Thursday, 16 April 2009

Early civilisation, part 3: The art of Mesopotamia

The world’s oldest known civilisation was Sumer in present-day Iraq [1], a culture comprising a series of city states that was well established by 3000 BCE.

Obviously, such dates can only ever be approximate. The establishment of a culture is a process, influenced by other pre-existing and contemporaneous cultures. Early settlement in the region is attested by the site of Jarmo in the north-east, which dates to about 7000 BCE (roughly contemporary with Jericho and Çatalhöyük) and provided evidence of agriculture, female figurines and other typical artifacts. By the 4th millenium BCE, the Sumerians, or the ‘black-headed people’ as they called themselves, had built the most sophisticated culture the world had yet seen.

Taking control of the land was itself a struggle. Childe observed: “Arable land had literally to be created out of a chaos of swamps and sand banks by a ‘separation’ of land from water; the swamps... drained; the floods controlled; and lifegiving waters led to the rainless desert by artificial canals.” [2] He also suggested that this separation of the land and waters may have inspired the story of creation as retold in Genesis.[3] What is certain is that a huge amount of labour must have been invested.

The annual floods of the Tigris and the Euphrates were unpredictable: a low flood could mean famine, a high flood disaster to homes and crops. Shifts in the courses of the rivers could be very damaging for a city. But the valley was fertile, and the Sumerians practiced year-round agriculture, raising a big surplus by irrigating the plains between the rivers and harnessing ploughs to draught animals to turn the soil more efficiently. The scale and innovation of their labour allowed, and necessitated, managers who would organise the irrigation canals and oversee agricultural production, as well as encouraging vital new skills in surveying, mathematics and technology. Key villages came to prominence and towns grew up around their temples.

Map of MesopotamiaAncient Mesopotamia. Map: Eugene Hirschfeld. The position of Akkad is an educated guess, as the site has not yet been found.

During the Ubaid period, villages and towns such as Eridu were built with mud-brick buildings. It was around this time that the wheel was invented — a tool that could not have been developed before agriculture and specialist labour, as it requires roads and draught animals. By 3200 BCE the first true city had appeared: Uruk, at the time possibly the largest urban settlement in the world. Other cities followed, amongst them Lagash, Sippar, Kish, Nippur, Ur, Mari, Ashur and Babylon. The old kinship systems broke down as strangers from all over the region congregated in the towns. Mesopotamia’s shortage of resources (such as stone, wood, metals and precious materials) encouraged trade and cultural exchange; at the same time, the coveting of others’ resources — never a major issue for subsistence-level societies — provoked the world’s first true wars. Confronted with new problems of social order, Mesopotamian kings created systems of law. As temples and a caste of priests arose in the cities, religion appeared in its modern form. A class structure emerged with a mass of farming peasants supporting a ruling class of priests, courtiers and kings; this was accompanied by a state with centralised administration, written records, and the use of slave labour. Mesopotamia had become the ‘cradle of civilisation’.

The effect of Sumer’s development was to establish Mesopotamia as a geo-political entity, though its various peoples never came up with a name for it. The name ‘Mesopotamia’ comes from ancient Greek and means the ‘land between the rivers’, but this is too narrow to properly define the region — an area stretching from southern Turkey to Iran, from the western deserts to the hills of the north-east. Empires based in cities such as Akkad, Babylon and Assur would overwhelm Sumer, which disappeared as a political entity after the destruction of Ur by the Elamites in 2000 BCE, but each successive power built upon the cultural foundations it had laid. The region was about the size of Belgium, yet only ancient Egypt rivals Mesopotamia in importance in the history of early civilisation.

The art of Sumer and Akkad

Our topic covers a period of 3000 years and a succession of ancient cultures: Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Amorites, Hittites, Assyrians and many more, some of which lose prominence only to be resurgent later. In this article I can only touch upon a few aspects of Mesopotamian art, and will keep to the early phase of its history — some aspects, such as literature, I will look at elsewhere.

