ancient Near East

“A History of the World” Snippets

For the past few months, I have been listening to podcasts of A History of the World in 100 Objects while I exercise. The clips are engaging and interesting, and they provide some distraction for me while I run. I’ve learned and pondered a lot of things in the process, and I wanted to write down a few snippets of things that have stood out of me in the various episodes I have heard.

Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BCE. Wooden box with inlaid mosaic

Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BCE. Wooden box with inlaid mosaic. British Museum.

The Standard of Ur: I first learned about the Standard of Ur when I was in high school, I think. But I’ve never thought much about the size of this object. Neil MacGregor describes this as “the size of a small briefcase” which looks “almost like a giant bar of Toblerone.”1

I’ve never realized that this famous object was so small! Since it has the nickname of a “standard,” I just assumed that it was a larger size. I also was interested to learn that the inlaid stone and shell come from various locations: Afghanistan (lapis lazuli), India (red marble), and shell (the Gulf).2 These various mediums indicate that the Sumerians had an extensive trade network.

If you are interested in learning more about the Standard of Ur and theories surrounding its original function, see HERE.

Head of Augustus, 27-25 BC. British Museum. Image courtesy Aiwok via Wikipedia.

Bronze Head of Augustus, 27-25 BC. British Museum. Image courtesy Aiwok via Wikipedia.

Head of Augustus: I enjoyed learning about this head because it reminded me of discussions that I hold with my students about how ancient art was/is mutilated and stolen in times of war. This statue is no different. It once was part of a complete statue that was on the border of modern Egypt and Sudan. However, an army from the Sudanese kingdom of Meroë invaded this area in 25 BC (led by “the fierce one-eyed queen Candace”), and this army took the statue back to Meroë.3 The head was buried beneath a temple that was dedicated to this particular Sudanese victory, which meant that every person walking up the stairs to the temple would insult the emperor by stepping on his head.4 Even today, sand of the African desert is visible on the sculpture.

The David Vases, 1351 CE. Porcelain. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The David Vases, 1351 CE. Porcelain. British Museum. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The David VasesI begin listening to this episode without any prior knowledge of these vases, so I was surprised to learn that these were from China (I assumed when reading the episode title that the vases had some nude figure which depicted the biblical David, à la Michelangelo or Donatello.) Nope! These Chinese vases are named after their most famous owner, Sir Percival David.

The thing that is most interesting to me is that, since these vases are dated 13 May 1351, we know that this level of fine quality blue-and-white porcelain predates the Ming dynasty (the dynasty from 1358-1644, which is typically associated with fine blue and white porcelain). In fact, we also know that the blue and white tradition is not Chinese in origin, but Middle Eastern! Neil MacGregor explains how Chinese potters used Iranian blue pigment cobalt (which was known in China as huihui qing – “Muslim blue”).5 Interestingly, Chinese artists even used Iranian blue pigment for exports sent to the Middle East, to meet the Iranian demand for blue and white ware after the Mongol invasion destroyed pottery industries in the area.It’s interesting to me that Iranian blue traveled to China, only to travel back to its area of origin as export pottery decoration.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, completed 1248. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, completed 1248. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Sainte-Chapelle and the Crown of Thorns: This chapel was not featured in the podcast specifically, but it was discussed at length in the episode for the Holy Thorn Reliquary. Sainte-Chapelle is a church that was built basically to be a reliquary, to house the Crown of Thorns. Surprisingly, the Crown of Thorns cost more than three times the amount paid to build Sainte-Chapelle!7  Today the Crown of Thorns is housed in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris; it was moved there by Napoleon in the 19th century.

I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of the Crown of Thorns coming to Paris, and I wanted to learn more on my own. Louis IX dressed in a simple tunic (without royal robes) and walked through the streets barefoot while he carried the relic. The barefoot king is depicted in the Relics of the Passion window in Sainte-Chapelle. I also learned through my own research that the Crown of Thorns, while on its way to Paris, was housed in a cathedral in Sens overnight. This moment was honored in a window from Tours, which depicts Louis IX holding the thorns on a chalice.

