The Art of the Ancient Near East
Copper Age 5000 BCE - 3000 BCE
Bronze Age 3000 BCE - 1400 BCE
Iron Age 1400 BCE - 1 CE
|Form: The skulls of people were separated from their bodies and covered over with plaster. They were sculpted to look like a person before he or she had died. The eyes were then inlayed with shells and hair was painted onto the head and sometimes face in the case of a man having a mustache.Iconography: They may have been icons of ancestors and used as fetish objects. They may also be an icon of the people of Jericho's belief in an afterlife. They were an icon of wisdom because they were consulted on serious matters.|
Context: These heads mark the beginning of larger sculpture in the Near East. They were found under the floors of the houses in Jericho and were supposedly looked to for values and wisdom.
6,500 BCE - 5,700 BCE
|Form: This city has no streets. The buildings are all attached and the entrances to the rooms were on the ceiling. The houses were made of timber frames and mud brick, the insides were plastered. There were platforms along the walls and shrines in many of the houses. In these shrines were bulls horns, plastered breasts, wall paintings and animal heads.Iconography: The plaster breasts found in the shrines are symbols of fertility and the bulls horns also found in the shrines are symbols of virility. The style that the city was built in is iconographic of the need of the people for protection. The shrines and dead people are an icon of the heavy influence of religion and possible ancestor worship.|
Context: Catal Huyuk's wealth was in the trade of obsidian which was a stone that was very useful in the making of weapons because it could easily be made into a sharp point. The buildings being attached, with no doors or windows, formed a very protective outer wall that allowed the people to better protect themselves. The ceiling entrance also provided the rooms with chimneys that allowed the smoke from the fire to escape. The houses were all of similar construction even though there sizes vary. The platforms in the houses were used to perform the days activities and to sleep upon at night. Dead people were buried beneath the floors and shrines were in one out of three houses.
|Process: Developed around 3100 BCE, it was original an accounting system. They started as pictographs, simple pictures, that were carved into damp clay. Between 2900 BCE and 2400 BCE they developed into phonograms, representations of syllable sounds. At the same time scribes, the people who wrote the text, began using a stylus, pictured on the bottom left. This instrument is pushed into damp clay rapidly to form the characters in the diagram. The illustration on the top left shows the development of the language from pictographs to later cuneiform signs. Not many people were literate during this time.|
Early Cuneiform Tablet (left)
Later Cuneiform Tablet (right)
both approximately 3"x5"
- made of clay.
Stele of Hammurabi
|Form: The Stele depicts Hammurabi on the right and the sun god, Shamash on the left. Shamash is handing the measuring rod to Hammurabi. It is made of black basalt and has a picture on the top and writing on the bottom. The figures are in composite view. In a composite view, the face, feet and arms are in profile but the torso is depicted in the frontal view. Sometimes the eyes are a frontal view although the face is in profile. Iconography: The three steps upon which the god rests his feet are iconographic of this meeting taking place on a mountain top. The larger seated figure is the god Shamash. (The use of size to indicate importance is referred to by Stokstad as hieratic scale.) Both Shamash’s size and the flames surrounding his represent his larger than life divine status. The flames surrounding his head are icons of his role as god of light or enlightenment and they symbolize power and ideas in much the same way our comic books represent figures with a lighbulb above their heads to represent a good idea. This meeting is symbolic of Hammurabi’s divine right to rule and pass judgment. Shamash hands over a staff of rule or rod. This represents Hammurabi’s divine right to act as Shamash’s earthly representative.|
Context: This is a stele that was used to ensure even treatment of people throughout the kingdom. The punishments were set in stone so that there could be no confusion as to how to deal with a situation. The punishment varied depending upon race, wealthy, and class. It was one of the first documents that we have that described a legal system.
|Ziggurat of King Ur-Nammu 2100 BCE|
mud brick with facing of red fired clay, each level 25' to 50'
SumerianForm: Overall the temple is built in two levels entirely of mud brick: in the lower level the bricks are joined together with bitumen, in the top level they are joined with mortar.
According to the Brittanica, "The ziggurat was always built with a core of mud brick and an exterior covered with baked brick. It had no internal chambers and was usually square or rectangular, averaging either 170 feet square or 125 170 feet (40 50 metres) at the base. Approximately 25 ziggurats are known, being equally divided in number among Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria." The walls angle slightly outward and there are three staircases of one hundred steps each.
Iconography: Ziggurats symbolize a connection between the heavens and the earth. The monumental size and shape suggest that ziggurats are a type of man-made mountain. In many cultures, religious leaders and figures often ascend mountains as a means to connect with a god or goddess. In the ancient Greek faith there was Mount Olympus where the gods lived and in the Judeo Christian faith, Moses was given the tablets of the law on Mount Sinai. Monuments of such a massive size most probably represent the power of the secular and religious rulers who commissioned them but in a more general sense they are also evidence of the organized cohesive nature of Mesopotamian civilization.
