Sumerian Art

Sumer was an ancient civilization that saw its artistic styles change throughout different periods in its history.


By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • Identify and describe the form, content, and context of key Sumerian works
  • Define critical terms related to Sumerian art
  • Explain the significance of cuneiform and how it worked
  • Describe the form, content, and context of ziggurats


Sumer was an ancient civilization in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. Although the historical records in the region do not go back much further than c. 2900 BCE, modern historians believe that Sumer was first settled between c. 4500 and 4000 BCE by people who may or may not have spoken the Sumerian language. These people, now called the “Ubaidians,” were the first to drain the marshes for agriculture; develop trade; and establish industries including weaving, leatherwork, metalwork, masonry, and pottery.

The Sumerian city of Eridu, which at that time bordered the Persian Gulf, is believed to be the world’s first city. Here, three separate cultures fused—the peasant Ubaidian farmers, the nomadic Semitic-speaking pastoralists (farmers who raise livestock), and fisherfolk. The surplus of storable food created by this economy allowed the region’s population to settle in one place, instead of migrating as hunter-gatherers. It also allowed for a much greater population density, which required an extensive labour force and a division of labour with many specialized arts and crafts.

An early form of wedge-shaped writing called cuneiform developed in the early Sumerian period. During this time, cuneiform and pictograms suggest the abundance of pottery and other artistic traditions. In addition to the production of vessels, clay was also used to make tablets for inscribing written documents. Metal also served various purposes during the early Sumerian period. Smiths used a form of casting to create the blades for daggers. On the other hand, softer metals like copper and gold could be hammered into the forms of plates, necklaces, and collars.



Limestone slab carved to show various battle and religious scenes. One of the scenes depicts the vultures, which give the slab its name.
Stele of the Vultures: Battle formations on a fragment of the Stele of the Vultures. Example of Sumerian pictorial cuneiform writing.

By the late fourth millennium BCE, Sumer was divided into about a dozen independent city-states delineated by canals and other boundary makers. At each city center stood a temple dedicated to the particular patron god or goddess of the city. Priestly governors ruled over these temples and were intimately tied to the city’s religious rites.



     Map featuring a drawing of canals with red dots that represent more than a dozen cities in Sumer.

 Sumer: Map of the Cities of Sumer.

The Ubaid Period

The Ubaid period is marked by a distinctive style of painted pottery, produced domestically on a slow wheel. This style eventually spread throughout the region. During this time, the first settlement in southern Mesopotamia was established at Eridu by farmers who first pioneered irrigation agriculture. Eridu remained an important religious center even after nearby Ur surpassed it in size.

The invention of the potter’s wheel in the fourth millennium BCE led to several stylistic shifts and varieties in the form of ceramics. Although ceramics developed in East Asia c. 20,000-10,000 BCE, the practice of throwing arose with the invention of the potter’s wheel in Mesopotamia around the fourth millennium BCE. The earliest clay vessels date to the Chalcolithic Era, which is divided into the Ubaid (5000-4000 BCE) and Uruk (4000-3100 BCE) periods. Ceramists produced vases, bowls, and small jars domestically on slow wheels, painting unique abstract designs on the fired clay.



Photo depicts Ubaid style vase.
Vase from the Late Ubaid Period, 4500-4000 BCE: A pottery jar from the Late Ubaid Period on display in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Experts differentiate the Ubaid period from the Uruk period by the style of pottery produced in each era. During the Uruk period, the potter’s wheel advanced to allow for faster speeds. As such, ceramists could produce pottery more quickly, leading to the mass production of standardized, unpainted styles of vessels.

The Uruk Period

The transition from the Ubaid period to the Uruk period is marked by a gradual shift to a great variety of unpainted pottery mass-produced by specialists on fast wheels. The trough below is an example of pottery from this period. Scholars believe that the gypsum Uruk trough was used as part of an offering to Inanna, the goddess of fertility, love, war, and wisdom. In addition to reliefs of animals, reliefs of reed bundles, sacred objects associated with Inanna, adorn the exterior of the trough. For these reasons, scholars do not believe the trough was used for agricultural purposes.



Photograph depicts an Uruk trough with carvings inside of a museum display case.
Uruk trough: The unpainted surface of this trough marks it as a product of the Uruk period.

By the time of the Uruk period (c. 4100–2900 BCE), the volume of trade goods transported along the canals and rivers of southern Mesopotamia facilitated the rise of many large, stratified, temple-centred cities where centralized administrations employed specialized workers. Artifacts of the Uruk civilization have been found over a wide area—from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and as far east as Central Iran. The Uruk civilization, exported by Sumerian traders and colonists, had an effect on all surrounding peoples, who gradually developed their own comparable, competing economies and cultures.

Sumerian cities during the Uruk period were probably theocratic and likely headed by priest-kings (ensis), assisted by a council of elders, including both men and women. The later Sumerian pantheon (gods and goddesses) was likely modelled upon this political structure. There is little evidence of institutionalized violence or professional soldiers during the Uruk period. Towns generally lacked fortified walls, suggesting little, if any, need for defence. During this period, Uruk became the most urbanized city in the world, surpassing for the first time 50,000 inhabitants.

Spirituality and communication are reflected in sculptures dating from the Uruk period (4000-3100 BCE) of the late prehistoric era. Animals, along with forms of writing, also appear on early cylinder seals, which were carved from stones and used to notarize documents. Officials or their scribes rolled the seals on wet clay tablets as a form of signature. Cylinder seals were also worn as jewelry and have been found along with precious metals and stones in the tombs of the elite members of society. The trough, cylinder seals, and various other sculptures of the Uruk period serve as examples of the rich narrative imagery that arose during this time.



