Art History Lab

Mesospotamia

Brian Wildeman

Ancient Mesopotamia

Pre-Dynastic Mesopotamia

The fertile Crescent is credited with being the birthplace of civilization. Civilization did not simply pop up fully formed. The especially nice ceramics found throughout the region during the pre-dynastic Sumerian period provide ample evidence that societies were gaining in sophistication. The black and white beaker from the Susa people of Iran speaks not only to the ceramic technology they had but also reveals how important their domesticated animals were to them (the goat). The scarlet ware vessel is from pre-dynastic Samaria, showing that the Sumerians were pretty organized and sophisticated by 3,100 BCE and that civilization was the direction they took as they further progressed.

the Sumerians 2900 - 2334 BC

The ancient Sumerians are credited with having invented, writing, the wheel, the plow, and even beer. Their religion was a little like ancient Egypt's in the sense that they had many deities that took the form of animals or part human part animals as exemplified by this playful winged goat sculpture. The tall urn known as the Warka Vase is carved out of stone rather than being ceramics, suggesting that it was more valuable than utilitarian ceramic vessels. Believed to be a funerary urn, it also an important piece because it lays out in ascending registers of bas relief the hierarchy of the Sumerian world. Starting with cultivated grains at the bottom, then domesticated sheep, the order then ascends to humans working in the fields and finishes with priests and other leaders making offerings to the goddess Inanna at the top. Two important artistic conventions (and principles of design) are well illustrated by this vase. Organization in registers (organization / composition / harmony / balance / repetition) and size hierarchy (scale / proportion / repetition) seen in the varying sizes of the people in the top register. The registers are the horizontal bands that divide the various sections from top to bottom. Size hierarchy is the practice of depicting important people or characters much larger than less important ones. The ancient Egyptians, as well as many later Mesopotamian cultures practiced both of these conventions extensively. Cuneiform is the writing system that the Sumerians invented. Cuneiform, like Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese calligraphy, both of which are nearly as old as cuneiform, developed from pictures that turned into symbols via the process of graphic reduction. Cuneiform was usually pressed into soft clay slabs using a pointy instrument called a stylus, but most of it that has survived the ages is carved into stone instead.

The Standard of Ur is another very important Sumerian piece. Being organized in city-states, Sumerians fought with each other as well as foreign enemies and this standard would have helped its soldiers orient themselves in battle and identify themselves symbolically. This one is a three-dimensional box shape made out of panels coated with bitumen and decorated with inlayed shells and lapis. Bitumen is a naturally occurring tar that the Sumerians used for all kinds of interesting things. Bitumen results from fossil fuel essentially bubbling up from the earth. It is interesting to consider that the material used to decorate the standard is the very same natural resource that has been the course of so much stupid war and destruction in this part of the world (Iraq) today. The standard, is organized in registers of ascending hierarchy with one side dedicated to the military and the other side dedicated to the religious sector of society. The two sides are commonly referred to as the war side and the peace side. The war side is an important historical document in that it details the construction of the first known war chariots replete with wheels and funny harnesses that make the whole apparatus look like a wind up toy. One of the most important Sumerian deities was Inana, a mother earth goddess who took a human rather than animal form. A full figure sculpture of Inana, made from all sorts of different materials once stood atop of the ziggurat in the ancient city of Uruk. This marble head that once had jewels for eyes and gold leaf hair is all that remains of that sculpture. The head and many other very important artworks and artifacts from the dawn of civilization were looted from the Iraqi museum in 2003 when US soldiers failed to protect the museum during Gulf War. Most of these treasures were recovered by having to purchase them from the black market, but some are still missing. (our bad)

Ziggurats were both the religious and commercial center of a Sumerian city state. Ziggurats are formed somewhat like Egyptian pyramids with flat tops, but that's where their similarities end. Pyramids served as a tomb for a single king and were rarely ever visited, and then only by the most elite members of Egyptian society. Ziggurats, on the other hand, were made out of mud brick rather than stone, and were accessible to all Sumerians.

