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VCE Humanities

Ancient History Unit 1: Mesopotamia

Elective Unit


There are no prerequisites for this unit.

Course Description

In this unit, students explore Ancient Mesopotamia. The lands between the rivers Tigris and the Euphrates have been described as the ‘cradle of civilisation’. Although this view is now contested in ancient history and archaeology, the study of Ancient Mesopotamia provides important insights about the growth of cities. Students investigate the creation of city-states and empires. They examine the invention of writing – a pivotal development in human history. This unit highlights the importance of primary sources (the material record and written sources) to historical inquiry about the origins of civilisation.

Areas of Study

Discovering Civilisation

  • What is civilisation?
  • How did the first cities develop?
  • How do we know about them?

This area of study begins with the invention of agriculture and the subsequent emergence of early cities. Students explore how the first cities came into existence around 3500 BC. Historians and archaeologists use the term ‘civilisation’ to describe the practices and institutions of urban life. The changes that took place in the region between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates exemplify this concept. Urban life in Mesopotamia depended on agriculture, as without surplus grain it would have been impossible to feed the population. The social features of the initial cities were complex. Social stratification was a consequence of task specialisation. This led to increasingly sophisticated systems of ownership and exchange. These changes are aspects of what historians and archaeologists term ‘civilisation’. Students use this concept to investigate life for the Sumerians and Akkadians. This includes an exploration of the development of writing. The key institution through which political power was exercised was the city-state (a political entity based on an urban centre and surrounding territory). These city-states were governed by lords, assemblies and priest-kings. As the name suggests, the functions of priest-kings were spiritual and secular. These rulers engaged in monumental building projects such as the construction of temples and city walls. Relations between city-states were not always good; one city sometimes sought to dominate another, often resulting in war. Such stories shaped the beliefs, values and attitudes of people in the first civilisations. Historians and archaeologists investigate these aspects of life through traces that the people of the first cities have left behind.

Ancient Empires

  • What continuity and change is evident between ancient empires?
  • What does the evidence reveal about the organisation of ancient societies?
  • How do ancient societies compare in terms of their laws, political structure and cultural endeavours?

In this area of study students explores amongst others the Assyrian Empire. They look at the clash of cultures as empire boundaries begin to merge. The extension of power of one empire over another created significant tension. The fall of the First Babylonian Dynasty was caused by Hittite aggression. Its demise created a power vacuum that was first filled by the Kassites and then the Assyrians. During the Late or Neo-Assyrian Period (1000 to 612 BC), Mesopotamia became united under the control of an empire that originated from the city-state of Ashur. Perhaps the most important sources for the Assyrian Empire available to historians are the thousands of tablets that have survived from the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Teamed with the material record, these sources indicate the prominence of warfare and religious belief in the Assyrian understanding of civilisation. 


Assessment Tasks
(school-assessed coursework)

On completion of this unit the student should be able to explain the development of civilisation in Mesopotamia.

  • a historical inquiry
  • evaluation of historical sources
  • short-answer questions

On completion of this unit the student should be able to explain continuity and change in Ancient Mesopotamia.

  • an essay
  • extended responses
  • a multimedia presentation. 

Overall Final Assessment

End of Semester Examination – 1.5 hours.

Information can be obtained from the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Victoria, Australia: