Literature in ancient Mesopotamia has a history that spans more than two and a half millennia. Literary texts in Sumerian appear shortly before the middle of the third millennium B.C.E., several centuries after the invention of writing. I will come back to this corpus later on. For now, may it suffice to say that these earliest Sumerian texts are very difficult to understand. The most obvious reason for this difficulty is the nature of the writing system in this period. Writing was invented for administrative use. There was no need to represent all the morphological elements of the Sumerian verbal and nominal system. Syntax in an administrative text is largely determined by the structure of the administrative operation itself.1 Or, to put it otherwise, though the early administrative texts used language for their communication system, they were not meant to represent language as such. In the early literary texts the lack of morphological and syntactic explicitness greatly hampers understanding. We must assume that the texts were known before they were written or read. They were aides de memoire, rather than the actual carriers of information. The only texts that we can read with some confidence are those that were transmitted to later periods of cuneiform.
The end of Mesopotamian literature is traditionally posited around the beginning of the common era when cuneiform dies out. This position is heavily challenged today, and for good reasons. Cuneiform is a writing system that is almost exclusively used on clay, much
1 The origins of cuneiform writing and the language represented therein have been the subject of much debate recently (see R. K. Englund, “Texts from the Late Uruk period”, in: P. Attinger and M. Wäller [eds.], Mesopotamien. SpäturukZeit und Frühdynastische Zeit. Annäherungen 1, [Fribourg, 1998], 15–233), but hardly concern us here. The essential rôle of lay-out in the syntax of early administrative texts was brilliantly discussed by M. W. Green, “The Construction and Implementation of the Cuneiform Writing System”, Visible Writing 15 (1981), 345–372.