One example of how powerful a role art played in Sumerian society is exhibited in these votive figurines found in Cemetery of Ur. The figurines are carved from stone and were commissioned by the various individuals who they portray. They were meant to be devotional stand-ins for the actual people allowing them to go about their daily business while continuously honoring the gods as well. Size hierarchy is employed to delineate the figurines' different status levels within society. The large emphatically open eyes are believed to be a sign of devotion as are their folded hands. It is interesting to think about the folded hands specifically. Do we recognize this gesture as a sign of devotion because we inherited it from the ancient Sumerians, or because it is an innately human gesture? Wasn't Abraham born in Ur? Discovered in the 1920s, the excavation of the Cemetery of Ur rivaled the kind of excitement that had surrounded the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb a few years earlier. The University of Chicago had a major role in both these digs. The bull lyre is another important piece from the cemetery because it reveals to us not only the first known example of this musical instrument, but also that music was an important aspect of religious ceremonies. The soundboard of the bull lyre is made of cedar, a tree that is no longer indigenous to Iraq. The climate in those days was less arid than it is now, but cedar may have been completely deforested prior to the climate becoming too arid. The ancient Egyptians also used a lot of cedar and seem to have imported most of it from the Phoenicians of modern day Lebanon. The decorative front panel of the bull lyre is fascinating on many levels. It depicts animal deities in ascending order. A nasty scorpion guy seems to preside over the underworld in the bottom panel. The next panel, my favorite, depicts a dancing bear and an ass playing the bull lyre itself, suggesting that there is an bull lyre inside a bull lyre inside a bull lyre ad infinitum. The next register up depicts some lions pouring libations and offering sacrifices on an altar in the form of other hacked up animals. The top panel depicts the mythical Sumerian hero Gilgamesh embracing a bull under either arm.

Invented by the Sumerians, cylinder seals were used extensively throughout Mesopotamia and other parts of the ancient world for two thousand years or more for providing signatures, marking personal property, and insuring that the lids of containers were not tampered with.

the Akkad,Lagash, & Elam ca. 21st - 20th Centuries BC

One of the tricky aspects of studying ancient Mesopotamia is trying to keep track of all the various societies that were constantly conquering each other in what seems to have forever been a war-torn and violent area of the world. The Akkdians usurped the Sumerians around 2200 BCE and attempted to consolidate the various city-states into a centralized government. Their empire did not last that long but their language was spoken for thousands of years to come by the Babylonians and Assyrians. An Akkadian king named Sargon came up with the ingenious idea of declaring himself a god to help reinforce his kingdom. Metal casting had been developing since the Pre-Dynastic Sumerian period issuing in the Bronze Age. This handsome head of an Akkadian leader was once part of a larger sculpture. It is thought to be the oldest example of hallow cast sculpture, which involves sophisticated mold-making as well as metalurgy know-how. The casting is often associated with Sargon despite the fact that its identity is not actually unknown. The sculpture seems to have had its eyes smote out when the Akadians were conquered by the Neo Sumerians. This symbolic conquest by destroying the art of a particular regime is still practiced. For example, American soldiers in front of much press toppled over a tall statue of Sadam Husain during the Gulf War. I wonder if we smote out the sculpture of Sdam's eyes as well? The stele Depicting the Akkadina king Naram Sim has a militiristic zeal. Something of an artistic departure from Sumerian art, there is a more natural figure ground relationship with irregular diagonal registers that kind of fall apart on the right side.

An especially successful king from a southern Neo Sumerian region called Lagash, commissioned at least sixteen sculptures of himself carved out of the hardest stones such as diorite. Gudea was a somewhat humble and well-liked leade. He managed military campaigns against Elam, but prided himself more on building canals and temples. This sculpture of Gudea holds a vessel in his hands with two streams flowing up and out of it perhaps representing the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers flowing up and out of the vessel symbolizing his control of the area. The Elamites were located in modern day Iran. They too had a writing system nearly as old a cuneiform, but it has yet to be interpreted. Elamites were especially excellent metal workers. This aproximately life sized sculpture of a headless princess is made out of cast layers of bronze and copper and weighs over 1000 pounds.

