Ancient Art

Early Civilizations from 3,400 BC
Sumer, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome
Bronze Age and Iron Age Cultures

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What is Ancient Art?

Chronologically speaking, 'ancient art' comes immediately after 'prehistoric art', with the invention of writing around 3,300 BC.

It encompasses arts and crafts from all the early civilizations in the 'Fertile Crescent' of the Eastern Mediterranean, including those of Sumer, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, Crete, Ancient Greece and Rome.

It ends with the collapse of the Roman Empire around AD 400.

In China, 'ancient art' first appears during the Shang Dynasty. According to the recent Xia–Shang–Zhou Chronology Project, the Shang ruled from about 1,600 to 1,046 BC. See also: Ancient Chinese Pottery.

Bronze Age Civilizations

The first period of ancient art belongs to Bronze Age culture (3,300-1,200 BC).

The Bronze Age began in the 'Fertile Crescent' between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia. Its first and most advanced civilization was Sumerian culture (c.4000-2000 BC).

Why did it start in Sumer? Because of its wealth, which was derived from intensive agriculture along the river plains of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Sumer and other rival kingdoms in the region (often referred to as "the cradles of civilization"), were noted for their intensive agriculture, early architecture, early systems of writing, and beautiful ancient pottery following the invention of the potter's wheel.

They were the first societies to introduce centralized economic and civil administration as well as written codes of law.

They were the first to develop organized warfare, and to adopt slavery as a commercial practice, in order to facilitate major building and agricultural projects.

As these early city-states and kingdoms evolved into nation states and built up mini-empires, they laid the foundations for advances in medicine, mathematics, astronomy and the visual arts - notably, architecture, metalwork and ceramic pottery.

During the Bronze Age, around the Mediterranean at least, art began to assume a significant role in reflecting the community, its rulers and its relationship with the deities it worshipped.


For a concise overview of architecture, pottery, and sculpture in Sumer, Babylon and Assyria, see: Mesopotamian Art 9000-539 BC.

Art Follows Prosperity

Written language was developed because of economic necessity. It was used by the high priest class - the rulers of early city-states in Sumer - to record their agricultural wealth.

A written language enabled them to maintain inventories of commodities such as wheat, cattle, oil and salt, maintain accounts and calculate taxes.

As societies began to use a written alphabet, and become more organized, they became more prosperous and able to afford different types of applied art in their everyday lives.

Ceramic pottery continued to dazzle, and was joined by textile designs, funerary and tomb art (sculpture, murals), precious metalwork, as well as new types of monumental architecture (ziggurats, pyramids).

Statues and paintings of gods also appear, as art plays a greater role in the relationship between the community, its rulers and the deities it worships.

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Sumerian Culture
(3,500-2,000 BC)

The Sumerians are the first civilizing people to occupy the lands of southern Mesopotamia, forming an aggregate of at least 12 city-states including Eridu, Nippur, Lagash, Kish, Ur and Uruk.

Until 3,400 BC, when they first develop writing, Sumerian art and culture is best known for its ceramics and ziggurat architecture.

Thereafter, we see free standing sculpture, bronze statuettes, forms of personal jewellery along with applied art decorating a range of artifacts.

During the Third Millennium, bronze sculpture appears, using the complex cire-perdue process.

Sumer also has a huge number of tombs containing gold, silver, lapis lazuli, as well as weapons and carved cylinder seals.

See, for example, Ram in a Thicket (2500), found in the Great Death Pit, at Ur.

Sculptural reliefs appear, like the Tablet of Ur-Nina. Also, clay steles are used to record events and narrate stories, such as The Stele of the Vultures (2500-2400 BC).

Mesopotamia is under Sumerian rule until 2,270 BC, when it is overrun by the Akkadians and the Amorites. However, neither contribute much to Mesopotamian art, which remains true to its Sumerian roots.

Even when King Hammurabi (1810-1750) creates a unified Babylonian empire, it is Sumerian art, not anything distinctively Babylonian, that survives.

For example, even the value of the unique stele containing the Code of Hammurabi (1750) is sociological, rather than artistic.

When Hammurabi dies in 1750, northern Mesopotamia is dominated by the Assyrians, while the southern half is controlled by the Babylonians.

Centuries later Babylon becomes the capital of the Second Babylonian Empire (626-539 BC), founded by King Nabopolassar (r. 626-605 BC), and his son, Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604–561 BC).

For the highlights of Babylonian culture during both the First Dynasty under Hammurabi, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar II, see Babylonian art & Architecture (1792-539).

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Art of Ancient Egypt

1,500 Kilometres to the south-west, sat Ancient Egypt whose culture was also on the rise.

The history of Egyptian civilization is traditionally divided into four periods.

Ancient Egyptian architecture was especially influential, due to the stonework and monumental sculpture of Egyptian temples, and of course the famous Egyptian pyramids and mastabas.

Famous Egyptian Pyramids include:

The pyamid complex at Giza is guarded by The Great Sphinx of Giza (2558–2532), one of the most famous statues in the world.

