Welcome back to our series on art history. In this article we’ll move on from the Prehistoric era to Mesopotamia, birthplace of human civilization! With the rise of organized communities comes the need for communication not only in art but also in the form of writing. This is where history really begins, thanks to the record created by the people who wrote it all down and preserved their cultures.
Sumer was notable for being the first civilization in southern Mesopotamia (think modern-day Iraq) and for being the culture that first developed a writing system in the area. Cuneiform, those wedge-like shapes found on many a stone tablet, dates back to 3500 BCE or so.
Unlike proto-writing, which historians use to refer to symbols that don’t contain linguistic content, cuneiform grew from pictograms to include abstract forms that allowed the people of Mesopotamia to communicate and record their lives and ideas. Cuneiform wasn’t abandoned until somewhere around 100 CE when alphabets were created and used throughout Eurasia.
Cuneiform is considered to be the Sumerian civilization’s greatest achievement, and it’s them that we can thank for giving historians context for the culture and art of Mesopotamia.
Uruk and Relief Sculptures
Uruk was a major city in Sumer that gives its name to the earlier period of Mesopotamian culture. The art of the time consisted of a lot of pottery and carvings.
One well-known example is the Warka Vase, an alabaster vessel carved with four tiers of designs. The first three tiers are in patterns around the vase consisting of vegetation on the bottom, animals in the middle, and men carrying bowls and jars on the top of the three sections. The top-most section of the entire structure is a scene showing Inanna (also known as Ishtar), the goddess of love, fertility, and warfare.
Another piece made during this time is the Uruk Trough. Like the Warka Vase, this decorative piece is a form of narrative relief sculpture. Artists cut into stone, or in this case gypsum, in order to create their designs so it looks as if the forms are popping out from the background or placed on top of the sculpture.
Artists would cut away the negative space, allowing the remaining materials to form the positive image. While it was a tedious task, art in relief was more likely to survive throughout the years because it wasn’t as fragile as a free-standing sculpture, having one side of it still anchored to the entire structure.
Early Dynastic Period Art
Interestingly, the Early Dynastic Period (2900–2350 BCE) gave us a lot of votive statues, or carvings of worshippers and priests. Typically, these figures stood wearing skirts or dresses with their hands clasped at the chest. Faces didn’t vary much, but hairstyles on women and some of the clothing or things being held by the little figures did.
This was a time period where copper became huge for sculpture. One fantastic example can be found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur: Ram in a Thicket. At the risk of editorializing too much, this is one of the cutest sculptures I’ve ever seen while running through art history.
Ram in a Thicket was discovered crushed flat and had to be carefully restored. It once had an inner core of wood, but it decomposed over time. Archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley discovered the sculpture (really a pair of sculptures) and after using wax to keep it together during excavation had to carefully press the figure back into shape.
A variety of materials were used for the sculpture. Gold leaf was adhered to its wooden base while its ears were constructed of copper. The fleece on its body was made of shell while the fleece on its shoulders and its horns were constructed of lapis lazuli. Quite notably the figure stands on a base covered in a mosaic made of shell, lapis lazuli, and red limestone.
The talk of mosaics brings us to another Early Dynastic creation, the “Standard of Ur”. This collection of mosaics depicts narratives of war and peace in lapis lazuli and shell. Like the ram mentioned above, these mosaics were adhered to wood, and therefore only survived in fragments. Woolley and his team are responsible for the restoration of the Standard; they used wax to carefully remove small portions of the mosaic until they could reassemble it to the best of their ability.
It’s because of the use of materials like stones, metals, and shells that we have art from thousands of years ago. While wood may have been a common material, it decomposed over time, losing its place in history.
The Akkadian Empire controlled Mesopotamia from 2271–2154 BCE or so. This gives us a time period in which their culture ruled the day, and we look to their contributions to art. Unsurprisingly when we talk about cultures that conquered large areas, they tend to have artwork that focuses on kings, leaders, and their empire. The Akkadian Empire was no different, so we have a sculpture of one of the Akkadian kings. The sculpture below was rendered in bronze.
Achievements of kings were also preserved. A stele is a large stone slab (they can also be wood) erected as a monument or commemorative piece. The “Victory Stele of Naram-Sin” is a relief carving that measures six feet tall (approximately 1.8 meters) and depicts King Naram-Sin of Akkad leading his people to victory while wearing a bull-horn helmet.
This piece is significant because it shows the king wearing a helmet previously only shown to be worn by gods. Add to this the king’s position within the carving and you have a prime example of showing a leader as a divine figure, something pretty common throughout human history.
Jumping to the Assyrians, we have another culture whose artistic contributions focused on victory, the military, and its leaders. The bright side of this era, lasting from 1500 BCE to 612 BCE or so, was the focus on creating large, showy art pieces decorating their public buildings and palaces.
A lot of focus was put on the depiction of animals and animal features. Minute details were rendered into relief carvings showing human figures riding on horses into battle. A notable contribution added the “Winged Genius” into history, which often consisted of a relief carving of a man with wings. Like the Akkadians before them, Assyrian leaders were said to have commissioned these art pieces as depictions of their own divinity. This notion is based on the only difference between carvings of kings and genii being the wings.
Later these winged men influenced Greek art during its Archaic period and resulted in such well-known mythological creatures as the Chimera, Pegasus, Griffin, and Talos.
Jumping further ahead, we reach the Babylonians. Typically when you hear about the Babylonians you think of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Being gardens, something easily destroyed, there are only artistic depictions and written accounts of the gardens, but none that were first hand.
The written accounts of the gardens describe them as being this great multi-level construction that resulted in a mountainous-like appearance, filled with trees, vines, bushes, and plants of all sorts. Since these accounts are from hundreds of years later, however, or simply quote lost texts, the gardens may have been Assyrian rather than Babylonian or may be entirely mythical.
Another famous example of Babylonian contributions to art is the Ishtar Gate. Unlike the Hanging Gardens, we know this to have existed thanks to 20th-century excavations. A part of the Wall of Babylon, the Ishtar Gate was constructed around 575 BCE under Nebuchadnezzar II’s rule.
Once considered to be a part of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (the Walls of Babylon were replaced on the list by the Lighthouse of Alexandria), the gate is decorated with glazed bricks depicting dragons, lions, and bulls amongst bright blue glazed bricks that may or may not be lapis lazuli. The animals refer to deities of the Babylonians (Ishtar, Adad, and Marduk). It’s said the gate was a part of a processional way that led to the temple of Marduk, chief god of Babylon.
With the birth and widespread use of writing systems came the context that we, as viewers of the past, need in order to understand the culture and expression of our ancestors. From relief sculpture to copper to large buildings and structures meant to honor leaders and gods, art was in full bloom in the Fertile Crescent.
These are just some highlights from these eras. Our species has a long history of creating art for a variety of reasons, and this is just a taste of the art throughout Mesopotamia. Next time we’ll journey a bit west, to Ancient Egypt!
Want to read more about Mesopotamian Art? Check out these links below!
- The Sumerians
- The Art and Architecture of Mesopotamia
- Ur of the Chaldees
- Mesopotamia (exhibition at the British Museum)
- The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced
Article sources include the following: