Grades  4 to 8, very flexible

Subject  Social Science, History

Purpose   One of the problems facing early civilizations was setting up laws to govern themselves once people started living in communities instead of hunting, gathering, and roaming for food.  Four thousand years later, we take a lot of this for granted.   But, it is a slow process, and we are still trying to perfect it today.  This activity is designed to give the students a taste of the problems that early people faced when they found the need to govern themselves.  Some of the judgments may be harsh but that always leads to good discussion. 

Objectives   Students will be able to:

CONTENT Objectives.
1 Compare and contrast the lives of early people in the Paleolithic Age and the Neolithic Age.  (Hunter/ gatherer society vs. agrarian society)
2 Understand the causes and consequences that community living made in the lives of early people.  (Farming provided more food and people could stay in one location.  Villages and cities started.  With an abundance of food, not everyone had to farm.  Other jobs, like artisans and traders, were possible.)
3 List positive and negative aspects of community life in the ancient world.  (See chart below in To the Board, Please.)
4 Understand why the need arose for laws to govern society.  (In smaller groups of hunter/gatherers, everyone knew and trusted each other.  The leaders could easily make decisions when problems arose.  The situation changed as larger cities grew.  Ur was estimated to have a population of 200,000.  Consistent and fair laws were needed for all.)
5 Express in the written form of an editorial letter a clear opinion about one of Hammurabi's laws.  (Further information in Clay Tablet Time.)
6 Identify recurring patterns in world history.   (Growth of cities, necessity of laws to maintain civilization, rise and fall of civilizations.)
LITERACY Objectives
1 .... Access information efficiently and effectively.
2 .... Evaluate information critically and competently.
3 .... Use information effectively and creatively.
4 .... Produce and communicate information and ideas in appropriate formats.

Planning Considerations 

Suggested Time:
1 to 2 class periods for the initial activity.  If the teacher decides to explore further with the Links to Related Subjects, this could go on much longer (and be so much fun).
Group Size:
small groups for student generated responses to situations
large groups for brainstorming and class discussion
individual for written editorial reaction to Hammurabi's Code

You Be the Judge on Hammurabi's Code, the lesson 

1.  Getting Started  First discuss (hopefully review) with the students what life was like for people when they were hunters and gatherers.   Then, discuss changes that took place in society to bring early people into the Neolithic Age.  A brief overview can be found on Encarta or after a few moments of surfing under "Paleolithic Age" , "Old Stone Age" , "Neolithic Age" , and "New Stone Age".  Also be sure to check out the links for further background information on Hammurabi and Babylon.

2.  To the Board, Please Next, ask the students to brainstorm with you as you come up with positive and negative aspects of people starting to live in villages, towns, and large communities.  Write these ideas on the board or on an overhead projector.  A possible list may include the following:

Positive Aspects
Negative Aspects
protection from danger
army, taxes, slavery
greater supplies of food
waste disposal
opportunity for commerce
governing large groups of citizens
new job opportunities

The list could go on and on.  It may take a bit of leading, but eventually, the students will come up with the problems governing large groups of people.  People have been killing, stealing, and maiming for quite a long time.  How did the earliest civilizations handle these situations?   Have we made any progress in four thousand years? 

Hammurabi wasn't the first ruler to establish a code of laws.  Earlier records date back four hundred years.  Many of Hammurabi's laws, as it turns out,  were exact copies of earlier Sumerian laws.  His code, however, is the best preserved legal document giving us an idea of the life and social structure of the people during Hammurabi's reign.  It is now time for your students to determine if he was an enlightened, benevolent ruler, or a cruel, demanding tyrant.

3.  The Activity   If you are using a written text, the visuals to go along with this lesson on Hammurabi's Code of Law can be accessed on my Web site located at   You will need to access this site to get the list of eight situations to use in this activity. 

In groups of three or four, have the students go to various stations in the room. (These stations could be sheets of paper set up on the wall or cardboard posters on the floor.  My personal favorite is the table tops where students may freely write with white board markers.)  At each station is one situation faced by Hammurabi.  The students are to read the situation and, as a group, decide what should be done under the circumstances to achieve justice.  It must be a group decision -- no tyrants allowed in this activity. 

