Sumerian Art: The period of the first Sumerian dynasties

The most extraordinary invention of the Sumerians was writing. Such an invention must have occurred around 3000 BCE. The oldest texts from Uruk employed about 900 signs, most of which were ideograms that represented words. But pretty quickly this number of signs was reduced to the point that, by abstraction, Sumerians invented signs representing only sounds. From this time on we find ourselves in historical times. The first period of Mesopotamian history is called Early Dynastic while others prefer to call it “Presargonic” since, as we shall see, the country’s unification under Sargon I (a Semitic king) was very important to the history and art of the Sumerian people. With either name, this first period is centered around the artistic productions of the first dynasty of Ur and the first of Lagash. In the north of the country, far from the delta, the city of Mari also played a key role. The Presargonic period lasted more than three centuries, approximately between 2700 to 2350 BCE. Therefore it was contemporary to the first dynasties of the ancient Egyptian Empire.

Examples of the rapid architectural development of this period were the temples of Al-Ubaid and Mari. Al-Ubaid (transcribed by the French from Arabic as “El Obeid”) was located on top of a platform and surrounded by an oval enclosure. The walls made of oven-baked bricks had a series of salient pilasters that remained as permanent features for all Sumerian architecture. They are like giant grooves that marked rectilinear, parallel and vertical shadows: the broad surfaces of these walls thus became a composition consisting of zones alternating bright and dark lines of shadow sliding along the walls. In Mari several temples of this period are still in place, the best preserved is that of Ninni-Zaza.

Beneath the ruins of the city of Mari were found some of the oldest preserved portraits, such as the statue of the city’s “mayor” Ebih-Il. All of these portraits feature people praying, staring at distant contemplation, and with peaceful and smiling expressions with affable faces. These characters were dressed in a curious bell-shaped dress called kaunakes* made with sheep wool whose fleeces were carefully sculpted. All men and women had joined hands in a position that was probably in use during prayer and ritual, and that has survived to this day.

The Mayor of the city of Mari, Ebih Il (Louvre), ca. third half of the first millennium BC. It is shown in prayer position and wearing the kaunakes.
The Standard of Ur (British Museum).

The life of the princes of the first dynasty of Ur was beautifully told in the so called “Standard of Ur”. This is a lectern-shaped piece ornamented on all four sides with a mosaic of ivory pieces that stand out on the dark blue lapis lazuli background. The two longer panels are the most emblematic. They illustrate two aspects of existence: War and Peace. On both sides, the graphic narrative begins in the bottom. In the first we see the king and his squire on the chariot and shown in four positions from step to gallop: this is the “first cartoon*” in which the war chariot, looked from right to left, goes faster at every step. In the middle register the conquerors with helmet and mantle lead the prisoners. The scene ends in the top register where the defeated tied two and two are presented to the king that has descended from his chariot while his squire holds the reins of the four horses.

The side of the “War” of the Standard of Ur (British Museum).

On the flipside, the Peace, the servants carry to the palace everything needed for the party: in the upper register the king wears the kaunakes and drinks from a cup on his hand in the company of his guests while a singer and a harpist distract them with their music.

Side of the “Peace” of the Standard of Ur (British Museum).

The excavations in the ancient city of Lagash have provided various reliefs, vases and objects that tell us new details about the life in presargonic times. In a relief from the Louvre dated from the first dynasty of Lagash, we see to the left the king Ur-Nina with a mason basket on his head and in front of him his five children: first is princess Lid-da wearing kaunakes. This relief represents the scene of the laying of the first brick of a temple. On the right the figure of Ur-Nina is sitting on his throne and sipping from a cup accompanied by his four sons.

Clay tablet of King Ur-Nina of Lagash with his family (Louvre) with archaic cuneiform writing, ca. 2875 B.C.E. This tablet apparently commemorated the construction of a temple.

