Art and Architecture

More than 4,000 years ago the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers began to teem with life--first the Sumerian, then the Babylonian, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Persian empires. Here too excavations have unearthed evidence of great skill and artistry. Examples of fine works in marble, diorite, hammered gold, and lapis lazuliahve been found. Stone, wood, and metal was imported. Sumerian art and architecture was ornate and complex - primarily used for religious purposes - painting and sculpture the main median used.

Of the many portraits produced in this area, some of the best are those of Gudea, ruler of Lagash. Some of the portraits are in marble, others, such as the one in the Louvre in Paris, are cut in gray-black diorite. Dating from about 2400 BC, they have the smooth perfection and idealized features of the classical period in Sumerian art.

Clay was the Sumerians' most abundant material. Sumerian techniques and motifs were widely available because of the invention of cuneiform writing before 3000 B.C. Among other Sumerian arts forms were highly sophisticated clay cylinder seals used to mark documents or property.

The famous votive marble sculptures from Tell Asmar represent tall, bearded figures with huge, staring eyes and long, pleated skirts. The tallest figure is about 30 inches in height. He represents the god of vegetation. The next tallest represents a mother goddess-mother goddesses were common in many ancient cultures. They were worshipped in the hope that they would bring fertility to women and to crops. (Another connection to African culture.)

The next largest figures are priests. The smallest figures are worshippers - a definite hierarchy of size. This is an example of artistic iconography. We learn to read picture symbols- - bodies are cylindrical and scarcely differentiated by gender, with their uplifted heads and hands clasped. This is a pose of supplication-wanting or waiting for something.

Ur yielded much outstanding Sumerian work, e.g., a wooden harp with the head of a bull on top, showing mythological scenes in gold and mosaic inlay on the sound box (c.2650 B.C., Univ. of Penn., Philadelphia).

This system of writing developed before the last centuries of the 4th millennium B.C. in the lower Tigris and Euphrates valley, most likely by the Sumerians. The characters consist of arrangements of wedge-like strokes, generally on clay tablets. The history of the script is strikingly like that of the Egyptian hieroglyphic.




Sumerian Sculpture


Practically all Sumerian sculpture served as adornment or ritual equipment for the temples. No clearly identifiable cult statues of gods or goddesses have yet been found. Many of the extant figures in stone are votive statues, as indicated by the phrases used in the inscriptions that they often bear: "It offers prayers," or "Statue, say to my king (god)."




Warka Vase

The Warka Vase, is the oldest ritual vase in carved stone discovered in ancient Sumer and can be dated to round about 3000 B.C. or probably 4th-3rd millennium B.C. It shows men entering the presence of his gods, specifically a cult goddess Innin (Inanna), represented by two bundles of reeds placed side by side symbolizing the entrance to a temple. The detailed drawing above was made from tracing a photograph (from Campbell, Shepsut) of the temple vase found at Uruk/Warka, dating from approximately 3100 BCE. It is over one meter (nearly 4 feet) tall. On the upper tier is a figure of a nude man that may possibly represent the sacrificial king. He approaches the robed queen Inanna. Inanna wears a horned headdress.

The Queen of Heaven stands in front of two looped temple poles or "asherah," phallic posts, sacred to the goddess. A group of nude priests bring gifts of baskets of gifts, including, fruits to pay her homage on the lower tier. This vase is now at the Iraq Museum in Bagdad.




Inanna - Female Head from Uruk, c. 3500 - 3000 B.C., Iraq Museum, Baghdad.

Inanna in the Middle East was an Earth and later a (horned) moon goddess; Canaanite derivative of Sumerian Innin, or Akkadian Ishtar of Uruk. Ereshkigal (wife of Nergal) was Inanna's (Ishtar's) elder sister. She descended from the heavens into the hell region of her sister-opposite, the Queen of Death, Ereshkigal. And she sent Ninshubur her messenger with instructions to rescue her should she not return. The seven judges (Annunaki) hung her naked on a stake. Ninshubar tried various gods (Enlil, Nanna, Enki who assisted him with two sexless creatures to sprinkle a magical food and water on her corpse 60 times). She was preceded by Belili, wife of Baal (Heb. Tamar, taw-mawr', from an unused root meaning to be erect, a palm tree). She ended up as Annis, the blue hag who sucked the blood of children. Inanna in Egypt became the goddess of the Dog Star, Sirius which announced the flood season of the Nile."




Sumerian Statuettes, from the Temple of Abu, Tel Asmar, c. 2700 - 2600 B.C., Iraq Museum, Baghdad and Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

Male statues stand or sit with hands clasped in an attitude of prayer. They are often naked above the waist and wear a woolen skirt curiously woven in a pattern that suggests overlapping petals (commonly described by the Greek word kaunakes, meaning "thick cloak"). A toga-like garment sometimes covers one shoulder. Men generally wear long hair and a heavy beard, both often trimmed in corrugations and painted black. The eyes and eyebrows are emphasized with colored inlay. The female coiffure varies considerably but predominantly consists of a heavy coil arranged vertically from ear to ear and a chignon behind. A headdress of folded linen sometimes conceals the hair. Ritual nakedness is confined to priests.

