Mesopotamian Sculpture (c.3000-500 BCE)
In the valleys through which the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates flow, several important civilizations flourished in the distant past - the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian. Populated by two different races - the East Semitic Akkadians (later called Assyrians and Babylonians) and the Sumerians, the land later became known as Mesopotamia ("land between the rivers"), and it is now the state of Iraq. (For a guide, see: Mesopotamian Art 4500-539 BCE.)
There was nothing in Mesopotamia to remind travellers of Sumer, Babylonia or Assyria except the shapeless mounds where cities and towns had once stood. Yet the ancient art from this part of the world ranks alongside the cultural achievements of any of the ancient civilizations. It was here, for instance, that writing was first invented, the first wheel was seen, and also where the first cities appeared, all some years before even the Egyptian Pyramids. It was here that the potter's wheel was invented and where some of the finest ancient pottery, outside China, was produced. For a chronological outline, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
In 1842 a Frenchman named Botta told his Arab workmen to start digging down into a mound near the Tigris in the northern part of Mesopotamia. Almost at once they found walls covered with strange relief sculpture that was quite different from any that anyone had ever seen before. Although they did not know it at the time, the mound covered the remains of a great palace which had been built early in the eighth century BCE for an Assyrian king named Sargon II. We can imagine what excitement there was in Europe when news of this marvellous discovery reached France, and when, some time later, some of the reliefs themselves arrived in Paris. The reliefs showed men in strange clothes building a palace or city, and others rowing in boats across a sea in which huge fish, crabs and other sea creatures, including a merman, are floating. From adorning the palace of an Assyrian king, built over 2,600 years ago, these slabs of carved stone came to line the walls of a room in a very different kind of palace - the Louvre Palace - which had once been the Paris home of the kings of France. It is now one of the best art museums in the world.
The discovery of these first carvings was only the beginning of course. Soon other men were at work on other mounds. Gradually palaces, temples and cities were uncovered, and vast libraries of clay tablets covered with the curious writing which we call "cuneiform" were discovered. Just as scholars had learnt to read the hieroglyphic writing of Egypt, so in time others learnt to read the cuneiform writing of ancient Babylonia and Assyria, and to understand the languages which had been spoken in different parts of the country at different times. For the history of Mesopotamia was more turbulent than that of Egypt, and involved more races of people. Gradually scholars unravelled the whole story.
All readers of the Bible and of books written by the Ancient Greeks and Romans had heard of Babylonia and Assyria. But it was not until scholars could read the cuneiform scripts, that anyone knew anything at all about two nations which had lived in the land even earlier, the Sumerians and the Akkadians. (See: Sumerian Art 4500-2270 BCE)
The reliefs which Botta found - the first types of art from this part of the world to be seen by human eye for more than 2,000 years - were Assyrian. The Assyrian Empire flourished from about 1200-600 BCE. After Botta's time earlier and earlier works gradually came to light so that, by degrees, scholars learnt a great deal not only about the Assyrians but about the Babylonians, who ruled the area from about 1800-1200 BCE, and the even earlier Sumerians, who first began to settle in the land between the two rivers about 4000 BCE. To their astonishment they found that the Sumerians, whose very name had been forgotten, were not uncivilized savages, but a highly developed people who had built temples and cities, had dug canals, had developed cuneiform writing and had produced numerous outstanding examples of megalithic art, as well as sculpture and metalwork.
Some of the earliest Sumerian works of art were found on the site of a Sumerian city called Ur, and at a spot a few miles from it where a temple to a goddess named Nin-Kharsag was built about the year 3100 BCE.
At Ur itself, the archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley discovered the graves of kings and queens of Ur who probably lived about 3500 BCE. The religious beliefs of the Sumerians and of the later Babylonians and Assyrians were very different from those of the Egyptians. The dead were provided with all the things their friends thought they would need (including the bodies of their servants, and courtiers if they were kings and queens), but no statue of the dead man or woman was put into the grave, no pictures of him as he had been in life were carved or painted on the walls, and no statue of a god or goddess accompanied him.
But in the graves at Ur there were some exquisite examples of funeral or religious art, including little figures made in metal, or carved in wood and covered with silver, gold, shell, and other materials. From the fronts of some harps the heads of bulls, cows, or stags in gold, silver or copper projected. Sometimes their eyes, beards and horn-tips were made from a beautiful blue stone called lapis lazuli. A chariot or sledge was decorated with the projecting heads in gold and silver of lions, lionesses and bulls. A really beautiful little donkey, in gold, stood on the silver ring through which the reins had passed.
Two strange figures, each representing a ram standing on his hind legs and with his front legs attached by silver chains to the branches of a bush, were found. The rams had first been carved in wood, then overlaid with thin sheets of gold and silver, and with flakes of white shell and lapis lazuli to represent locks of hair. We can see some of these things, including one of the rams, in the British Museum (the other is now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum).
When the ancient temple to Nin-Kharsag was excavated, the remains of four standing statues of bulls were discovered. They are the oldest type of copper statue ever to be found anywhere so far. These and other objects which had adorned the temple were so crushed and battered that it was impossible to preserve some of them at all, but two of the bulls were removed and restored, and one of them is now in the British Museum and another is at Philadelphia.
