Intro to Ancient Near East: Sumer

The ancient Near East has long fascinated students and historians, particularly because three major world faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) got their beginnings in this region. Furthermore, this area is of interest because of other early developments which took place here. After the Neolithic Revolution (the change from humans as hunters/gatherers to farmers), the wheel and plow were first used in the ancient Near East.

The first writing system was also developed in the Near East by the Sumerians. Their writing system consisted of wedge-shaped cuneiform signs. The Sumerian book the Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest book in the world, written over a thousand years before Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad.

My favorite ancient Sumerian art has always been the statuettes from the Square Temple at Eshnunna (ca. 2700 BC; Tell Asmar, Iraq). Many of these statuettes have been found beneath the floor of the temple (click here to see some more examples). Most figures are dressed in the form of priests or priestesses, and they have their hands clasped in constant prayer. It is thought that these statuettes were votive figurines; worshipers would leave these figures at the temple as a form or worship or prayer. Or, it is also thought that these statuettes could represent the manifestation of an answered prayer. I especially love the wide-eyed stares on their faces; they probably symbolize the vigilance of the statuettes in their prayerful duty.

Next to the statuettes, my other favorite Sumerian piece is a bull-headed lyre from the Royal Cemetary at Ur (Tomb 789, “King’s Grave”, ca. 2600 BC). The lyre was decorated with gold and lapis lazuli (a precious blue stone). You can see a color image of the restored instrument here. My favorite parts of the lyre, though, are the inlaid panels on the front of the soundbox located underneath the bull’s beard (shown below). In these four registers, animals walk on their legs and act like humans – they look like scenes that could be found in Aesop’s fables or a Disney movie. Some think that these panels represent stories that would have been told for entertainment. Others think that the creatures might be inhabitants of the land of the dead, with narrative containing a funerary connection.1 I also had a professor who thought that the scenes related to animal imagery from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Whatever the reason for this piece, I think it’s very fun. I love that animals are holding cups, playing instruments (the donkey actually is playing a bull lyre in the second panel from the bottom), and possibly dancing (I can’t tell if the bear is dancing or helping to steady the lyre). I especially like that the bulls on the top register have human faces – the artist might have done that to help achieve symmetry in the composition.2

If you’re interested, you can read more about the lyre and animal scenes here.

The ancient Near East has a lot of fun and beautiful art. I also love the Standard of Ur, but I think I might need to save that piece for another day – it deserves its own post.

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, vol. 11 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001), 25.

2 Incidentally, this top scene that contains a figure between two beasts is common in ancient art. It is called the “Master of the Animals” motif and is reserved for great heroes, gods, and goddesses. The influence of this Near Eastern motif can be seen in a “Mistress of the Animals” example from the Archaic Greece period, the west pediment of the Temple of Artemis (Corfu, Greece, ca. 600-580 BC).

  • Emilee . . . says:

    Very interesting.

    I hope you never, ever, EVER stop writing this blog, ever 🙂

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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.