Sumerian Art: Protohistory of Mesopotamia

The region located between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates that ancient Greeks called Mesopotamia (“Land between rivers”), was the nucleus of a powerful civilization only comparable to that of Ancient Egypt. But while Egyptian art enjoyed ethnic homogeneity and geographical autonomy that allowed it to experience an isolated development in a straight line, Mesopotamian art is the product of a great ethnic diversity (Sumerians, Semitics, Indo-Europeans) and major historical events that extraordinarily influenced its development and produced an amazing variety of art forms and styles.

There was no stone or wood in the great plain bathed by the Tigris and Euphrates, only clay transported by rivers. With this clay Mesopotamians made sun-dried bricks and to a much lesser extent they also made bricks “cooked” in ovens: “… And they used bricks instead of stones…” we read in the Book of Genesis. This explains why throughout millennia the ancient cities were transformed into unformed clay mounds that the natives later called tells and under which the legendary cities were found.

A painted ceramic vase of the Susa style (Louvre), one of the oldest objects from the early history of Mesopotamia (ca. fourth millennium B.C.). The decor includes brush-made drawings depicting stylized animals and plants framed by geometric compositions.

The early history (or Protohistory) of Mesopotamia lasted from the last times of Prehistory until about 3000 BC when the invention of writing made possible the appearance of the first written documents, an episode that marked the beginning of true Historic times. The Protohistoric period lasted about 2000 years from which there are only some cups and plates made of painted ceramic. The earliest findings which illustrate the Protohistoric period came from the site of Hassuna from around the fifth millennium BC. It was then when groups of nomads became sedentary, dedicated to agriculture and livestock, and built the first houses. In Hassuna were found various tools used in daily life and decorated with abstract ornamentations whose development led to the wonderful drawings of the pottery called from the “Susa style” which belongs to the fourth millennium. These cups have drawings in bistre and black tones made with brushes on a yellowish background. These drawings sometimes resembled stylized natural forms (palm leaves, birds, and quadrupeds) but represented mostly geometric compositions. These cups or vessels from the “Susa style” were characterized by their delicate profile that sometimes recalls a beaker and for their abstract decoration inspired by abstract or highly stylized naturalistic themes.

All these testimonies of the origins of Mesopotamian civilization came from the northern part of the country, but in 1946-1949 was found the ancient Sumerian city of Eridu located at the south in the delta of the rivers and close to the Persian Gulf. In this city archaeologists discovered no less than 18 temples superimposed on each other all in the same place. The temples of the deepest levels were built by an unknown people one thousand years before the Sumerians came to the country. The temple of the XVI level (the numbering starts with the surface, that is, by the most modern levels) has allowed the reconstruction of a building’s structure whose floor plan was impressive. This religious building of Eridu, the oldest known, belongs to the fifth millennium and had already the elements that throughout various civilizations and human history have been used until this day: a gateway or door leading to a nave at the bottom of which there is a square apse with the god’s altar. The only special feature of these earlier times is that in the nave there was a table for offerings. Christian worship has removed this element because in its liturgy the altar is both sacrifice table and residence of the divinity.

Female figure with bird head (British Museum) ca. fourth millennium B.C. from Ur. It is one of the oldest known Mesopotamian sculptures.

The oldest Mesopotamian sculpture gives us the image of the gods of the Protohistoric period in the form of small clay figurines. The first figurines were found in the deeper layers of Ur, the great Sumerian capital. These clay figurines representing women with bird or snake heads were slender naked women, standing, and resting hands on their narrow waists. They had small and high breasts and the pubic triangle was strongly marked. These strange representations of the fourth millennium corresponded to primitive dreams and fears clearly illustrated in this early stage of this civilization.  The vessels were painted only with abstract forms.  In sculpture, figurative forms were accepted though with an essential condition: the subject represented did not belong to the real visible world.

Another similar representation from ca. early third millennium BC is a monster in crystalline stone held at the Brooklyn Museum. Here a human body, without any indication of sex, exhibits a lioness head. This last piece which belongs to the end of the Protohistoric period was the work of Sumerian people. Nobody knows where they came from or to which ethnic group they belonged to. What it is certain is that they were not Semites which were tribes that occupied the north of the country around the same time Sumerians populated the area of the delta. Their physical appearance is familiar to us for the many carved images they made of themselves: they were robust, had a straight nose, and completely shaved their heads. This last feature totally differentiated them from the Semites to whom they called “black heads” because of their long hair and curly beards. The Semites were still nomadic herders that sometimes penetrated deep into Sumerian territory. Abraham was born in one of these Semitic nomadic groups that later arrived to Ur.

Sumerian monster (Brooklyn Museum, New York), dated to the early third millennium BC.
Ruins of the White Temple and its ziggurat, (between 3500 – 3000 B.C.) in Uruk (modern Warka, Iraq).

The end of the Protohistoric period is represented by the oldest remains of Kish and those of the first dynasty of Uruk. It is the period to which the monster of the Brooklyn Museum belongs. The place the Bible calls Erek includes the remains of a series of temples that demonstrate how architecture had a great development in the hands of the Sumerians. Some of these temples had columns covered with mosaics forming geometric drawings (zigzags, triangles, and rhombs) in black, white or red. One of them, called the “White Temple” stood on an artificial hill of over twelve feet high. This is the first attempt to build a ladder between earth and heaven to ensure at all costs the descent of the gods. This monument is the oldest known prototype of the vertical architectures which characterized for three thousand years the Mesopotamian sacred buildings: the ziggurats, giant multi-story towers, which are echoed in the Tower of Babel mentioned in the Bible.


*Apse: From Latin absis: meaning “arch” or “vault” is a semicircular recess of a building covered with a hemispherical vault or semi-dome.  In church architecture designates a semi-circular or polygonal ending of the main building located at the liturgical east end where the altar is.




*Ziggurat: Colossal religious buildings from the ancient Mesopotamian valley and western Iranian plateau, with the form of a terraced step pyramid of successively receding stories or levels.