The Babylonians 1894 - 1595 BC

The legendary city of Babylon located on the Euphrates River was probably already a village of some kind as early as 3000 BCE and became a city state under the Akkadians. The Babylonians wrested it from control of the Amorites in 1894 BCE, who'd taken it from the Akkadians before that. It remained a minor city-state until the reign of king Hammurabi 1792 - 1750 BCE. From that time on it remained an important Mesopotamian city state handed down from one conquering society to the next even after the time of Alexander the Great. Rather than declaring himself a god, Hammurabi composed a code of law to help consolidate his realm. While some of Hammurabi's rules seem extreme, such as an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, or drowning adulterers in the river, the code was a significant improvement over the random judgments of the past that ingratiated the Babylonians to their king. The Stela of Hammurabi, a copy of which is in the University of Chicago's Oriental Museum, literally spells out each of his laws and depicts Hammurabi at the top offering his devotion to a seated god. All the Mesopotamian societies aside from the Israelites adopted some version of the Sumerian's deities, but came to revere a male god of the sky and of war names Asher, rather than the earth goddess Inana. This is an interesting pattern that can be seen in the development of other societies such as the Greeks. Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility was one of their first important deities, but she was quickly usurped by the war like Zeus who is often represented by an eagle (a fierce god of the sky.)

Another Babylonian king named Zimri Lim designed for himself an especially fancy palace with defensive walls that became the prototype for later Assyrian palaces. Elaborate frescos once decorated the palace walls and fragments of them remain today.

the Hittites ca 1700-1180 BC and Neo - 650 BC

The Hittites emerged as early as 1700 BCE and developed into a powerful force whose homeland was the rugged mountainous region of Anatolia in modern day Turkey. By 1400 BCE the Hittites controlled parts of Greece, Mesopotamia, and even made a few attempts at conquering Egypt. This intimidating lion gate at the entrance of their capital city is a testament to their proud and aggressive character Being great horsemen allowed the Hittites to travel and conquer places so far away form their remote and rugged homelands. The famous city of Troy was a Western Hittite holding at the time of the Trojan War, and it was no accident that the Greeks chose the form of a horse as part of their ruse because the Trojans would have appreciated a sculpture of that animal in particular. Given how powerful the Hittites were, it is rather surprising that the empire fractured in 1180 BCE taken down along with the Greeks by the mysterious Sea People. Sea People is a specific Egyptian reference to a group of maritime raiders who seem to have taken out the Greeks and Hittites and even threatened the powerful Ramses 2. I like to think that their advantage had to do with their shipbuilding and sailing skills. Whatever the advantage, they seemed to have pirated both the Greeks and Hittites into disorder and illiteracy. During and after this Greek Dark Age, Neo Hittites organized themselves into city states that were eventually acculturated and conquered by the Greeks. The Neo Hittites seem to be the first people to work with iron, long before the official Iron Age.

Phoenicians, Canaanites, Israelites and "sea people"

The ancient Phoenicians are not covered in your text book but they should be. The Phoenicians were a maritime culture that occupied the edges of the Mediterranean Sea from as early as 2,300 BCE to Greco Roman times. They were the merchant traders of the ancient world and are credited with building the best boats and being the best sailors and navigators of their day. They also invented the first phonetic alphabet, a descendent of which we still use today. Phoenicians invented grape wine and man-made glass as well. Lebanon was a Phoenician region very early on. Cedar wood from Lebanon was a precious commodity both in Old Kingdom Egypt and in Sumer. The word Phoenician is actually an ancient Greek term that applied generally to an ethnicity and to a maritime trading society. However, the people themselves were not a centralized group, instead they were organized by city-states that each had different names. Due to them continuously travelling Phoenician cultures spread itself far and wide and took many different forms. For example, the legendary Phoenician princess Dido was originally from Lebanon and escaped a plot against her life by fleeing to North Africa where she founded the city of Carthage. Later, under the leadership of Hannibal, the Carthaginians lead a nearly successful surprise attack against the Romans by approaching them from the north, and, incredibly, bringing their war elephants over the Alps.

One off shoot of the Phoenicians were the Canaanites, who despite their terrible reputation in the Old Testament seem to be the same ethnicity and were predecessors of the Israelites. The city of Meggiddo founded as early as 3000 BC was located in such a way that it became a trading hub for both ships and merchants travelling by land. The city was home to Canaanites, Israelites and others who coexisted there. The Oriental Institute Museum has an excellent exhibit about Meggiddo and one of the most interesting artifacts in it is the gold plated figurine of the Canaanite god El. El shared the celestial realm with brothers, sisters, and a wife, until the Israelites adopted him and designated him the one and only. In other words this little figurine portrays the father of the god that is generally called God by most of the western world today, and that despite looking suspiciously like a little gold idol. Another Phoenician strain is probably the "sea people" who around 1150 BCE made war on Mycenae, and the Hittites issuing in a dark age that the entire region seems to have taken a few hundred years to recover from.