Ancient Egypt has a clearly recognizable style of painting, with pictures composed and executed according to strict conventions.

For instance, the head, legs and feet of human subjects are shown in profile; the eyes, shoulders, arms and torso are shown from the front. Women were given fair skin, men, dark skin.

Egyptians had a strong belief in the after-life, which is reflected in much of their fine art (murals, panel paintings, sculptures and architecture), and decorative art (jewellery, adornments, steles).

Egyptian painting masterpieces include the encaustic Fayum mummy portraits (funerary portraiture preserved in coffins), which give us a fascinating glimpse of Hellenistic culture in Ancient Egypt.

For more details, see: Ancient Egyptian Art (3000-30 BC).

Assyrian Arts & Crafts

Assyrian art is noted for its architecture and for its finely detailed relief sculpture (stone or alabster) depicting hunting and military combat.

Animal forms, of horses and lions, are well represented, although human figures are more rigid.

Assyrian culture also produced gold items and jewellery, and some ivories, but in general, no significant art forms appear until the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC).

This empire was created by Assyria's warrior-kings, including Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 BC), Shalmaneser III (r. 859–824 BC) Tiglath-Pileser III (r. 745–727 BC), and also the kings of the important Sargonid dynasty, like Sargon II (r. 722–705 BC), his son Sennacherib (r. 705–681 BC), and Esarhaddon (r. 681–669 BC).

These rulers create the greatest known empire of the time, and spent huge sums on new buildings and decorations.

Assyrian art is best exemplified by the Neo-Assyrian architecture and sculptural adornments of the palaces of Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, and the palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud.

One of Assyrian's main rivals for control of northern Mesopotamia were the Hittites. Although they failed to survive the Bronze Age collapse of the 12th century BC, they punched above their weight for centuries.

Moreover, their reliefs were a key influence on Assyrian sculpture. For more, see Hittite Art (2000-750 BC).

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Art of Ancient Persia
(from 3500 BC)

For much of Antiquity, Persian art and culture intermingled with that of neighbouring states, like Sumer, Mesopotamia, and Greek art, as well as Chinese art via the "Silk Road".

The first upsurge of Persian art occurred during the Achaemenid Era (550-330). Among its masterpieces is the "Frieze of Archers" made from enameled brick.

The later Sassanid Era (226-650 AD) is noted for its narrative rock sculpture at Taq-i-Bustan, Naqsh-e Rostam and Naqsh-e Rajab, its stone mosaics, gold and silver metalwork and illuminated manuscripts, as well as crafts like carpet-making and silk-weaving.

After Persia becomes an Islamic country in 641 AD, Persian art becomes noted for its decorative mosaics and ceramic tiles used in the Great Mosque at Samarra (847 AD), and the Blue Mosque at Tabriz, especially during the Abbasid Dynasty.

Calligraphy and illumination were also seen during the Safavid Dynasty (1501-1722 AD).

Digging Up Persia

For a short guide to digging up the ancient world, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For an explanation of terms, see: Archaeology Glossary.

Minoan Culture
(2100-1100 BC)

The first major phase of Aegean culture - Minoan civilization (named after King Minos) - unfolds on the island of Crete.

By 2,100 BC the Minoans have built up a prosperous business with countries around the Mediterranean, buying tin and combining it with copper from Cyprus, to make bronze - the much valued metal of the day.

Their wealth allowed the construction of palace complexes at Knossos, Phaestus, Kato Zakros, and Akrotiri.

Thus emerged a Minoan art and culture noted for its sculpture, metalwork, fresco murals, and stone engravings (notably seal stones).

Minoan craftsmen are also famous for their pottery and vase-painting, decorated with maritime motifs. This focus on natural imagery - instead of rulers and deities - is also a feature of Minoan wall painting and sculpture.

Alas, around 1450 BC, following a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, Minoan society is seriously weakened, permitting Crete to be invaded by Mycenaeans.

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Iron Age (c.1200-200 BC)

Economic and social development during the Iron Age is much faster and more visible than in the Bronze or Stone Age.

It sees the widespread use of iron and iron tools, which leads to greater prosperity and a huge upsurge in metalwork, notably around the eastern Mediterranean.

During the Iron Age, the Minoan and Mycenean civilizations decline, after which Greek art emerges to dazzle the Mediterranean basin, along with Etruscan art proper.

But overall, it is the Hellenic culture of ancient Greece which dominates, along with the arts and crafts of ancient Egypt and Persia.

In central Europe, Celtic designs become more widespread, notably in the field of metallurgy.

For more, see: Iron Age Art in Europe (1200-200 BC)

Mycenaean Culture
(1400-1000 BC)

Mycenae, a Greek city in the Peloponnese, was the centre of the "Mycenaean" culture - a term which is sometimes (wrongly) used to describe early Greek art as a whole during the late-Bronze/ early-Iron Age.

Initially dominated by Minoan culture, Mycenean craftsmen were known for their tempera murals, stone sculpture, pottery, glass ornaments, precious metalwork and iron weaponry.

