MESOPOTAMIAN ART AND CULTURE

MESOPOTAMIAN CULTURE


art from the Kassite period

On Mesopotamian culture, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Joan Aruz told Smithsonian magazine: “People think that a culture dating from the third millennium B.C. must be primitive, which is emphatically not the case. It was a very elite society with sophisticated music, art and literature.”

Sumerian literature consisted of long epics about gods and heros and well as poems and songs about love and drinking sung by minstrels. There were also disputations, essays and lots and lots of proverbs. The earliest known Sumerian literature, dating to around 2400 B.C., is a myth about the storm god Enlil, the main Sumerian deity, and his sister Ninhursag. Sumerians were writing poetry by 2300 B.C.

The Assyrians established the world’s first great library. Two songs written by King Sargon’s sister are recorded on a cuneiform tablet. These are the earliest known works written by a woman.

Books: Aruz, Joan, with Ronald Wallenfels, eds. Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Frankfort, Henri. The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954. Aruz, Joan, Kim Benzel, and Jean M. Evans. Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C.. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009. Benzel, Kim, Sarah B. Graff, Yelena Rakic, and Edith W. Watts. Art of the Ancient Near East: A Resource for Educators. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2010. Hodder, Ian. The Leopard's Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of çatalhöyük. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006. Winter, Irene J. "Representing Abundance: The Visual Dimension of the Agrarian State." In Settlement and Society: Essays Dedicated to Robert McCormick Adams, edited by Elizabeth C. Stone, pp. 117–38. Los Angeles: Costen Institute, 2006.

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

Religion and Culture in Mesopotamia

20120208-Ishtar_vase_Louvre.jpg
Ishtar vase
Morris Jastrow said: “The architecture of both temple and palace is massive and, in consequence of the lack of a hard building-material in the Euphrates Valley, it is perhaps natural that the brick constructions developed in the direction of hugeness rather than of beauty. The drawings on limestone votive tablets and on other material during this early period are generally crude. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“More skill is displayed in incisures on seal cylinders of various kinds of material, bone, shell, quartz, chalcedony, lapis-lazuli, hematite, marble, and agate. Though serving the purely secular purpose of identifying an individual’s personal signature to a business document—written on clay as the usual writing-material—these cylinders incidentally illustrate the bond between culture and religion by their engraved designs, which are invariably of a religious character, —such as the adoration of deities, sacrificial scenes, or representations of myths or mythical personages. Though marred frequently by grotesqueness, the metal work—in copper, bronze, or silver—is on the whole of a relatively high order, particularly in the portrayal of animals. The human face remains, however, without expression, even where, as in the case of statues chiselled out of the hard diorite, imported from Arabia, the features are carefully worked out. <>

“This close relationship between religion and culture, in its various aspects—political, social, economic, and artistic,—is thus the distinguishing mark of the early history of the Euphrates Valley that leaves its impress upon subsequent ages. Intellectual life centres around religious beliefs, both those of popular origin and those developed in schools attached to the temples, in which, as we shall see, speculations of a more theoretical character were unfolded in amplification of popular beliefs.” <>

Mesopotamian Art


Images on a cylinder seal

Mesopotamian art includes incised ivory plaques, tissue-thin gold jewelry, cylinder seals with detailed and infinitesimally small inscriptions, and some of the earliest examples of portraiture. Many artworks feature gold, silver and lapis-lazuli. Some objects contain Egyptian blue, an artificial material intended to simulate lapis lazuli. Alabaster was a valuable commodity. It was used for figurines and vases.

Interesting Mesopotamian artworks include tile inlays on the soundbox of a harp which contains a man hugging two bulls with human heads; gilded bulls with long beards ; a wolf and a lion carrying wine and food to a banquet; a donkey entertaining a bear on the harp; and a scorpion man and goat dancing while drinking, what looks like, Mesopotamian beer. [Source: History of Art by H.W. Janson, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.]

Bulls are a recurrent them in Mesopotamian art. They appear in Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian art as symbols of strength and masculinity and are associated with thunder and heavens. In the Bible, bulls and calves were singled out as pagan objects of worship that particularly angered God. In Mesopotamian art rams, ibexes, goats and lions appear as male figures sacred to God. Lions were symbols of gods and kings. Blue is a symbol of water and life.

Small statues of deities were common. Important deities like the vegetable god and fertility goddess could usually be distinguished by the huge hollow sockets that once contained gems stones. Less important deities had smaller but complete eyes.

Early Works of Mesopotamian Art

Early female figures from Anatolia, dated at 5000 B.C., were carved on black stone. Regarded as fertility symbols, they had full breasts, rounded bellies, triangular pubic areas and enormous butts. Later female images, such as bronze image of Ishtat (the goddess of love) looked more like Barbie dolls. They had thin waists and wore various pieces of jewelry. [Source: Rita Reif, New York Times, December 4, 1994]

Images of the Gods themselves are rare. Idols were more common. A 5000-year-old marble idol from Anatolia has a circular body, filled with eye balls and ropes, and pair of triangular heads on a long neck.


from the pre-Sumerian Ubaid period

Treasures from the Pre-Sumerian Age at the Iraq National Museum include perhaps the world’s oldest calendar, a 10,000-year-old pebble with 12 notches on it; 10,000-year-old sickles used by the world’s first farmers; the Shandihar skull, a 50,000-year-old Neanderthal skull; 50,000-year-old Neanderthal flint tools found in Shanidar cave; a lizard-face terra-cotta male effigy from the Ubaid culture, dated to 4000 B.C., found in graves at Ur and Eridu; an Ubaid baked clay boat model, dated at 4500 B.C.; found in a grave in Eridu.

"Mesopotamia: In the First Days," an exhibition at the Frederick Schultz Ancient Art gallery in New York in 1994 and 1995 featured 40 idols, vessels and reliefs spanning the period from 6000 to 600 B.C. with several Sumerian objects, including a headless alabaster figure of a worshiper boldly lettered with his name, Lugalankida, and a limestone bowl carved in high relief with a procession of bulls.

Rita Reif wrote in the New York Times, “Indeed, bulls are a recurrent image in this show and in this culture. Eight objects emblazoned with one or more bulls illustrate the dynamic animal style as it evolved from naturalistic to sparely modeled images. The bulls and other creatures -- rams, ibexes, lions -- are powerful male figures depicted as sacred to the gods, although not gods themselves. The most elegant example is an ancient Anatolian bronze bull from modern-day Turkey with a tapered lean head, rounded flanks and one surviving horn, curled with exquisite grace. [Source: Rita Reif, New York Times, December 4, 1994]

“Female figures also have a long history in Mesopotamian art. An imposing Anatolian statuette, carved from black stone before 5000 B.C., is a voluptuous study. The full breasts, rounded belly and enormous buttocks are chiseled as a Cubist artist might: the abdomen is conical, the legs cylindrical and the pubic area triangular. Later images of women concentrated less on fertility and sexuality and more on material enhancements. A cast-bronze, wasp-waisted Ishtar, the goddess of love and fertility, looks almost Barbie-like. Made about 1500 B.C., the figure is embellished with a dog-collar necklace, a pair of bracelets and a ropelike belt.

While more difficult to decipher, ritual objects from Mesopotamia are as appealing. One idol looks like Siamese twins from "Alice in Wonderland": a limestone-encrusted white marble figure of two triangular heads, with four staring eyes, atop long necks on a circular body engraved with circles. A more haunting image called an eye idol is not an idol at all but a bell-shaped amulet, found in Syria, that was used to ward off the evil eye. Carved from alabaster with perky open loops that resemble Mickey Mouse ears, its minimal form and austere surface resonate with mystery.

While the exact purpose of an alabaster jar from Syria is also unknown, its finely rendered short neck, pointed base and sweeping sides qualify it as a temple object. Though the stone is worn in patches, it is a glorious eggshell white. "When you put it in the sun, it gleams," Mr. Schultz said.

