Sumer was responsible for the earliest art of Antiquity. The Sumerians were the first civilizing people to settle in the lands of southern Mesopotamia, draining the marshes for agriculture, starting trade, and establishing new forms of ancient pottery (first mass-produced bowls made at Uruk, about 4000 BCE), along with crafts like weaving, leatherwork and metalwork. These late forms of Neolithic art benefited significantly from the surge in population that resulted from the stable food supply and settled nature of Sumerian life.
Sumerian civilization outshone all others within the region at the time – including Egyptian culture – due to their advanced laws, inventions and art. Only ancient Anatolian sites, such as Gobekli Tepe (c.9500 BCE) dating to the era of Mesolithic art, might be said to have yielded earlier signs of significant civilization.
Sumerian culture flourished during the 4th and 3rd millennia BCE, before being overrun by the Semitic-speaking kings of the Akkadian Empire around 2270 BCE.
In a nutshell, up until about 3500 BCE, Sumerian art only really excelled at pottery – albeit of a type and quality which was far superior to any form of Greek pottery produced up to that point. Thereafter, we see the emergence of free standing sculpture, along with early bronze statuettes, primitive types of personal jewellery and decorative designs on a wide range of artifacts.
Evidence of advanced copper and bronze casting techniques emerges during the Third Millennium, with some bronze sculpture being made by the complex cire-perdue process.
Excavations at Ur have revealed a huge number of rich tombs, containing gold, silver, lapis lazuli, and decorated shell objects as well as gaming-boards, harps, weapons and cylinder seals. Clay steles (tablets of relief sculpture) began to be used by the educated classes to narrate stories.
Characteristics of Sumerian Culture
Sumeria was an aggregate of at least 12 city-states on the Euphrates, close to the Persian Gulf, each ruled by a King. They included: Adab, Akshak, Bad-Tibira, Erech, Kish, Lagash, Larak, Larsa, Nippur, Sippar, Umma, Uruk and Ur.
The Sumerians are no longer supposed to have been the earliest inhabitants of the region, but rather “invaders,” though it is still undecided from where they came and who exactly they displaced.
At the dawn of known history they were dominant, contributing the earliest and most lasting of the written languages of the region (the Sumerian pictograph writing was father to the cuneiform characters that were to spread over so much of the Near East); developing skills in metallurgy before their neighbours (the first use of copper occurred in Sumer, as far back as 5,000 BCE); inventing the potter’s wheel (c.4500 BCE), as well as the first ever wheeled transport (3,200 BCE); and taking epochal steps forward in civic organization, warfare, law, and the arts.
It is possible that they came from the Iranian Plateau to the east, bringing these achievements with them from some still undiscovered Persian or Scythian birthplace of culture.
Professor C. Leonard Woolley, who has done more than any other, as archaeologist and writer, to dig the Sumerians out of obscurity and place them prominently in the first episode of the story of human civilization, is willing to give them precedence over the once vaunted Akkadians, or true Babylonians, as founders of Mesopotamian art and culture. He then goes further, placing them before the Egyptians, as pioneer lawgivers, as inventors, and as artists. He points out that in the period when the communities of Sumeria were flourishing – say, from 3500 BCE – Egypt still had no metals, had not invented or discovered the potter’s wheel, and owned no written language.
As to the legendary origins of the Sumerian arts, Professor Woolley quotes a Babylonian named Berossus, of about 300 BCE, who stated that the towns of Sumeria were founded by a race of half-men, half-fish, who came out of the Persian Gulf under the leadership of Oannes; and “all things that make for the amelioration of life were bequeathed to men by Oannes, and since that time no further inventions have been made.” And Berossus, in fact, mentions just those accomplishments which modern historians count most critical in the rise of man: agriculture, use of metals, and writing. It is likely that these advances developed together, in one push forward of the human intelligence; and the earliest datable evidences of them are found in Sumeria.
Excavations at Tepe Gawra in Iraq in 1936-37 brought to light the foundation walls of a “pre-Sumerian” acropolis, dated before 4000 BCE, and relics indicating that the “Painted Pottery Peoples,” long considered primitive except in their mastery of ceramic art, “enjoyed an advanced and balanced civilization.”
There is also evidence of planned community building, even of monumental architecture, with interior piers and pilasters; of religious activities centered in temples; of seals; of the first datable goldsmithing in the form of gold beads, and thus the first datable jewellery art of the region; of musical instruments; of an earthen jar bearing “the first landscape painting” – all ascribed to a time five hundred years or more before the date previously accepted as marking the dawn of history and civilized art.