Context: The temple was dedicated to the moon god Nanna and possibly used to communicate with him. There used to be a temple at the very top of the ziggurat. People would wait in the temple for the god to communicate with them. The structure was used to intimidate enemies as well. The shape of the ziggurat may have arisen from the building on top of older buildings until it found this height but this ziggurat did not find it's shape that way. The walls were slanted probably to prevent rain water from ruining the brick work.
According to the Britannica,
No ziggurat is preserved to its original height. Ascent was by an exterior triple stairway or by a spiral ramp, but for almost half of the known ziggurats, no means of ascent has been discovered. The sloping sides and terraces were often landscaped with trees and shrubs (hence the Hanging Gardens of Babylon). The best-preserved ziggurat is at Ur (modern Tall al-Muqayyar). The largest, at Chogha Zanbil in Elam, is 335 feet (102 m) square and 80 feet (24 m) high and stands at less than half its estimated original height. The legendary Tower of Babel has been popularly associated with the ziggurat of the great temple of Marduk in Babylon.The city of Ur, modern Tall Al-muqayyar, or Tell El-muqayyar, important city of ancient southern Mesopotamia (Sumer), situated about 140 miles (225 km) southeast of the site of Babylon and about 10 miles (16 km) west of the present bed of the Euphrates River. In antiquity the river ran much closer to the city; the change in its course has left the ruins in a desert that once was irrigated and fertile land. The first serious excavations at Ur were made after World War I by H.R. Hall of the British Museum, and as a result a joint expedition was formed by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania that carried on the excavations under Leonard Woolley's directorship from 1922 until 1934. Almost every period of the city's lifetime has been illustrated by the discoveries, and knowledge of Mesopotamian history has been greatly enlarged.
|Standard of Ur|
Sumerian/MesopotamiaForm: It is made of wood, shells and stone. The Standard of Ur is broken up into the war side, middle left, and the peace side, top left. The war side, on the bottom, features horse drawn chariots running over people. In the middle, the prisoners have been captured and are being lead. On the top, the prisoners have been striped naked and are being presented to a king figure. He is the largest figure in the piece and he is also centered on the band. On the bottom, of the peace side, men carry provisions. In the middle they lead animals, and on the top a banquet takes place where the king figure is present again. At this banquet there is a lyre player and a singer, they are shown in detail on the bottom left.
Iconography: These pieces are iconographic of the morals of the culture. Long hair is iconographic of a singer. The hieratic scale and placement of the king figure are an icon of his power. The standards are icons of peace and war.
Context: Anthropologist Edmund Leach thinks that we see the world in a binary way so that is why they have the peace and war standards. More meaning can be created, if it is used for demonstrative purposes, if there is something to compare an image against. Scholars disagree as to weather the peace side banquet is a victory celebration or part of a cult ritual.
Sumerian Billy Goat and Tree from Ur
Wood, gold, lapis lazuli
|Form: It is made out of wood, gold and lapps lazuli. Great attention to detail has gone in to the making of this piece. Each of the flowers have eight points and each little ruffle in the goats wool is depicted.Iconography: Goats are symbols of fertility, power, and mans struggle with his animalistic side. The tree may be a symbol for the tree of life. The goat may also represent the fertility god Tammuz.|
Context: This is a tiny statue that was recovered at a royal burial site at Ur. This statue is part of a pair that were found, both were crushed. They may have been used as supports for an offering table.
|Form: This is a musical instrument that is made of wood, gold, lapis lazuli. and shell. The head of the bull is very naturalistic despite the beard. The top register of inlayed shell, directly beneath the bulls beard, depicts an athletic man holding two bulls with human faces. The second register shows animals, walking like men, bringing food for a feast. The third register shows the animals making music. Finally, the fourth register shows a scorpion man being offered cups from a gazelle.Iconography: The panels on the Lyre are iconographic of the humanization of animals. It is iconographic of the after life and the animals might be icons of the ones that guard the gate to heaven. It is a symbol of death because it was played at Queen Puabi's funeral.|
Context: Harps like this one were used in the funerary rights of the dead person and then buried with them. There were songs that were chanted during these burials and copies of them have been found on cuneiform tablets. The theme of this piece is the civilization of our wild nature. See Summary of the Epic of Gilgamesh
The title of this work is open to a bit of debate. Gardener's Art Through the Ages refers to this work as the "Bull headed lyre from the tomb of Puabi, Royal cemetery." Stokstad refers to it as "Bull Lyre from the tomb of King Abargi." You may use either one.
