Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Art of Ancient Sumer

They called themselves ùĝ saĝ gíg-ga, the black-headed ones. Their semitic-speaking neighbors called their land Shumer or Sumer, and this is the name that comes down to us. They were living in southern Mesopotamic by 4100 BCE, but when they actually arrived there and where they came from are hard questions and the subject of much scholastic sound and fury. Their language has no known relatives, and their own stories about wandering the earth and being led by the gods to their later home are too much like many other such stories for cynical moderns to accept them. (Ebih II, superintendant of Mari, c. 2400 BCE)

Wherever they came from, once they settled in Sumer they embarked on a remarkable reinvention of human life. Controlling the flow of rivers with complex irrigation systems, they grew enough food to support large numbers of non farmers. They gathered together in towns that grew into small cities, surrounded by brick walls. (Bronze and silver bull, origin unknown, c. 2900 to 2600 BCE)

Their rulers invented a new status for themselves; no longer war chiefs or elders, they became kings and sat on thrones in lavish throne rooms, surrounded by officials and armed guards. (An unknown ruler c. 2400-2200 BCE, from the Louvre)

As they grew wealthier, they invested much of their surplus in religion. Over the centuries their temples grew into towns in themselves, and the platforms that held their shrines rose into little mountains. (Group of votive idols from the Tell Asmar Hoard, c. 2900-2600 BCE).

Enlil, the great god of earth.

Male and female worshipers, now in the the Louvre, c. 2100 BCE

To keep track of their wealth the temples developed ever more elaborate aids to memory -- different shapes and numbers of clay counters, sealed in clay envelopes; little pictures and numbers scratched on clay; and finally written lists with symbols that could be read aloud as words. If they were not the inventors of writing, they were among its first practitioners. (Tablet of Ur-Nammu, c. 2100 BCE).

Because they wrote, we know their names. This is the famous ruler Gudea of Lagash (c. 2150-2100 BCE), holding a vessel overflowing with water that symbolizes mastery of the rivers and canals.

One of Gudea's female relations.

Vase from Warka, c. 2200 BCE.

Among the human activities the Sumerians pioneered may have been warfare. Of course people have always fought, but our first evidence for armies who stood shoulder to shoulder and fought pitched battles comes from Sumer. (Spearmen from the Stele of Vultures, set up to celebrate a victory by Lagash over its neighbor Umma, c. 2500 BCE.)

They loved art, and filled their temples, palaces and tombs with beautiful things. (Steatite lion with inlay)

Ostrich egg cups from Ur, c. 2600 BCE.

Much of the most beautiful art from Sumer comes from the Royal Tombs of Ur, excavated by British, American and Iraqi archaeologists between 1922 and 1934. The tombs date to between 2600 and 2400 BCE. Part of their fame derives from the amazing objects found in them, but part also from the evidence that dozens of servants or slaves were sacrificed to accompany the kings and queens to the afterlife. (Base of a gold bowl from Ur)

The famous Standard of Ur, from the royal tombs.


The Ram in the Thicket.

Lion's head from a throne.

Golden vessels.

Inlay and bull's head from the famous lyre.

The lyre as reconstructed.

And my personal favorite, a copper goat's head with a divine triangle on its forehead. I love these things, so old, and so evocative of a strange and distant world.

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