SUMERIAN, BABYLONIAN AND ASSYRIAN ART

SUMERIAN ART

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Ram in athicket
The Sumerians created lovely alabaster vases with carved heads, alabaster and stone figurines, cylinder seals made with precious stones, gold ornaments, gold jewelry and musical instruments decorated with gold and semi-precious stones. The were expert metal workers adept at fashioning silver and gold. An inlaid gold vessel in the form of an ostrich egg might have held food and drink.

Most of the Sumerian works of art have been excavated from graves. The Sumerians often buried their dead with their most prized objects. They also produced some of the first portraits. Gudea, the Sumerian king of Lagash, who lived around 2100 B.C., is remembered with a series of seated sculptures that are among the most famous Sumerian works of art. A life size one made of black diorite is particularly nice.

Much of the stuff found by Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur is now in the British Museum. Some is at the Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. One of the most famous objects there is Great Lyre from the King’s Grave. It is a gold-and-lapis-lazuli bull’s head and inlaid shell plaque attached to a re-created wooden frame.

The soundbox of a lyre unearthed in a grave in Ur, dated at 2700 B.C., contains an amusing comic-book-like rendering of animals made with a mosaics of shell, gold, and silver on a background of lapis lazuli. The image is believed to a depiction of a poplar fable. A finely carved gypsum head of an unknown subject, dated 2097 to 1989 B.C., features eery eyes colored with blue pigments.

Websites and Resources on Mesopotamia: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ABZU etana.org/abzubib; Oriental Institute Virtual Museum oi.uchicago.edu/virtualtour ; Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits ; Ancient Near Eastern Art Metropolitan Museum of Art www.metmuseum.org

Archaeology News and Resources: Anthropology.net anthropology.net : serves the online community interested in anthropology and archaeology; archaeologica.org archaeologica.org is good source for archaeological news and information. Archaeology in Europe archeurope.com features educational resources, original material on many archaeological subjects and has information on archaeological events, study tours, field trips and archaeological courses, links to web sites and articles; Archaeology magazine archaeology.org has archaeology news and articles and is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America; Archaeology News Network archaeologynewsnetwork is a non-profit, online open access, pro- community news website on archaeology; British Archaeology magazine british-archaeology-magazine is an excellent source published by the Council for British Archaeology; Current Archaeology magazine archaeology.co.uk is produced by the UK’s leading archaeology magazine; HeritageDaily heritagedaily.com is an online heritage and archaeology magazine, highlighting the latest news and new discoveries; Livescience livescience.com/ : general science website with plenty of archaeological content and news. Past Horizons : online magazine site covering archaeology and heritage news as well as news on other science fields; The Archaeology Channel archaeologychannel.org explores archaeology and cultural heritage through streaming media; Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu : is put out by a non-profit organization and includes articles on pre-history; Best of History Websites besthistorysites.net is a good source for links to other sites; Essential Humanities essential-humanities.net: provides information on History and Art History, including sections Prehistory

Sumerian Treasures at Iraq National Museum

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Statue of Gudea
The Sacred Vase of Warka is a one-meter-high, carved alabaster vase, dated at around 3000 B.C. Discovered by German archaeologists in the 1940s near the city of Samawa, it contains some of the world’s earliest references to religious ritual, social hierarchy, the natural order and urban economy. Carvings in five distinct layers wrap around the vase with the three main ones from bottom to top being: 1) abundant fields, flocks, water, plants in the city state of Uruk; 2) nude men bringing offering to a temple; and 3) the King presenting an offerings to Inana, the great Sumerian goddess of fertility, war, love and success, and her ritual marriage to a king. Warka is another name for Uruk.

The Warka head, also dated to around 3000 B.C., is regarded as one of the most refined Sumerian pieces. It is a life-size white marble head of a Sumerian woman that originally had a headdress and eyes and eyebrows made of inlaid gold and lapis lazuli. Dubbed the “Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia,” it may have been part of a statue of Inana.