The other thing I found interesting about the arrival of the Crown of Thorns is that this elevated the status of France among the Christian countries of Europe. “When the crown arrived, it was described as being on deposit with the king of France until the Day of Judgment, when Christ would return to collect it and the kingdom of France would become the kingdom of heaven.”8

Are there any episodes/chapters from A Short History of the World in 100 Objects that you particularly enjoy? Please share!

1 Neil MacGregor, A History of the World in 100 Objects (New York: Penguin Group, 2011), p. 72.

2 Ibid., 72-73.

3 Ibid., 225 

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid, 413. 

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 425. Sainte-Chapelle cost 40,000 livres to build. The Crown of Thorns was bought from the Venetians for 135,000 livres (400 kilograms of gold). MacGregor writes that The Crown of Thorns was “probably the most valuable thing in Europe at the time.”

8 Ibid., 427.

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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 Status and Social Climate of Ancient Artists

Sculptors Carving a Colossal Royal Statue, from the Tomb of Rekhmire, ca. 1504-1425 BCE

Nina de Garis Davies, 20th century facsimile drawing of “Sculptors at Work,” from the Tomb of Rekhmire, original of ca. 1479-1425 BCE

Right now I am teaching a course that explores what is means to be an artist, in terms of how society defines artists, the societal status of artists, and how artists define themselves. The scope of the class focuses on Renaissance art up until World War Two, but the theme of this class has also made me personally think lately about ancient artists. I thought I would jot down a smattering of things that interest me about the role and societal situation for artists in ancient times. I realize that this post isn’t a comprehensive discussion by any means, and I would love to know other thoughts on this topic in the comments.


The word “artist” and its connotations today didn’t exist in ancient times. Instead, in ancient countries like Egypt, artists were thought of more as artisans or craftsman. However, such artisans and craftsmen were still given some status and recognition at times. In the New Kingdom, artisans who decorated and carved the royal tombs were given the designation “servant in the Place of Truth.”

I personally like how there are a lot of artisans that are highlighted in tomb carvings throughout ancient Egyptian history. Some of my favorites include images from the Tomb of Rekhmire, in which sculptors who are working to carve royal statues (see detail at the top of this post) as well as a sphinx (see a full image HERE). Another favorite image is a relief depicting two sculptors working on a statue, from the mastaba of Kaemrehu, Saqqara (see below). In some cases, these images of artisans are included to explain the role of the tomb owner. For example, Rekhmire was a governor whose duties included overseeing the efforts of various craftsmen.

Relief depicting two sculptors carving a statue, from the mastaba of Kaemrehu, Saqqara, Old Kingdom, c.2325 BC. Painted limestone.

Relief depicting two sculptors carving a statue, from the a, Old Kingdom, c.2325 BC. Painted limestone.

Ancient Near Eastern Art

I recently learned that there were special words in the ancient Near East to designate someone who was skilled in crafts. The Sumerians used the word ummia (meaning “specialist”), and soon after the Akkadians adopted a similar word for craft workers, specialists and artisans: ummanu.1 Similar to the later craft traditions in the medieval and Renaissance eras, ancient near Eastern craftsmen were trained as apprentices. In time, these apprentices could reach the status of a journeyman or a master.2

Interestingly, there were instances in the ancient Near East in which artists were expected to deny that they had any part in the creation of the work. In 1st-millenium texts from Nineveh and Babylon, it is recorded that in the “Washing of the Mouth” ceremony, which endowed certain works of divinely-inspired images with a salmu (a personhood), artists undertook a ritual to swear “their lack of participation in the image’s creation and attributing it instead to the gods.”3

Ancient Greece

Foundry Painter, "A Bronze Foundry," 490-480 BCE. Red-figure decoration on a kylix from Vulci, Italy.

Foundry Painter, “A Bronze Foundry,” 490-480 BCE. Red-figure decoration on a kylix from Vulci, Italy.

For the most part, Greek artists were not held in extremely high regard, which led the Roman philosopher Seneca to write, “One venerates the divine images, one may pray and sacrifice to them, yet one despises the sculptors who made them.”

However, there were a few artists who were able to establish somewhat of a reputation and achieve renown (I’m particularly thinking of Phidias and Praxiteles). One way that Greek artists vied for status amongst each other was through competitions (such as the competition to create an Amazon warrior for the temple of Artemis).