Prized Mesopotamia pieces held by the Louvre include the great limestone "Victory Stele of Naram-Sin," created in the third millennium B.C. near present-day Baghdad. It depicts a king crushing the bodies of his enemies underfoot as he strides up a mountain beneath wheel-shaped stars. The image is one of the oldest known of a conquering monarch, and its naturalistic carving, monumental size and fine state of preservation make it virtually unique. The show's Assyrian fragment, a gypsum piece from the eighth century B.C., depicts two muscular warriors with strong Semitic features, curled beards and pointed helmets. "They look tough and strong enough to win," Mr. Schultz said.

See Archaeology in Ur

Art from the Third Millennium B.C.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The roots of our own urban civilization lie in the remarkable developments that took place in the third millennium B.C. This was a time of astonishing creativity as city-states and empires emerged in a vast area stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley. Although remote in time and place, this urban revolution, first represented by the formation of cities in southern Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), must be looked upon as one of humanity's defining moments. These complex centers of civilization, such as the city of Uruk, which arose toward the end of the fourth millennium B.C. in the fertile plains bordered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, stimulated great inventions, such as writing, and witnessed a flowering of artistic expression. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Art of the First Cities in the Third Millennium B.C.", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, metmuseum.org \^/]

“Much of this art demonstrated devotion to the gods and celebrated the power of kings. The growth of cities and powerful ruling families led to a demand for luxury items. These were fashioned from materials obtained largely from abroad and were destined for temples and tombs such as the famous Royal Graves at Ur (ca. 2500 B.C.). Partly as a result of these advances in Mesopotamia, other major civilizations developed along the great maritime and land routes that connected them to one another. “People think that a culture dating from the third millennium B.C. must be primitive, which is emphatically not the case,” Metropolitan curator Joan Aruz told Smithsonian magazine. “It was a very elite society with sophisticated music, art and literature.” \^/


from the pre-Ubaid Halaf period

“The basic characteristics of the artistic style that came to define the art of the Near East were already established by the third millennium B.C. in Mesopotamia. One of the primary aims of Mesopotamian art was to capture the relationship between the terrestrial and divine realms. Styles and iconography were transmitted to sites such as Mari and Ebla in northern Syria as well as to Iran and as far as Arabia, Greece, Pakistan, the Gulf states and the Caucasus. “What intrigued me most was the chance to demonstrate the extensive trading network that developed to bring both raw materials and finished luxury goods to the royal courts of Mesopotamia and other sites,” says Aruz.

“In contrast to the arts of Mesopotamia, those of Egypt glorified the king as the embodiment of divine power, and it remains difficult to assess what, if any, contribution Egyptian art made to Mesopotamian artistic style. However, there were links with the cultures of the Mediterranean littoral: sites such as Troy, where the fabled "Treasure of Priam" was uncovered by Heinrich Schliemann, reflect artistic connections that extended through central Anatolia and northern Syria. In the east, the distant Indus Valley region also interacted with the Near East in the third millennium B.C., maintaining merchant enclaves in Central Asia and perhaps in Mesopotamia itself. Yet this civilization was also quite different from that of Mesopotamia. the intervening regions of eastern Iran and western Central Asia, the arts reflect a vast and diversified tapestry of peoples and languages organized in independent polities but culturally unified through trade. \^/

“Thus the art of the third millennium B.C. reflects not only the extraordinary developments in the cities of the Near Eastern heartland but also their interaction with contemporary civilizations to the east and west. This was a seminal period in the history of humanity and by exploring it we gain perspectives not only about the major artistic and cultural achievements of ancient Mesopotamia but also about the enduring legacy of the earliest of urban civilizations.” \^/

Mesopotamian Masterpieces from the Third Millennium B.C.


Akkadian victory stele

In 2003 Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted an exhibition called “Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus”, which contained 400 works from 51 museums and private collections in the United States and 15 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Richard Covington wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “The Metropolitan exhibition opens with a limestone statue of a full-bearded “priest king” believed to be from 3300-3000 B.C. Uruk, a city of some 40,000 inhabitants that was home to the legendary epic hero Gilgamesh. Located 150 miles south of present-day Baghdad, Uruk was once filled with lush gardens, man-made canals and sprawling mud-brick temples. [Source: Richard Covington, Smithsonian Magazine, August 2003 ^^^]

“Subsequent galleries present gold and lapis lazuli jewelry and statuary from the royal cemetery at Ur, which was excavated from 1922 to 1934 by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley. (The city-state of Ur emerged as an important center of commerce and Sumerian culture circa 2700 B.C.) The prize piece is the Standard of Ur, a trapezoidal box, 18-1/2 inches long by 8 inches high, that depicts battle and banquet scenes in elaborately detailed mosaics composed of shell and lapis lazuli inlay. Because it was found beside the skeleton of a man, Woolley speculated that the box, which dates from the late phase of the Early Dynastic period (circa 2550-2400 B.C.), was carried like a banner, or standard. Other pieces from Ur’s royal tombs include the ornate hammered gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian headdress (opposite) of an Early Dynastic queen named Puabi and a lyre adorned with the golden head of a mythic horned bull sprouting a florid beard of lapis curls. ^^^

“Numerous cuneiform tablets relate tales, such as that of the great flood, that may have inspired stories that appear in the Old Testament. Other myths are represented on inch-high cylinder seals that deliver a visual impact way beyond their size. Relief carvings and elaborate inlay portray ordinary people, kings and, in some instances, the gods and goddesses that were believed to control every aspect of life. In the Mesopotamian world, the gods owned the cities, and humans did their bidding at the behest of kings. ^^^

“One gallery is devoted to the world’s first empire, the Akkadian dynasty, which united Ur, Mari and other cities and flourished from 2300 to 2159 B.C., until it collapsed back into independent city-states. Cylindrical stone seals picture deities in horned headdresses engaged in battle. A mold, perhaps used in the making of a shield, depicts a deified ruler and the goddess Ishtar, invoked in matters of war, love and fertility, along with vanquished prisoners proffering plates of fruit. ^^^

“Nearly half the pieces in the exhibition illustrate the aesthetic and cultural interchanges among the first cities. The artifacts are presented in a sweeping display, arranged in geographic progression from west to east. Elaborate gold earrings, hairpins and beaded necklaces from Troy resemble aspects of jewelry found in Greece, central Turkey, Mesopotamia and the IndusValley. Arustic banquet scene incised on a silver cup by a master craftsman from western central Asia echoes the banquet depicted on the Standard of Ur...A single carnelian bead, delicately etched with white circles, which was found on the Greek island of Aigina near Athens, 2,500 miles from its origin in the IndusValley, provides dramatic evidence of a trading network that linked the Aegean Sea to the IndusValley. “It was a shock to find it that far west,” says Aruz. “Until now, the beads had never turned up west of the royal tombs of Ur. In another surprise, a three-foot-high figure of a nude man carved around 2500 B.C. on the island of Tarut, in the Arabian Gulf near Bahrain, bears a marked similarity to figures found 600 miles north at Khafajah, near today’s Baghdad—an indication of the wide-ranging impact of Mesopotamian sculpture.”

“The final galleries are devoted to Lagash—an independent city-state in southeastern Iraq that re-emerged after the fall of the Akkadian empire in 2159 B.C.—and to the Third Dynasty of Ur, which conquered Lagash and other cities around 2080 B.C. Gudea, a pious leader and temple builder who ruled Lagash shortly before its fall, is memorialized as an architect to the gods in a life-size black diorite statue. Nearby, a naturalistically carved gypsum head (circa 2097-1989 B.C.) of an unknown ruler, with its furrowed brow, sunken cheeks and startling eyes, appears to gaze far into the future, evoking an eerily psychological portrait that foreshadows classical Greek sculpture.