The Little King is a seven-inch-high figurine, also dated at 3000 B.C., and found under a temple in Uruk. Possibly a portrait of En, one of Uruk’s ruler, it is made of alabaster and has inlaid eyes made of lapis lazuli and shell.

The Statue of Sumerian Worshiper, dated at 2600 B.C., is a stone statue originally placed in a temple as prayer for its donor. The Stone Statue of a Sumerian Scribe, dated at 2400 B.C., is a representation of an official of the city-state of Ginsu who may have founded a system of weights and measures.

Golden treasures from Ur include the Harp of Ur, a Sumerian gold harp dated at 2500 B.C. It contains a golden head of a bearded bull that is attached to a soundbox decorated with colored stones and pieces of shell. It was found in the tomb of Puabi in Ur. A golden helmet, dated to 2500 B.C., belonging to King Meskalamdug is a fine example of Mesopotamian metalwork. It was found in the royal cemetery of Ur.

Other treasures include a statue from Ur representing a Sumerian deity, dated to 2600 B.C.; a bronze sculptured head of a woman from Uruk, dated at 3000 B.C.; gilded bulls with long beards and tile inlays; numerous cuneiform inscriptions; a mask of Nara-Sin, the first Mesopotamian ruler to declare his divinity; a collection of gold necklaces, bracelets and earrings from a Sumerian dynasty, date 2500 B.C.; and a wig-like helmet made of pure gold that was probably worn by a king.

Some Sumerian seals are more than 5000 years old. One lion hunt seal tells the story of the beginning of the kingship and the beginning of the state. A man is pictured in a turban and long skirt fighting lions with a spear and bow and arrow. The theme of a king fighting lions was passed on to other Mesopotamian kingdoms.

Sumerian Art From Grave of Queen Pu-abis in Ur

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from the royal grave
Some of the most spectacular Sumerian art was unearthed from the grave of Queen Pu-abi, a 4,600-year-old site excavated by British archaeologist Leonard's Woolleys' team in Ur. The pieces found there included lyres decorated with golden bull heads and a wiglike helmet of gold described above as well as earrings, necklaces, a gold dagger with a filigree sheath, a toilet box with a shell relief of lion eating a wild goat, inlaid wooden furniture, a golden tumbler, cups and bowls, and tools and weapons made of copper, gold and silver.

Queen Pu-abi was buried, wearing, a necklace of gold and lapi lazuli, 10 gold rings, garters of gold and lapis lazuli, and a striking cape made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, agate and carnelian beads. She was buried with 11 other women, presumably her attendants.

Queen Pu-abi’s headdress was made of gold ribbons, carnelian and lapis lazuli beads, bands of gold leaves, all surmounted by a high comb of silver with eight-petaled gold rosettes, symbols of goddess Inana.

Archaeologists working at the Queen Pu-abi site also unearthed a mosaic with figures made from limestone, muscle shell and mother of pearl, on a lapis background that shows a military procession with troops driving their chariots over captured enemies.

Sumerian Sculpture

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Ur chariot
Most Sumerian sculpture are doll-size human or deity figurines found in graves in cemeteries in Ur, Eridu, and Umma al-Ajarib. Sumerian figurines were usually made of stone or alabaster. The figures usually have stiff-looking postures and often had large owl-like eyes that make the figures look as if they are in a trance.

Describing a sculpture of the Sumerian king Gudea, New York Times art critic Holland Carter wrote: “He is a clean shaven youth with tapering fingers and slender toes, and a large pillbox crown. His face is serene and alert, but his shoulders are slightly hunched, and one bare arm is flexed. Everything about him is tensed, as if he is holding his breath.

The prize of the University of Pennsylvania collection is “Ram Caught in a Thicket," a lapis lazuli sculpture of a blue-horned, shell-fleeced billy goat standing in its hind legs in front of a carved wooden tree wrapped in gold foil. The 4,600 year-old structure was found in Ur.

