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May 2015

The Bricks of the Ziggurat of Ur

The Ziggurat of Ur (photo taken 2005). Original structure built c. 2100 BCE. Image courtesy Wikipedia via user Hardnfast.

The Ziggurat of Ur (photo taken 2005). Original structure built c. 2100 BCE. Image courtesy Wikipedia via user Hardnfast.

Recently I learned a few interesting points about the mudbricks of the Ziggurat of Ur. This ziggurat was built around 2100 BCE by the king Ur-nammu and his son Shulgi (see a reconstruction drawing of the structure and a map of the original complex HERE). We know that this structure was built by Ur-nammu because mudbricks from this structure are stamped with Ur-nammu’s name.1 In fact, the first stage of the ziggurat construction was built using seven million mudbricks and 720,000 fired bricks.These mudbricks were created from clay and reeds. They would have been pressed into rectangular molds and left to dry in the sun, or they could have been fired to ensure the brick would better withstand moisture and wind.2  Such fired bricks weighed up to thirty-three pounds (which is impressive, but this weight pales in comparison to the Great Pyramid at Giza, where the stones weigh an average of 2.5 tons!).

Brick from the ziggurat of Ur, stamped with Ur-Nammu's name, c. 2100 BCE. Two dog's paw marks are seemingly-accidentally marked on one side. Image courtesy British Museum.

Brick from the ziggurat of Ur, stamped with Ur-Nammu’s name, c. 2100 BCE. Two dog’s paw marks are seemingly-accidentally marked on one side. Image courtesy British Museum.

The British Museum owns one such example of the stamped bricks from the Ziggurat of Ur (see above). The core of this structure is essentially solid, with only a small exception: in order to allow water to evaporate from the solid core, “weeper-holes” pierce the inward-sloping walls.3 These holes were lined with fired bricks, instead of the typical sun-dried bricks. Additionally, the outer layer of bricks for the ziggurat structure was comprised of these weather-resistant fired bricks, and these fired bricks were placed in waterproof bitumen. Additional measures were also taken to protect the entire structure from the elements: every few layers of bricks were covered with criss-crossed reeds and sandy soil, in order to prevent the ziggurat from drooping when the surrounding ground was flooded with silt from the Tigris and Euphrates.4

Detail of "weeper holes" at the Ziggurat of Ur. Other holes and damaged areas of the reconstructed ziggurat wall result, in part, from an attack on a nearby Iraqi air base in 1920s (see source).

Detail of “weeper holes” at the Ziggurat of Ur. Other holes and damaged areas of the reconstructed ziggurat wall result, in part, from an attack on a nearby Iraqi air base in 1920s (see HERE).

I knew that the Ziggurat of Ur was made of mudbrick, but I didn’t know how much detail went into the types of bricks that comprised the core and outer layer.5 With this new insight, I think I can better understand why the Ziggurat of Ur was called “Entemennigur,” which means, “House whose foundation creates terror.”

1 It is important to note that the second and third terraces were extensively restored by the Babylonian king Nabonidus (555-539 BC). Other rulers who preceded and followed Nabonidus, restored and/or altered this ziggurat as well (including Saddam Hussein). See Diana K. McDonald, 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World (Chantilly, VA: The teaching Company, 2013), p. 40.

2 Ibid., p. 40.

3 Ibid., p. 41.

4 Martin Isler, Sticks, Stones, and Shadows: Building the Egyptian Pyramids (University of Oklahoma Press, 2001) p. 31. Available online HERE.

5 It is also interesting to me that the king Ur-Nammu considered other details in his construction of other buildings. A temple at Uruk included foundation figures, which were copper “pegs” that represented the ruler as a temple builder, holding a basket of earth to make bricks. One such foundation figure is in the collection of the British Museum.