the Assyrians 1365 - 605 BC

The Assyrians were a ferocious bunch who ruled Mesopotamia from about 1300 - 800 BCE. They developed a sophisticated style of bas-relief sculpture featuring more precise anatomy and greater detail than seen in previous Mesopotamian art. Assyrian art was almost exclusively produced to help bolster the authority of the king and the Assyrian people in general. Assyrian lion hunts were staged events where the lions themselves had very little chance of survival. There purpose was to reiterates the kings power and bravery through the conquest of large dangerous lions who were in this case both kings of beasts and innocent helpless animals all rolled into one.

The Assyrians also sculpted large high relief sculptures. Known as lamassu, these mythical part lion, part bull, part eagle creatures with the bearded and wizened faces of men guarded the king's megaron in the Palace of Ashurbanipal. The lamassus offer an example of composite perspective. Count the number of hooves they have and ask yourself why they might have been fashioned this way. The legend of Gilgamesh, by this point a millennia old, was still going strong in Assyria. One of the Assyrians major enemies was the Israelites, who had already been conquered by the Egyptians, and persevered across the Red Sea as popular belief would have it, making their way back to their homeland. Shortly after the Kingdom of David, the Assyrians subdued and enslaved the Israelites once again, bringing them to Babylon where their scribes wrote the Torah scrolls to help preserve their culture and faith.

Neo Babylonians 626 - 539 BC

The Neo Babylonians, who rebelled against the Assyrians in 629 BC, reestablished Babylon as the capital and rebuilt the city's defensive walls and adorned the gates with glazed ceramic brick. Some of the bricks are sculpted out so that the lions, unicorns, and dragons protrude in bas-relief. Glaze, an improved ceramic technology from previous stain and slip, preserves the metal pigments producing the color by mixing them with a combination of silica, clay, and a flux such as lead creating a nearly impermeable glassy surface. As a ceramics student I was taught that the first glazes happened when a wood fired kiln, most likely in China, got intensely hot enough that some of the wood ash distributed by the kiln's draft got hot enough to fuse with the surface of a stoneware clay body and create a glaze. The short Neo-Babylonian Empire saw a flourishing of the arts. The legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was commissioned in 600 BC by King Nebekenezer II as a gift to his wife.

Persian Empire 550 - 330 BC

Persia was originally the area between the Tigris River and the Persian Gulf that expanded in 550 BC to take over the Lydian, Median, and Babylonian Empires. From there they went on to conquer Egypt, and then all sorts of other places as well to become by far the largest empire in the world to date. The Persians Created a capital city in modern day Iran called Persepolis. The city was known for having a beautiful palace featuring large spacious rooms with cedar wood ceilings and an extensive library. This two-headed mythological bull guardian now located in the Oriental Institute Museum, was the capital of a tall decorative column at Persepolis. Alexander the Great had not intended to burn the palace and Persepolis down when he conquered it, but one of his general's courtesans taunted him into doing it while he was drunk (or so the story goes.) Regardless of the reason the destructive fire destroyed what was considered to be the most beautiful palace in the world at the time. Even worse, it also destroyed an extensive library with a lot of valuable knowledge. Ironically, the general whose concubine was supposedly the instigator, Ptolemy, later went on to found the legendary library of Alexandria, (which also eventually burned down - karma.)

Sassanian Empire 224 to 651 AD

Persia remained a Macedonian holding for only a brief time because Alexander died prior to returning to Greece, and, in fact, his funeral took place in the city of Babylon. The bellicose Greeks quickly imploded on themselves. While they held on to Egypt, they were not able to hold on to the other areas they conquered for very long. The subsequent Sassanian Empire was notable for the arts. Metalworking in particular was a Sassanian specialty. This repoussé mask of a Sassanian leader, for example, has areas of gold coloring that have been fumed on, a process much more difficult than gold leaf involving heating a slightly harder metal and heating the gold to the point where some of it turns to a fume and sticks to the hotter metal. The Sassanians were the last Persians prior to the Muslim conquest and aspects of their cultural identity are still preserved in modern day Iran.