The Sumerians of Mesopotamia were responsible for many inventions, including writing, the wheel, the plow and the irrigation canals. They also influenced for the next 2,000 years after that the pictorial narrative. The pictorial narrative is scenes depicting a story. We saw a little bit of that with the decorated rooms of Catal Hoyuk.
This change from hunter/gatherer to farmer/herder is called Neolithic Revolution. It first developed in Mesopotamia (“The land between the rivers.” The rivers being the Tigris and Euphrates), which spawned the three great religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Historians and archaeologists have been digging around there since about the 19th century and have excavated exciting goodies.
Museums across Europe and North America began stocking up on Mesopotamian art, starting with hunting and warfare reliefs and statues of winged bulls with a man’s head. The most significant find was a treasure trove of gold items, jewelry, artworks, and musical instruments. The excavation was led by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s at the Royal Cemetery at Ur in southern Iraq. This discovery rivaled that of King Tutankhamen in 1922.
Sumerians created independent city-states (if you’re wondering what this is, it’s a city with surrounding territories), each protected by Mesopotamian gods. The rulers of each city-state were the mortal representatives of the gods, and they also were keepers of the goods, the rich kind. They also dealt in city management, such as the building of canals and food distribution.
As you can see, besides the invention of writing and farming, the Sumerians created the first type of government. Which as I remember it, Disney World’s Spaceship Earth fail to mention. I only remember them mentioning writing, which only stuck because I’ve ridden the ride thousands of times.
Now to get to the art part, and there’s no art without some history. In each city-state were temples that played a central role in the lives of the Sumerians. They were a city inside a city, similar to the Vatican City. One of the ones found was the White Temple at Uruk; it is well-preserved and is 5,000 years old. It is remarkable because it has not eroded along with the other buildings since it is made with the same material – mud.
Archaeologists believe that the White Temple was the worshipping site for Anu, the sky god. The rooms where the priests and high-ranking individuals would hang out were considered “waiting rooms.” They were waiting for God to descend upon them; there might have been no roof to the White Temple.
A marble head of a female was found in Uruk, leading archaeologists to believe that it is the head of Inanna, a goddess that the Sumerians worshipped. The back of the head is flat, and there are drill marks and a grove on the crown of the head, where a wig would have been fitted. It was attached to a body, yet the stone body was never found.
The city-states weren’t neighborly and were constantly at war, documented on the Stele of the Vultures, found in Girsu. A Stele is a slab of carved stone that depicts historical events. It is covered in cuneiform (no, it’s not a foot bone, but an ancient language), and it’s not the first of its kind. The Egyptians had made their own three centuries earlier, and I will get into that later in a different blog post.
The reason behind the name comes from the relief showing vultures carrying off the heads of defeated enemies at the end of the war of Eannatum, the ruler of Lagash. The relief is similar to the Neolithic deer hunters in that it is composed of frontal and profile views. One can see an infantry with shields and spears. You can also see Eannatum on one size larger than the other soldiers, showing his power and fearlessness.
Finding the Stele of the Vultures gave archaeologists a glimpse into the life of the Sumerians, particularly the social issues between the city-states and their warfare. It is among many reliefs and artifacts to come, where ancient people recorded their history. The historians believe that the images on the Stele were the start of conceptual representation, where the figures are done in realistic poses. In other words, if an artist were to paint a figure in profile, they had to hide the limbs from the other side because then it would like an octopus person.
Ur, the wealthy city and home of biblical Abraham, had a massive burial ground that the archaeologist named the Royal Cemetery of Ur. It was an exquisite find since what was found were treasures made of gold and lapis lazuli, such as helmets, bowls, and musical instruments. During the third millennium, the leading families of Ur were buried with their luxurious items.
Among the items found in the Royal Cemetery were the Standard Of Ur, a wooden box covered in shell, lapis lazuli, and red limestone. Because of its shape, it was believed that it was a military standard. If you ask me, it looks more like a rectangle. On the two long sides of the box, there are narratives carved. On one side, it has a war procession complete with foot soldiers and chariots; the other side is of a lavish banquet and a musician using a bull-headed harp.
The harp seen on the Standard was a fragmentary harp found on the same site in the tomb of Lady Pu-abi. Besides the wooden frame, gold leaf and lapis lazuli are inlaid on the bullhead and wood. It is an extraordinary musical piece seen at the British Museum; I remember standing before it and imagining it being played.
Lady Pu-abi’s remains were found with a headdress and jewelry made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and agate. Next to her body were three cylinder seals. A cylinder seal is a cylindrical piece of stone engraved with a cuneiform script. It is made by rolling an engraved stone over clay which would leave behind an impression. One of them had Lady Pu-abi’s name on it. The others have shown scenes from her life.
In 2332 BCE, Sumer went under new management and fell under the arrogant reign of Sargon of Akkad (if the word Sargon, meaning true king, doesn’t describe his arrogance well; then I don’t know what does). He brought with him their language, Akkadian, yet used the Sumerian cuneiform for writing. All the power went to Sargon the Akkad, instead of the city-states, as it was before he took over. His grandson, Naram-Sin, was no different; he decided to call himself the King of Four Quarters – ruler of the earth. This man had a god complex.
Naram-Sin had a Stele made to commemorate his defeat of the Lullubi people of the East Iranian mountains. It had two inscriptions, one honoring Naram-Sin and the other naming the Elamite king who took over Sippar in 1157 BCE. The Elamite king had taken the Stele to Susa in southwestern Iran as a prize.
