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Sumerian Art & Culture

Civilization of ancient Sumer
4,000-2000 BC

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Sumer: First Ancient Civilization

Sumer (Sumeria) was one of the earliest civilizations of the ancient world. It emerged in the farmlands of the Fertile Crescent, scene of the Neolithic Revolution, located between the Tigris and Euphrates, in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).

Sumerian culture reached its zenith during the 4th and 3rd millennia BC, and lasted from about 4000 BC to around 2000 BC, when the Sumerians were overrun by Persian Elamites and Amorites from Canaan in the Levant.

A century later, Sumerian lands were absorbed into the new Babylonian culture centred on the city of Babylon.

That said, it's worth noting that Sumerian traditions lived on. Thus, even when King Hammurabi (1810-1750) created a unified Babylonian empire, it is Sumerian art, not anything distinctively Babylonian, that survives.

Leonard Woolley

Professor Leonard Woolley (1880-1960), an eminent archaeologist best known for his excavations at Ur, viewed the Sumerians as key figures in ancient art and human civilization.

Woolley believes the Sumerians deserve precedence over the once highly regarded Akkadians or true Babylonians as founders of Mesopotamian art and culture.

What's more, he goes a step further, placing them ahead of the Egyptians as pioneering lawgivers, inventors, and artists.

He states that when Sumerian culture began to blossom around 3500 BC, Egypt had not yet developed metals, or invented the potter's wheel, and lacked any form of written language. (Egypt's hieroglyphic script would not appear until 3100 BC.)

Digging Up the Past

For a quick guide to studying Sumer and the ancient world, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient. For an explanation of terms used, please see: Archaeology Glossary.

Origins

Sumeria was first established between 4500 and 4000 BC by proto-Euphrateans or Ubaidians, after the type-site of Al-ʿUbayd, where their remains were first unearthed.

The Ubaidians served as the initial civilizing force in the country.

They drained the marshes which led to major growth in agriculture and a settled food supply. Villages and towns sprang up around Ubaid farming communities.

Ubaidians developed trade links across the region, and set up craft industries in the areas of pottery, weaving, leatherwork, stonework, and metalwork.

The Ubaidians' success attracted several other peoples into the territory - including the people whose language became the official language of the country.

These 'Sumerian people' came from Anatolia, home of ancient sites of Mesolithic culture, such as the sanctuary of Göbekli Tepe (9000 BC), the cult sanctuary of Nevalı Çori (8600 BC), and the proto-city of Çatalhöyük (7100 BC).

Sumer's mix of cultures helped to shape Sumerian civilization, which most historians see as beginning about 3,500 BC.

Sumerian Culture: A Summary

By 3,500 BC, Sumer's innovations enabled it to outshine all its contemporaries across the Fertile Crescent, including the Egyptians.

Writing

The Sumerians almost certainly developed the world's first writing system. Known as cuneiform, it was based on a system of pictographs, which evolved into symbols that represented words and sounds.

The symbols were scratched into wet clay and left to dry.

This writing system was a major cultural achievement, and enabled administrators as well as farmers to maintain meticulous records, thus maximizing profits and tax revenues.

Engineering

Architecture

Mesopotamia, the 'land between the rivers' had very little stone or timber, for building purposes, but it possessed an abundance of river mud/clay.

To make maximum use of this resource, the Sumerians developed moulds to make mud-bricks as quickly as possible. This enabled them to build larger cities, faster.

In addition, Sumer architects developed rudimentary arches and vaults some 3000 years before Roman architecture became prominent in Europe.

Sumer was also the first civilization to develop monumental architecture. The first Ziggurat, a stepped structure made from clay bricks and dedicated to the local deity, was built in Sumer around 4000 BC. This was centuries before the Egyptian mud-brick mastaba (c.3200 BC).

Pottery

The world's first known potter's wheel - dating to 3,129 BC - was recovered from the Sumerian city of Ur.

Other wheels were likely developed elsewhere, but the Sumerian potter's wheel revolutionized the mass production of ancient pottery, which became more affordable as a result.

Science

Evidence suggests that Sumerians had an advanced knowledge of maths, physics, chemistry and human anatomy.

Their skill at mathematics led to a greater understanding of both architecture and engineering, while modern time keeping is based on the Sumerian adoption of 60 seconds per minute and 60 minutes per hour.

Metallurgy

Sumer is believed to be the first culture to make widespread use of copper (c.5000 BC), and passed on their know-how to Ancient Egypt.

Advanced Laws

The oldest written laws - dated to around 2400 BC - feature the Code of Er-Nammu, which was written on tablets in the city of Ebla.

