An Introduction to Sumerian Art and Culture

About 4000 B.C., Sumeria sprang up seemingly out of nowhere on part of the land known as the Fertile Crescent in the southern part of Mesopotamia, now called Iraq and Kuwait, countries that have been torn asunder by war in the past decades.

Mesopotamia, as the area was called in ancient times, means “land between the rivers” because it was located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Mesopotamia was important to historians and archaeologists, and to the development of human civilization, long before it became known as Iraq and America became involved in the Persian Gulf War, for it is recognized as the Cradle of Civilization due to the many “fundamental firsts” of civilized societies that occurred there, inventions with which we still live.

The society of Sumeria was one of the first known advanced civilizations in the world and the first to thrive in southern Mesopotamia, lasting from about 3500 B.C.E to 2334 B.C.E when the Sumerians were conquered by the Akkadians from central Mesopotamia.

The Sumerians were inventive and skilled technologically. Sumer had highly advanced and well-developed arts, sciences, government, religion, social structure, infrastructure, and written language. The Sumerians were the first known civilization to use writing to record their thoughts and literature. Some of the other inventions of Sumeria included the wheel, a cornerstone of human civilization; widespread use of technology and infrastructure, including canals and irrigation; agriculture and mills; shipbuilding for travel into the Persian Gulf and the trade of textiles, leather goods, and jewelry for semi-precious stones and other things; astrology and cosmology; religion; ethics and philosophy; library catalogues; law codes; writing and literature; schools; medicine; beer; the measurement of time: 60 minutes in an hour and 60 seconds in a minute; brick technology; and major developments in art, architecture, city planning, and music.

Because the land of the fertile crescent was agriculturally productive, people did not have to devote themselves full-time to farming in order to survive, so were able to have a variety of different vocations, including among them artists and craftsmen.

Sumeria was by no means ideal, though. It was the first to create a privileged ruling class, and there was great income disparity, greed and ambition, and slavery. It was a patrilineal society in which women were second-class citizens.

Sumeria was made up of independent city-states, not all of whom got along all the time. These city-states had canals and walled settlements, varying in size, to provide irrigation and defense from their neighbors if necessary. They were governed as theocracies, each with its own priest and king, and patron god or goddess.

The existence of this ancient Sumerian culture was not known until archaeologists started to discover and unearth some of the treasures from this civilization in the 1800s. Many of the discoveries came from the city of Uruk, what is thought to be the first, and largest city. Others came from from the Royal Tombs of Ur, one of the other largest and oldest of the cities.

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CUNEIFORM WRITING

Ur Iii Cuneiform Tablet
JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado / Getty Images

Sumerians created one of the first written scripts around 3000 B.C.E., called cuneiform, meaning wedge-shaped, for the wedge-shaped marks made from a single reed pressed into a soft clay tablet. The marks were arranged in wedge shapes numbering from two to up to 10 shapes per cuneiform character. Characters were generally horizontally arranged, although both horizontal and vertical were used. Cuneiform signs, similar to pictographs, most often represented a syllable, but could also represent a word, idea, or number, could be multiple combinations of vowels and consonants, and could represent every oral sound made by humans.

Cuneiform script lasted for 2000 years, and across a range of languages in the Ancient Near East, until Phoenician script, from which our current alphabet stems, became dominant in the first millennium B.C.E. The flexibility of cuneiform writing contributed to its longevity and enabled the passing down of recorded stories and techniques from generation to generation.

At first cuneiform was used just for counting and accounting, motivated by the need for accuracy in long-distance trading between the merchants of Sumer and their agents abroad, as well as

within the city-states themselves, but it evolved as grammar was added, to be used for letter writing and storytelling. In fact, one of the world’s first great works of literature, an epic poem called The Epic of Gilgamesh, was written in cuneiform.

Sumerians were polytheistic, meaning they worshipped many gods and goddesses, with the gods being anthropomorphic. Since the Sumerians believed that gods and human beings were co-partners, much of the writing was about the relationship of the rulers and the gods rather than about human accomplishments themselves. Therefore much of the early history of Sumer has been deduced from archaeological and geological record rather than from cuneiform writings themselves.

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Sumerian Art and Architecture

Iraq - Nasiriyah - A man walks past the Ziggurat at Ur
The ziggurat at Ur, supoosedly the city of the prophet Abraham's birth. Ur was a principal city of ancient Mesopotamia. The Ziggurat was dedicated to the moon and was built approximately in the 21st century BC by king Ur-Namma. In Sumerian times it was called Etemennigur. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Cities dotted the plains of Sumeria, each one dominated by a temple built for one of their human-like gods, on top of what were called ziggurats - large rectangular stepped towers in the centers of the cities that would have taken many years to build - similar to the pyramids of Egypt. However, the ziggurats were built of mud-brick made from the soil of Mesopotamia since stone was not readily available there. This made them much more impermanent and susceptible to the ravages of weather and time than the great Pyramids made of stone. Whereas not much remains of the ziggurats today, the Pyramids are still standing.  They also differed greatly in design and purpose, with ziggurats being built to house the gods, and pyramids built as the final resting place for pharaohs. The Ziggurat at Ur is one of the most well-known, being the largest and best-preserved. It has been restored twice, but sustained further damage during the Iraq war.