Gods in Mesopotamian Art

On the image “Conflict of Marduk with the Monster Tiamat,” on an alabaster slab found in the palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud, Morris Jastrow said, represents “the conflict of a storm god against a monster symbolical of primaeval chaos. The god armed with the lightning fork in each hand is clearly a storm god such as Enlil, the chief god of Nippur (see p. 68), originally was. It was he to whom, as the head of the older pantheon, the conquest of Tiamat and the subsequent creation of the world were ascribed. With the transfer of the headship of the pantheon to Marduk, this solar deity takes on the attributes of Enlil. The subjection of the winged monster is ascribed to Marduk, and is represented in a large variety of forms on seal cylinders of the earlier and later periods. The horned dragon (see Pl. 30), from being the symbol of Enlil, by the same process of transfer becomes the animal of Marduk, and subsequently of Ashur as the head of the Assyrian pantheon [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]


Ashur

The “Stone tablet of Nebopaliddin, King of Babylonia (c . 880 B.C.), representing Shamash, the sun-god of Sippar, seated in his shrine with the king (second figure) led into the god’s presence by a priest, and followed by A, the consort of Shamash—the goddess interceding, as it were, on behalf of the king. Found by Rassam at Sippar. A clay model representing the Cult of the Sun-god in all probabilities it illustrates a ceremony of sun worship— perhaps the greeting of the sun-god at sunrise. Found at Susa and now in the Louvre.

A good example of a procession of gods is a “Rock-relief at Malatia in the Anti-Taurus range, showing seven deities mounted on animals that represent their symbols. The head of the procession is formed by Ashur on two animals one of which is the Dragon—transferred to him from Enlil and Marduk—followed by his consort Ishtar of Nineveh on the lion, Sin the moon-god on the winged bull, Enlil (or Marduk) on the Dragon, the horn of which is worn away, Shamash on a horse with trappings, Adad on a winged bull and holding the lightning fork in his hand, and lastly another Ishtar on a lion—presumably the Ishtar of Arbela, though the Ishtar of Babylon is also possible. For another procession of gods see the alabaster slab found at Nimroud . <>

Symbols of Ashur, the Chief God of Assyria: The three smaller symbols are frequently found on seal cylinders and on Assyrian monuments—the symbol being generally placed above the head of the king. The central one of the three is the purer and more genuine symbol of Ashur as a solar deity—a sun disc with protruding rays. To this symbol, the warrior with the bow and arrow w as added—a despiritualisation that reflects the martial spirit of the Assyrian empire. The larger figure which appears to be the top of an Assyrian standard, carried along on the military expeditions and borne into the midst of the fray to symbolise the presence of Ashur as the protector of the Assyrian army, shows the sun’s rays, and bulls as symbols of the sun-god, while the circle within which these symbols and the full-length picture of the warrior are placed takes the place of the disc. Found at Khorsa-bad.

Images of the Goddess Ishtar include: 1) Ishtar as the goddess of war:. Stele of Anu-banini, King of Lulubu representing himself in front of the goddess Inninna (or Ishtar) and erected in commemoration of his victories in the mountain of Batir (Zagros range). It is carved on a rock in the district of Zohab between Hassanabad and Ser-i-Pul. 2) Ishtar, the Mother-goddess: Terra-cotta figurine found at Telloh and now in the Louvre, representing the naked goddess with a child in her arms. A similar figure was found at Babylon. 3) Ishtar, the Goddess of Love: Naked figure with accentuation of the female parts. Terracotta figurine. Exact provenance in Mesopotamia unknown. Now in the Louvre. The naked goddess appears frequently on seal cylinders.

Demons in Mesopotamian Art


emon Pazuzu

In “Exorcising Demons of Disease,” a bronze tablet in the de Clercq collection in Paris, Morris Jastrow wrote: The “figure at the top is a typical demon. In the uppermost row are the symbols of the gods similar to those found on Boundary Stones. Those here depicted are Anu (shrine with tiara), Ea (mace with ram’s head), Adad (lightning fork), Marduk (spear-head), Nebo (double staff), Ishtar (eight-pointed star), Shamash (sun disc), Sin (crescent), Sibitti (seven circles). The second row shows the group of seven demons so frequently referred to in the incantation texts . In the third row, the exorcising ceremonial is depicted. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“The afflicted sufferer lies on a bed, at either end of which stands an officiating exorciser, clad in a fish robe as the priest of Ea, the god of the waters, who with Girru or Nusku, the god of fire, plays a chief part in the incantation ritual. The demon behind the fish-priest to the right seems to be warding off the two other demons, while behind the other fish-priest is an altar with a lamp—the symbol of Nusku, the fire-god. In the third compartment are various objects: two jars, a bowl, a water bag, and articles of food—intended probably as offerings to the demons. <>

“In the centre is the demon Labartu holding a serpent in each hand, a swine at each breast, and resting with one knee on an ass—the symbol of Labartu. The ass is lying on a ship, the water being indicated by swimming fishes. Lastly, to the left of Labartu is another demon in a threatening attitude with a whip in his upraised hand—perhaps a protecting demon, driving off the cruel Labartu, who sails away in her ship. The reverse shows the back of the demon looking over the head of the tablet. Other tablets of this nature—in bronze or stone— have been found, showing more or less significant variations. Up to the present eight such specimens are known.” <>

Animals in Mesopotamian Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The art of the ancient Near East includes some of the most vivid images of animals to be found anywhere. Interactions with animals shaped the world of the ancient people of the Near East: they shepherded flocks, guarded against dangerous wild animals, traveled long distances with the help of pack animals, hunted for subsistence and for sport, rode horses into battle, and marveled at powerful beasts and exotic creatures from distant lands. Images of animals took many forms, including painted pottery and clay sculptures, carved stone, and sculpture in precious metal. These images frequently appeared within compositions that evoked divinity, kingship, and the fertility of the natural world.[Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Animals in Ancient Near Eastern Art", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2014, metmuseum.org \^/]


Ram in a thicket

“From earliest times, animals were represented in the art of the ancient Near East (1984.175.13; 1984.175.15). Sculptures from the Uruk period show that artists were carefully attuned to the anatomy of domesticated and wild animals (1981.53). During the late fourth to early third millennium B.C. in Elam (southwestern Iran), craftspeople created remarkable depictions of animals behaving like humans—a theme that may have related to early myths or fables, now lost (66.173). Both naturalistic and abstracted animal portrayals are found throughout the history of the ancient Near East (1978.58), and the selection of a stylized or exaggerated form is best understood as the craftperson's wish to emphasize a particular desirable or representative quality of the animal (59.52). \^/

“Ritual observance, whether in the mode of a sacrifice, a ceremonial hunt, or in the decoration of sacred objects, was deeply connected with the animal world. Animals common to the diet of ancient Near Eastern peoples were sacrificed to the gods as daily meals. Exquisitely crafted temple equipment often included images of animals. Luxurious vessels in ceramic, stone, or metal in the form of animals or animal heads that often took the form of rhytons were especially favored as gifts for the gods (1979.447; 54.3.3). According to texts from the Hittite capital dating to the mid-second millennium B.C., these vessels were used by elite worshippers in rituals (1989.281.10). \^/

“Fierce animals, such as bulls and lions, as well as hawks, stags, and other powerful beasts, could be linked with certain gods whose qualities they shared (49.71.2): the storm god Adad was linked to the bull in part because of the similarity between the rumble of thunder and the roar of a mighty bull. Horned headdresses were markers of divinity in the ancient Near East (a greater number of horns corresponded to a higher status in the world of the gods). However, the gods of the ancient Near East did not commonly appear with animal features. Occasionally, gods appeared with wings and other birdlike elements, but they remained recognizably human. Thus a depiction of a bull, for example, would be understood to refer to the storm god's presence and powers, rather than to represent the god himself in animal form.” \^/

Animals as Symbols of Fertility, Sex and Power in Mesopotamian Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Animal imagery was used to express the importance of reproduction and the fertility of the natural world. Animals are shown either nursing their young or feeding from vigorously sprouting plants. Pairs of male and female animals allude to fertility through sexual reproduction. Depictions of particular animals appearing to infinitely repeat on bowls or cylinder seals may have been meant to evoke the desire for abundance and agricultural productivity (50.218). [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Animals in Ancient Near Eastern Art", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2014, metmuseum.org \^/]