Each group should proceed from station to station making their just and fair decisions.  It doesn't take long, and when all groups have made most decisions, gather the students around the computer monitor for a time of discussion. 

4.  The Discussion   Remind the students that the rulers of ancient Babylon believed that the gods had entrusted them to deal fairly with their people.  These laws were to protect the oppressed and safeguard human rights.   Hammurabi called himself the "king of justice to whom Shamash has committed the truth".

Talk about each of the situations individually.    What decisions did they have for the various situations?  Did they strive to protect the oppressed and safeguard human rights?  If so, then Shamash would be proud of them.  After the students' responses have been given, click on the appropriate clay tablet located on the situation index to learn Hammurabi's judgments.  When all is said and done, remember the prologue and epilogue declare the divine commission which Hammurabi received from the gods to secure the general welfare of the people. 

5.  Clay Tablet Time   This is not a hard activity to generate opinions, very strong opinions.  And, it is a good opportunity for the students to pull out their clay tablets -- or paper, if you must -- to write a letter to the editor of the Babylonian Times.  In the letter, they must clearly state the code number they are discussing, their opinion of the code, and why they feel that way.  If they disagree with the code, they should offer suggestions for Hammurabi to consider.  Generally, it is recommended that one signs a letter to the editor.  However, when dealing with Hammurabi, that may not always be advisable.  He may add code 283 to this list which could possibly concern disrespectful citizens who disagree with his divinely inspired judgments.  

6.  Evaluation of the Clay Tablet  This Holistic Rubric, or a variation of it, may be used to evaluate the editorials for the Babylonian Times written by the students.



Scale Level 4

The written response is very specific to the task assigned.  Information about the code is clearly stated along with the author's personal convictions.  Writing is expressive, clear, concise and to the point.   The opinion is logical.  A conclusion ties up the letter.  The piece is written with nearly no grammatical errors.


Scale Level 3

The written response is specific to the task assigned.   The information is correct and an opinion is given.  However, the writing neither manages to grasp the reader's attention nor provide a convincing argument.  A weak conclusion leaves the reader unsatisfied. Several grammatical errors. 


Scale Level 2

The information provided is generally accurate but no insight is provided.  There may or may not be an opinion about the code or a conclusion to the letter.   If an opinion is provided, there may be problems with the logic.  The student needs a dictionary for a Christmas present -- paper or clay optional. 


Scale Level 1

An assignment is turned in but it is unclear if it is for the task given or if the student ever heard of Hammurabi.  Information is lacking, missing, inaccurate, or illogical. There may be problems with the reasoning if an opinion is stated.  Reader is left unsatisfied with the editorial and certain the author has never heard of the editing process.

7.  Digging in a Little Deeper    After the letters to the editor are written, have the kids dig in and do research on Hammurabi, Mesopotamia, and the Code.   There are always two sides to an issue.  There had to be reasoning behind the judgments of Hammurabi.  What were the living situations like at the time?   Daily life?  Government?  Threats to the government?  Use online research to find these answers.  (Use the references on the Links page for a starter.   My search engine of choice, Dogpile, has tons more "clay tablets" under Hammurabi.)

Next, divide the class into sides on a few of the issues.   Using researched based information, argue specific laws either pro or con.   Finally, hooking up with another class online through Global Schoolnet or the Intercultural Email Classroom Exchange, debate the issues over the net.

And the Proof that it Works!    I have taught long enough to know that most of what my students learn seems to be forgotten in two months -- gone completely!  No trace!  Never heard of that!  However, several of my former students came to my room and saw me as I drew the illustrations for this Web page.  At the mention of the name Hammurabi, they smiled and told me all about the activity concerning his laws.   That was well over two months ago, actually well over a year ago, and I knew for certain that I had come up with a fun activity that kept their attention and taught them something at the same time.

But, don't just take my word for it.  Look at some of the feedback that I have received from those who have paid homage to Hammurabi.