In the foundations, under the corners of their temples, the Sumerians and the later Babylonians placed little boxes of brick, in each of which they put a little copper figure. It represented the king who founded the temple but he was shown serving as a workman and carrying a basket of mortar on his head. From the waist downwards the figure tapered off to a point. The name of the king and of the temple was recorded in cuneiform writing either on the figure or on a brick in front of him, so these foundation figures are very valuable indeed in telling their discoverers what the building was and when it was built. In some buildings a row of little three-sided brick boxes was placed along every wall, just under the floor, and in each box a roughly modelled and coloured figure representing a human being, an animal, a snake, or a fantastic creature half animal and half human, was placed. They were guardians, meant to ward off ill-luck, and before each one an offering of some grain or meat was placed.
Larger statues also were made from very early times, but as they represented kings or gods they were often smashed by conquering enemies, so they are seldom found in a perfect state. A very early marble sculpture was discovered when an ancient Sumerian city called Nippur was being excavated. An inscription in cuneiform recorded that it represented a king called Esar who had lived somewhere about 3000 BCE. This statue is only about 30-inches high, and it represents a man standing with his feet close together and his hands folded in front of his chest in the attitude which, in his part of the world, still expresses reverence. The lips are smiling, but the eyes are just empty hollows. Probably the sculptors inserted some coloured material to form the eyes, just as the sculptors of Egypt did. Over the eyes are two grooves in which there had once been strips of metal to represent the eyebrows.
One of the most interesting things about King Esar, to some of us, is the way in which he was dressed. He wears a kind of skirt from his waist to his ankles which looks as though it is made up of rows of petals. We believe that this was the sculptor's way of representing a sheepskin garment worn with the untrimmed wool on the outside and hanging down in loose locks.
Relief sculptures dating from these early times also show men wearing skirts of this kind. The reliefs are on stone plaques or on upright slabs of stone, steles as they are called, which were set up in cities or temples to commemorate some event, such as a victory or the building of a temple. Fragments of many Sumerian steles have been found. Sometimes they have turned up far away from Sumer in the ruins of a city to which they were carried in triumph, as part of the loot from a conquered Sumerian city. One of the finest came to light at Susa, which was the capital of a country called Elam, in the mountainous land to the east of Sumer. It dates from about 2400 BCE, when Naram Sin, the king of a Sumerian city-state called Lagash, conquered Elam and besieged Susa. He had this memorial stele carved, showing his soldiers marching up the mountains and he himself trampling on a conquered foe. Hundreds of years later the people of Susa in their turn raided Lagash, and they carried away this memorial to the defeat of their ancestors. In the ruins of their own forgotten city it was found three thousand years later, and was brought to Europe, where we can see it in the Louvre.
But the Sumerian sculptures which caused most interest and excitement in Europe were some which were dug up from the mound which covered Lagash itself. There were quite a large number of these statues, and the inscriptions on them showed that they represented some of the governors, or priest-kings, of Lagash, especially the 7th one whose name was Gudea. He lived about 2400 BCE. Over 20 of these Lagash statues are in the Louvre Museum, and at least six of them bear the name of Gudea. Others are in London and America.
The reason why these statues caused such a stir was that, besides being interesting on account of their age, they were works of stone sculpture which could hold their own with the best produced in Egypt and other countries. Artists and sculptors were impressed by them as much as archeologists were.
When they were discovered, in 1901, certain European sculptors were beginning to feel that the plastic art of their own time was not as dignified, grand, simple and serene as such work should be - that often it was fussy and sentimental and represented trivial, temporary things. The Lagash statues impressed them because they had some of the qualities which they felt that the sculpture of their own time lacked.
The statues were not examples of naturalism: no one imagined that they were actual protraits of Gudea or of anyone else. Perhaps such statues were regarded as deputies, to stand before the gods as representatives of the men whose names were inscribed on them. They were carved with wonderful skill from one of the hardest of all stones, diorite.
Working in such a difficult material the sculptors had to represent everything in the simplest possible way. They left out all unnecessary details and kept the figure compact, with no projections. The sculptor concentrated on making his piece of stone into a fine well-balanced shape, and did not worry about getting the proportions of the human form right, any more, probably, than he tried to make the face like any particular person.
We are told that the statues were found buried in a mass of cinders, charcoal and brick reddened by fire. The triumphant enemies who finally overcame and sacked Lagash set fire to it - but not before they had struck off the heads of the statues of its kings and governors and flung them from their pedestals. Every statue was headless when they were discovered more than four thousand years later. When one of the Gudeas, a seated one, reached the Louvre an expert who examined it noticed that the neck fracture looked the same shape as that on a head which had been sent to the Louvre from Mesopotamia about ten years earlier. The head was fetched and fitted exactly. Only two or three of the statues found at Lagash have been reunited with their heads. One of them is in the British Museum.