Statuettes, circa 2700 B.C., found at the Abu Temple in Eshnunna include bug-eyed figures, some with a bare shaven heads and others with grandmother bun-style hairdos. A limestone statuette found at the Inanna Temple in Nippur depicts a woman with her hands clasped in worship. Some very old sculptures from Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia bear features that appear to have been influenced by Sumer sculptures.

Akkadian and Babylonian Art

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Queen of the Night (Babylon)
The Akkadians produced extraordinary bronze and copper sculptures. Among the treasures from the Akkadian Age at the Iraq National Museum: are the Akkadian Bassetki, a 150-kilogram copper statue of a man with his legs crossed, dated to 2300 B.C. Found in Nineveh, it is regarded as the one of the most important pieces in the museum and is prized because of its exquisite details. It contains inscriptions that proclaim the military victories of an Akkadian king. Although only the bottom half of the figure is intact its prized for its realism.

An ancient brass relief of the Akkadian ruler, King Naram-Sin, dated at 2350 B.C., is one of the earliest examples of an advanced form of bronze casting. Akkadian cylindrical stone seals depict deities in horned headdresses engaged in battle. A mold depicts a deified ruler and the goddess Ishtar and with prisoners offering plates of fruit.

Treasures from the Babylonian Age from the Iraq National Museum include The Lions of Tell Harmal, dated at 1800 B.C., two large, snarling, terra-cotta lions that guarded the entrance to a temple at Tell Harmal, a site within Baghdad’s city limits. Most works described as Babylonian art are actually Neo-Babylonian art. See Below.

The most famous object from Babylon is the 8-foot black diorite stele of legal code of Hammurabi from the 18th century B.C. On the top of the stele Hammurabi is shown standing before Shamash, the god of justice, receiving the laws. The stele is believed to be one of many that were set up throughout the Babylonian domain to inform people of the law of the land. The Code of Hammurabi slab that exists today was moved to Susa in Iran in 1200 B.C. and discovered in 1901. It is currently at the Louvre.

Assyrian Art

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Assyrian royal lion hunt
The Assyrians produced colossal human-headed winged bulls. The most famous of theses were carved from alabaster and stood outside a palace gateway of the Palace of Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin. There were two of them. They each stood 16 feet high and weighed 40 tons. Assyrian a human-headed, winged bulls were called lamassu . They were often accompanied by four-winged deities called a apkallu .

New York Times art critic Holland Carter wrote: “Assyrian art is about winning through intimidation. The carved narrative reliefs...obsessively dwell on hair-raising battles and sadistic wildlife hunts. The half human raptor...was intended to advertise the aggressive otherworldly resources the king could command.”

Assyrian masterpieces at the British Museum include several wall reliefs depicting lion hunts and other activities of the day; bronzes like the “Bronze Head of Pazuzu” and clay cuneiform-inscribed talents that once adorned the palaces of rulers like Ashurnasirpal II (833-859 B.C. ) of Nimrud.

The Assyrians spread their art and culture throughout their empire. Art for Persia in particular has strong Assyrian influences. A 9th century Assyrian relief is the first known depiction of people shaking hands.

Assyrian Art Masterpieces

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Assyrian Gate
Among the masterpieces of Assyrian art are 10-foot-high limestone panels with human-faced creatures with lion and bull bodies from the audience hall of the palace of Ashuraspal II at Nimrud; a 14.5-foot-high gypsum winged bull relief, with a human head, circa 710 B.C., taken from the Citadel gate at Duk Sharrukin near Nivenah; and an alabaster relief of a winged god taken from outside a palace door at the same site. A huge human-headed bull at the site was hacked into pieces by looters.

A gypsum piece from the 8th century B.C. depicts two muscular warriors with Semitic features, curled beards and pointed helmets. A frieze from Nivenuh of the last great Assyrian ruler Ashurbanipal, shows him killing a lion with a spear while another lion tried to leap on a horse. An 8th century B.C. ivory plaquette of a winged griffin unearthed from Nimrud was a decorative pannel for furniture.