The excavations of Lagash provided, broken into pieces, another relief now famous known as the “Stele of Vultures”. This is the historical narrative of the victories of the grandson of Ur-Nina, Eannatum. Of the various scenes depicted in the stele, the best preserved is the one representing the march to the battlefield: Eannatum himself covered with a thick coat leads his soldiers, they appear as a powerful mass of fighters with helmet , large shields, and spears in hand, trampling the naked bodies of the defeated enemies. In other fragments of the stele are other battle scenes and the god Ningirsu with an eagle whose claws catch the net that covers the conquered.

Detail of the Stele of the Vultures (Louvre), commemorating the victory of Eannatum of Lagash on the neighboring city of Uma.

The same eagle with lion head present in the “Stele of the Vultures” reappears three times in a silver pitcher also discovered in Lagash and that clearly represents the emblem of the city. The tremor transmitted by the chisel to this monster grabbing deer, goats and lions, is in contrast to the perfect and cold fineness of the pitcher’s profile. At the top of the pitcher just before its neck there is a frieze with seven calves, a sacred number then and these days.

Silver Vase of Entemena (Louvre) from Lagash, ca. 2500 B.C.E.

The perfection of this pitcher from Entemena introduces us into the fabulous world of the metal artwork made by Sumerians, they are artistic wonders in gold and lapis lazuli made around the mid-third millennium BC, found in what is known today as the “Royal Tombs” of Ur.

Headdress of Queen Puabi of Ur (Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia).

The winter of 1927-1928 archaeologists of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania discovered in Ur two tombs holding a great treasure. They were not monumental: they were just subterranean areas joined to a ramp leading to the funeral ceremony. Once the burial ceremony was finished everything was covered with soil. In the ramp and into the antechamber laid 68 skeletons of men and women in a position indicating that they had been killed right there without resistance or receiving mutilations. The guards and servants of the main chiefs appeared to have been previously drugged to accompany their masters through death. In the other tombs that were later discovered at Ur the deceased’s main chiefs were also accompanied by dozens of sacrificed men and women. The horror is mixed here with wonder because the funerary trousseau is of an incalculable wealth and, most important, represents extraordinary artistic merit. In the first of these tombs belonging to Queen Puabi (or Shubad) was found alongside her head the shell with a green dye she used as eye makeup: she was wearing two pairs of large earrings and several necklaces hung on her chest all of gold and precious stones. But the most sensational object was the headdress of gold leaves and flowers adorning her head now in the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

The other women slaughtered at the funeral were also fantastically bejeweled. The soldiers were wearing helmets and had their weapons. A girl, who must have been the queen’s harpist, had the instrument reclining on her chest as if she should play it eternally. There were also gold and silver vessels, harps, chests and boards to play a game similar to chess, all of gold, rock crystal and mother of pearl.

Among the treasures of Queen Puabi and other tombs it is worth mentioning the harps with bull heads made of gold and lapis lazuli. The wood had disappeared (decayed) but the rich mosaics covering the sounding boards and the neck that used to hold the strings were preserved in place and allowed a complete restoration of such instruments.

Polychromed wooden bull heads adorning harps (left, Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; right, British Museum). These pieces are dated around the third millennium B.C.E.


Cartoon: A type of illustration typically in a non-realistic or semi-realistic style. It involves either an image or series of images intended for satire, caricature, or humor; or a motion picture that relies on a sequence of illustrations for its animation. The concept had its origins in the Middle Ages and was used to describe a preparatory drawing for a piece of art, such as a painting, fresco, tapestry, or stained glass window. In the 19th century, it came to refer be linked to humorous illustrations in magazines and newspapers. In the early 20th century, it began to refer to animated films which resembled print cartoons.

Kaunakes: Also known as persis. It was a woolen mantle associated with ancient Mesopotamia and Persia. It was woven in a tufted pattern suggesting overlapping petals or feathers, either by sewing tufts onto the garment or by weaving loops into the fabric. The origin of this type of garment is traced to the Sumerian civilization, that is before 4,000 BCE.