The Babylonians, and later still the Assyrians, whose empires followed those of the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, carved few statues in the round at all - perhaps partly because they had to import stone from a great distance, and it was therefore used very sparingly. Only one statue in the round of an Assyrian king has survived intact. It represents King Ashurnasirpal, and it is in the British Museum. He ruled Assyria from 885-860 BCE. The statue was found in the ruins of his palace by an Englishman named Layard. Closely wrapped in a long fringed robe, Ashurnasirpal stands stiffly upright, his bare feet close together, his wide open eyes under strong brows staring ahead, his nose straight and large, his beard and hair rigidly curled and trimmed.
A wonderful Babylonian relief is the terracotta sculpture known as The Burney Relief (1800-1750 BCE, British Museum). Originally from southern Iraq, this high relief plaque of the Isin-Larsa or Old-Babylonian period, depicts a nude winged, goddess with bird's talons, accompanied by owls, and perched upon lions. Other fascinating Babylonian works are the terracotta sculpture known as The Queen of the Night (1775, British Museum), and a wonderful example of mosaic art known as The Standard of Ur (c.2500, BM, London). Made from shell, limestone, lapis lazuli and bitumen, it was discovered at the Royal Cemetery in Ur.
Assyrian sculpture was nearly all in the form of low relief (bas-relief) and served as decorative art to adorn buildings. The walls of all the main rooms were lined with slabs of stone such as those Botta found, on which the carved reliefs illustrated the power and might of the king, and the success of his campaigns. They show us kings and gods taking part in religious ceremonies, Assyrians fighting against and, of course, conquering their enemies, besieging cities, making boats, conveying men and chariots across rivers, parading or executing prisoners, carrying away loot or statues of the gods from vanquished countries, riding horses and camels and hunting wild animals. One interesting and surprising thing we learn from the reliefs is that Assyrian soldiers sometimes crossed rivers by resting on inflated skins. Please see also: Assyrian art (c.1500-612 BCE) and Hittite art (c.1600-1180 BCE).
The one thing Assyrian reliefs hardly ever
show us is a peaceful domestic scene. The Assyrians were fierce warlike
people who were hated and feared by all their neighbours, and their fierceness
and cruelty is reflected in their art.
The same strong, cruel face, with stiffly curled hair and beard, appears again and again in the reliefs, whether the carving represents a king, a god or a priest - though servants and lesser men are often shown without the beard. Human beings are shown in profile, that is, from the side, but the eye, like the eye in Egyptian sculpture, is carved as though seen from the front. In Assyrian reliefs the shoulders are not twisted so as to face the spectator, and neither is the main figure shown very much larger than the others, though sometimes he may be a head or so taller.
Gods or guardian spirits sometimes have the heads of birds or animals, and they carry in one hand a basket or bag with a handle, and in the other an object which rather resembles a fir cone. Sometimes they are shown taking part in a ceremony concerned with the fertilization of the date-palm.
There is a sameness about the human figures in Assyrian reliefs, but that is certainly not true of the animals. Few artists anywhere have ever equalled the Assyrians in the wonderful and natural way in which they have depicted horses, lions, bulls and other beasts in their hunting scenes - and some of the very best of these are in the British Museum in London. There is a large collection there of reliefs from the ruined palaces of three Assyrian kings which were excavated during the twelve to fifteen years following Botta's first discovery.
We can see a king killing lions from the back of his chariot, either with his bow and arrow or with his spear; men riding furiously on horseback and shooting as they ride; wounded lions and lionesses savagely attacking running horses or, more seriously wounded, dragging themselves along the ground and evidently howling in agony. Some of the scenes are very painful and cruel, but they are extraordinarily alive and true. One feels sure that the sculptors had really seen the things they were illustrating - they knew and understood animals and were passionately interested in them and in how they moved.
Besides carving natural animals in relief, Assyrian sculptors, like those of Egypt, carved strange fantastic creatures half human and half animal. They invented, too, a curious method of carving that was partly in the round and partly in relief. On either side of the great gateways and doors of the kings' palaces colossal statues of lions or bulls, usually winged, and sometimes with men's heads were placed. They were carved from a block of stone, fourteen feet or more high, in such a way that anyone approaching them from the front saw the animal as though it were carved in the round with its forelegs side by side. But approaching it from the side they saw the animal in relief, apparently walking, since the sculptor had given it an extra, that is to say, a fifth leg. Sometimes an attendant was shown in relief standing beside the animal.
Layard, the archeologist who excavated a great mound which covered the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II at a place which the Arabs called Nimrud (it was the site of a city called Calah in the Book of Genesis), has described to us how excited his Arab workmen were when for the first time they came upon the huge human head of one of these beasts. They believed they had found Nimrod himself, the mighty hunter who is mentioned in the Bible. But when they dug down further they found the huge winged body of a lion. It is now in the British Museum.
Here is a short selection of some of the most celebrated examples of 3-D Neolithic art produced by the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Akkadian cultures. (All dates are approximate, BCE.)
Female Clay Statuette from Samarra
Pottery (c.7000 BCE onwards)
For more about the culture of Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia and Assyria, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ANCIENT ART