Ancient Rome

Although Romans loved to copy ancient Greek art, they held somewhat of a similar attitude toward artists as their Greek counterparts. In fact, Roman writers commented that even great Greek sculptors like Phidias could not escape their disdain.5

In the latter part of the Roman Republic, we know that artists banded together to form collegia, which are associations that are similar to the guild system that existed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Just like this later guild system both helped and hindered the status of medieval and Renaissance artists, collegia also experienced government sanction and restriction.6


I thought I’d share two of my favorite paintings that are dedicated to ancient artists, although they were created in the 19th century by Lawrence Alma Tadema. I think that these paintings are a little bit more indicative of 19th century taste (particularly in the painting of Phidias, who shows off his Parthenon frieze to his friends as if they are at the opening reception of a gallery), but I still think they are fun.

Lawrence Alma Tadema, Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, 1868. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Lawrence Alma Tadema, Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, 1868. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, "Sculptors in Ancient Rome," 1877. Private collection, image courtesy of WikiArt

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, “Sculptors in Ancient Rome,” 1877. Private collection, image courtesy of WikiArt

Do you know of other depictions of ancient artists, either from ancient or modern times?

1 Don Nardo, Arts and Literature in Ancient Mesopotamia, (Farmington Hills, MI: Lucent Books, 2009), 12.

2 Ibid., 14.

3 Marian Feldman, “The Lives of Mesopotamian Monuments: Knowledge as Cultural BIography,” in Dialogues in Art History, From Mesopotamian to Modern by Elizabeth Cropper, ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press), 48.

4 Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods, The Changing Status of the Artist (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 12.

5 Ibid.

6 Britannica Encyclopedia, “Guild.” Available online: Accessed January 11, 2015.



The Trees of the Naram-Sin Stele

The stele of Naram-Sin is one of my favorite works to discuss with my ancient art students. This stele was created to commemorate Naram-Sin’s victory over the Lullabi people of the Zagros Mountains. I’ve already written a little bit about the two inscriptions on this stele. My students and I discuss these inscriptions and their implications quite a bit, but I also sometimes get pinpointed questions about details of this stele that I previously hadn’t considered. During two different quarters, I have had students ask me about what specific types of trees appear on the mountain. (This question is usually prompted because Stokstad’s Art History textbook mentions that the stele includes identifiable trees which are native to the region.1) If you look closely at the rest of the stele that exists today, there are two trees stacked vertically on top of each other.

Detail of tree from the stele of Naram-Sin (reigned 2254-2218 BC). Limestone, height of stele 6'6", Musée du Louvre, Paris

After some research, I was able to report to my students that one scholar, Irene J. Winter, has pinpointed the type of tree depicted on the stele. She finds that this specific type of oak tree, called the Q. aegilops, is prominent in the area where the military campaign of Naram-Sin took place.2 In other words, the trees might help to serve as visual evidence for the accuracy and actuality of the event that took place. The limestone itself may also have been taken from the Lullabi campaign region, as a further visual manifestation of the accuracy of the stele and the site-specific conquest which took place.3 If you are curious, you can read a .PDF of Winter’s article (with specific details about tree and limestone on ps. 69 -71).

1 Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren, Art History, 4th edition (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 27.

2 Irene J. Winter, “Tree(s) on the Mountain: Landscape and Territory on the Victory Stele of Naram-Sîn of Agade,” in Landscapes: Territories, Frontiers and Horizons in the Ancient Near East Part 1, edited by L. Milano (Padova: Sargon, 1999): 69.

3 Ibid, 71.

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UPDATE: The “So-Called” Ishtar Gate?

Reconstruction of part of the so-called Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The original double-gate was built c. 575 BCE. Glazed brick, height of original gate 40' (12.2 m) with towers rising 100' (30.5 m)

A perceptive student asked the other day how we know that the “Ishtar Gate” was really dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. I replied in class, “I believe that the dedication is mentioned on the inscription of the gate.” However, when I pulled up the inscription to show the class, I found that Ishtar was not mentioned at all:

“Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the faithful prince appointed by the will of Marduk, the highest of princely princes, beloved of Nabu, of prudent counsel, who has learned to embrace wisdom, who fathomed their divine being and reveres their majesty, the untiring governor, who always takes to heart the care of the cult of Esagila and Ezida and is constantly concerned with the well-being of Babylon and Borsippa, the wise, the humble, the caretaker of Esagila and Ezida, the firstborn son of Nabopolassar, the King of Babylon.