It has been thought that the rarity of stone in Mesopotamia contributed to the primary stylistic distinction between Sumerian and Egyptian sculpture. The Egyptians quarried their own stone in prismatic blocks, and one can see that, even in their freestanding statues, strength of design is attained by the retention of geometric unity. By contrast, in Sumer, stone must have been imported from remote sources, often in the form of miscellaneous boulders, the amorphous character of which seems to have been retained by the statues into which they were transformed.

Beyond this general characteristic of Sumerian sculpture, two successive styles have been distinguished in the middle and late subdivisions of the Early Dynastic period. One very notable group of figures, from Tall al-Asmar, Iraq (ancient Eshnunna), dating from the first of these phases, shows a geometric simplification of forms that, to modern taste, is ingenious and aesthetically acceptable. Statues characteristic of the second phase on the other hand, though technically more competently carved, show aspirations to naturalism that are sometimes overly ambitious. In this second style, some scholars see evidence of occasional attempts at portraiture.

Yet, in spite of minor variations, all these figures adhere to the single formula of presenting the conventional characteristics of Sumerian physiognomy. Their provenance is not confined to the Sumerian cities in the south. An important group of statues is derived from the ancient capital of Mari, on the middle Euphrates, where the population is known to have been racially different from the Sumerians. In the Mari statues there also appears to have been no deviation from the sculptural formula; they are distinguished only by technical peculiarities in the carving.

Deprived of stone, Sumerian sculptors exploited alternative materials. Fine examples of metal casting have been found, some of them suggesting knowledge of the cire perdue (lost-wax) process, and copper statues more than half life-size are known to have existed. In metalwork, however, the ingenuity of Sumerian artists is perhaps best judged from their contrivance of composite figures.

The earliest and one of the finest examples of such figures--and of Sumerian sculpture as a whole--comes from a Protoliterate level of excavation at Tall al-Warka'. It is the limestone face of a life-size statue (Iraqi Museum, Baghdad), the remainder of which must have been composed of other materials; the method of attachment is visible on the surviving face.

Devices of this sort were brought to perfection by craftsmen of the Early Dynastic period, the finest examples of whose work are to be seen among the treasures from the royal tombs at Ur: a bull's head decorating a harp, composed of wood or bitumen covered with gold and wearing a lapis lazuli beard (British Museum);




Sumerian Bull's Head, Lyre from Tomb of Paubi, c. 2600 B.C.

A rampant he-goat in gold and lapis,
supported by a golden tree
(University Museum, Philadelphia)


Ram (Billy Goat) and Tree, Offering Stand from
Ur (to male fertility god, Tammuz), 2600 B.C.,

The composite headdresses of court ladies (British Museum, Iraqi Museum, and University Museum); or, more simply, the miniature figure of a wild ass, cast in electrum (a natural yellow alloy of gold and silver) and mounted on a bronze rein ring (British Museum).

The inlay and enrichment of wooden objects reaches its peak in this period, as may be seen in the so-called standard or double-sided panel from Ur (British Museum), on which elaborate scenes of peace and war are depicted in a delicate inlay of shell and semiprecious stones. The refinement of craftsmanship in metal is also apparent in the famous wig-helmet of gold (Iraqi Museum), belonging to a Sumerian prince, and in weapons, implements, and utensils.

Relief carving in stone was a medium of expression popular with the Sumerians and first appears in a rather crude form in Protoliterate times. In the final phase of the Early Dynastic period, its style became conventional. The most common form of relief sculpture was that of stone plaques, 1 foot (30 centimeters) or more square, pierced in the center for attachment to the walls of a temple, with scenes depicted in several registers (horizontal rows).

The subjects usually seem to be commemorative of specific events, such as feasts or building activities, but representation is highly standardized, so that almost identical plaques have been found at sites as much as 500 miles (800 kilometers) apart. Fragments of more ambitious commemorative stele have also been recovered; the Stele of Vultures (Louvre Museum) from Telloh, Iraq (ancient Lagash), is one example. Although it commemorates a military victory, it has a religious content. The most important figure is that of a patron deity, emphasized by its size, rather than that of the king. The formal massing of figures suggests the beginnings of mastery in design, and a formula has been devised for multiplying identical figures, such as chariot horses.

In a somewhat different category are the cylinder seals so widely utilized at this time. Used for the same purposes as the more familiar stamp seal and likewise engraved in negative (intaglio), the cylinder-shaped seal was rolled over wet clay on which it left an impression in relief. Delicately carved with miniature designs on a variety of stones or shell, cylinder seals rank as one of the higher forms of Sumerian art.