“Animal imagery was regularly used to express authority. Imitation through adornment or rhetoric allowed the power of an animal to be appropriated. Animal masks or skins may have facilitated spiritual ascent and may have been thought to enhance a hero or demon's power (2007.280). Metaphors for kingship often relied upon the animal world. Kings described themselves as lions, having taken on the mantle of the animal's power by defeating it in combat. The Neo-Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal, in his Standard Inscription, refers to himself as ekdu, "fierce," a word that is often used to describe the might of strong bulls. By contrast, the subjects of a ruler were often imagined as domesticated flocks, with kings referring to themselves as shepherds. \^/

“Control of the natural world, as expressed by fierce animals, was a key aspect of the iconography of kingship. Hunting was one way in which control over the natural world was demonstrated (41.160.192). The royal hunt, in which the king could appear alone, mounted, or in a horse- or donkey-drawn chariot while shooting swiftly running animals with arrows, defined the ruler's attributes of strength, skill, and mastery of the natural world (43.135.2). Lion hunts were specifically restricted to royalty, and the motif of the lion hunt is among the earliest imagery affiliated with leadership. Even into the Sasanian period, the royal hunt motif was maintained (1994.402). Rulers could also demonstrate the vast reach of their domains by collecting rare and exotic animals from distant lands. According to cuneiform texts, Assyrian kings set up royal parks, similar to private zoos. Here they not only gathered elephants, lions, apes, and other animals but also planted lush gardens with non-native flora such as grapevines and date palms. Territories subject to Assyrian rule were required to offer the riches of their lands, including both animal products and the living creatures themselves, to the Assyrian kings as tribute (60.145.11). Ivory became increasingly popular during the second half of the second millennium B.C., and large quantities of ivory sculpture were found in the Neo-Assyrian palaces. Although the collection and representation of wild animals in the first millennium B.C. served different purposes than the early Neolithic installations, the essential role of animals in efforts to grasp, control, and represent the earthly and supernatural worlds speaks to the power of animal imagery in the ancient Near East.” \^/

Robert Graves and Raphael Pitai wrote in “Hebrew Myths”: “The tradition that man's first sexual intercourse was with animals, not women, may be due to the widely spread practice of bestiality among the herdsmen of the Middle East, which is still condoned by custom, although figuring three times in the Pentateuch as a capital crime. In the Akkadian Gilgamesh Epic, Enkidu is said to have lived with gazelles and jostled other wild beasts at the watering place, “


Assyrian lion hunt


Wild Animals in Mesopotamian Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Interest in wild animals, and particularly in features like horns, wings, and claws that were considered especially dangerous or powerful (47.100.88; 17.190.2055), is characteristic of ancient Near Eastern art of all periods, dating back at least to the Neolithic period. At the site of Göbekli Tepe, stone pillars were carved in relief with images of animals such as vultures and foxes, while at Çatal Höyük, plaster installations of animal teeth and horns and wall paintings of animals, including one of an enormous bull, were found in domestic spaces. Contrary to what we might expect of the peoples who first domesticated many animals and plants, it is not the inner controlled and domesticated world that they chose to represent but the outer, wild world. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Animals in Ancient Near Eastern Art", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2014, metmuseum.org \^/]

During the Uruk period, the lion and bull became especially prominent in the art of the ancient Near East and first began to be used in images expressing the power of rulers. Images of lions were also used in protective contexts, and were set up in pairs to guard passageways into royal and ritual spaces (31.13.2; 48.180). Conflict between two or more powerful creatures is a recurring theme in ancient Near Eastern art (17.190.1672). Fierce animals shown locked in combat were perhaps meant to embody strong opposing forces in nature.”

The lions of Babylon were among a large number of “figures that were placed as decorations in the Via Sacra of Babylon, leading to E-Sagila the temple of Marduk, and along which on the New Year’s festival (and no doubt on other festive occasions) the gods were carried in procession. The lions—as symbols of Marduk—faced to the north, and lined the walls of both sides of the street which, built by Nebuchadnezzar II. (604-561 B.C.), rose high above the houses of the city. The name given to the street Ai-ibur-shabu signified “may the oppressor not wax strong”; it was paved with large blocks of limestone and volcanic breccia, containing inscriptions commemorating the work of Nebuchadnezzar in honour of Marduk. As specimens of art, these glazed tiles, brilliantly coloured—blue and yellow predominating—are of special interest in enabling us to trace the splendid achievements of the Achaemenian Kings at Susa (see Perrot and Chipiez, History of Art in Persia, pp. 136161) direct to their Babylonian and Assyrian prototypes. For similar glazed tiles on Assyrian edifices see Layard, Monuments of Nineveh, i., 84-87; Botta et Flandin, Monument de Ninive, ii., PI. 155-156 and the restorations in Place, Ninive et VAssyrie, PI. 14 - 17 ; 27-31 (Khorsabad). <>

“King Ashurbanapal in Lion Hunt and pouring Libations over Four Lions killed in the Hunt” on an alabaster slab “is one of a large series illustrative of the royal sport in Assyria—hunting lions, wild horses, gazelles, and other animals...Ashurbanapal with his attendants behind him is pouring a libation over four lions killed in the hunt. An altar is in the centre, and a pole or tree such as is often seen on the seal cylinders when sacrificial scenes are portrayed. The musicians to the left precede the attendants carrying a dead lion on their backs...These slabs formed the decoration of portions of the walls in the large halls of the palace of Ashurbanapal at Kouyunjik (Nineveh). They were found by Layard and are now one of the great attractions of the British Museum. As specimens of the art of Assyria they are of deep interest, but no less as illustrations of life and manners, supplemented by the equally extensive series of slabs which illustrate the campaigns waged by this king. Similar martial designs in the palace of Sargon at Khorsabad illustrating his campaigns.



Domesticated Animals in Mesopotamian Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Many animals, including dogs, sheep, goats, donkeys, pigs, and cats, were first domesticated in the Near East. (In contrast to modern perceptions about the Middle East, camels were not common in the ancient Near East until the first centuries A.D., when camel caravans traveled the long-distance trade routes that were the forerunners of the Silk Road.) Amulets and foundation deposits show that images of domestic animals could be thought to have protective functions. Portrayals of domesticated animals were also used to communicate ideas about fertility and to enhance ritual activities. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Animals in Ancient Near Eastern Art", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 2014, metmuseum.org \^/]

“The horse was an animal of paramount importance. Memory of the mountainous origins of horses is reflected by references to these animals in Mesopotamian texts of the third millennium B.C. as the "donkeys of the mountains." After 2000 B.C., horses entered the Near East in large numbers, most likely from areas to the east and north. Horses became the premier animal of transportation and warfare, as well as symbols of royalty (1976.5). A defining moment in the history of the horse came with the invention of the war chariot in the seventeenth century B.C. The war chariot conferred an enormous advantage in the primarily infantry-based warfare of the ancient world. It is clear from the Amarna Letters that horses and chariots were among the most prized commodities in the elaborate system of royal gift exchange among the great powers of the late Bronze Age.” \^/

Mythical Animals in Mesopotamian Art

Mythical animals found on slabs at the Northwest Palace of Nimrud as well as at Khorsabad and Kouyunjik include kneeling winged figures, standing winged figures with human faces, eagle-headed figures, kings with the winged figures. As ornaments on robes you can find winged bulls, winged horses, ostriches, winged sphinxes and other creatures.

