Akkadian art

The Sumerian splendor was destroyed circa 2470 BCE by nomadic Semitic groups, the so called “black heads” that we discussed in past readings, and who occupied central Mesopotamia since the beginning of the third millennium. The conqueror was a Semitic warrior of humble origins who was crowned with the name of Sharrukenu (“true king”). From this derives the name of Sargon with which he is usually designated. To differentiate him from the Assyrian Sargon he has been called Sargon of Akkad. These Semites or Akkadians ruled Mesopotamia for two centuries.

In the Akkadian art the Semitic spirit brings a sensitivity and fantasy that pulls away the rigidity and hard hieratism of the Sumerian art. The Akkadians adopted the Sumerian cuneiform writing but their fashion changed radically: everyone began to grow their hair and wear long beards in contrast to the invaded Sumerians who always had their heads shaved. Abundant beards and hairs were a sign of strength that characterized gods and kings.

From this period it is important to mention the stele of Naram-Sin, Sargon’s grandson. It is a pink sandstone block that has been considered one of the masterpieces of the art of the Ancient East. It tells a military victory highlighted by its creative fantasy that makes us see two armies where there are no more than fifteen characters: eight on one side and seven in another. King Naram-Sin is high above and wears a helmet with two pairs of horns. He steps victorious over the bodies of two defeated soldiers and prepares to kill other two: one kneeling is pierced by a spear, and the other still standing has his hands together in a pleading attitude. The Akkadian warriors accompanying the king advance in two columns while the enemies lay on the ground or run away. Overhead two stars shine as astral symbols of deities conducive to victory.

The stele of Naram-Sin (Louvre), ca. second half of the third millennium BCE.

The fantasy and freedom provided to the Mesopotamian art by the Akkadians also introduced similar changes in religion and, in turn, in religious representations. Until then, gods had intervened only very discreetly in the field of art. However in the hands of Semitic artists these divine representations frequently appeared. Shamash, the sun god, and Ishtar, the goddess of war and love, begun to appear frequently in art, and this familiarity increased in the artistic productions of the Babylonian period, a new stage of Semitic preponderance which will be discussed in next readings. The horned male or female celestial figures increased more as the time passed.

Goddess of Sumer (Louvre) adopted by the Akkadians with the characteristic double serpent scepter, symbol of the fertility of the soil. Her robe of fringed wool was undoubtedly inspired in the Sumerian kaunakes.

The same impression of freedom and fantasy is provided by the stone cylinders that were used to seal clay tablets on which all the important texts were written: poems, religious epics, law, private correspondence or simple merchant’s accounts and inventories. These seals* replaced the modern signature that is usually written at the bottom of a text or document. The oldest seals were flat or slightly convex carved stones which produced an impression by compressing them against fresh clay. But soon came into use cylindrical seals which, rolling on clay, developed a repeated image as many times as the cylinder was rolled. In the hands of these Akkadian Semites this old Mesopotamian custom produced truly relief masterpieces. The minuscule scale in which they were made and the fact that they were sunken relieves in “negative” in order to produce an embossed imprint make their perfection even more remarkable. In these cylinders Mesopotamian gods and people appeared with a familiarity not found in monumental reliefs.


Wax impression of an Akkadian seal (Louvre), a cylinder of stone that was used in the second millennium BCE to seal clay tablets as a signature. The photograph is a photographic enlargement of the original miniature.

The Akkadian period only lasted two centuries. Around 2285 BCE hordes of fierce warriors coming from the mountains of the Northeast destroyed  the empire created by Sargon of Akkad. The Akkadian empire eventually collapsed due to the invasion of barbarian peoples from the Zagros Mountains known as the Gutians. Little is known about them, but it is certain that at this time the old Sumerian cities of Uruk, Ur, and Lagash reached an autonomy that they never had under the Akkadian rule and finally achieved a new political preponderance and allowed a return to the previous Sumerian period before the Akkadian domination took place. For this reason, this new period of Sumerian history is called the Neosumerian period which lasted until the city of Ur fell under a new Semitic invasion around the year 2015 BCE.


Cylinder seal: A small round cylinder, typically about one inch in length, engraved with written characters or figurative scenes or both, used in ancient times to roll an impression onto a two-dimensional surface, generally wet clay. Cylinder seals were invented around 3500 BCE in the Near East. They were used as an administrative tool, a form of signature, as well as jewelry and as magical amulets. In later periods, they were used to notarize or attest to multiple impressions of clay documents. Most seals have a hole running through the center of its body, and they are thought to have typically been worn on a necklace so that they were always available when needed.