Even before Mesopotamian civilisation came to maturity, it was producing cultural objects of high quality. Crockery and pottery from the Samarran and Halafian periods are finely made and painted with designs of great elegance and simplicity, ranging from dots and strokes to human figures. Pottery is suited to a sedentary lifestyle, and besides its practical purpose it communicated social messages — such as a sense of shared identity and custom. Pottery like the Samarra ware was the work of skilled specialists, a prestige product which implies the existence of social stratification.

Later the Ubaid period saw the first public and lavishly decorated temples, representing the growth not only of the social surplus product but also of an emerging class basis in society. At Tell Uqair in the early Uruk period, we find fresco paintings, early cylinder seals (see below), and the first appearance of writing. By the 30th century BCE, writing ushers in what is known as the ‘proto-literate’ period, which features the ‘Jemdet Nasr ware’ pottery found at a site north-east of Babylon, vigorous sculptures depicting animal combats and hunting scenes, and a striking head of a woman, possibly the goddess Inanna, carved from marble.

As we have discussed, art following the Urban Revolution was defined by a huge extent by the disproportionate power over resources held by the ruling class [4]. Class society is very clearly illustrated on the object known as the ‘Standard of Ur’, a hollow wooden box excavated from the site of the ancient city of Ur in the 1920s. Its purpose still unclear — possibly it was the soundbox of a musical instrument — it is decorated with a mosaic of red limestone, shell and lapis lazuli depicting aspects of Sumerian society in two main panels. These have been dubbed ‘war’ and ‘peace’. On the top row of the ‘peace’ panel, we see a king sitting among his courtiers, and in the next two rows we see the farmers, herdsmen, and fishermen who supported the leisured class.

The Standard of UrDetail from the Standard of Ur, ca. 2600 BCE. The king sits at top left.

The Standard of Ur was found at one of the great sources of Sumerian art: the cemetery of Ur, containing 2500 graves dug near the city wall. Excavations in the early 1920s uncovered deep burial chambers or ‘death pits’ from around 2500 BCE, in which lay the remains of men and women clearly of high status. Buried with them were huge numbers of ‘art objects’ which make the tombs the single most remarkable find in Mesopotamia. You can see some of these wonderful objects here. They included decorated vessels; jewellery; gilded daggers; golden cups and bowls; a gaming board inlaid with lapis lazuli and shell; a golden helmet said to belong to a king named Meskalamdug; harps; a wooden lyre, decorated with a bull’s head of beaten gold and plaques of shell depicting scenes with people and animals; and a pair of sculptures known as a ‘ram caught in a thicket’ depicting a ram with its forelegs resting on a branching plant, made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, copper, shell, red limestone, and bitumen. The tomb of a lady or queen named Pu-abi contained, as well as her body and other expensive items, a head-dress comprising hundreds of pieces of gold and other precious materials formed as leaves, rosettes and pendants.

Whereas many Sumerians were buried beneath the floor of family homes, the lavish burial gifts in what became known as the Royal Tombs of Ur are evidence that these were nobles, a conclusion corroborated by cylinder seals referring to monarchs by name [5]. The items show the highest standards of workmanship and the existence of long-distance trade that could provide rare materials not found in Sumer. They also provide evidence of the ritual attached to persons of high social status, and of a belief in some kind of life after death.

Ram Caught in a Thicket‘Ram Caught in a Thicket’, found in the Death Pit at Ur. Photo: mharrsch (Flickr).

With the Sumerians we see the basic system of belief that has characterised religion ever since: that the world was created by a pantheon of gods (in later religions, one god) whom humans were obliged to worship if their lives were to be successful. The centrality of religious beliefs and structures in the early civilisations is embodied in the temples which, alongside royal palaces, formed the most impressive buildings in the Mesopotamian city states. These were centres of economic organisation as much as of religion. The priesthood had control over food distribution, owned vast estates, and organised mass labour, all of which required a well-trained bureaucracy. In addition it devised elaborate rituals within the temples, intended to flatter and appease particular deities — these used music, hymns, incense and images of deities.

