The Third Dynasty of Ur came to preeminent power in Mesopotamia after several centuries of Akkadian and Gutian kings. It controlled the cities of Isin, Larsa and Eshnunna and extended as far north as the Jezira.
One theory is that Ur-Nammu (originally a general) founded the dynasty. In this line of thinking, he had supplanted the king of Uruk, Utu-hengal, who himself had unseated the Gutian king Tirigan. The Sumerian king list tells us that Utu-hengal reigned for seven years, although the list itself is not to be taken literally as a historical source. This has been the most traditional way of thinking about the rise of Ur III, but other archaeological and documentary evidence has been found that sheds some new light on the situation.
In another theory that is gaining prominence, Utu-hengal ruled Uruk while Ur-Nammu was his governor. There are two stelae discovered in Ur that include this detail in an inscription about Ur-Nammu's life. Harkening back to the first theory, some scholars theorize that Ur-Nammu led a revolt against Utu-hengal, deposed him, and gained control of the region through force.
Another theory, however, is that Ur-Nammu was a close relative to Utu-hengal, and the latter had asked the former to rule over the city of Ur in his name. After four years of ruling in Ur, Ur-Nammu rose to prominence as a warrior-king when he crushed the ruler of Lagash in battle, killing the king himself. After this battle, Ur-Nammu seems to have earned the title 'king of Sumer and Agade.'
The details of how the kingdom switched hands are unclear, but some scholars oppose the idea that Ur-Nammu staged a hostile takeover. For one thing, Ur and Uruk continued to foster, seemingly uninterrupted, a close relationship. Also, Mesopotamian kings tended to disparage publicly any rulers they were able to defeat, but no such evidence exists to show that Ur-Nammu fought against Utu-hengal. Assyriologists are always incorporating new evidence, and it is likely that new details will be found in the future.
Many significant changes occurred in the empire under Shulgi's reign. He took steps to centralize and standardize the procedures of the empire. He is credited with standardizing administrative processes, archival documentation, the tax system, and the national calendar. He established a standing army of Ur. Shulgi was deified during his lifetime, an honor usually reserved for dead kings.
One salient feature of Ur III is its establishment of one of the earliest known law-codes, the Code of Ur-Nammu. It is quite similar to the famous codex of Hammurabi, resembling its prologue and bodily structure. Extant copies, written in Old Babylonian, exist from Nippur, Sippar, and also Ur itself. Although the prologue credits Ur-Nammu, the author is still somewhat under dispute; some scholars attribute it to his son, Shulgi.
The prologue to the law-code, written in the first person, established the king as the beacon of justice for his land, a role that previous kings normally did not play. He claims to want justice for all, including traditionally unfortunate groups in the kingdom like the widower or the orphan.
More legal disputes were dealt with locally by government officials called mayors, although their decision could be appealed and eventually overthrown by the provincial governor. Sometimes legal disputes were publicly aired with witnesses present at a place like the town square or in front of the temple. However, the image of the king as the supreme judge of the land took hold, and this image appears in many literary works and poems. Citizens sometimes wrote letters of prayer to the king, either present or past.
Even though this period is referred to as the Sumerian Renaissance, this does not imply that the Ur III kings ignored their Akkadian predecessors in favor of Sumerian culture. Rather, this period witnessed a revival of Sumerian language and literature even while the Ur III kings emphasized their ties to the Akkad Dynasty as well. Sumerian dominated the cultural sphere, while signs of the spread of Akkadian could be seen elsewhere. Virtually all of the names of members of the royal family are Akkadian, and new towns that arose in this period were virtually all given Akkadian names.
The Ur III kings oversaw many substantial state-run projects, including intricate irrigation systems and centralization of agriculture. An enormous labor force was amassed to work in agriculture, particularly in irrigation, harvesting, and sowing.
Textiles were a particularly important industry in Ur during this time. The textile industry was run by the state. Men, women, and children alike were employed to produce wool and linen clothing. The detailed documents from the administration of this period exhibit a startling amount of centralization; some scholars have gone so far as to say no other period in Mesopotamian history reached the same level.
Trading was another huge industry. The state employed independent merchants to run such commercial activities through a barter system. A standard system of weights was established to aid this process. Coins made of copper, bronze, gold, or silver were produced in certain, pre-set weights so merchants could easily discern values.
The land ruled by the Ur III kings was divided up into provinces that were each run by a governor (called an ensi). In certain tumultuous regions, military commanders assumed more power in governing.
Each province contained a redistribution center where provincial taxes would all go to be shipped to the capital. Taxes could be payable in various forms, from crops to livestock to land. The government would then apportion out goods as needed, including giving food rations to the needy and funding temples.
This is an area where scholars have many different views. It had long been posited that the common laborer was nothing more than a serf, but new analysis and documents reveal a possible different picture. Gangs of laborers can be divided into various groups.
Certain groups indeed seem to work under compulsion. Others work in order to keep property or get rations from the state. Still other laborers were free men and women for whom social mobility was a possibility. Many families travelled together in search of labor. Such laborers could amass private property and even be promoted to higher positions. This is quite a different picture of a laborer's life than the previous belief that they were afforded no way to move out of the social group they were born into.
Slaves also made up a crucial group of labor for the state. One scholar estimates [citation missing] that 2/5 of chattel slaves mentioned in documents were not born slaves but became slaves due to accumulating debt, being sold by family members, or other reasons. However, one surprising feature of this period is that slaves seem to have been able to accumulate some assets and even property during their lifetimes such that they could buy their freedom. Extant documents give details about specific deals for slaves' freedoms negotiated with slaveowners.
Sumerian texts were mass produced in the Ur III period; however, the word 'revival' to describe this period is misleading because archaeological evidence does not offer evidence of a previous period of decline. Instead, Sumerian began to take on a different form. As the Semitic Akkadian language became the common spoken language, Sumerian continued to dominate literature and also administrative documents. Government officials learned to write at special schools that used only Sumerian literature.
Some scholars believe that the Uruk epic of Gilgamesh was written down during this period into its classic Sumerian form. The Ur III Dynasty attempted to establish ties to the early kings of Uruk by claiming to be their familial relations.
Another text from this period, known as "The Death of Urnammu," contains an underworld scene in which Ur-Nammu showers "his brother Gilgamesh" with gifts.