Sumer's system of laws was taken up by other states, like Babylon, whose King Hammurabi (ruled 1792-1750 BC) is famous for his set of written laws. Known as The Code of Hammurabi, it included 282 laws inscribed on a stela (stone slab) in Babylon's temple of Marduk.

History

By 3000 BC, the 'Sumerian people' were in control of the territory.

Their society was centred on a group of city-states, including Eridu, Kish, Lagash, Nippur, Ur and Uruk, the world's first real city.

By 2800 BC, Uruk's population had risen to between 40,000 and 80,000 people, protected by 10 kilometres of defensive walls.

Later, a total of 12 separate city-states appeared: Adab, Akshak, Bad-tibira, Kish, Lagash, Larak, Larsa, Nippur, Sippar, Umma, Ur, and Uruk.

NOTE: Sumerian art was followed by that of Babylonia and Assyria, both of whom enjoyed two cultural highpoints. For details, see: Babylonian Art (1830-539 BC) and Assyrian Art (911-609 BC).

Anatolian culture, to the north of Mesopotamia, is exemplified by Hittite art (2000-750 BC).

Sumerian Architecture

Architecture was an important part of Sumer culture and Sumer art. Sumer was also one of the first cultures to practice urban planning. Buildings varied in size from houses to palaces, and each type had a different role, such as: commercial, residential, religious or civic.

Ziggurats

The best-known architectural structure in Sumer was the ziggurat, a stepped pyramid-type structure, made out of mud-brick.

Ziggurats were the earliest form of monumental building, serving as a shrine or sanctuary for the local god. It's possible they were a modern substitute for hilltops, which were traditionally used as places of worship.

They were not built for public ceremonies, but as dwelling places for the gods: each being dedicated to the city's god or goddess.

Although ziggurats are noted for their flat tops, some (e.g. Anu Ziggurat in Uruk) had temples on top of them, and others may have had smaller shrines on top.

The Sumerians and Babylonians believed that gods lived in the temple or shrine, so only priests and priestesses were allowed inside a ziggurat.

Ziggurats had multiple outer levels, but few if any inner rooms, though they sometimes featured terraces with gardens, like the famous 'Hanging Gardens of Babylon'.

Although broadly contemporaneous with Egyptian pyramids and Egyptian temples, Sumerian mudbrick buildings have long collapsed, while most pyramids are still standing. For more, see Ancient Egyptian Architecture (3000-60 BC).

Two famous examples of Sumerian architecture, include:

In general, due to erosion and collapse, architectural remains from the Sumerian period are too fragmentary to provide a detailed understanding of either monumental or domestic buildings.

Compare Western Europe

While Sumerian architects were building cities with ziggurats, temples and drainage systems, Western Europe was digging graves for elite individuals, such as Newgrange Passage tomb (3100 BC).

Sumerian Arts

Initially, Sumerian art excelled mostly in pottery until approximately 3500 BC. Notably, they produced the first mass-produced bowls at Uruk around 4000 BC.

However, at that point, there was a notable emergence of free-standing sculpture, early bronze statuettes, primitive personal jewelry, and decorative designs on a wide range of artifacts.

Sumer's Bronze Age culture of the third millennium BC, made a number of advances in copper and bronze casting techniques, with some bronze sculptures being produced using the complex cire-perdue process.

Excavations at Ur revealed numerous rich tombs containing precious materials such as gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and decorated shell objects.

These tombs also contained gaming boards, harps, weapons, and cylinder seals. Clay steles, tablets adorned with relief sculptures, began to be used by the educated classes for narrative purposes.

Characteristics

Pottery

The abundance of clay, the invention of the potter's wheel, made ancient pottery a specialty of the region, and helped to boost Sumerian achievements in this field.

Ubaid pottery from Sumer, for instance, predominated in Mesopotamia between 5,500 and 4,000 BC.

Ubaid ceramic ware was decorated in a more subdued way than Halaf pottery from northern Mesopotamia and Syria, with very little of the latter's lustre and colour.

Instead it is noted for a more restrained style of buff/green ware decorated with zigzags, chevrons, and other geometric patterns. It is also known for its strange terracottas of people with lizard-like features.

Uruk pottery (4,000-3,100 BC) is associated with urban civilization in Sumeria. Uruk pottery is noted for its beveled rims, and highly polished monochrome pots, with red or grey slips. Its jars are noted for their large mouths, short necks and fat bodies.

During this time, pottery became the most important medium of ancient art in Mesopotamia. Potter's wheels became faster, potters began to master the firing process, and kiln designs improved.