S. Dalley wrote in “Myths from Mesopotamia”: “Mythological animals include a composite bull-elephant. Some seals suggest influence from or at least traits held in common with Mesopotamia; among these are the Gilgamesh (Mesopotamian epic) motif of a man grappling with a pair of tigers and the bull-man Enkidu (a human with horns, tail, and rear hooves of a bull). Among the most interesting of the seals are those that depict cult scenes or symbols; a god, seated in a yogic (meditative) posture and surrounded by beasts, with a horned headdress and erect phallus; the tree spirit with a tiger standing before it; the horned tree spirit confronted by a worshiper; a composite beast with a line of seven figures standing before it; the pipal leaf motif; and the swastika (a symbol still widely used by Hindus, Jainas, and Buddhists). [Source: S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 52-56, 138-39, piney.com]

The Dragon of Babylon — “composite monster with a horned serpent’s head, the scaled body, the front legs of a lion and the hind legs of an eagle — belongs to the same category of ideas that produced the human headed bulls and lions, the winged human figures, and the eagle-headed winged figures resting, probably, upon primitive notions of hybrid beings that were supposed to precede the more regular forms of animal creation. It was natural, therefore, that such monsters should become on the one hand the symbols of gods, and on the other hand be chosen as the representations of the inferior order of gods—the demons or spirits—here serving as protectors of temples and palaces and as guardians of the tree of life A picture of Marduk shows the dragon as the symbol of this god, though probably transferred to him from Enlil. <>

“The dragon together with the unicorn (or wild ox) and ornamented friezes formed the exterior decoration of the walls of the magnificent gate of Ishtar, excavated by the German expedition at Babylon, and that formed the approach to the sacred area of Marduk’s temple. It is estimated that these walls had no less than thirteen rows of alternating dragons and bulls superimposed one upon the other, together with ornamented friezes which were likewise glazed tiles. Repeated at regular interstices, we would thus obtain a pattern furnishing many hundreds of these animal designs. It is such designs that the prophet Ezekiel in his vision (Chap. viii., 10) sees “portrayed on the wall” of the temple at Jerusalem.” <>


Shedu from Assyria


Winged Figures in Mesopotamian Art

“Kneeling Winged Figures before the Sacred Tree”is on an alabaster slab found in the North-West Palace at Nimroud and made during the reign of Ashumasirpal (883-859 B.C.). , Morris Jastrow wrote: “The sacred tree or the tree of life, as it should perhaps be called, is frequently portrayed on Assyrian seal cylinders in all manner of variations. Though found also on Babylonian specimens its earliest occurrence, indeed, being on a boundary stone as a decoration of the garment of a Babylonian ruler, Marduk-nadinakhe, it is a distinctive characteristic on Assyrian monuments. The tree intended is clearly the palm, though it becomes conventionalised to such a degree as to lose almost all the traits of that species. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“Winged figures preferably carry a cone in one hand and a basket in the other, or a branch in one hand and a basket in the other. On the seal cylinders the variations are even more numerous. Instead of winged figures, we find bulls or lions with birds and scorpions to either side of the tree, or the winged figures stand on sphinxes, or human headed bulls take the place of the winged figures; and more the like. It is evident that the scene is in all cases an adoration of the tree. In a purer form this adoration appears on seal cylinders like No. 687 in Ward, Cylinders of Western Asia (p. 226), where we find two priests clad in fish robes —as attendants of Ea—with a worshipper behind one of the priests; on No. 688 with only one priest and a worshipper to either side; or No. 680, the goddess Ishtar on one side of the tree, and a god—perhaps Adad—on the other side with a worshipper behind the latter; or still simpler on No. 689 where there is only one priest and a worshipper to either side of the tree. <>

“The winged figures in such various forms represent, as do also the sphinxes, protecting powers of a lower order than the gods, but who like Ishtar and Adad in the specimen just referred to are the guardians of the sacred tree, with which the same ideas were associated by the Babylonians and Assyrians as with the tree of life in the famous chapter of Genesis, or as with trees of life found among many other peoples. The cones which the winged figures beside the tree hold indicate the fruit of the tree, plucked for the benefit of the worshippers by these guardians who alone may do so. A trace of this view appears in the injunction to Adam and Eve (Genesis ii.) to eat of the fruit of all the trees except the one which, being the tree of knowledge, was not for mortal man to pluck—as little as the fruit of the “Tree of Life.” <>

On a “Winged Figure with Palm Branch and Spotted Deer” at the features a winged figure carrying a branch of the palm tree and an ibex, Other images contain a winged figure with basket and branch and a winged figure with cone and basket like on the representation of the tree of life. Jastrow wrote: “The palm branch symbolises the tree of life which has been plucked for the benefit of the king to whom the branch and therefore the blessings of life are thus offered. The deer as well as the ibex is a sacrificial animal, and symbolises the gift offered by the royal worshippers in return, and received on behalf of the god by the winged figure acting as mediator or priest. Attached to the figure (alabaster slab) is the so-called standard inscription of Ashurnasirpal, King of Assyria (883-859 B.C.) in whose palace (N.-W. Palace of Nimroud) at Calah it was found. Now in the British Museum.” <>


Imdugud grapsing a pair of deer from Tell al-Ubaid


Early Mesopotamian Sculpture, 2900–2350 B.C.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “During the so-called Early Dynastic period (ca. 2900–2350 B.C.), life in the cities of Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) was focused on the gods, who were believed to dwell in specially constructed temples. However, judging from the few excavated examples, these buildings appear not to have been congregational in nature. Access to the small central shrines was probably limited, most likely to the priests who served the god's needs. It was perhaps due to this lack of access that the elite commissioned images of themselves to be carried into the god's presence. These statues embodied the very essence of the worshipper so that the spirit would be present when the physical body was not. Quite how, or indeed if, the statues were presented to the god is unknown, as none have been discovered in situ but rather found buried in groups under the temple floor, or built into cultic installations such as altars, or scattered in pieces in the shrine and surrounding rooms, perhaps having been damaged when the temple was plundered or rebuilt in antiquity. Hundreds of such statues or fragments have been excavated and at no other time in the history of the ancient Near East has nonroyal sculpture survived in such abundance. [Source: Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The "Early Dynastic Sculpture, 2900–2350 B.C.", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, metmuseum.org \^/]

“The votive statues are of various sizes and usually carved in gypsum or limestone. They depict men wearing fringed or tufted fleece skirts, and women wearing fringed or tufted dresses draped over one shoulder. Many have inlaid eyes and painted hair. The statues are usually carved with the hands clasped, right over left, at the chest or waist in a gesture of attentiveness. Some figures hold cups or branches of vegetation. Standing figures often step forward with the left foot. Male heads are frequently shown bald but sometimes wear beards, while female figures can have a variety of hairstyles or headdresses. Facial characteristics offer little variation from one statue to the next. \^/

“A large number of statues were discovered in temples at the sites of Tell Asmar, Khafaje, and Tell Agrab close to the Diyala River, a major tributary of the Tigris in eastern Mesopotamia. There is a wide stylistic range in the hundreds of dedicatory statues found here. Both naturalistic and highly abstract styles exist, possibly contemporaneous in date, originating perhaps from different workshops. A long beard and side locks characterize some male figures. \^/

“One of the largest collections of sculpture was discovered at the site of Nippur in a temple dedicated to Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of abundance. The Metropolitan Museum was a sponsor of the excavations during the 1957–58 and 1960–61 seasons and was accorded a share of the finds. Along with the statues were stone bowls, plaques, and inlays that were found either as hoards or scattered throughout the building. The most spectacular finds were made in Level VII dating to the later Early Dynastic period. Some figures from Nippur have a cuneiform inscription on their back or shoulder giving the name of the god and the profession and name of the donor. \^/

“Dedicatory sculptures have been found at a number of sites throughout Mesopotamia and neighboring regions, including Susa in southwest Iran, Tell Chuera in Syria, and Ashur in northern Mesopotamia. Almost half of the approximately seventy surviving examples of inscribed sculpture come from the site of Mari in Syria, where sculpture in a distinct style was found strewn among the destruction debris of the temples of Ishtar, Ishtarat, and Ninni-zaza. The sculpture from Mari is defined by its vitality and relative naturalism, with careful modeling and accurate proportions. The male figures from Mari often wear beards elaborated by patterns such as drilled holes-a hallmark of Mari sculpture-that separate the wavy strands of the beard. Among the many statues discovered at the site are figures of seated males and females and a masterpiece of carving that represents a musician sitting cross-legged on a woven cushion and named Ur-Nanshe in the inscription on his shoulder.” \^/