Both gate entrances of Imgur-Ellil and Nemetti-Ellil —following the filling of the street from Babylon—had become increasingly lower. Therefore, I pulled down these gates and laid their foundations at the water-table with asphalt and bricks and had them made of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars length-wise over them. I hung doors of cedar adorned with bronze at all the gate openings. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder.

I let the temple of Esiskursiskur (the highest festival house of Markduk, the Lord of the Gods—a place of joy and celebration for the major and minor gods) be built firm like a mountain in the precinct of Babylon of asphalt and fired bricks.”1

This student’s question has sent me on a wild goose chase. After writing a previous version of this post, explaining my frustration in trying to find a contemporary inscription or dedicatory text, David Byron from Baroque Potion sent me a source with some contemporary texts (see first comment below). This publication by A. R. George mentions an inscription on the gate that was excavated in situ. Either this is a second inscription on the gate that is different from the aforementioned one in this post, or it is another part of the aforementioned inscription which doesn’t appear in many English translations:

“I Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon,…, son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon, skillfully rebuilt the Istar Gate with pure lapis-glazed bricks for my lord Marduk. I stationed at its sills fierce bulls of copper and frenzied dragons.

Other contemporary inscriptions and documents are highlighted by George, which refer to the “Ishtar Gate” and its construction.2

Fragments of the so-called Ishtar Gate with reconstructions, from the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul

Without this inscription or other contemporary inscriptions calling this structure the “Ishtar Gate,” I can see why one would wonder how this gate was associated with Ishtar. After, all the symbol of the lion, which is associated with Ishtar, lines the so-called “Processional Way” which leads up to the gate, but is not found on the gate itself. Instead, the gate is covered with symbols of the god Marduk (the patron god of Babylon) and the god Adad (the storm god). The bull with blue horns and blue tails was associated with Adad. The dragon-like creature (with the head and body of a snake, the forelegs of a lion, and the hind legs of a bird of prey) were sacred to Marduk.

Fragments of lions from the so-called "Processional Way" leading up to the "Ishtar Gate." Fragments and reconstruction found at the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul

The lion motif in the so-called “Processional Way” helps to indicate that Ishtar was supposed to be honored and celebrated, however. After all, during this Neo-Babylonian period (which, after twelve centuries brought splendor back to Babylon during this period in the ancient Near East), it would make sense that Ishtar, the fertility goddess of rejuvenation, would be honored. During this time, Babylon itself was revived and rejuvenated. Additionally, A. R. George notes that “the ceremonial name of the Istar Gate reflects the character of Ishtar as a goddess of battle.”2 With the Medes’ relatively recent defeat of the Assyrians and capture of Nineveh in 612 BC (which established the Neo-Babylonian empire), it makes sense that Ishtar would also be recognized in this role.

Does anyone know more information about the history of this gate? Given this second inscription that David Byron shared with me, I’m curious as to whether anyone has confirmed through analysis that the gate is actually glazed with lapis lazuli. I have read elsewhere that lapis lazuli would have been too expensive of a medium to be used on such a monumental structure. Should we take Nebuchadnezzar II’s inscription at face value? Perhaps this king wanted to give a greater impression of his wealth and prestige by claiming that the bricks were glazed with lapis lazuli?

1 This inscription can be found multiple places online, but I found this translation HERE. It is interesting to note that Nebuchadnezzar II’s inscription states that the gate was made with “stone.” This isn’t quite true: it is made out of glazed brick. However, Nebuchadnezzar II does claim in the second inscription in this post that these bricks were glazed with lapis lazuli. I haven’t come across any analysis to confirm that the bricks are actually glazed with lapis lazuli.

2 A. R. George, Babylonian Topographical Texts, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta series, Louvain, Peeters Press, 1992, 339-441. Citation available online HERE.Based on this inscription, it seems like it would be more appropriate to say that the Ishtar Gate was dedicated to Marduk, not necessarily Ishtar.

3 Ibid., 341.


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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.