Sumerian art is rich in decoration and intricacy. Semiprecious stones, such as lapis lazuli, marble, and diorite, and valuable metals, such as hammered gold, were imported from all over the world and integrated into the design of their products. However, you must know that stone was considerably scarce, such that it was only used for sculpting.
The world’s first civilization sprang in the Mesopotamian region of Sumer, which is now southern Iraq. You must remember that beginning approximately 5300 BC, Sumerian civilization lasted for 3000 years, in which agriculture served as the lifeblood of early towns, including Eridu and Larsa.
Around this time, major landmark innovations, such as the wheel and writing, were developed by the Sumerians who lived in Sumer’s city-states that were encircled by walls. With villages settling close beyond and distinguishing themselves via the worship of local deities, you can recount that their culture created its unique art form.
What Is Ancient Sumer Art?
In terms of technology, the Sumerians were creative and competent. Their economy, governance, architecture, and even Sumer paintings were all extremely advanced and uncompromisingly well developed. The Sumerians were the first society to record their ideas and literature in writing.
Sumer has had one of the world’s earliest advanced cultures and was the first to thrive in southern Mesopotamia, lasting from approximately 3500 BC until the Sumerians were overrun by the Akkadians from central Mesopotamia in 2334 BC.
Due to its exceptional laws, innovations, and art, the Sumerian empire outshone all others in the region at the time, including Egyptian culture. Only ancient Anatolian monuments belonging to the age of Mesolithic art, such as Gobekli Tepe (9500 BC), may be considered to have provided earlier evidence of substantial civilization.
Around 2200 BC, ziggurats began to emerge. These magnificent pyramid-like, stepped temples, which were either square or rectangular and reached roughly 170 feet tall, had no interior chambers. You can recognize that sloped sides and terraces with gardens were common features of ziggurats, and one of these was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Because the fertile crescent’s soil was agriculturally fruitful, individuals didn’t have to commit themselves to full-time farming to live as the location is exceptional fertility and making it very easy to establish farming.
Hence, they could pursue a range of careers, including artists and artisans. However, Sumer was far from perfect. It was the first to establish a privileged ruling elite, with the significant economic discrepancy, avarice, ambition, and enslavement. Did you know that women before were regarded as second-class citizens in this patrilineal culture?
How Was Art Discovered in Sumerian City-States?
Sumer was made up of separate city-states that didn’t always get along. These city-states had canals and walled towns of various sizes to offer irrigation and, if required, defense against their neighbors.
They were run as theocracies, with each having its priest and king, as well as a patron god or goddess. The people were trained to honor their gods every day. Suffice to say, you could see the religiosity of the Sumerians.
Sumerian drawings were outstanding. Their most bountiful material was clay, which was predominantly utilized when cuneiform writing was invented before 3000 BC. Sumerian methods and themes became widely available. Clay cylinder seals, which were used to mark papers or properties, were among the Sumerian artistic forms.
Archaeologists in the field faced many difficult days when they were excavating, but they were rewarded handsomely when new papers emerged from the trenches, shedding fresh light on the past, dispelling old hypotheses, and assisting in the reconstruction of more accurate history. What else can you ask for when you already found the lead to the invaluable treasure of Sumerian art?
In addition, the finest examples of sculpture have been unearthed, and there is not only an extremely complete refinement of technique here but also a concept of beauty that has never been seen to the same degree in Mesopotamian early sculptures.
Sumerian artwork only truly excelled at pottery until approximately 3500 BC, and it was of a sort and quality considerably superior to any form of Greek pottery made until that date. Immediately following that, gratis sculpture, archaic bronze statuettes, rudimentary kinds of personalized jewelry, and ornamental patterns on a wide range of items appeared.
Clay was the most common material in Sumer. Therefore, many Sumerian artifacts, such as their cuneiform tablets, were shaped from it. The best sculpture and inlays were made of metals, such as gold, silver, copper, and bronze, as well as shells and jewels.
The Birth of Cuneiform Writing
Around 3000 BC, Sumerians developed one of the first recorded systems, known as cuneiform writing, which refers to the wedge-shaped marks formed by a single reed pushed into a soft clay tablet. The markings were organized in wedge forms, ranging in number from 2 to 10 per cuneiform letter.