Treasures from the Assyrian period at the Iraq National Museum include an entire room devoted to ivories and gold ornaments from the 8th century Assyrian capital of Nimrud. Other objects from Nimrud include a cuneiform calendar dated at 850 B.C., consisting of daily instructions for the 7th month of the year; the Lioness killing a Nubian shepherd, an 8th century B.C. relief made of ivory and decorated with inlays of gold, carnelian and lapis lazuli.

Assyrian Bas-Reliefs

The Assyrians developed relief sculpture to a high art. Influenced by Babylonian art, Assyrian art includes sculptures and friezes of bloody battles, hunting scenes, human-headed bulls, fighting bulls and lions, winged bulls, processions of kings and deities, and a king spearing a lion. Human figures are flat two-dimensional like Egyptian figures but have more developed bodies and muscles and have elaborately-braided beards and hairstyles. Animals are life-like and filled with rippling muscles, motion and ferocity.

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Blessing genie of
Dur Sharrukin
Describing the reliefs from the palace of Ashuranasirpal II at Nimrud, Holland Carter, the art critic for the New York wrote: “Like most official art, these images adhere to a formula, but seen in isolation their stylized virtuosity stands out. The fringe of the birdman’s robe and the bulging calf of his leg are delicately executed. His ramrod pose has a courtly grace. In one hand he carries a purse-size bucket of holy water; in the other he dabs the air with a fruit that looks like a pine cone, as if removing a pesky stain from the wall.”

Reliefs of Ashuranasirpal II himself depict the king as warrior, priest and protector of Assyria. Each scene has a cuneiform text in Akkadian listing his many victories and accomplishments. Often he is accompanied by protective deities---bird heads, supernatural guardians and winged human figures---and stylized representations of the tree of life. At one time dozens of these large figures in stone reliefs lined the king’s throne room. Originally painted in bright colors, they were meant to intimidate visitors.

Describing a relief of Ashuranasirpal II from Nimrud displayed at Bowdoin College Museum Wendy Moonan wrote in the New York Times: “Beautifully carved in gypsum and nearly six feet tall, it depicts in profile a regal figure walking to the viewers right. He can be identified as a king because he wears a tall conical hat, a symbol of power and prestige. He wears a long embroidered cape, an elaborate earrings, a necklace and a bracelet with a large rosette, and carries a dagger and whetstone, He raises his right arm in a gesture of acknowledgment or greeting. His left hand holds a bow, the symbol of his patroness, the goddess of war and love. “

“But something is very wrong here, The king has been disfigured. His bow is broken in the middle. His right wrist and his Achilles tendons have been brutally slashed. His nose and ears are damaged, and one eye has been chipped out, The bottom of his beard has been hacked away.” It is believed the reliefs were defaced by the Medes after they captured Nimrud in 612 B.C. , more than 250 years after the reliefs were made. Some scholar believe it was a “magical attack as well as a symbolic disfigurement.”

Treasure of Nimrud

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Apkallu from Nimrud
In the 1989 and 1990, four tombs, dated to the 8th and 9th century, believed to belong to queens (or at least consorts) of Ashurnasipal II were excavated in a royal palace in Nimrud. One tomb alone contained over 28 kilograms of gold. The items are the among the most impressive examples of Assyrian art---or for that matter ancient gold---ever found.

Archaeologists found 40 kilograms of treasures and 157 objects, including a golden mesh diadem with tiger eye agate, lapis lazuli; a gold child’s crown embellished with rosettes, grapes, vines and winged female deities; 14 armlets and arm band with cloisonne and turquoise; enameled and engraved gold jewelry; four anklets including, one gold anklet weighing a kilogram; 15 vessels, including one with scenes of hunting and warfare; 79 earnings; 30 rings; many chains; a palm crested plaque; gold bowls and flasks; a bracelet inlaid with semiprecious stones and held together with a pin; and rare electrum mirrors.

