often brought unpredictable flood, agriculture was only possible by means of artificial irrigation.  Surprisingly, Late Uruk to ED IIIa/Fara period administrative texts (ca. 3300-2575 BC) hardly provide evidence for large-scale irrigation networks, though it is probable that references hide masked behind the ambiguity of early cuneiform writing.

The earliest evidence for fully-developed irrigation networks and their cuneiform terminology dates from the Early Dynastic IIIb/Presargonic period and stems from the Sumerian city-state of Lagaš (ca. 2475-2315 BC). Located in modern Southeast Iraq, it included the four major cities of Girsu, Lagaš, Nigen and Guabba and covered an area of approximately 3000 km². Cuneiform sources pertaining to water management include royal inscriptions and administrative texts from the archive of the temple of the goddess Babu, a redistributive household which managed subsistence agriculture and represents the paradigm for Early Dynastic temple economies.

These sources demonstrate that the city-state of Lagaš maintained a four-level irrigation network, probably established upon the unification of the state by Urnanše. From the river, water flowed to primary canals, which were regulated through regulators, and branched off to secondary canals, mostly referred to indirectly through mention of their respective dikes. Distributors regulated the water flow from the canals to the fields. Additional elements of the irrigation network included strengthened dikes as well as installations which played a role in the storage and distribution of irrigation water.

The distribution of the respective cuneiform terms in royal inscriptions reflects their position within the irrigation network. While royal inscriptions refer to excavations of primary canals and constructions of regulators operating on the highest level of the irrigation network, temple records mostly testify to the maintenance and construction of dikes at fields, their respective canals, and distributors. This complementary distribution likewise demonstrates that the construction and maintenance of the irrigation network was organized on two levels. Large irrigation projects, such as excavation of major canals or the construction of regulators, were conducted by the ruler, who drew on the contingents of corvée troops mobilized by the temples of the state. The temples, in contrast, were primarily responsible for the maintenance of lower-level irrigation structures, such as dikes and distributors, located at their landed property. The texts thus testify to a bipartite administrative and economic structure, which was typical of the entire state.

The corvée troops obliged to carry out irrigation constituted the highest stratum of temple dependents, i.e. the milita, farmers, shepherds, fishermen, and craftsmen, but also high-ranking court personnel and administrative staff, who held allotments of subsistence fields. Lower-ranking occupational groups not entitled to receive fields from the temple were not obliged to perform irrigation work. Irrigation work could therefore be considered some sort of labor tax.

The project´s work has been presented at  international conferences e.g. “Water Management in Ancient Civilizations” (2016) or “10th International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East in Vienna (2016) and in the publications:

Ingo Schrakamp, “Irrigation in 3rd Millennium Southern Mesopotamia: Cuneiform Evidence from the Early Dynastic IIIb City-State of Lagash (2475–2315 BC)”, in: Jonas Berking (Ed.), Water Management in Ancient Civilizations, Berlin: Edition Topoi, 2018, 117–195

Ingo Schrakamp, Das Bewässerungssystem des präsargonischen Staates von Lagaš (ca. 2475-2310 v. Chr.). Untersuchungen zu den technischen, administrativen, sozioökonomischen und rechtlichen Aspekten eines der ältesten regionalen Irrigationssysteme Südmesopotamiens anhand keilschriftlicher Quellen, 2017