Prominent among their subjects is the complicated imagery of Sumerian mythology and religious ritual. Still only partially understood, their skillful adaptation to linear designs can at least be easily appreciated. Some of the finest cylinder seals date from the Protoliterate period (see photograph). After a slight deterioration in the first Early Dynastic period, when brocade patterns or files of running animals were preferred (see photograph), mythical scenes returned. Conflicts are depicted between wild beasts and protecting demigods or hybrid figures, associated by some scholars with the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh. The monotony of animated motifs is occasionally relieved by the introduction of an inscription.




Votive Statues, from the Temple of Abu, Tell Asmar
c.2500 BC, limestone, shell, and gypsum




Sumerian Architecture

The beginnings of monumental architecture in Mesopotamia are usually considered to have been contemporary with the founding of the Sumerian cities and the invention of writing, in about 3100 BC. Conscious attempts at architectural design during this so-called Protoliterate period (c. 3400-c. 2900 BC) are recognizable in the construction of religious buildings. There is, however, one temple, at Abu Shahrayn (ancient Eridu), that is no more than a final rebuilding of a shrine the original foundation of which dates back to the beginning of the 4th millennium; the continuity of design has been thought by some to confirm the presence of the Sumerians throughout the temple's history.

Already, in the Ubaid period (c. 5200-c.3500 BC), this temple anticipated most of the architectural characteristics of the typical Protoliterate Sumerian platform temple. It is built of mud brick on a raised plinth (platform base) of the same material, and its walls are ornamented on their outside surfaces with alternating buttresses (supports) and recesses. Tripartite in form, its long central sanctuary is flanked on two sides by subsidiary chambers, provided with an altar at one end and a freestanding offering table at the other.

Typical temples of the Protoliterate period--both the platform type and the type built at ground level--are, however, much more elaborate both in planning and ornament. Interior wall ornament often consists of a patterned mosaic of Terra cotta cones sunk into the wall, their exposed ends dipped in bright colors or sheathed in bronze. An open hall at the Sumerian city of Uruk (biblical Erech; modern Tall al-Warka', Iraq) contains freestanding and attached brick columns that have been brilliantly decorated in this way. Alternatively, the internal-wall faces of a platform temple could be ornamented with mural paintings depicting mythical scenes, such as at 'Uqair.

The two forms of temple - the platform variety and that built at ground level - persisted throughout the early dynasties of Sumerian history (c. 2900-c. 2400 BC). It is known that two of the platform temples originally stood within walled enclosures, oval in shape and containing, in addition to the temple, accommodation for priests. But the raised shrines themselves are lost, and their appearance can be judged only from facade ornaments discovered at Tall al-'Ubayd. These devices, which were intended to relieve the monotony of sun-dried brick or mud plaster, include a huge copper-sheathed lintel, with animal figures modeled partly in the round; wooden columns sheathed in a patterned mosaic of colored stone or shell; and bands of copper-sheathed bulls and lions, modeled in relief but with projecting heads. The planning of ground-level temples continued to elaborate on a single theme: a rectangular sanctuary, entered on the cross axis, with altar, offering table, and pedestals for votive statuary (statues used for vicarious worship or intercession).

Considerably less is known about palaces or other secular buildings at this time. Circular brick columns and austerely simplified facades have been found at Kish (modern Tall al-Uhaimer, Iraq). Flat roofs, supported on palm trunks, must be assumed, although some knowledge of corbelled vaulting (a technique of spanning an opening like an arch by having successive cones of masonry project farther inward as they rise on each side off the gap)--and even of dome construction--is suggested by tombs at Ur, where a little stone was available.

The Sumerian temple was a small brick house that the god was supposed to visit periodically. It was ornamented so as to recall the reed houses built by the earliest Sumerians in the valley. This house, however, was set on a brick platform, which became larger and taller as time progressed until the platform at Ur (built around 2100 BC) was 150 by 200 feet (45 by 60 meters) and 75 feet (23 meters) high.

These Mesopotamian temple platforms are called ziggurats, a word derived from the Assyrian ziqquratu, meaning "high." They were symbols in themselves; the ziggurat at Ur was planted with trees to make it represent a mountain. There the god visited Earth, and the priests climbed to its top to worship. Most cities were simple in structure, the ziggurat was one of the world's first great architectural structures.




White Temple and Ziggurat, Uruk (Warka), 3200 -3000 B.C.

The white temple was erected at Warka or Uruk (Sumer). It stood on a brick terrace, formed by the construction of successive buildings on the site (the Ziggurat). The top was reached by a staircase. The temple measured 22 x 17 meters (73 x 57 feet). Access to the temple was through three doors, the main located at its south side.





Sumerian Artifacts - British Museum















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