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The “Nude” Doric Column

Left: Doric column from Temple of Athena at Paestum, Italy. Right: Metropolitan Kouros, c. 600 BCE

Left: Doric column from Temple of Athena at Paestum, Italy. Right: Metropolitan Kouros, c. 600 BCE

This week I am teaching my ancient art students about Greek art. On Monday we explored how kouroi from the Archaic period consisted of nude male figures (see example above), whereas female korai were always clothed. It wasn’t until the Late Classical period that the female nude became a traditional subject in Western art (perhaps forever more, for better or worse!).

Then, today, we explored Vitruvius’ discussion of the Doric and Ionic orders as being “gendered” (with the Doric order compared to a male and the Ionic order compared to a female). I pointed out that Vitruvius compared the fluted shaft of the Ionic column to the folds of a matronal garment, and then read this translation of De Architectura: “Thus two orders were invented, one of a masculine character, without ornament, the other bearing a character which resembled the delicacy, ornament, and proportion of a female” (Vitruvius, 4:1:7).

At that point, I had a student ask if the Doric order was supposed to be perceived as nude, since the Ionic order was described as clothed. Given our discussion of nude kouroi and and clothed korai earlier this week, I thought this was an excellent question. And it actually was easy to discover after class that my student made a correct observation! The original Latin text by Vitruvius contains a slightly different description than the English translation I have been using, describing the Doric order as “unam virili sine ornatu nuda specie” (a male, naked and unadorned; 4.1.17).

I feel like the inclusion of “nuda specie” really changes the way that one thinks of the Doric order, and I wish that this detail was stressed more in English translations of Vitruvius. I did find this English translation which includes the naked reference, and I think I will use this translation from hereon out.

So, if Doric columns are nude, do these columns stand as references to of heroism or warriors, similar to the nude kouroi? Perhaps. I found a book called The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture by George L. Hersey which takes this idea of the “male” Doric columns further, arguing that the columns are representative of the Dorian invaders (nude warriors).1 He even finds that the entasis (slight swelling of the columns) perhaps suggestive of the straining of the human body.2 Although I’m not completely convinced that these Doric temples were supposed to be lined with the bodies of dynamic, straining warriors, it is an interesting and unique interpretation. What do others think?

Model of the Temple of Zeus at Agrigento, Sicily (original perhaps begun c. 480 BE, although still under remodel in 2nd century BC and never completed).

Model of the Temple of Zeus at Agrigento, Sicily (original perhaps begun c. 480 BE, although still under remodel in 2nd century BC and never completed).

Also, this topic has also gotten me to think about male and female architectural supports and ornaments, known respectively as atlantes (also called atlantids or telemons) and caryatids. It is interesting that the female caryatid figures are depicted as clothed (I am not aware of a single nude example), whereas the ancient male counterparts, the atlantes, are nude. Additionally, it appears that atlantes were used in a Doric context.3 The earliest example of atlantes figures appear at the Temple of Zeus at Agrigento, Sicily (shown in reconstruction above, and the remnants of one such atlantis can be seen HERE). Although these specific figures did not serve as columns but were placed between Doric columns, they appear to still have at least some load-bearing capacity and perhaps could have emphasized the perceived “nudity” of the Doric columns themselves.

1 George L. Hersey, The Lost Meaning of Classical Architecture: Speculations on Ornament from Vitruvius to Venturi (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), p. 58. Available online HERE.

2 Ibid.

3 Dorothy King, “Vitruvius, Caryatids, and Telemones.” Available online HERE. An alternate version of this article appears in Dorothy King, “Figured supports: Vitruvius’ Caryatids and Atlantes,” Numismatica e Antichità Classiche, Quaderni Ticinesi, XXVII, 1998. Dorothy King writes that female caryatids could appear in a Doric context, although she may just be referring to a statue of Artemis on the Spartan agora. Typically, female caryatids were used in an Ionic context. Scholar Joseph Rykwert writes that apart from this Spartan example, there are no examples of Doric columns coupled with female figures. See Joseph Rykwert, The Dancing Column (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1998), p. 133. Available online HERE.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.