Painting

Painting was a much respected craft in Sumer. Unfortunately, as is the case with paintings in Ancient Greece, almost all Sumerian paintings have disappeared due to the effects of weather and vandalism.

A small amount of mural painting has survived, but no encaustic or tempera painting, along the lines of the Egyptian Fayum Mummy Portraits (50 BC-AD 250).

Relief Sculpture

Stele of the Vultures

Among the excavated ruins of Lagash, a Sumerian city-state, archaeologists discovered fragments of a stone tablet, sculpted in low relief.

This tablet, known as the Stele of the Vultures, served as a war memorial commissioned by King Eannatum.

One side of the monument outlines the military triumphs of King Eannatum in both pictures and text. The oversized figure of the king leads his soldiers into battle, with mounds of enemy corpses and vultures hovering overhead to carry away butchered remains.

The other side of the tablet depicts the gods approving the king's actions.

This narrative relief sculpture (dated to 2500-2400 BC) is believed to be one of the earliest known examples of visual storytelling, with its central theme revolving around war - one of the prevailing themes of the era, alongside depictions of kings, gods, and hunting.

While the Stele of the Vultures is an important example of late Sumerian sculpture, it doesn't reflect the spectrum of Sumerian art.

Instead, smaller animal figures, shell plaques, and seals, better characterize the artistic output of Sumer's early city-states.

These artworks exude more humanity and appeal. They exhibit a greater emphasis on decorative elements and a reduced focus on boastful and violent narratives.

They demonstrate a penchant for ornamentation and a fondness for intricate refinement in miniature form.

The delicacy and precision of these smaller works show there was a long tradition of drawing and carving, from Sumer's earliest beginnings.

Shell plaques attached to game boards, musical instruments, and furniture demonstrate spirited patterning with figures that possess cleverly conventionalized designs for heraldic impact.

These figures are often carved in low relief against contrasting backgrounds.

Additional patterns composed of shell squares with lively linear engravings or incisions, filled with red or black paste to enhance the clarity and crispness of the drawings, have been found. This technique resembles the niello work seen in European art during the late middle ages.

Low relief sculpture was extensively employed on building walls and, in lighter materials, as decorative elements on luxurious furniture.

Tablet-monuments, known as stela, or stelae, also became increasingly prevalent.

Earlier Sumerian relief sculpture, such as the Tablet of Ur-Nina, (c.3000 BC), may display a certain lack of finesse, but a limestone relief frieze discovered on a temple wall in al'Ubaid near Ur, stands out as a remarkable and captivating decorative work.

This facade boasted various forms of mosaic art, stone sculpture, limestone friezes, and copper reliefs. A good example of the latter is Imdugud Between Two Stags (2500 BC) - a large hammered panel above a door, featuring a lion-headed bird between two stags, as well as a copper pictorial frieze.

Statues

Sumerian sculpture also features statues in the round, although these works did not achieve the same level of aesthetic expressiveness as the equivalent Egyptian sculptures from the Old Kingdom period (2575-2150 BC). For more details, see Ancient Egyptian Art (3000-30 BC).

Over the course of several centuries, from 3100 to 2500 BC, the artistic conventions of Sumerian statuary remained largely unchanged, with minimal advancements in skill.

Even the 27 statues of King Gudea, characterized by their massive size, simple forms, and serene postures, lacked the inner life and expressionism of Egyptian works.

We see this in numerous Sumerian statues. An example, is the Standing Male Worshipper (2900-2600 BC), depicting a man with a long beard standing with both his hands cupped in front of his breastbone.

Decorative Art

Not only were Sumerian craftsmen skilled at ceramics and sculpture, but they also produced beautiful pieces of decorative art, adorned with semi-precious stones like alabaster, lapis lazuli, and serpentine to name but three.

Also, they excelled in precious metalwork, creating inlays and designs out of gold, silver, bronze, and copper.

Sumerian artists achieved exceptional skill at producing figurines, particularly those featuring animals.

One noteworthy example is Queen Shubad's donkey, a tiny sculpture of a donkey, dated to 3100 BC, which Queen Shubad attached to the reins of her chariot. Anther example is a series of bulls' heads crafted from silver and copper, which are also intensely appealing.

Queen Shubad's donkey, the bulls' heads, and much else besides, were discovered in the necropolis at Ur.

When the Queen died around 3100 BC, numerous ladies-in-waiting were entombed in her burial chamber, as per custom, to accompany her in the afterlife.

Alongside them, numerous earthly treasures, like the queen's chariot, harps, and jewellery, were also walled in. These tomb finds offer valuable insights into Sumerian art and culture.