Meeting Individual Needs

  Visual Learners
Many additional suggested activities are included at the end of this lesson that will help to reinforce the material covered and encourage further research on the topic in a creative manner.  For the visual learner, many of the activities involve hands on expression. 
  ESL Learners
Team them up with native speakers, and -- if you are fortunate enough -- bilingual speakers, for the written and oral activities.    They will, of course, enjoy the suggested activities that require hands on expression but limited speaking or writing.
  Learners of Varied Abilities
Limit the number of activities for students who have difficulty.  Pair them with other students whenever possible.  Students with greater ability may be required to do additional activities or research in greater depth.

Taking it Further   This activity, done in the beginning of the year or even later if revisions are felt helpful, would be an excellent stepping stone for students in setting up guidelines for their own classroom.  If students had ownership of the policies of the classroom, it would be interesting to see their sense of justice.  Are the rules just and fair for all concerned?  Their policies must, of course,  be ones that Hammurabi, Shamash, and the teacher feel are just and fair.  

Links to Related Subjects   This activity crosses over into other areas of the curriculum.  You may wish to coordinate lessons with other subjects and/or with teachers of other disciplines

Draw maps of both ancient Mesopotamia and the modern-day Middle East.
Explore cuneiform.  Find samples of the ancient writings and let the student have a try.  Yes, it could be done on paper but --WOW! -- try clay with a stylus!
Research the Standard of Ur.  What is it?  Try to make a replication of it in glass or paper. 
Create an advertising commercial for an eternal youth potion like the one Gilgamesh sought.  What does it look like?   How much does it cost?  What must you do to get it?
Share the story of Gilgamesh, the oldest story ever written.  Have the students act it out!  The gods created the hairy man Enkidu in the exact image of Gilgamesh.  Then, a goddess dressed him in her clothes and sent him to Earth.  Students are amused with the idea of these two hairy men in women's clothing. 
Compare Gilgamesh to a modern day hero.   What similarities or differences do you see?
Eternal youth, or everlasting life, is a goal that many throughout history have tried to obtain.  Describe what others in history have done to search for eternal life, the fountain of youth, or whatever title they may have used.  Do people still search for this today?  In what ways?
"Alduch, you worthless slave!! I have been calling for you!  Change into your clean tunic and present yourself for duty in five minutes. You are to serve the head table tonight.  Ach, what an honor for a slave such as you!"  In story form, write about the banquet, describing the food, the way people behaved, and the entertainment.  Yes, it will require research for authenticity.
Home Economics
Imagine the kitchens of Hammurabi's palace are bustling with preparations for tonight's magnificent banquet in honor of visiting dignitaries from all corners of the trading world, even the distant shores of the Indus River.  You have been mistaken for Digesh's cooking assistant.  Digesh instructs you to prepare a delectable and typical Babylonian dish for the night's festivities.  He points to the table with the clay recipe bricks.  Choose one to prepare.  Bring samples for your favorite teacher and fellow classmates.
Draw a scaled diagram of a typical Sumerian city.
Use sugar cubes (or sun dried bricks) to recreate a scaled Sumerian ziggurat.
Make sun dried bricks.  Create an authentic background where other projects may be displayed.
Research the region and time to create a travel brochure.  Include photos, drawings, daily life activities the tourist will join, weather, food, and what clothes to bring -- just to name a few ideas.
Compare styles of dress and jewelry of ancient Mesopotamia found in research to the illustrations of this Web site.  Find examples that support the authenticity of the cartoons.
Research the region and time to create a HyperStudio or Power Point presentation on ancient Mesopotamia.  Include pages that deal with religion, daily life, government, art and literature, technology, and reasons for decline.
Search the Web for additional information to expand our classroom "hotlist" of relevant WWW resources.  Write an annotation describing what the Web site offers to assist other students in their research.  Possible topics to search under would include:   Mesopotamia, Sumeria, Babylon, cuneiform, ziggurat, and, of course, Hammurabi.   
Compiled and Illustrated by.Phillip Martin
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Copyright 1998 and revised 2015