In other words, Sumerian culture – which previously had been considered to be on a par with late Prehistoric art – is now known to have possessed many of the cultural attributes commonly associated with later Egyptian civilization, among others.
The Stele of the Vultures (c.2800 BCE)
Out of the excavated ruins of Lagash, a Sumerian city-state, archaeologists recovered fragments of a stone tablet (or stele), sculpted in low relief, which had been commissioned as a war memorial by King Eannatum.
On one side the monument recounts in pictures and text the military successes of the all-conquering King Eannatum. He is depicted oversize, leading his soldiers into battle. Nearby are heaps of dead bodies belonging to their enemies, while vultures fly overhead carrying away dismembered parts of the slaughtered.
The other side of the tablet shows the approval of the Gods. It depicts a god holding the heraldic symbol of Lagash while neatly destroying its enemies.
This item of narrative relief sculpture is believed to be the earliest known instance of a story told in pictures, of sustained visual art: its theme being “war” – one of four main themes of the day; the others being Kings, Gods and Hunting.
The Stele of the Vultures is an important example of Mesopotamian sculpture from the late Sumerian period, but is less representative (of Sumerian art as a whole) than the little animal figures, in the round and in low relief, the shell plaques and the seals, all of which are more in character as products of the early city-states’ studios.
The spirit is in general more human and more appealing than anything in the later and larger cultures (like Assyrian art) into which the Sumerian was to be absorbed. In these figures there is more decorative art, and less boastful and violent narrative; more ornament and more love of miniature refinement. And, curiously enough, there is in one phase of art in early Sumeria a degree of unforced realism, of fidelity to surface nature, not to be surpassed until Greek times. That is, in the centuries before 3000 BCE men were making statuettes and reliefs so characteristically “lifelike” that not until the appearance of Greek High Classical sculpture (c.400 BCE) would imitative skill go higher.
The art works that survive have to do mostly with gods and kings and nobles. They are votive figures, reliefs commemorative of honors paid to the gods, and articles of luxury and show.
Architecture yields up only ruins too fragmentary to warrant detailed speculation regarding the “looks” of monumental or domestic buildings, though it is a fact technically of great significance that the Sumerians were using rudimentary arches and vaults some 3000 years before Roman architecture left its mark across Europe.
The common building material was the clay brick, since the Tigris-Euphrates plain lacked both stone and wood in any abundance, and the architectural forms were doubtless plain and blocklike, like most early brick construction. The earliest feature of monumental building seems to have been the temple tower, perhaps an artificial substitute for the hilltop from which the gods had been worshiped, and this may have been the ancestor of the Assyrian ziggurat, Moslem dome and minaret, and Christian campanile and steeple.
The ziggurat at Ur, as well as later ones in Babylon and Assyria, was constructed in successively smaller stories, the one at the top bearing an altar. Access from the ground (or platform) below was usually by ramps. The “building” was really a shaped hill, without rooms – except for the temple on top – a sort of stepped pyramid.
Archeologists in Sumer have also discovered numerous raised buildings with buttressed walls. These buttresses were structural as well as decorative and became a feature of Sumerian architecture.
Sumerian Relief Sculpture
Low relief sculpture was freely used on building walls and, in materials less heavy than stone, as ornament on luxurious furniture; and the independent tablet-monuments, or stelae, gradually became common.
It is likely that the world’s treasure of sculptured works from Sumeria will be greatly increased, since only a few sites have up to now been excavated – the most important being at Ur, Lagash, Eridu, Kish, and Nippur – but from the examples that have come to light one can already form a picture of societies that delighted in refined workmanship in metals and stone and shell, and in colorful decoration and intricate pattern; and there are a few examples that indicate a considerable sense of sheer plastic invention.
The reliefs commonly known as early Sumerian – such as the Tablet of Ur-Nina – and made well before 3000 BCE, are rather inept and uncraftsmanlike. But the frieze of figures of men and animals once affixed to a wall of a temple at al’Ubaid near Ur, made of limestone reliefs set into darker stone panels, is uniquely effective and engagingly decorative. The facade seems to have been extraordinarily enriched with various types of mosaic art and stone sculpture.
Examples of terracotta sculpture have been found, as well as remains of several of the limestone friezes, and there were extensive copper reliefs, including a large hammered panel over the door, depicting a lion-headed eagle and two stags, and a pictorial frieze in copper. Around a ledge below these relief features was a row of oxen in the round, made of beaten sheet copper over wood. The building is of the middle of the thirty-first century BCE.