Some of the surviving objects of worship are statuettes, such as those found under the temple at Tell Asmar, to place before altars as proxy worshippers. It is likely that the joined hands of these figures represent an attitude of prayer, and that the wide blue eyes symbolise adoration of the deity.

Alabaster statuette from MariAlabaster statuette of an official named Ebih-Il, ca. 2400 BCE, found at the Sumerian city of Mari.

These figurines seem only to represent members of the elite — scribes, priests, officials etc.

The temples themselves were decorated with frescos, mosaics and sculptures, and supported singers, potters, jewellers, bronze-workers and other artisans. One of the finest creations of early Sumer was the Warka vase, dating to the proto-literate period of Uruk ca. 3000 BCE (Warka is the modern Arab name for Uruk). This three-foot alabaster vase was found in the grounds of the temple of the goddess Inanna, who was also known as Ishtar. It is carved with four bands of narrative relief carvings. At the bottom is a wavy line symbolising water, then there are depictions of cereals and domesticated animals — rams and ewes. Further up we see a procession of men bearing vessels, and the top band shows a female figure who is probably Inanna, and appears to be receiving gifts of animals, platters, etc. The Assyriologist Gwendolyn Leick wrote “there is a simplicity and single-minded purposefulness in the scene, stately and timeless, dignified and measured”:

The vessels and baskets that feature on these reliefs... embody the reality of the Uruk culture, the economic source of its enormous wealth and its meticulous distribution. It presents a well-ordered and well-managed world, sustainable and stable, confident to meet the challenges of collective life, perhaps the vision of the urban élite who celebrated the ritual aspects of distribution.[6]

More modest, though great in number, were cylinder seals. These were cylinders of stone used to roll one’s personal graphic ‘signature’ into clay tablets during a transaction, and have been found in temple grounds, underlining the very worldly purpose of the religious institutions. The seals are small and sometimes show considerable craftsmanship, depicting scenes from both peace and war with gods, animals, rituals and other images of ancient life.

The pre-eminence of Early Dynastic Sumer was short-lived. To its north lay the city of Akkad (Sumerian ‘Agade’), home to a Semitic people who unified the city states by conquest in around 2350 BCE. To celebrate and proclaim what was the world’s first empire, the Akkadian king Sargon and his successors had steles erected, bearing royal inscriptions and images of war — a stele is a stone slab or pillar, erected to mark territory but also to proclaim military victories.

Victory stele of Narâm-SinVictory stele of Narâm-Sin, ca. 2250 BCE.

One of the most famous of these is the Stele of Narâm-Sin, grandson of Sargon. About two metres high and carved from pink limestone, it shows Narâm-Sin armed with a bow, trampling corpses as he conquers the Lullubi mountain people. Such works arose only because successive kings owned the resources to compete militarily for dominance of the opulent city-states of Sumer. The riches on offer appealed to the peoples of the mountains too, and constant campaigns had to be fought to keep them at bay. On the stele, Narâm-Sin is depicted as considerably larger than the other figures, a giant before whose victories the disobedient tremble.

Through such works, a king could make his presence felt throughout his realm, assert the futility of challenges to his power, and declare the benefits he had conferred upon the people and the divine favour he enjoyed. They may therefore be seen as early pieces of public propaganda art.

Neo-Sumerian culture

After about 200 years, Akkad lost its grip over Mesopotamia and the individual cities reasserted themselves. One of them was Lagash: the stylised likeness of its king, Gudea, survives in over twenty statues carved from polished black diorite, which represent some of the best sculpture of the time. These images are unimposing, perhaps because the range of Gudea’s influence was modest. Inscriptions praise him more for the building of temples than for conquest — temples that are now lost.