A copper head of one of the Akkadian kings was found in Nineveh, which is now Kuyunjik, Iraq. It was part of a statue, and it was knocked over sometime when the Medes peopled stormed the area in 612 BCE; the eyes were gouged out to make a political statement. It has these patterns reflecting the person’s beard and hat. It is one of the oldest life-size hollow-cast heads found.
The Third Dynasty of Ur rolled in around 2150 BCE, pushing out the Akkadians, done by the mountain people, the Gutians, and then pushing the Gutians out by the Sumerians. The Sumerians still had some fights in them. During this period, the ensi (ruler) of Lagash, Gudea, had commissioned a statue of himself with inscriptions. To show how prestigious he was, he had it made diorite. Diorite is one of the hardest stones to carve on. He also made sure that the viewer knew it was diorite by adding an inscription that said so.
Unfortunately, the rise of the Sumerians was a short period where the Elamites took over the governing city-states came back into play. One of these city-states was Babylon, run by the famous king Hammurabi. Hammurabi is known for his laws that influenced societies to come. There were punishments for all sorts of crimes, from murder to cutting a neighbor’s tree. He sure thought of everything.
Hammurabi had a Stele made with his laws carved and the image of the sun god Shamash and himself standing before the God. The unique thing about the Stele is that it was the first hint at foreshortening. Foreshortening is when there is depth in an art piece by making the figure or object pose at an angle instead of in profile or frontal.
Another one bit the dust when it came to the Babylonian Empire. Overrun by the Hittites, Anatolian people, Babylon was left for the Kassites. East of Babylon was Elam, a city mentioned in the Bible; its capital was Susa (present-day Iran). Here, archaeologists found painted pottery dating back to the Neolithic age. These Elamites were cheeky enough to steal the stelae of Naram-Sin and Hammurabi as war prizes.
In Susa, the life-sized bronze and copper statue of Queen Napir-Asu was found. Queen Napir-Asu was the wife of King Untash-Napirisha, a great Elamite king. Its core is bronze, and the outside is covered in a copper shell. The statue was found in a temple where it was meant to stay immovable. An inscription on the sculpture read that whoever mutilated it would be cursed by the gods. Pretty serious.
Next up on the society list are the Assyrians, who pushed over the Elamites in 641 BCE. Assyrian is derived from the name of Assur, named after the God Ashur, located in Zagros (northern Iraq). The Assyrians became a massive empire.
They built fortified citadels instead of palaces since they had a ‘join us or die’ mentality. One of them was the Palace of Sargon II. It was ‘guarded’ by guardian figures and decorated with murals and relief sculptures. The guardians are man-headed, winged bulls (a Lamassu).
Not much is left of the Assyrian dynasty, except for a panel from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II. It depicted King Ashurnasirpal II and his customary homage to the gods. The panel was made with glazed brick, which is probably why it survived. There were also reliefs found within the walls of Ashurnasirpal’s palace, many of which depicted Assyrian life, specifically hunting. Many were found in another palace of King Ashurbanipal, not to be confused with the other guy with a similar name.
The Assyrian empire ended with Ashurbanipal, where they were constantly being attacked by the Medes and the remaining people of Babylon. This takes us to Neo-Babylonia and Persia.
Moving onto Babylon, part of the great Achaemenid Empire, which encompassed the region from the Indus river in South Asia to the Danube river in northeastern Europe around 480 BCE. Achaemenid would have added southeastern Europe if it weren’t for those resilient Persians. After the death of the last line of Achaemenid, Darius III, the empire fell to Alexander the Great.
A vast institute of knowledge was built in the citadel of Persepolis, set on a high plateau and fortified to include a royal audience hall and other official buildings. A nice spot to have an engaging debate about politics and history.
Of course, it was also a sight to behold complete with guarding man-headed winged bulls (griffins) and columns; thirty-six to be exact. The columns were part of the audience hall, apadana, which could house 10,000 guests. There are reliefs that cover the terrace walls depicting royal processions.
The Persian art style is a confluence of artistic views from Persia, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean. Even Darius I boasted having a impressive line of artists, naming Medes, Egyptians, Babylonians and Ionian Greeks as part of his team.
Besides having top notch artists and sculptures, the Achaemenid kings knew how to through a great party when they entertained guests. Instead of using paper plates and cups they showed off with gold and silver dinnerware. When Alexander the Great took over Persepolis he found plenty of pretty, expensive stuff, like a rhyton; a pouring vessel with an animal hammered (repoussé) onto it (protome). Don’t worry there won’t be a quiz for all of these fancy words at the end.
After Alexander the Great took over Persia in 330 BCE, it followed Greek and then Roman rule. Shortly after that the empire of the Sasanians rose to power. These people were direct descendants of the Achaemenid kings, and you thought that was the end of that for the Achaemenids.
One significant part of the Sasanian rule was the Palace of Shapur I in Ctesiphon, which is near modern Baghdad in Iraq. Shapur I was the son of the first king of the New Persian Empire and he had the palace built with an iwan, an audience hall, and a series of reliefs that show the capturing of the Roman emperor Valerian in 260.
The reign of the New Persian Empire stood for 400 years until the Arabs pushed them out of Mesopotamia in 636 BCE. Next blog post we’ll check out the Egyptians.