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Pioneers of writing, the Sumerians maintain all manner of records from crop yields to diplomatic accords. Their city-states are powerhouses of productivity.

The land of Sumer, which was located in Lower Mesopotamia to the south of present-day Iraq, was the site of major developments in the history of humankind in the 4th millennium BCE. The first urban settlements, first complex social structures, and invention of writing were all innovations which presaged the birth of the first states. In a region scattered with independent cities and united by a common language and culture, important diplomatic relationships developed and were recorded, for the first time ever, in written form on terracotta tablets.

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The first examples of writing in Sumerian appeared at the end of the 4th millennium BCE in a highly developed urban environment comprising large cities, sometimes inhabited by tens of thousands. These independent cities, under the patronage of various deities from one pantheon, shared a common language and culture as well as a social and political structure. In their city centers, palaces and monumental temples were built as a testament to the power of their priest-kings (ensi or lugal). These temples provided housing for the ruling elite and the clergy, in addition to storage for many goods and ceremonial items. The Sumerians built their cities along branches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and diverted water into countless irrigation channels. This process enabled high agricultural productivity in a semi-arid region, based on barley, wheat, and livestock farming. In their cities, artisans developed exceptional metalwork, stonework, pottery and weaving techniques using precious materials to produce their objects, which had often been transported hundreds if not thousands of miles. These city-states constituted the predominant political entities of the period, referred to as "archaic dynasties", between 2900 and 2340 BCE. The relationships between these independent city-states varied from friendly to tense, or even violent. At the end of the third millennium, the King of Umma, Lugalzagesi, began the first attempt to unify Sumerian cities into a single state. This continued under the dynasty founded by Sargon of Akkad (2300–2200 BCE), which was in turn replaced by the Third Dynasty of Ur (2200–2000 BCE).

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The arbitration of the conflict between Ur and Lagash in approximately 2600 BCE was negotiated by King Mesilim of Kiš and is one of the earliest recorded examples of a diplomatic agreement between two states.