The First Civilization: Mesopotamia (Online)


Civilization, life in cities, was born over five thousand years ago on the fertile plains of southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Using archaeology and textual sources in translation, this course will build a picture of the Sumerian civilization, one that lies at the root of our own urban, literate, globalised world.

In Sumer, the inhabitants of vast settlements worked the land, built monumental architecture, and created extraordinary art. The Sumerians developed the earliest writing, established richly furnished temples to receive the blessing of their gods, formed armies to battle for control of land and water, thereby establishing some of the earliest empires, and sought exotic materials from distant lands along trade routes stretching from Egypt in the west to Afghanistan in the east. Using archaeology and textual sources in translation, this course will build a picture of the Sumerian civilization, one that lies at the root of our own urban, literate, globalised world.

For information on how the courses work, please click here.

Programme details

1. The land of Mesopotamia

  • Physical geography of Mesopotamia
  • Northern Mesopotamia
  • Southern Mesopotamia
  • The Flood
  • From village to town

2. Uruk: The world's first city

  • Tell Brak
  • Cities of the south
  • Mass production
  • The art of Uruk
  • Uruk expansion

3. Writing and recording

  • The decipherment of cuneiform
  • Forms of recording: Tokens, bullae, tags, tablets
  • Uruk tablets
  • Cylinder seals
  • Scripts and languages

4. Sumerian religion

  • Sumerian city-states and their gods
  • Sumerian gods and goddesses
  • Temples
  • Votive objects
  • Nippur: Enlil and Inana

5. Kings and city-states

  • The Sumerian King List
  • Kish and the origins of kings
  • The Standard of Ur
  • Umma-Lagash border dispute
  • Gilgamesh: The perfect king

6. Death and burial

  • Houses for the living and the dead
  • Graves at Kish
  • Royal Graves at Ur
  • Queen Puabi and sacrificial victims
  • The Netherworld

7. Sumer's neighbours

  • Syria: The Royal Palace at Ebla
  • Indus Valley civilisation: Seals and writing
  • Ancient Egypt: Kingship and burial
  • Trade and exchange in the Persian Gulf
  • Iran: Religion and ritual at Susa

8. The world's first empire

  • A Semitic dynasty
  • Sargon’s children
  • Naram-Sin
  • The art of Akkad
  • The end of Akkad

9. The Sumerian 'revival'

  • Gudea of Lagash
  • Ur: The seat of kingship
  • Tombs and foundation inscriptions
  • Shulgi’s reforms
  • The end of empire

10. The legacy of Sumer

  • The Sumerian legacy
  • The rise of Babylon
  • Mari
  • Hammurapi of Babylon
  • The law code of Hammurapi
  • The modern destruction of Mesopotamia

We strongly recommend that you try to find a little time each week to engage in the online conversations (at times that are convenient to you) as the forums are an integral, and very rewarding, part of the course and the online learning experience.


Credit Application Transfer Scheme (CATS) points 

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £30 fee for each course you enrol on. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online. If you do not register when you enrol, you have up until the course start date to register and pay the £30 fee. 

See more information on CATS point

Coursework is an integral part of all online courses and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework, but only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education, you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee. 


Digital credentials

All students who pass their final assignment, whether registered for credit or not, will be eligible for a digital Certificate of Completion. Upon successful completion, you will receive a link to download a University of Oxford digital certificate. Information on how to access this digital certificate will be emailed to you after the end of the course. The certificate will show your name, the course title and the dates of the course you attended. You will be able to download your certificate or share it on social media if you choose to do so. 

Please note that assignments are not graded but are marked either pass or fail. 


Description Costs
Course Fee £385.00
Take this course for CATS points £30.00


Dr Rachael Dann

Rachael J Dann was formerly Associate Professor of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology at the University of Copenhagen, and has previously taught at the Open University and the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Manchester. She received her PhD from Durham University for her thesis on the X-Group royal burials at Qustul and Ballana. She is the co-director of the International Kurru Archaeological Project, undertaking research at the UNESCO World Heritage site of El Kurru in Sudan where her particular focus has been on the development of painterly practices in two of the royal tombs at the site. Her research concerns diverse themes including aesthetics, identity, sensory archaeology and the archaeology of death. She is the author of various academic publications.

Course aims

Course Aim:

  • This course aims to introduce the archaeological and textual evidence for the world's earliest civilization and explore how it can be reconstructed to provide a rounded picture of Sumerian life, death and beliefs for those with little or no previous knowledge of the subject.

Course Objectives:

  • Gain an understanding of the social and cultural developments in Mesopotamia during the period 3500-2000 BC.
  • Become familiar with the key evidence and understand how it may be used to reconstruct Sumerian society.
  • Recognise that there are gaps in our knowledge.
  • Develop skills of observation and analysis.
  • Appreciate the legacy of Sumerian civilization in the modern world.
  • Use the course as a basis for further study of Mesopotamian history and civilizations.

Teaching methods

  • Guided reading of texts
  • Group discussions of particular issues
  • Questions to be answered in personal folders

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be expected to understand:

  • The range of evidence for reconstructing an ancient society.
  • The general outline of the chronology and cultural and political developments in ancient Iraq (3500-2000 BC).
  • The key evidence and how it may be used to reconstruct Sumerian society.
  • The legacy of Sumerian civilization in the modern world.

By the end of this course students will be expected to have gained the following skills:

  • Critical assessment of different types of evidence and their context.
  • Correlation of many threads of evidence to arrive at a narrative interpretation.
  • Present clear and rational arguments to defend the interpretation of evidence.

Assessment methods

You will be set two pieces of work for the course. The first of 500 words is due halfway through your course. This does not count towards your final outcome but preparing for it, and the feedback you are given, will help you prepare for your assessed piece of work of 1,500 words due at the end of the course. The assessed work is marked pass or fail.

English Language Requirements

We do not insist that applicants hold an English language certification, but warn that they may be at a disadvantage if their language skills are not of a comparable level to those qualifications listed on our website. If you are confident in your proficiency, please feel free to enrol. For more information regarding English language requirements please follow this link:


Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an Enrolment form for short courses | Oxford University Department for Continuing Education

Level and demands

FHEQ level 4, 10 weeks, approx 10 hours per week, therefore a total of about 100 study hours.

IT requirements

This course is delivered online; to participate you must to be familiar with using a computer for purposes such as sending email and searching the Internet. You will also need regular access to the Internet and a computer meeting our recommended minimum computer specification.