The jewelry was worn by royal consorts of Assyria’s rulers, A finely worked gold necklace features clasp in the shape of entwined animal heads. A finely wrought gold crown is topped by delicate winged females. There also chains of tiny gold pomegranates and earrings with semi-precious stones.

Discovery of Nimrud Treasures

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In 1988 Iraqi archaeologist Muzahem Hussein uncovered two 8th century B.C. tombs under the royal palace in Nimrud. He discovered the site when he realized he was standing on some great vaults while putting some bricks back in place After two weeks of clearing away dirt and debris he caught his first glimpse of gold.

The first tomb was still sealed and contained a woman who was 50 or so and a collection of beautiful jewelry and semiprecious stones. A second tomb, about 100 meters away, contained the two women, perhaps queens. They were placed in the same sarcophagus one on top of the other, wrapped in embroidered linen and covered with gold jewelry. One of the women had been dried and smoked at temperatures of 300 to 500 degrees, the first evidence of mummification-like practices in Mesopotamia.

The second tomb contained a curse, threatening the person who opened the grave of Queen Yaba (wife of powerful Tiglthpilese II (744-727 B.C.) with eternal thirst and restlessness, with a specific warning about placing another corpse inside. The curse was written before the second corpse was placed inside. The two women inside were 30 to 35 years of age, with the second being buried 20 to 50 year after the first. The first is thought to be Queen Yaba. The other is thought to be the person identified by a gold bowl found inside the sarcophagus that reads: “Atilia, queen of Sargon, king of Assyria: who rule from 721 ro 705 B.C.”

A third tomb excavated in 1989 had been looted but looters missed an antechamber that contained three bronze coffins: 1) one with six people, a young adult, three children, a baby and a fetus.; 2) another with a young woman, with a gold crown, thought to have been a queen; and 3) a third with a 55- to 60-year-old man, and a golden vessel that appears to have identified him as a powerful general that served under served several kings.

The treasure was on display for just a few months before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when it was packed away for protection and put in a vault beneath Baghdad’s central bank . Though the bank was bombed, burned and flooded during the 2003 invasion of Iraq the treasure reportedly was undamaged.

Neo-Babylonian Art

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Ishtar Gate
Neo-Babylonian buildings were decorated with with images of animals and creatures endowed with magical qualities: stout bulls, long-neck dragons and creatures composed of body parts of different animals. A mythical creature depicted with tiles on the Ishtar gate in Babylon from the Period of Nebuchadnezzar featured the head of a gazelle, the body of a lion, the tail of a snake. These images contrasted markedly from with the militaristic friezes of the Assyrians.

The Assyrians and the Neo-Babylonians were adept at making bricks and tiles with wonderful multi-colored glazes and decorations. The most famous works of Neo-Babylonian art is perhaps the Ishtar Gate.

The Relief of Lion (c. 585 B.C.) formed part of a processional way for the kings of Babylon. The lion represents the goddess Ishtar. The brilliance of the decorations symbolized power. The gate was named after the goddess and was a part of the procession way.

The magnificent Processional Way and Ishtar Gate from Babylon now lies Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, Germany. Built during the reign of Nebuchadnezar II, it taken piece by piece from Iraq between 1899 and World War II, rebuilt inside the museum. The magnificent crenelated walls of the gate and walkway are made of blue, gold and red tiled bricks and features rows and walking bulls, lions, dragons and long-necked dogs. Most of the bricks were made in Germany but the animals were pieces from original Babylonian bricks. A cuneiform inscription read, "Nebuchadnezzer, King of Babylon, the pious prince.

Treasures from the Neo-Babylonian Age from the Iraq National Museum include the world’s oldest intact library---800 neo-Babylonian cuneiform clay tablets, dated to around 550 B.C., which contain early references to the Noah flood story; and tablets with Hammurabi’s Legal Code.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Mesopotamia sourcebooks.fordham.edu , National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, BBC, Encyclopædia Britannica, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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