Sumer would reassert its dominance of the region during its Third Dynasty period (2150–2000 BCE), also known as the ‘neo-Sumerian’, which saw what the French Assyriologist Georges Roux called ‘an extraordinary renaissance in all branches of Sumerian art and literature’ [7]. It was the gifted king Ur-Nammu who ordered the building of the Great Ziggurat of Ur — completed by his son Shulgi — the remains of which are still impressive today [8]. After being built up on a core of fired mud bricks, the Great Ziggurat would not have been the drab brown we see today but covered in glazed terracotta tiles, making it highly colourful.

Ziggurats were a product of both economic and material conditions: as cities prospered, their temples, which were modest at first, gradually grew upwards. As each old mud-brick building had to be rebuilt, it became a kind of platform for the next, which may have inspired the stepped pyramid. The lack of stone in Mesopotamia meant that mud and clay predominated as architectural materials, and fired bricks tended to be reserved for buildings of importance because the rarity of wood fuel made them expensive. This partly explains why so little remains of those great cities: their buildings were worn down by rain or split apart by earthquakes, and once left unattended simply crumbled away.

Symbolically, a ziggurat with its hundreds of stairs implies an ascension to heaven. Unlike an Egyptian pyramid, there is nothing on the inside, and it is likely that rituals were carried out in shrines on the top stage. As such it was both spiritually and physically the most important architectural statement in a city, its monumentality underlining the power structure with which religion was so intimately tied.


Mesopotamia would again fall into war with the incursions of the Elamites and Amorites, until the rise of an empire established by the Babylonians around 1800 BCE.

During the reign of its king Hammurabi, Babylon, which had been a prosperous city for several centuries, became the principal power in Mesopotamia. Its empire spread from the Mediterranean to Assyria and the Persian Gulf. Hammurabi is best remembered today for the ‘Code of Hammurabi’, his famous set of nearly three hundred laws.[9] (They are not, as sometimes asserted, the earliest known — that honour goes to some surviving laws of Ur-Nammu.) The Code was inscribed upon steles, one of which still survives and is an aesthetic object in itself. Carved from black basalt, it stands eight feet high and bears 282 finely engraved laws.

Code of HammurabiTop section of the Code of Hammurabi. The original stele is now in the Louvre.

In a carving at the top, Hammurabi himself (left) is depicted receiving a sceptre and ring — insignia of royal power — from the god Shamash (seated). This imagery of divinely-endorsed kingship is supported by the preface, which states: “Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers”.

The empire of the Old Babylonian period, consolidated under Hammurabi, lasted 300 years, and was eclipsed by the primacy of the Kassites, Assyrians and other peoples for centuries. Not until the Babylonians and Medes overthrew the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 BCE would a new period of dominance see Babylon, in the words of the Greek historian Herodotus, ‘surpassing in splendour any city of the known world’. Some of this splendour still survives in the glazed brickwork of the gate of Ishtar and Avenue of the Lions. Two other neo-Babylonian architectural splendours were the ziggurat Etemenanki, or ‘Foundation of Heaven and Earth’, the largest ziggurat in Mesopotamia and possible inspiration for the Biblical Tower of Babel; and the Hanging Gardens, later described by the Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.[10]

Some characteristics of Mesopotamian art

The only analysis of Mesopotamian art by an explicitly Marxist writer of which I am aware is by Arnold Hauser, who comments in The Social History of Art:

The real problem of Mesopotamian art consists in the fact that, despite an economy based predominantly on trade and industry, finance and credit, it has a more rigidly disciplined, less changeable, less dynamic character than the art of Egypt...[11]

Hauser argues that Mesopotamian art is even more conventionalised than the Egyptian despite its “more mobile and more directly urban economy”. In my view the reverse is true: Mesopotamian art is in fact less rigidly disciplined, more changeable, and more dynamic than Egyptian art, precisely because its highly developed economy existed in the framework of a network of city states subject to an ebb and flow of natural and political fortunes. Hauser emphasises Babylonian and Assyrian art without mentioning the many other cultures of the region. Certainly the friezes and ‘doorkeeper’ sculptures of the Assyrian empire are stylised and rationalistic, but against them one may place the relative realism and subtlety of the best Early Dynastic statuettes of Sumer. Hauser, not for the first time, makes the error of over-simplifying his subject.