Mycenaean kings are warriors, so Mycenean painting and sculpture emphasize military successes, in a 'geometric' style.

Mycenaean art includes militaristic architecture, carved gemstones, jewellery, as well as tomb murals, and palace frescoes.

In addition, archaeologists have found a wide range of precious artifacts in Mycenean tholos tombs, which were filled with gold work, ornamental weapons and precious objects.

Shortly after starting the Trojan War (1194–1184), the city of Mycenae in Greece itself falls to a new set of invaders, known as Dorians. Now, most ancient art comes to a standstill for about 400 years (1200-800), as the region descends into the "Greek Dark Ages".

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Celtic Art (from 1000 BC)

By 1,000 BC, an Indo-European collection of tribes, known as Celts, have secured a controlling position astride the main trade routes along the Rhone, Seine, Rhine and Danube rivers.

They are the first non-Mediterranean people to master ironwork, which gives them enough technological superiority to dominate their neighbours.

Two Celtic cultures emerge: Hallstatt and La Tene.

The more advanced La Tene form of Celtic culture is marked by its distinctive geometric motifs, spirals and knots, plus animal and bird forms, as seen on the Turoe Stone.

Masterpieces of Celtic metalwork include:

La Tene designs are strongly influenced by Greek and Etruscan art and continue to flourish until the Pax Romana.

Art of Ancient Greece
(700-323 BC)

Early artistic achievements in ancient Greece include a unique style of Black Figure pottery (from 700), the invention of Doric and Ionian Orders of Architecture (550), Red Figure pottery (from 535), the Corinthian Order of Architecture (450), and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. See also: Ancient Greek Pottery.

Then during the so-called "Classical Period" of 5th century BC, Greece experiences a creative Renaissance - exemplified by the architecture and relief sculpture of the Parthenon (447-432), a large temple on the Acropolis of Athens.

Other wonders are: The Temple of Hephaestus (449) and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (456).

Also, during the 440s, the sculptor Polykleitos creates his Canon of ideal proportions, detailing the idea measurements of the human figure when sculpted.

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Sculpture of Ancient Greece

Ancient Greek sculpture represents one of the great artistic highpoints of Western culture. The most memorable Greek statues and reliefs include:

Sadly, most of the architecture, and almost all original painting and sculpture of Ancient Greece have been destroyed. Its legacy only survives thanks to Roman copies and Greek Pottery.

Hellenism (323-31 BC)

During the era of Hellenistic art, Greek culture, artistic skills and artworks are exported, and become renowned, throughout the Mediterranean area.

Style-wise, the classical 'realism' is superceded by greater gravitas and heroicism, together with a Baroque-like sense of drama.

The main types of media are mural paintings, free-standing sculpture and reliefs.

Examples of Hellenistic sculpture include:

During this period, the rise of Roman power persuades a large number of Greek artists to move to Italy in order to share in the growing Roman art market.

In Egypt, the most celebrated Hellenistic paintings are the encaustic Fayum Mummy portraits.

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Art of Ancient Rome
(200 BC-400 AD)

The culture of Ancient Rome is militaristic and imperial. Thus Roman architecture is basically a form of state propaganda.

Roman paintings and sculptures remain imitative of Greek art, although they too are used to reinforce Rome's power and majesty.

Roman art is not without its innovations: its urban architecture is ground-breaking, as are its landscape painting and portrait busts.

Roman artists can also produce masterpieces. See, for instance, the amazing sculptural reliefs on monuments such as: Ara Pacis Augustae (9 BC), Trajan's Column (113 AD), and Column of Marcus Aurelius (193 AD).

But on the whole, Roman art is both derivative and utilitarian. It serves a purpose: namely the dissemination of Roman values and Roman power.

Nowhere is the genius of Ancient Rome more visible than in architectural design and engineering.

Roman architects and engineers developed numerous new building techniques, such as multiple arches, groin vaults, and the vaulted ceiling dome.

The construction of domes required the extensive use of concrete - another Roman invention - forming a combination which is sometimes referred to as the "Roman Architectural Revolution".

The building of gigantic structures like the Pantheon and the Colosseum, would have been next to impossible without Rome's invention of the arch and the dome, as well as its creation and mastery of strong materials like concrete and bricks.

Even today, Roman bridges, aquaducts, roads and civic buildings inspire respect.

Famous Roman buildings include:

Early Roman art (200-27 BC) tends to be realistic and direct. Sculptures of Roman leaders are detailed and unidealized, but are used nevertheless to convey a political message through their body language.

Later Roman art during the height of Empire (27 BC-200 AD), is more heroic, as seen in Trajan's Column (113 AD).

Wall painting also flourishes in Ancient Rome as a form of interior decoration, while panel painting (executed in tempera or encaustic paint) is regarded more highly.

Late Roman art (200-400 AD) is influenced by the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople.

Classical Roman art and design have been hugely influential on later societies due to the Neoclassicism movement, whose style can be seen in the urban landscape of cities across the globe, as exemplified by the US Capitol Building in Washington DC.

Read about the World's Oldest Art.

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