Victory Stele of Naram-Sin
|Form: This is a low relief carving on limestone. The figures are all in composite form.Iconography: Proportionately the main figure of the king Naram Sin is exaggerated to emphasize his status. When a figure's scale is emphasized in this manner it is referred to as hieratic scale. (You will also see this in Egyptian art. Naram-Sins helmet is adorned with bull horns. Since bulls are powerful and virile creatures the horns are associated with his physical power as warrior. horns on his head are also an icon for power and virility, also symbols of a king. The stars or sun in the right hand corner are symbols of divine support. He's also holding a newer kind of weapon in his left hand called a composite bow which could also represent the Akkadian armies innovative battle technology.|
Context: This commemorates Naram Sin's defeat of the Lullubi. It is inscribed twice, once in honor of this event and again when it was taken as booty when someone captured the city where it stood.
"Originally this stele was erected in the town of Sippar, centre of the cult of the Sun god, to the north of Babylon. lt was taken as booty to Susa by an Elamite king in the 12th century BC. lt illustrates the victory over the mountain people of western lran by Naram-Sin, 4th king of the Semite dynasty of Akkad, who claimed to be the universal monarch and was deified during his lifetime. He had himself depicted climbing the mountain at the head of his troops. His helmet bears the horns emblematic of divine power. Although it is worn, his face is expressive of the ideal human conqueror, a convention imposed on artists by the monarchy. The king tramples on the bodies of his enemies at the foot of a peak; above it the solar disk figures several times, and the king pays homage to it for his victory." - Louvre
|Head of an Akkadian Ruler|
(Sargon of Akkad?)
bronze 12" 2200 BCE
Head of an Akkadian Ruler
(Sargon of Akkad?)
|Form: Made from bronze, this portrait head was probably part of a larger work. Perhaps a full figure. The shape and proportions of the face and head are naturalistic but the shape and texture of the eyebrows and hair are stylized in a geometric fashion. Other stylizations or distortions occur in the exaggerated size of his eyes and nose. These stylizations and exaggerations are attempts to idealizethis ruler and make him more handsome or beautiful than he probably was according to the ideals of physical perfection in the ancient near east. Iconography: In most cultures, beauty and goodness are equated as being one in the same thing. Certainly the cultures of Mesopotamia felt this way as well. Therefore the portraits beauty is also equated with Sargon's inner beauty and or virtue. His "virtuous" nature is symbolically enhanced by his beard. Beards are icons of wisdom and because in order to grow a beard one needs to have matured to appoint beyond childhood. (This same idea is evidenced in several versions of the Arthurian legends in which although King Arthur was able to pull the sword from the stone, his brothers still refer to him as "beardless" and therefore too inexperienced or young to rule.|
Context: This statue is not in its original state. This head was once part of a complete statue that was vandalized. The ears were mutilated, the eyes gouged out, and the ears and part of the beard broken off. It has been vandalized (literally defaced) in order to dishonor the ruler it once represented. Originally the eyes in this head would have been inlayed with precious and semiprecious stones.
The tearing down of effigy monuments to symbolize the destruction or change in a regime is common to every era. When US troops "liberated" Iraq in 2004 many of the statues of Sadam Hussein were either defaced or torn down from there pedestals. In ancient Egypt, often older monuments constructed by previous pharaohs were recarved to resemble the newer rulers.
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Sargon the Great of Akkad is the first in a long (and possibly ever-extending) line of people whose life is driven by conquest. He was the first emperor of the world’s first empire. However, like most of the people who followed him, his empire didn’t last long.According to legend, Sargon’s mother was “changeling,” meaning a demon or a prostitute. He was probably born around 2350 BCE. He served as the cup-bearer of a king of the Sumerian city-state of Kish, but the king, sensing something divine in him, had Sargon killed. Sargon escaped the plot, rallied some tribesmen to his cause, and built a new city north of Sumer – Akkad. Sargon’s career has soared ever since. From Akkad, his armies blazed southward to conquer Sumer, Kish and all. From the Persian Gulf, he made a northwestward sweep to Lebanon.
|Statues from Tell Asmar|
2,900 BCE - 2,600 BCE
made from painted gypsum
Tell Asmar, Iraq
SumerianForm: The statues are made of gypsum and inlayed with shell and black limestone. The men have long hair, beards, belts, and fringed skirts. The women wear dresses that leave the right shoulder bare. The eyes are exaggerated, while the hands are downplayed.
Iconography: The figures are iconographic of real people not deities. The large eyes may symbolize eternal wakefulness or the need to approach a god with an attentive gaze. They are iconographic of the early religious practices of the Sumerians.
Context: The were buried beneath the floor of a temple. Donors may have commissioned these statues to be built in their image so that their prayers are forever being said to the gods.
|Reconstruction of Statues from Tell Asmar|
2,900 BCE - 2,600 BCE
made from painted gypsum
Tell Asmar, Iraq
Museum of Natural History, NYC