The rise of the Mesopotamian cultures was one of the defining moments of human history — a tremendously creative period in which technical advances were matched by new artistic achievements. The sophistication and technique of these early artworks are undeniable, but they did not develop in isolation. Despite its productive farmland, Mesopotamia faced a number of challenges — poverty of natural resources, unpredictable floods, natural barriers like the desert and the mountains. Civilisation had to be wrestled from nature, and human society’s stake was high. Materials for Mesopotamia’s luxurious works of art — such as diorite, gold, silver, carnelian and lapis lazuli — had to come from abroad, helping to develop trade routes by land and sea to Afghanistan, Egypt, Nubia, the Indus, and elsewhere. Mesopotamia’s flowering assisted neighbouring cultures in a process of diffusion, influencing not only the Near East but ancient Greece too. Here is Georges Roux again:

It is now generally recognised that the Aesopian fable had Sumero-Akkadian antecedents and that Gilgamesh was the prototype of both Heracles and Ulysses, while a glance at the archaic statues and figurines of continental and insular Greece reveals at once strong affinities with earlier or contemporary Mesopotamian works.[12]

The innovations seen in Mesopotamia were also to appear in other parts of the world. Cultures with writing, bureaucracy, astronomy and science developed independently as far away as China and Meso-America. What all these cultures had in common was the huge impetus given to thought, society, technology and culture by the agricultural revolution, and the basic similarity of their social structure — class society, religion, trade, law, and in most cases writing — is striking.

Although dominated by a succession of cultures, there is a certain common identity to Mesopotamian art. It is a conventionalised art, in the thrall of kings and organised religion: bodily features tend to be seen from their most representative angle and figures tend to be shown in sizes relative to their status. Gods, exhibiting very human behaviours, are prominent as subjects. Temples and palaces with frescos and sculptures become the dominant architecture in cities which feature gardens, columns, terraces, courtyards, defensive walls and so on. Highly standardised stone relief carvings depict events such as festivals, construction or battles. Art was used to celebrate military victories over rival cities, depicting pillaging and the killing or humiliation of prisoners.

What these characteristics have in common is to show the dependence of art both upon a culture’s physical environment and on its social structures. In the transition from Stone to Bronze Age we can see plainly that art is part of a superstructure raised upon an economic base — higher productivity after the Neolithic Revolution led to greater wealth, specialists, organised religion, the state, warfare and class society. The new forms taken by art flow from those developments.

Further reading
Near Eastern antiquities at the Louvre
The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on Mesopotamia
The Met Museum’s Art of the First Cities
Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago
The International World History Project on Mesopotamia

Youtube user easeen has posted the History Channel documentary Civilisations: The Gardens of Babel (2006), a popular show narrated by Simon Chilvers. See the episode in six parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

[1] Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a huge amount of damage has been done to the legacy of this culture, either through the looting of museums, combat, or deliberate archaeological vandalism by the invaders.
[2] V. Gordon Childe, New Light on the Most Ancient East (1954).
[3] See Man Makes Himself.
[4] Sumerian artifacts not only attest to the existence of class society, but even also to class struggle, that is, the political conflict that results from the contradictory interests of different classes in society. In early written documents, King Urukagina of Lagash is credited with stopping administrators from plundering the orchards of the poor and other acts against abuse, measures that suggest the victims were raising their voices in protest.
[5] Another sign of the power of class society even at this early date was that these individuals were accompanied by mass burials of servants and soldiers. It is not clear exactly how or why they died, but it has been speculated that they were killed so the privileged class might pass to the next world with the attendants they had been accustomed to in life.
[6] Gwendolyn Leick, Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City (2001).
[7] Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (1964, revised 1992).
[8] The ziggurat was partially rebuilt in modern times.
[9] You can read the text of the Code of Hammurabi here.
[10] Although none of them had actually seen it.
[11] Arnold Hauser, Vol. 1 of The Social History of Art (1951).
[12] Georges Roux, op. cit.

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