Although the fertile crescent was hospitable to human habitation, the early humans faced many hardships including extremes in weather, and invasion by enemies and wild animals. Their abundant art depicts their relationship with nature as well as military battles and conquests, along with religious and mythological themes. 

The artists and artisans were very skilled. Artifacts show great detail and ornamentation, with fine semi-precious stones imported from other countries, such as lapis lazuli, marble, and diorite, and precious metals such as hammered gold, incorporated into the design. Since stone  was rare it was reserved for sculpture. Metals such as gold, silver, copper, and bronze, along with shells and gemstones, were used for the finest sculpture and inlays.  Small stones of all kinds, including more precious stones such as lapis lazuli, alabaster, and serpentine, were used for cylinder seals.

Clay was the most abundant material and the clay soil provided the Sumerians with much of the material for their art including their pottery, terra-cotta sculpture, cuneiform tablets, and clay cylinder seals, used to securely mark documents or property. There was very little wood in the region, so they did not use much, and few wooden artifacts have been preserved.

Most of the art made was for religious purposes, with sculpture, pottery, and painting being the primary mediums of expression. Many portrait sculptures were produced during this time, such as the twenty-seven statues of the Sumerian king, Gudea, created during the Neo-Sumerian period after the two century rule by the Akkadians.

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Famous Works

Standard of Ur, the war side, from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, Sumerian, c2500 BC.
The Standard of Ur. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Most of Sumerian art was excavated from graves, since Sumerians often buried their dead with their most coveted objects. There are many famous works from Ur and Uruk, two of the largest cities of Sumeria. Many of these works can be seen on the website Sumerian Shakespeare.

The Great Lyre from the Royal Tombs of Ur is one of the greatest treasures. It is a wooden lyre, invented by the Sumerians around 3200 BCE, with the head of a bull protruding from the front of the sound box, and is an example of the Sumerian’s love of music and sculpture. The bull’s head is made of gold, silver, lapis lazuli, shell, bitumen, and wood, while the sound box depicts mythological and religious scenes in gold and mosaic inlay.  The bull lyre is one of three that was excavated from the royal cemetery of Ur and is about 13” high. Each lyre had a different animal head protruding from the front of the sound box to denote its pitch. The use of lapis lazuli and other rare semi-precious stones indicates that this was a luxury item.

The Golden Lyre of Ur, also called Bull’s Lyre, is the finest lyre, the whole head made completely of gold. Unfortunately this lyre was vandalized when the National Museum in Baghdad was looted in April 2003 during the Iraq War. However the gold head was kept safe in a bank vault and an amazing replica of the lyre has been constructed over a number of years and is now part of a touring orchestra.

The Standard of Ur is one of the most significant works from the Royal Cemetery. It is made of wood inlaid with shell, lapis lazuli, and red limestone, and is approximately 8.5 inches high by 19.5 inches long. This small trapezoidal box has two sides, one panel known as the “war side”, the other the “peace side.” Each panel is in three registers. The bottom register of the “war side” shows different stages of the same story, showing the progression of a single war chariot defeating its enemy. The “peace side” represents the city in times of peace and prosperity, depicting the bounty of the land and a royal banquet.

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What happened to sumeria?

Royal cemetery, Ur, Iraq, 1977.
Royal Tombs of Ur. Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

What happened to this great civilization? What caused its demise? There is speculation that a  200-year long drought 4,200 years ago may have caused its decline and the loss of the Sumerian language. There are no written accounts that specifically mention this, but according to findings presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union several years ago, there is archaeological and geological evidence that point to this, suggesting that human societies may be vulnerable to climate change. There is also an ancient Sumerian poem, Laments for Ur I and II, that tell the story of the destruction of the city, in which a storm is described “that annihilates the land” …”And lit on either flank of furious winds the searing heat of the desert.”

Unfortunately destruction of these ancient archaeological sites of Mesopotamia has been occurring since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and ancient artifacts consisting of “thousands of  cuneiform-inscribed tablets, cylinder seals and stone statues have illegally made their way to the lucrative antiquities markets of London, Geneva, and New York. Irreplaceable artifacts have been purchased for less than $100 on Ebay,” according to Diane Tucker, in her article about the brutal destruction of Iraq’s archaeological sites.

It is a sad end to a civilization to which the world owes much. Perhaps we can benefit from the lessons of its mistakes, flaws, and demise, as well as from those of its amazing rise and many accomplishments.

Resources and Further Reading

Andrews, Evan, 9 Things You May Not Know About Ancient Sumerian, history.com, 2015, http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-ancient-sumerians History.com staff, Persian Gulf War, history.com, 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/persian-gulf-war Mark, Joshua, Sumeria, Ancient History Encyclopedia, http://www.ancient.eu/sumer/) Mesopotamia, The Sumerians, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lESEb2-V1Sg (Video) Smitha, Frank E., Civilization in Mesopotamia, http://www.fsmitha.com/h1/ch01.htm Sumerian Shakespeare, http://sumerianshakespeare.com/21101.html Sumerian Art From the Royal Tombs of Ur, History Wiz, http://www.historywiz.com/exhibits/royaltombsofur.html