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 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 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 discovered in the royal tomb of Queen Puabi depicts two of a palace banquet scene punctuated by cuneiform script, marking a growing complexity in the imagery of this form of notarization. Each register features , in which the queen (upper register) and the king (lower register) are larger than their subjects.
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.
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 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.
One of the most remarkable achievements of Sumerian architecture was the development of the , 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.
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.
Also known as the Copper Age, a phase of the Bronze Age in which the addition of tin to copper to form bronze during smelting remained yet unknown. The Copper Age was originally defined as a transition between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age.
One of the earliest known forms of written expression that began as a system of pictographs. It emerged in Sumer around the 30th century BC.
A sculptural process in which molten material (usually metal) is poured into a mold, allowed to cool and harden, and become a solid object.
Shaping clay on a potter’s wheel.
A sculpture that projects from a background. The opposite of a carving.
A small, round stamp adorned with carved images of animals, writing, or both, used to sign official documents.
A usually horizontal division of separate scenes in two- or three-dimensional art.
A visual method of marking the significance of a figure through its relative size or position within the scene. Important figures are depicted either at the top of the scene or as larger than the rest of the figures.
A free-standing object that is usually meant to be viewed from multiple angles.
A towering temple, similar to a stepped pyramid, that sat in the center of Mesopotamian city-states.