Votive Tablets from Mesopotamia


Two similar votive tablets of the ruler Ur-Nina and his family have been found at Telloh. One of these is also in the Louvre; the other in a museum in Istanbul.Morris Jastrow said: “Ur-Ninâ—naked to the waist—is represented in the upper row with a workman’s basket on his head, symbolising his participation in the erection of a sacred edifice. In the accompanying inscription he records his work at the temples of Ningirsu and of Nina and other constructions within the temple area of Lagash. Behind him stands a high official—presumably a priest—with a libation cup in his hand, and before the king are five of his children. The lower row represents the king after the completion of the work pouring a libation. Behind him again the attendant, and before him four other children. The figure with the basket on the head became a common form of a votive offering (see Pl. 29) and persisted to the end of the Assyrian empire as is shown by the steles of King Ashurbanapal and his brother, Shamash-shumukin with such baskets. (See Lehmann, Shamash-shumukin, Leipzig, 1892.)[Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“A votive offering to the god Ningishzida” — made of green steatite, found at Telloh and now in the Louvre — features an “elaborately sculptured design consisting of two serpents entwined around a staff, backed by two fantastic figures, winged monsters with serpents’ heads and tails ending in a scorpion’s sting.” Copper votive Statuettes from Telloh now in the Louvre “represent female figures with hands folded across the breast, and terminating in a point which would indicate that they were to be stuck into the ground, or possibly into the walls. <>

“Votive Tablet of Ur-Enlil, Patesi of Nippur” (c 3000 B.C.) is a imestone tablet with brief votive inscription found by Haynes at Nippur and now in Istanbul. “The upper scene represents a naked worshipper who is none other than Ur-Enlil himself, offering a libation to Enlil, the chief god of Nippur. In accordance with the principle of symmetry, so frequently illustrated on the seal cylinders, the scene is given in double form. The lower section shows a goat and sheep followed by two men, one with a vessel on his head the other with a stick in his hand. The animals may represent sacrifices to be offered to the god. Another limestone tablet has been found at Nippur, likewise showing a naked worshipper—perhaps the same Ur-Enlil—before Enlil and a gazelle in the lower section. The naked worshipper—a custom of primitive days for which there are parallels in other religions—is also found on a limestone bas-relief from Telloh. <>

Copper votive offerings from Lagash, found at Telloh and now in the Louvre, include “two kneeling figures represent deities—probably in both cases Ningirsu—and bearing dedicatory inscriptions of Gudea, the Patesi of Lagash (c. 2350 B.C.) The two bulls contain dedicatory inscriptions of Gudea to the goddess Inninna for her temple E-Anna in Girsu (a section of Lagash). The two female figures with baskets on their heads, likewise bear dedicatory inscriptions. Similar figures—male and female—have been found with inscriptions of various rulers. The basket on the head is the symbol of participation in the erection of a sacred edifice, as in the case of Ur Ninâ. <>

In “Babylonian Type of Gilgamesh,” a terra-cotta inage found at Telloh and in the Louvre, “the hero who is naked holds a vase from which a jet of water streams to either side, symbolising the association of the solar hero with the sun-god, who is frequently represented with streams.

Stele and Bas-Reliefs from Mesopotamia

On a Stele of Naram-Sin, King of Agade (c. 2470 B.C.). Morris Jastrow said: “It represents the king conquering enemies in a mountainous district. The peak of the mountain is pictured as rising to the stars. Some of the king’s foes are fleeing, others are pleading for mercy. Found at Susa, whither it was presumably carried as a trophy by the Elamites in one of their incursions into Babylonia, perhaps by Shutruk-Nakhunte,' king of Elam, c. 1160 B.C. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

Bas-Relief of Naram-Sin (basalt) found in 1891 near Diarbekr, Turkey and now in a museum in Istanbul “records the victories of the king which he attributes to the aid of Ea, and pronounces curses on anyone who destroys or removes this monument of himself.” Examples of Semitic types include: “Two portraits of Hammurabi, king of Babylonia (c. 1958-1916 B.C.), a Bas-relief on a clay tablet, recording the homage of a high official Itur-Ashdum to Hammurabi and to the goddess Ashratum—a designation of the consort of the “Amorite” deity Adad. Now in the British Museum.

The Stele of E-annatum, Patesi (and King) of Lagash (c . 2900 B.C.) Is a remarkable limestone monument carved on both sides with designs and inscriptions. It was found at Telloh in badly mutilated condition but careful study of its recovered pieces reveals that it represents the conquest of the people of Umma by Eannatum, and records the solemn agreement made between Eannatum and the people of Umma. The upper piece represents vultures flying off with the heads of the slain opponents—to illustrate their dreadful fate. These dead are shown in the second figure, while in the third others who have fallen in battle are carefully arranged in groups and a burial mound is being built over them by attendants who carry the earth for the burial in baskets placed on their heads. Traces of a ceremonial offering to the dead are to be seen in another fragment. The designs on the obverse are symbolical—the chief figure being the patron deity, Ningirsu with the eagle on two lions as the emblem of the god (see Pl. 5, Fig. 1) in his hand, and the net in which the deity has caught the enemies. <>

Assyrian Stele


Apkallu from Nimrud

“Esarhaddon, King of Assyria (680-669 B.C.) with two Royal Prisoners” is an example of an Assyrian Type image: “Before the king are two royal prisoners, Tirhaka, the King of Ethiopia, and Ba’alu the King of Tyre. To emphasise his greatness in contrast to the insignificance of his enemies, the king portrays himself as of commanding stature. At the head of the stone, the emblems of the great gods of Assyria, Ashur, Sin, Shamash, Ishtar, Marduk, Nebo, Ea, Ninib, and Sibitti (seven circles), with Ashur, Ishtar of Nineveh, Enlil, and Adad standing on animals. Diorite stele found at Sendschirli in Northwestern Syria. Now in the Royal Museum of Berlin. <>

:King Ashurbanapal in Lion Hunt and pouring Libations over Four Lions killed in the Hunt” on an alabaster slab “is one of a large series illustrative of the royal sport in Assyria—hunting lions, wild horses, gazelles, and other animals...Ashurbanapal with his attendants behind him is pouring a libation over four lions killed in the hunt. An altar is in the centre, and a pole or tree such as is often seen on the seal cylinders when sacrificial scenes are portrayed. The musicians to the left precede the attendants carrying a dead lion on their backs...These slabs formed the decoration of portions of the walls in the large halls of the palace of Ashurbanapal at Kouyunjik (Nineveh). They were found by Layard and are now one of the great attractions of the British Museum. As specimens of the art of Assyria they are of deep interest, but no less as illustrations of life and manners, supplemented by the equally extensive series of slabs which illustrate the campaigns waged by this king. Similar martial designs in the palace of Sargon at Khorsabad illustrating his campaigns.

Crafts, Coffins and Liver Model from Mesopotamia

A silver vase found at Telloh, and now in the Louvre, is considered to be the finest specimen of early metal work of Babylonia. Morris Jastrow said: “The central design of a votive offering to his god Ningirsu, deposited in the temple E-Ninnu. “consists of four lion-headed eagles, of which two seize a lion with each talon, and a third eagle seizes a couple of deer and the fourth a couple of ibexes. The eagle appears to have been the symbol of Ningirsu, while the lion,—commonly associated with Ishtar—may represent Bau, the consort of Ningirsu—the Ishtar of Lagash. The combination would thus stand for the divine pair. Dr. Ward (Seal Cylinders of Western Asia, p. 34 seq.) plausibly identifies this design with the bird Im-Gig, designated in the inscriptions of Gudea as the emblem of the ruler. The same design of the lion-headed eagle seizing two lions is found on other monuments of Lagash.” [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

Early types of Babylonian coffins were bath-tube shaped. Later ones were slipper-shaped coffins. Those from the Persian period frequently have glazed covers with ornamental designs. The coffins may be regarded as typical of the mode of burying the dead in coffins in Babylonia and Assyria, though various other modes existed as well. Excavations in Nippur, Assyria and Babylonia have uncovered graves vaulted in by brick walls. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

Images of Mesopotamian Divination include: 1) Drawing of Sheep’s Liver with Latin and Babylonian Terms for Chief Part; 2) Omen School—Tablet from Ashurbanapal’s Library, showing Finger-shaped Appendix to Upper Lobe of Liver. Jastrow said: A Clay Model of Sheep’s Liver now in the British Museum is a model of a sheep’s liver, used as an object of instruction in hepatoscopy in some temple school. The chief parts of the liver are shown. The object is covered with inscriptions which give the prognostications derived from signs on the liver, each prognostication referring to some sign near the part of the liver where the words stand. The characters point to the time of Hammurabi (c. 2000 b.c) as the date of the model.” <>

Mesopotamian Seals

Mesopotamian seals are exquisitely carved and engraved cylinders of stone or metal that look like miniature rotating drums. When rolled over soft clay they leave a reverse image or a message, often in extraordinary detail. They were often used as signature much like chops used by Chinese and Japanese today and waxed seals used in medieval Europe. If ink is applied to the seals and they are rolled on a piece of paper they will print the objects or symbols on the seal.