While monumental works of an earlier date are lacking, there is some indication that this art had been preceded by a long development of mature drawing and carving. The shell-plaques attached to gameboards, musical instruments, and furniture afford evidence of exceptionally spirited patterning, with figures at once characteristic and cunningly conventionalized for heraldic effect.
Sometimes these are in carved in low relief against a contrasting background. There are also patterns made up of squares of shell with spirited linear designs engraved or incised. The lines were filled with a red or sometimes black paste to make the drawing stand out clear and crisp, by a process paralleled forty centuries later in European niello work.
There are statues in the round, of the true Sumerian period, which give evidence of an aptitude for the full-sculptural medium, although there is nothing that approaches the nobility and the subtle aesthetic expressiveness of the figurative Egyptian sculpture of the Old Kingdom period. Indeed from the thirty-first century, down to the time of King Gudea, about the twenty-fifth century, there appears to have been very little change in the conventions of the art, and certainly no great improvement in skill. Some of the later full-length statues of King Gudea are massive, effectively simplified and reposeful, but there is little of the inner sculptural life, of the plastic expressiveness, that so distinguishes contemporary rock-carving along the Nile.
It is rather in the field of figurines, and particularly when animals are dealt with, that a distinctive excellence is achieved. There is, for example, the figure of a donkey (dated 3100 BCE) which Queen Shub-ad had attached as a mascot to the rein-guide on the yoke of her chariot asses. It is a pretty bit of realistic sculpture, showing canny observation, but with due regard to the figure’s use and placing. Sculpturally appealing also are certain bulls’ heads in silver and copper. Some of these were ornaments on lyres and perhaps should not be judged independently. But the values are of the sort that render the fragments effective even when wrenched from the original context.
Incidentally, the modern world owes its knowledge of Queen Shub-ad’s donkey and these bulls’ heads, and the shell-plaques from game-boards, to one rich find at Ur, and their preservation to a custom common during early human civilization. According to the etiquette of the First Dynasty, about 3100 BCE, when the queen died a large number of her ladies-in-waiting were entombed in her burial chamber in the royal cemetery, to give her what aid and comfort they could in the afterlife. With them were walled in such earthly treasures as the queen’s chariot and harps and chaplets and toilet articles.
Sumer is believed to be the birthplace of nail art around 3200 BCE, when men started colouring their nails with “kohl”, a lotion containing lead sulfide.
The art in general, of headdresses, jewellery, gold vessels, and statues, runs to excessive ornamentation and lack of taste in adapting observed natural detail to decorative or plastic purposes. It is, in fact, already a decadent standard of art that we have here, of a time when the ability to formalize beautifully, common to so many primitive peoples, had passed into florid overabundance and into a striving after exact representation for its own sake. Some of the discovered chaplets are like flowered wreaths copied directly from nature into gold and other precious stuffs. Each leaf is true to its botanical model; every vein is shown. Art is no longer creation nor selective adaptation, but imitation of natural beauty.
A miniature art originated by the Sumerians, and to be perpetuated through the Babylonian-Assyrian supremacy, was the sculpturing of cylindrical seals in low relief. Writing in Mesopotamia was done on wet clay slabs, which later hardened into permanent tablets. It is owing to the indestructible character of these tablet documents and “books” that the twentieth-century world knows so much of the details of Sumerian and later Mesopotamian literature and life.
To sign the clay, or mark it with his device, the important personage carried a personal seal, and this commonly was ornamental and pictorial. “Every Babylonian,” wrote Herodotus, “carries a seal, and a staff carved at the top into the form of an apple, a rose, a lily, an eagle, or a like device.”
A small cylinder of hard stone, such as obsidian, agate, or quartz, or of the softer alabaster, was carved as a “negative,” in intaglio, so that the impression of it in the clay came out in relief. It usually showed a composition with figures, and very often was a token of the owner’s devotion to a certain god. Literally thousands of cylinder seals (not to mention flat, ring, and cone varieties) have been recovered, as well as innumerable clay documents bearing their impressions.
The early examples may show roughly geometrical designs or solar images, and there are also primitive pictographic inscriptions. Certainly soon after 3500 BCE the figured seals begin to reflect a considerable skill in relief picturing and a high sense of stylization. There is a sharpness, a crisp delineation of separated figures against uninvolved backgrounds, which perfectly belongs to this exquisite lapidary art.