Photograph depicts artifacts described in the caption.
Uruk-period cylinder seal with stamped clay tablet (4100-3000 BCE): An Uruk-period cylinder seal and stamped clay tablet featuring monstrous lions and lion-headed eagles, on display at the Louvre Museum.


The Uruk period also marked an evolution in the depiction of the human body, as seen in the Mask of Warka (c. 3000 BCE), named for the present-day Iraqi city in which it was discovered. This marble “mask” is all that remains of a mixed-media sculpture that also consisted of a wooden body, gold leaf “hair,” inlaid “eyes” and “eyebrows,” and jewelry. Like most sculptures produced during the time, the sculpture was originally painted in an attempt to make it look lifelike.



Depiction of an Uruk face mask with eyeholes.
Uruk Head, also known as the Mask of Warka (c. 3000 BCE): The eyes and eyebrows on this Uruk marble head are hollow to accommodate the original inlay.

Early Dynastic Period

Sculpture built on older traditions and grew more complex during the Early Dynastic Period (2900-2350 BCE). Although artists still used clay and stone, copper became the dominant medium. Subject matter focused on spiritual matters, war, and social scenes.

A cylinder seal discovered in the royal tomb of Queen Puabi depicts two registers of a palace banquet scene punctuated by cuneiform script, marking a growing complexity in the imagery of this form of notarization. Each register features hieratic scale, in which the queen (upper register) and the king (lower register) are larger than their subjects.



Photograph depicts artifacts described in the caption.
Cylinder seal and stamped clay fragment from the tomb of Queen Puabi (c. 2600 BCE): The queen sits on the top register, while the king sits on the bottom. Each figure is set apart from his or her subjects through hieratic scale.

Another sculpture of note is a mixed-media bull’s head that once adorned a ceremonial lyre found in Puabi’s tomb in Ur. The head consists of a gold “face,” lapis lazuli (a blue precious stone) “fur,” and shell “horns.” Although much of the lyre, whose dominant material was wood, disintegrated over time, contemporaneous imagery depicts lyres with similar decoration. Scholars believe that lyres were used in burial ceremonies and that the music that was played held religious significance.



Photograph of a lyre (musical instrument similar to a harp). The head of the lyre is a sculpture of a bull head.
Bull’s head from ceremonial lyre (c. 2600 BCE): This lyre was found in the tomb of queen Pu-Abi. The lapis lazuli, shell, red limestone decoration, and the head of the bull are original. The bull’s head is covered with gold. The eyes are lapis lazuli and shell. The beard and hair are lapis lazuli. A lyre of the same type is shown on the Standard of Ur.

Sculptures in human form were also used as votive offerings in temples. Among the best known are the Tell Asmar Hoard, a group of 12 sculptures in the round depicting worshipers, priests, and gods. Like the cylinder seal found in Queen Puabi’s tomb, the figures in the Tell Asmar Hoard show hieratic scale. Worshipers, as in the image below, stand with their arms in front of their chests and their hands positioned to hold out offerings. Materials range from alabaster to limestone to gypsum, depending on each figure’s significance. One common feature is the large hollowed-out eye sockets, which were once inlaid with stone to make them appear lifelike. The eyes held spiritual significance, especially that of the gods, which represented awesome otherworldly power.



Figurine of man worshipping with a long beard and bulging eyes.
Votive figure of a male worshiper from Tell Asmar (2750-2600 BCE): The votive figure—made from alabaster, shell, black limestone, and bitumen—depicts a male worshiper of Enil, a powerful Mesopotamian god.


One of the most remarkable achievements of Sumerian architecture was the development of the ziggurat, a massive structure taking the form of a terraced step pyramid of successively receding stories or levels, with a shrine or temple at the summit. Like pyramids, ziggurats were built by stacking and piling. Ziggurats were not places of worship for the general public. Rather, only priests or other authorized religious officials were allowed inside to tend to cult statues and make offerings. The first surviving ziggurats date to the Sumerian culture in the fourth millennium BCE, but they continued to be a popular architectural form in the late third and early second millennium BCE as well.

The image below is an artist’s reconstruction of how ziggurats might have looked in their heyday. Human figures appear to illustrate the massive scale of these structures. This impressive height and width would not have been possible without the use of ramps and pulleys.



A colored drawing of the ziggarut, a step pyramid with a staircase.
An artist’s reconstruction of a ziggurat: Like most Mesopotamian architecture, ziggurats were composed of sun-baked bricks, which were less durable than their oven-baked counterparts. Thus, buildings had to be reconstructed on a regular basis, often on the foundations of recently deteriorated structures, which caused cities to become increasingly elevated. Sun-baked bricks remained the dominant building material through the Babylonian and early Assyrian empires.


  • Elements of the early Sumerian culture spread through a large area of the Near and Middle East.
  • The Sumerian city-states rose to power during the prehistorical Ubaid and Uruk periods.
  • The invention and evolution of the potter’s wheel allowed individuals to produce vessels at increasing speeds and in increasing numbers.
  • Clay could also be used for writing tablets that could be fired if the owner believed the text was important.
  • The ziggurat marked a major architectural accomplishment for the Sumerians, as well as subsequent Mesopotamian cultures.
  • Animals and human-animal hybrids feature in the religions of Mesopotamian cultures and were often used as architectural decoration.

Adapted from “Boundless Art History” License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike 



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Art and Visual Culture: Prehistory to Renaissance Copyright © by Alena Buis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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