Characters were typically placed horizontally, but both horizontal and vertical arrangements were employed. You can see that they were similar to pictographs. Cuneiform signs most frequently depict a syllable, but they may also symbolize a word, concept, or number and might be built up of numerous vowels and consonants to represent any spoken sound made by humans.
Now you know that cuneiform writing had been used in the ancient Near East for almost 2000 years. Spanning various multiple languages, until Phoenician writing sprang, from which our present alphabet is derived, cuneiform writing became prominent in the first millennium BC. Cuneiform writing’s adaptability led to its lengthy life and allowed for the transmission of documented events and methods from one generation to the next.
You should know that Sumerian sculpture was used as temple decoration or ceremonial paraphernalia. In retrospect, you can recount that many of the surviving Sumerian statues are votive sculptures.
Sumerian art has a unique style. You could see three-dimensional marble statuettes with a clear structure of size in those days. The tallest sculptures were of the vegetation god, which stood approximately 30 inches tall.
Numerous religious statues and sculptures represented the divine. You need to know that the worship of mother goddesses was intended to promote fertility to women and crops.
These were the statues that came next in height. The priests were much smaller, and the worshipers were even smaller. All the sculptures had their heads raised and their hands joined, with cylindrical bodies that were gender neutral. The clasped hands were a supplication position or a representation of wishing or waiting for something.
Except for the faces, the whole body of the Sumerian carvings was plain. Commanding eyes amplified the strength of the face. Multicolor jewels or enamel were placed into the large eyes to make them stand out.
The Cassite kings were given large eyes of chalcedony, onyx, or carnelian. Some of them with a cuneiform inscription, as devotional sacrifices in the sanctuary of Nippur approximately 1400 BC, were not meant for use as inlay but were all inspired by the same old Sumerian custom. Even the Greek chryselephantine sculptures, which combined gold and ivory, were influenced by the East.
Don’t forget that the Sumerians were pious people. You can recall that during a religious ritual, these statues were utilized as stand-ins. When a person died, the ceremonies required leaving the stand-ins at the temple. These large-eyed sculptures appeared to talk as they gazed open-eyed toward the gods, making supplication on behalf of whoever contributed them to the temples.
Although no identified cult statues of gods or goddesses have been discovered, some had similar motifs. Male sculptures were usually clothed in a woolen skirt and posed with their hands clasped in prayer. Female sculptures were more diverse, but most wore a chignon and a thick coil placed from ear to ear (hair knot at the nape). A hat was sometimes used only to hide the hair.
The sculptors developed a style that was distinctive from Egyptian craftsmanship. To compare the two, you can say that the former was less concerned with proportions and exhibited more creativity in the details. Despite the hardness of the stone, the sculptors created a detailed carving of hands and fingers. Their sculptures were typically short and thick set, with heads extremely large for the body. The modeling of the bare areas was remarkably true to nature.
Sumerian Art Forms
Early Sumerian works of art, such as the Tablet of Ur-Nina, created long before 3000 BC, were incompetent and not craftsman-like. However, the frieze of men and animals constructed of marble reliefs set into darker rock panels that were originally fastened to a shrine wall at al’Ubaid near Ur was unusually efficient and entertainingly beautiful. The façade appeared to have been lavishly embellished with mosaic artwork and stone artwork of various sorts.
There were significant metal forms of art, including a hammered large piece over a door portraying a lion-headed eagle and two stags and a graphical frieze in copper, as well as terracotta statuary and the remnants of many limestone friezes.
A line of oxen in the round, constructed of hammered sheet copper over wood, was arranged around a ledge underneath these relief features. The structure dated from the mid-31st century BC.
The Warka Vase is the earliest carved stone ceremonial vase unearthed in ancient Sumer, dating to approximately 3000 BC or most likely the fourth to the third millennium BC.
It depicts mankind approaching gods, especially the cult goddess Innin (Inanna), who is portrayed by two bundles of reeds put side by side, representing the entry to a temple. It stands at almost one meter (nearly four feet) in height. On the highest tier, there is a depiction of a naked man, who may be the sacrificed king. He approaches Inanna, the robed queen. A horned headpiece is worn by Inanna.
The monumental buildings in Mesopotamia are generally thought to originate during approximately 3100 BC, at the same time as the establishment of Sumerian towns and the development of writing.
You can compare the construction of religious buildings throughout the so-called Protonitrate period (3400–2900 BC), which showed conscious attempts at Sumerian architecture.