Mesopotamia cylinder seals are made of marble, lapis lazuli, serpentine, alabaster. When a cylinder is rolled across soft clay, it leaves a raised repeating impression, making a clay frieze used to seal containers and storerooms in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago. In cities such as Ur goods were sealed for purely practical reasons with clay images of heros with curls and Shamash the sun god.

There were large seals and seal rings. Most seals were about an inch high and came in widths defined by the images on them. They were used to mark documents of property and were worn as bracelets or necklaces and were often buried with their owners when they died.

20120208-Cylinder_seal_cattle_Louvre.jpg
Cylinder seal of cattle

Seals unearthed at Mesopotamian sites have relief carvings and elaborate inlay portraits of ordinary people, kings, goats, lions, soldiers, farmers, heroes, gods and goddesses doing various things. Describing the seals at a modest exhibition of cylinder at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York in 1998, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in the New York Times, “The seals depict an utterly unfamiliar world where a nude bearded hero with six curls coexists with a bull-man, water gods and a lion-griffin. What is striking is not just the strangeness of this distant world but the clarity with which it is represented. In cylinders no taller than an inch or two, Mesopotamian artists carved images that, when fleshed out in clay, have a fullness, a torsional dimension, that allows the musculature of their hips to flex toward the viewer. A lion sinks its teeth into a bull, and doing so it reaches behind the bull's head and shows its face to the viewer, the lion's power expressed in the extremity of that arc.” [Source: Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Times, March 01, 1998]

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.

Examples of Seal Cylinders from Mesopotamia

Morris Jastrow said: “These two plates of seal cylinders—all found at Telloh—may be taken as typical of the illustrations found on these objects, which served the purpose of personal seals, used by the owners as their signatures to business documents. They were rolled over the clay tablets on which business transactions were inscribed. Presumably the cylinders were also used as amulets. (See Herodotus, Book I, § 195, who says that every Babylonian “carries a seal.”) The design in the centre of Pl. 6 represents Gilgamesh, the hero of the Babylonian Epic, attacking a bull, while another figure—presumably Enkidu (though different from the usual type)— is attacking a lion. This conflict with animals which is an episode in the Epic is very frequently portrayed on seal cylinders in a large number of variations. Another exceedingly common scene portrays a seated deity into whose presence a worshipper is being led by a priest—or before whom a worshipper directly stands—followed by a goddess, who is the consort of the deity and who acts as inter-ceder for the worshipper. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]

“On Pl. 6 there are three specimens of this scene; on Pl. 7 likewise three. An altar, tree, or sacrificial animal— and sometimes all three—are added to the design. The seated god is commonly Shamash, the sun-god, but Sin, the moon-god, Ea, and Marduk, Adad, Ningirsu (and probably others) are also found, as well as goddesses. The seated god with streams issuing from both sides on Pl. 7 (5th row to the right) is certainly Shamash; so also the one in the opposite comer with rays protruding from his shoulders. Instead of the seated god, we frequently find the god in a standing posture of which Pl. 7 contains three examples. <>

20120208-British Museum calcite cylinder seal.jpg
calcite cylinder seal

“The one on the lowest row to the left is Shamash, the sun-god, with one leg bare and uplifted—symbolising the sun rising over the mountain; the other in the fourth row to the right is probably the god Marduk with the crook (or scimitar) standing on a gazelle, while the third—on the third row in the centre —is interesting as being, according to the accompanying inscription, a physician’s seal. The deity represented is Iru—a form or messenger of Nergal, the god of pestilence and death, which suggests a bit of grim (or unconscious) humour in selecting this deity as the emblem of the one who ministers unto disease. The accompanying emblems have been conjectured to be the physician’s instruments, but this is uncertain. We have also two illustrations of the popular myths which were frequently portrayed on these cylinders—both on Pl. 7. <>

“The one in the centre on the second row is an episode in a tale of Etana—a shepherd—who is carried aloft by an eagle to the mountain in which there grows the plant of life; the second— on the fourth row in the centre—represents Nergal’s invasion of the domain of Ereshkigal, the mistress of the lower world, and his attack on the goddess—crouching beneath a tree. The other scene on the cylinder seems to be an offering to Nergal, as the conqueror and, henceforth, the controller of the nether world. The remaining designs similarly have a religious or mythical import. The seals of the Neo-Babylonian and Persian periods show a tendency to become smaller in size and to embody merely symbols instead of a full scene.” <>

Boundary Stones with Symbols of the Gods

Boundary Stones with symbols of the gods include one from the reign gf the Kassite King Nazi-maruttash (c. 1320 B.C.) found at Susa and now in the Louvre. Morris Jastrow said: “The symbols shown on Face D are: in the uppermost row, Anu and Enlil, symbolised by shrines with tiaras; in the second row—probably Ea [shrine with goat-fish and ram’s head ], and Ninlil (shrine with symbol of the goddess); third row—spear-head of Marduk, Ninib (mace with two lion heads); Zamama (mace with vulture head); Nergal (mace with lion's head); fourth row, Papsukal (bird on pole), Adad (or Ranunan—lightning fork on back of crouching ox); running along side of stone, the serpen t-god, Siru. [Source: Morris Jastrow, Lectures more than ten years after publishing his book “Aspects of Religious Belief and Practice in Babylonia and Assyria” 1911 <>]


scorpion men

“On Face C are the symbols of Sin, the moon-god (crescent); Shamash the sun-god (solar disc); Ishtar (eight-pointed star); goddess Gula sitting on a shrine with the dog as her animal at her feet; Ishkhara (scorpion); Nusku, thefire-god (lamp). “The other two faces (A and B) are covered with the inscription. Nineteen gods are mentioned at the dose of the inscription, where these gods are called upon to curse any one who defaces or destroys the stone, or interferes with the provisions contained in the inscription.

Another boundary stone of which two faces are shown is dated in the reign of Marduk-baliddin, King of Babylonia (c. 1170 B.C.) and was found at Susa and now in the Louvre. The symbols shown in the illustration are: Zamama (mace with the head of a vulture); Nebo (shrine with four rows of bricks on it, and homed dragon in front of it); Ninib (mace with two lion heads); Nusku, the god of fire Gamp); Marduk (spear-head); Bau (walking bird); Papsukal (bird perched on pole); Anu and Enlil (two shrines with tiaras); Sin, the moon-god (crescent). In addition there are Ishtar (eight-pointed star), Shamash (sun disc), Ea (shrine with ram's head on it and goat-fish before it), Gula (sitting dog), goddess Ishkhara (scorpiqn), Nergal (mace with lion head), Adad (or Ramman—crouching ox with lightning fork on bade), Sim—the serpent god (coiled serpent on top of stone). <>

“All these gods, with the exception of the last named, are mentioned in the curses at the close of the inscription together with their consorts. In a number of cases, (e. g., Shamash, Nergal, and Ishtar) minor deities of the same character are added which came to be regarded as forms of these deities or as their attendants; and lastly some additional gods notably Tammuz (under the form Damu), his sister Geshtin-Anna (or belit seri), and the two Kassite deities Shukamuna and Shumalia. In all forty-seven gods and goddesses are enumerated which may, however, as indicated, be reduced to a comparatively small number.” <>

Mesopotamian Pottery and Glass

Pottery vessels were introduced to the Near east around 6000 B.C. They were used primarily for storing liquids, grains and other items. The potter’s wheel was invented in Mesopotamia around 4000 B.C.