Unfortunately, Sumerian decorative artists had a tendency to overdo things.

Thus headdresses, jewellery, gold vessels, miniature statues, and the like, become excessively detailed and adorned for decorative purposes.

Cylindrical Seals

In addition to statues and decorative art, the Sumerians excelled in the art of sculpting cylindrical seals in low relief.

These miniature works of art began with the Sumerians but continued to be produced throughout the Babylonian-Assyrian period.

To leave their mark or sign the clay, important individuals carried personal seals, often ornamental and pictorial in nature.

These seals, made from materials like obsidian, agate, quartz, or alabaster, were carved as negatives, resulting in relief impressions when pressed into the clay.

The seals typically depicted compositions with figures and frequently served as tokens of the owner's devotion to specific gods.

Numerous examples of cylinder seals, as well as other variations such as flat, ring, and cone seals, have been unearthed, along with countless clay documents bearing their impressions.

The early examples of Sumerian cylinder seals may exhibit roughly geometrical designs or solar images, often accompanied by primitive pictographic inscriptions.

However, after approximately 3500 BC, the figured seals were characterized by increased sharpness and crisp delineation, with figures standing out against uninvolved backgrounds, exemplifying the exquisite artistry of Sumerian stonework during this period.

Note: In Sumer, writing was commonly done on wet clay slabs that later hardened into permanent tablets. It was thanks to these tablet documents, that we know so much about Sumerian life and culture.

Tomb Art

Most Sumer art derives from excavated tombs, since many precious objects were often buried with their deceased owners.

Sumerian tombs have disgorged a multitude of objects, including: decorated bowls, jars, and vases, jewellery, cylinder seals, musical instruments - notably lyres - sculptures, paintings, and so on.

From 1922 to 1934, Professor Leonard Woolley led a series of archaelogical excavations at the Royal Cemetery, in the city of Ur, dating to between 3000 and 2000 BC. The excavation team discovered over 2000 burials.

Among the greatest treasures of Sumerian art which were found at Ur's death pits, are the following:

Ram in a Thicket: 2500 BC

The so-called 'Ram in a Thicket', is actually an identical pair of animal figures, measuring about 46 cm (16 inches) tall.

Each statuette features a goat standing on its hind legs, framed by gold foliage.

They are crafted from a wooden core embellished with gold and silver, lapis lazuli, copper, shell and red limestone, and exemplify the tradition of Sumerian sculpture, with its rich mixture of precious materials and luscious colour.

Woolley named them Ram in a Thicket after the passage in Genesis 22:13, where Abraham sacrifices a ram caught in a thicket, in place of his son.

Standard of Ur: 2500 BC

The Standard of Ur consists of an empty wooden box 22 centimetres wide by 50 centimetres long, inlaid with a mosaic of shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli, illustrating scenes of war and peace.

Although identified as a standard by its finder, its original purpose is actually unknown. It was found in a tomb dedicated to Ur-Pabilsag, a king during the First Dynasty of Ur during the 26th century BC.

Golden Lyre of Ur

The Golden Lyre (or Great Lyre) is a wooden lyre, roughly 120 cm in height, which has a bull's head (made entirely of gold) protruding from the front of it.

The bull's eyes are made of inlaid nacre and lapis lazuli. The body of the bull was originally made out of wood and has not survived. The lyre is now in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad.

Queen's Lyre of Ur

The Queen's Lyre, also made of wood, was recovered from the grave of Queen Pu-abi. It is 110 centimetres tall and is similar in appearance to the Golden Lyre.

The bull's mask is gold, while the eyes, hair, and beard are all made of lapis lazuli. This work is now in the British Museum, London.

Bull Headed Lyre

The Bull Headed Lyre, found in 'The King’s Grave' is 40 cm in height. The animal's head, face and horns are all wrapped in gold foil, while its eyes, hair and beard are made of lapis lazuli.

The bull head itself may represent the sun god Utu, who was believed to descend at will into the underworld. The lyre is now in the Penn Museum, Philadelphia.

All these ancient musical instruments date to between 2550 and 2450 BC, which makes them the world's oldest surviving stringed instruments. For the oldest musical instrument, see: Divje Babe flute (c.58,000 BC).

NEXT: See Timeline of Prehistoric Art.

References

(1) The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character. Samuel Noah Kramer.The University of Chicago Press (1963). Chicago & London.
(2) Frankfort, Henri (1996). The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient. Harmondsworth: Yale University Press. ISBN 0140561072
(3) Crawford, Harriet E. W. (2004). Sumer and the Sumerians (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521533386

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