There was another temple, however, at Abu Shahrayn (ancient Eridu), that was nothing more than the last reconstruction of a sanctuary whose initial construction went back to the beginning of the fourth millennium. You could believe that the consistency of design confirmed the Sumerian involvement all through the temple’s existence.
Around 3200 BC, you could see males who began coloring their nails with “kohl,” a cream incorporating lead sulfide in Sumer. It’s said to be the true origin of nail art.
The Gudea era was when Sumerian art achieved its pinnacle. It was distinguished by the simplicity of its postures, as well as a somber, even harsh style manifested in vast flat surfaces on reliefs and sculptures.
The towns of Babylon, Ur, Kish, Lagash, and Uruk yielded numerous specimens of Sumerian art. As the culture progressed, so did its art, as shown by notable artifacts, such as the Lady of Warka, a female head discovered in Uruk (3200 BC).
A mosaic-laden wooden harp, a wooden gaming board,inlaid with valuable materials, and different busts of boys and ladies were among the noteworthy findings belonging to Sumer’s creative pinnacle. Do you remember that many of the sculptures had beards, long hair, pleated skirts, gazing eyes, and joined hands?
In many cases, the eye sockets were severely carved and hollowed to accommodate a shell inlay eye. A chunk of black bitumen or blue lapis lazuli might be used for the iris. You must recall that Egyptians did the same thing with plaster or colored stones.
Two Types of Temples
Two types of temples, those constructed on platforms and those built at ground level, survived throughout Sumerian history’s early dynasties (2900–2400 BC). Two of the platform temples were known to have been housed within walled oval enclosures, in addition to priestly quarters.
Elevated shrines, on the other hand, are no longer surviving, and their appearance can only be estimated from facade decorations unearthed at Tall al-‘Ubayd.
A massive copper-sheathed lintel with animal figures patterned partly in the round, wooden columns sheathed in a shaped mosaic of different colored stones or shells, and bands of copper-sheathed bulls and lions patterned in relief but with protruding heads were among the devices intended to break up the monotony of sun-dried brick or mud plaster.
You can sum up that the ground-level temples continued to develop a single theme: a rectangular sanctuary with an altar, an offering table, and pedestals for votive sculptures approached on the cross axis (statues used for vicarious worship or intercession).
Patterned mosaics of terra-cotta cones buried through the walls decorated temple interiors. The visible components were painted or coated in bronze. Murals represented mythological scenes rather frequently. Palaces and other secular structures were minimally known throughout this period.
Sumerian traders carried caravans laden with grain and textiles into Asia Minor and Iran, returning with wood, stones, and metals. These were soon employed in the creation of weaponry and Sumerian art. The Sumerian art styles represent the ancient Sumerians’ culture and way of life.
A tiny disc of hard stone was cut as a “negative” in printmaking so that the imprint in the mud came out in relief. It generally included a figure-based design and was frequently a symbol of the owner’s loyalty to a particular god. Many cylinder seals (as well as the flat, ring, and cone types) have been discovered, along with countless clay papers retaining their imprints.
There were rudimentary pictographic writings and imprecise geometrical patterns or solar imagery in the early instances. The illustrated seals began to display a sophisticated sense of visual style and great competence in relief sometime after 3500 BC. You can see that there was a clarity to this superb lapidary work, a clear delineation of isolated figures against the uninvolved backgrounds.
A specific perfection was attained in the realm of figurines, especially when dealing with animals. A donkey figurine, for example, was affixed as a mascot to the rein-guide on the yoke of Queen Shub-chariot ad’s horses (3100 BC).
It’s a lovely piece of realistic sculpture demonstrating keen observation while also paying attention to the figure’s usage and placement. Sculptural bulls’ heads in silver and copper were exceptionally attractive.
Some of these were lyre decorations; therefore, they shouldn’t be assessed on their own. However, the values were remarkably high that the pieces remained effective even when removed from their original context.
Sumerian art is represented by intricate and lavish decoration, which has left a tremendous influence on people’s culture. You could tell that they began a trend in architecture, sculpture, painting, drawing, and several artworks in a very systematic and truly artistic approach.
Since civilization has evolved in Mesopotamia, you could see that the people gradually learned to communicate in a written form when cuneiform writing, was discovered. This classic invention helped people remember and properly document their thoughts, particularly when they were buying and selling. You could proudly say that Sumerian art was a composition of various art forms, which served as a priceless charm of antiquity.