Akkadian macehead of Sargo

Alabaster and lapis lazuli were fashioned into sculptures, bowls and jewelry. Some of the finest pieces of art from Mesopotamia includes finely-rendered alabaster vases from Syria with a short neck, pointed base, sweeping sides and a shimmering white color than gleams in the sun.

An ancient cuneiform time was inscribed with the following recipe: "Take 60 parts sand, 180 parts ash from sea plants, 5 parts chalk, and heat them all together. A professor at Alfred University followed these directions over 1600̊F driftwood fire. After two hours nothing exceptional was produced. The fire was made a little hotter. The result: glass.

The earliest man-made glass objects, mainly non-transparent glass beads, are thought to date back to around 3500 BC, with finds in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia. In the third millennium, in central Mesopotamia, the basic raw materials of glass were being used principally to produce glazes on pots and vases. The discovery may have been coincidental, with calciferous sand finding its way into an overheated kiln and combining with soda to form a colored glaze on the ceramics.

Before glassblowing was developed in the 1st century B.C. “core glass” vessels were made by forming the glass around a solid metal rod that was taken out as the glass cooled (the hollow glassmethod). The oldest fragments of glass vases (evidence of the origins of the hollow glass industry) date back to the 16th century B.C., and were found in Mesopotamia. Hollow glass production was also evolving around this time in Egypt. [Source: Glass Online]

Bronze Art from the Mesopotamia and Greco-Roman Periods

In 1990 the Merrin Gallery in New York Street hosted an exhibition simply called ''Bronze!''The 44 objects included portrait heads, mythological figures, lamps, ax heads, vessels, amulets and furniture fragments were made between 2300 B.C. and A.D. 300 in lands bordering the Mediterranean. Among the 16 items for sale were a six-inch bronze bust of Serapis, the Mesopotamian god of corn, for $38,000, and a near life-sized bust of a serene-faced female Roman deity that may have served as a ship's figurehead. Both date to the first century A.D for to $1.25 million. ''Bronze is a cold metal, but the best pieces capture a warm, energetic human feeling,'' Edward H. Merrin, the gallery's founder, told the New York Times. ''When it works, bronze is magical.'' [Source: Rita Reif, New York Times, October 14, 1990]

Rita Reif wrote in the New York Times, “Included are Sumerian, Phoenician, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Hellenistic, Iranian, Etruscan and Roman objects. The broad range of expressiveness includes the raw power of a Sardinian Nuragic priest from the ninth or eighth century B.C., his outsized hand raised in benediction; the quiet elegance of a high-stepping sixth- or fifth-century B.C. Etruscan horse and the seductiveness of a wildly dancing Hellenistic maenad from about the first century B.C.

Several of the most compelling objects are artifacts of the Bronze Age (3500 to 1000 B.C.), which combine a stark simplicity of form, technological sophistication and complex meanings. Two are not bronze at all, but arsenic copper - a material used before bronze which is often mistaken for it. One is a bug-eyed Sumerian deity from about 2300 B.C., with bull's ears and horns, wearing a tall hat, which is actually the finial of a scepter. The other is a Hittite ax-head from about 1800 B.C., engraved on each side with an image of an earth goddess holding her breasts.

Bronzes proliferated when the cultures represented in the show were at their peak, even though some of the images may impress viewers as lacking in refinement. Mr. Merrin compared two quite different objects in the show - an aristocratic warrior from about 1700 B.C. and an Iranian idol from around the 9th century B.C. ''The striding Phoenician warrior has a presence,'' Mr. Merrin said. ''He is obviously a personage of some importance - tall, elegant, with large feet and wearing a beehive-shaped crown, a man to be reckoned with. The figure is only 10 inches tall but has a majesty that, when placed against a 10-foot wall, fills it.''

The mythical Iranian idol, crafted as if by a child, is a ninth- or eighth-century female, haunting and hollow-eyed, with a large nose in an outsized diamond-shaped head, her shrunken arms raised joyously high in the air. ''I smile every time I see her,'' Mr. Merrin said. ''Whoever looks can get what they want from that idol. ''Bronze is so different from other materials,'' he continued. ''The artist who worked in bronze had to be somewhat better than someone who worked in terra cotta or marble. In bronze, he began working in a medium - clay, for example - that was several steps removed from the finished product. So he had to compensate for that. The artist had to understand the limitations of bronze, as well as how fast and far the molten bronze would flow before congealing, and the amount of shrinkage that would occur.''

Many of these objects served as oil lamps, vessels, handles and tools. A Babylonian spool holder made after 1800 B.C. is decorated with a pair of goddesses; a ring used for harnessing a team of chariot horses from the city of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia, in the third millennium, is embellished with a small team of asses, their foreheads inlaid with ivory. The most arresting of these useful objects is a fifth-century Corinthian helmet, a study of sweeping curves in its soaring domed top, deeply ridged forehead and large almond-shaped cutouts for the eyes. Never painted, its hammered surface glows brown, red and green.

To bronze enthusiasts, fine detailing and highly polished surfaces are always overshadowed by an exceptional patina. Brown patinas are common, but a more flamboyant palette can be found on ancient objects, especially those that were deposited in mineral-rich burial sites. An Egyptian baboon-figure of the god Thoth made between 664-525 B.C., crowned with a crescent and a full moon and inlaid with gold and silver, shed its original gold-leaf skin in the past and turned an eerie blue. But an Egyptian amulet in the form of a Horus falcon god, trampling a serpent, is deep red and green.

Crusty turquoise patinas enhance several pieces in the show, including a mirror embellished with wrestlers from the fifth century B.C. A frying-pan-shaped libation dish from the seventh century B.C. is one of the wonders of the show - its handle is in the form of a woman stretched out as if swimming while holding the vessel in her arms like a beach ball. One of the palest patinas is a rich gray - a phenomenon attributed to the object's high tin content - that covers the Iranian female idol beloved by Mr. Merrin.

Study of Mesopotamian Art

Many of the most beautiful pieces have been unearthed by looters. Scholars have only the sketchiest information on where and what period they are from let alone who made them or what they were made for. Scholar debate whether objects are Elamite or Akkadian or “proto-Elamite” and make their determination as much on hunches as real facts.

Mesopotamian art is rarer that Greek, Roman or Egyptian art. One reason for this that the Mesopotamians did not bury a lot of art with the dead. Most important pieces of Mesopotamian art are in the British Museum in London, Louvre in Paris, University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad

20120208-Gilgamesh Izdubar_and_heabani.png
Gilgamesh Izdubar and Heabani

Book: Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus edited by Joan Aruz and Romlad Wallenfels (Metropolitan Museum/ Yale University Press, 2003). It discusses art in Mesopotamia in its own right and as it relates to art in the Mediterranean region, ancient India and along the Silk Road. It has good sections on technologies such as sculpture production and metal making.

Record Prices for Mesopotamian Art

In July 1994, Mesopotamian art made headlines worldwide when a six-foot-long relief from an Assyrian palace of the ninth century B.C. was sold at Christie's in London for $11.9 million, an auction record for any antiquity. The stone fragment, depicting a eunuch and a winged divine figure, had been found on a wall of a snack shop in a boys' school in Dorset, in England. The bidder, Noriyoshi Horiuchi, a Japanese dealer, bought it for a private museum of religious art in Kyoto. [Source: Rita Reif, New York Times, December 4, 1994]

A smaller but still hefty architectural fragment, of a winged guardian from the same period and palace, will be auctioned Dec. 14 at Sotheby's in New York. The American minister who bought the relief in the 1850's while serving as a Protestant missionary in the region of Mesopotamia was drawn to it because it was an early proof that Biblical Assyrians were historical personages. The price expected: $2 million.

Art collector Frederick Schultz told the New York Times, Mesopotamia art “is harder to find than Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities. Mesopotamian objects show up one or two at a time because these people didn't bury large numbers of objects with the dead."

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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