Ram in a Thicket
Neolithic Gold Statue from the Great Death Pit, Ur: Mesopotamian Early Dynastic Period.

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Ram In a Thicket (c.2650-2550 BCE)
A masterpiece of prehistoric sculpture
and without doubt one of the
greatest works of Sumerian art
of the Early Dynastic period in

Ram in a Thicket (2650-2550 BCE)


Discovery and Reconstruction
Royal Burial Pits at Ur
Sir Leonard Woolley
Articles About Ancient Art

For a list of the earliest art in Mesopotamia, Sumer and elsewhere,
please see: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Works.


An icon of Mesopotamian sculpture, dating to the late era of Neolithic art, the "Ram in a Thicket" (also known as "Ram Caught in a Thicket") is actually one of an identical pair of figures, excavated from the city of Ur in ancient Iraq in 1928, by the renowned British archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. Dating to about 2500 BCE, and measuring about 46 cm (16 inches) in height, one is part of the permanent collection of prehistoric art at the British Museum, while the other is on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology & Anthropology in Philadelphia. The statuettes - each of which consists of a goat standing on its hind legs, framed by gold branches of a flowering plant - were crafted from a wooden core applied with gold and silver, lapis lazuli, copper, shell and red limestone, and exemplify the tradition of early Mesopotamian-Sumerian sculpture, with its rich mixture of precious materials and luscious colouring. Woolley christened them - "Ram in a Thicket" - in reference to the passage in the Old Testament Book of Genesis 22:13, where Abraham sacrifices a ram caught in a thicket by his horns, in place of his son. Despite Woolley's fondness for Biblical allusion, there is no suggestion that the "Rams" were in reality works of Biblical art. For more chronological details concerning Mesopotamian art, or earlier Paleolithic cultures, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).

Discovery and Reconstruction

The pair of "rams" - more correctly referred to as male goats - were unearthed close together in the "Great Death Pit" - an area near the grave of Queen Pu-Abi - one of the Royal Tombs of Ur, excavated jointly by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology and the British Museum in 1928-29. Ur was a wealthy and influential city-state in ancient Sumer, and its royal tombs - with their precious objects, many of which were inlaid with gold and precious stones - clearly demonstrate the city's advances in goldsmithing techniques and jewllery art, equalled only by the goldsmiths of Egypt.

See also: Chryselephantine Sculpture, the technique of gold and silver metalwork perfected by Greek sculptors. For a general guide to their work, see: Greek Sculpture.

In fact, when discovered, the figures had been crushed by the weight of the soil above them, requiring Woolley to use wax to keep all the fragments together during their extrication. Later, when reconstructed, the figures were carefully pressed back into their original shapes, although some small differences remained between the original statues and the reconstructed versions.

Characteristics of Ram in a Thicket

Rams or male goats were an everyday feature of life during the late Neolithic and are regularly represented by sculptors in a variety of media. The "Ram in a Thicket" has been identified from its large corkscrew-shaped horns as a markhor (Capra falconeri), a wild species of goat native to the mountains of Central Asia.

The goat's head and legs are covered in gold leaf which is wrapped around the wooden core and affixed to it with bitumen. Its ears are made of copper which is now green with verdigris. The underside of the body is layered with silver leaf. The goat's horns, beard and tufts of hair on its forehead are made of lapis lazuli, as is the fleece on its shoulders and chest. The fleece on its body is made of shell and its genitals are gold. The stem and foliage of the flowering plant are covered in gold, and the entire assemblage is set on a rectangular wooden base, whose sides are decorated with silver and whose top is inlaid with lapis lazuli, shell and red limestone. Archeologists believe that the two "rams" were not freestanding statues but connected supports for a small tray or bowl.

The exact meaning of the statue is not known but archeologists believe it was one of several symbols associated with the fertility of the land. The goat was seen as sacred to Dumuzid, the shepherd god, whose marriage to Inanna was an important mythological event associated with agricultural abundance.

The two "Ram in a Thicket" figurines rank among the greatest sculptures of the Mesopotamian Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 BCE).

Royal Burial Pits at Ur

By the Early Dynastic Period of the third millennium (2500 BCE), the city of Ur was one of the most important capitals of the Sumerian civilization, extending over more than 50 acres. It retained this status until as late as the 4th century BCE, when the Euphrates river changed course, and the city was abandoned.

During the mid-1920s, the excavation of Ur (a collaborative project between the Penn Museum and the British Museum led by Leonard Woolley), centred on the cemetery, where Woolley focused on a group of sixteen "royal tombs", all of which dated to the Early Dynastic III period (c.2600-2450 BCE). As well as housing the sarcophagi of the King and/or Queen, these tombs also housed the bodies of dozens of royal servants, who took poison in order to accompany their royal employer in the afterlife. It was in one of the largest of these mass burial chambers, known as the "Great Death Pit at Ur", that the two "Ram in a Thicket" figurines were discovered.

For other ancient statues, see: Venus Figurines (from 30,000 BCE).

Sir Leonard Woolley

Sir Leonard Woolley (1880-1952) was a renowned British archeologist and scholar in the ancient art of Mesopotamia, whose most important archeological work was done in 1922-1934, at the Sumerian site of Ur, where - as well as the "Ram in a Thicket" - he also discovered the famous Copper Bull (2600, British Museum). He also excavated sites at the Hittite city of Carchemish (with T.E.Lawrence) and the Bronze Age city of Atchana, both in Syria. He is regarded as one of the first "modern" archeologists, and was given a knighthood in 1935 for his contribution to archeology.

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• For more about ancient arts and crafts in Mesopotamia, Sumer and Babylon, see: Homepage.

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