Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

[From: Woolley, Leonard. The Art of The Middle East, including Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine. New York: Crown Publishers. 1961.]

1.Geography and History --- 2.Elam --- 3.Sumer --- 4.Sumer and Akkad --- 5.Syria & Palestine --- 6.Hurri & Hittites --- 7.Anatolia

The Art of The Middle East - Including
Persia, Mesopotamia and Palestine

Chapter Three

Sumer - From the Beginnings of Art to The End of The Early Dynastic Period
Notes for this Chapter

P E R I O D S:
Al 'Ubaid 3500 BC
Uruk 3200 BC
Jamdat Nasr 3000 BC
Elam 2900 BC
1st Dynasty 2600 BC


I N D E X - [The following are discussed more or less in this order and elsewhere in the text]: Basic forms of architecture: the column, the arch, the vault and the dome - Wheel - Metalworkers - Decoration/murals - Achitectural frieze - Carving of stone vessels - Artistic principle which is equally noticeable in the pictorial cylinder-seals - Sculpture in the round - Cylinder seals - Painting of internal walls [& wall decoration]


T E X T:
Civilization began in the Euphrates delta. It has already been explained how the very limitations of that country led to the development of urban life and to foreign trade; the wealth and leisure, and the differentiation of classes that resulted, made of lower Mesopotamia a natural forcing-bed of art.

The earliest settlers [in the Euphrates delta] were possessed of a neolithic culture of no mean order. As farmers, they were breeders of domestic cattle and growers of domesticated grain; their pottery was excellent, and their hand-modelled clay figurines, the only free works of art of the period that are known to us, have distinct merit. The figures, nearly always nude female figures, are very carefully made and highly finished; the bodies, subject to certain conventions, such as the marked angularity of the shoulders, are realistic, whereas the heads, with their high headdresses of bitumen, are more reptilian than human, a quality which is perhaps due to the artist's lack off skill, but may equally well have been intentional.

These minor arts are characteristic of the al 'Ubaid period only and, so far as we can see, had no direct influence upon later ages, though they do bear witness to an artistic sense without which Sumerian art would not have come to fruition. It was to architecture that the al 'Ubaid people made an immediate and a lasting contribution.

In a land with no stone and no hard timber the only building materials supplied by nature were mud and reeds. Such might seem a poor basis for a school of architecture. The immigrants into the delta appear to have brought with them the knowledge of the making of mud bricks--crude mud bricks [1] were used for the earliest of the sixteen superimposed al 'Ubaid temples excavated at Eridu --and had they employed only those they might well never have progressed beyond the primitive hut. But a nimble-minded people took advantage of the immensely tall and stout reeds that cover the Mesopotamian marshlands, and most of their building was done with those. Of this there is no doubt. In the Sumerian legend of Gilgamesh the hero lives in a reed house: remains of reed houses were found at Ur below [p. 43] the Flood deposit ; reed huts are represented in reliefs of the Uruk period and of that of the First Dynasty of Ur; similar reed buildings are constructed by the Marsh Arabs of the present day. For architecture the technique was of supreme importance.

The reed house was normally a long tunnel, i.e., it was a vaulted room. If one of these were accidentally burnt, some of the thick mud plaster of the roof, hardened by the heat, might well be left standing, and there was an arch. To construct a real arch it was only necessary to lay bricks over a reed centering. The same thing could be done for a vault; but very soon the builders discovered that for the vault no centering was required; a barrel vault could be made by leaning bricks against the end wall . . . .

Lastly, the column. Until recently it had been confidently assumed that the column was unknown in Mesopotamian architecture prior to the classical period. . . . Now we have the huge brick columns of Warka, whose mosaic sheathing May well have been suggested by the triangular frond-bases of the palm trunk; there are at Kish brick columns of the Early Dynastic period, and in the al 'Ubaid temple of the First Dynasty of Ur the columns were actual palm-trunks, either sheathed in copper or covered with a polychrome encrustation which [p. 47] again reproduced the texture of the natural trunk. At Ur there is a brick column of the date of the Third Dynasty of Ur, and a column of Warad-Sin [c. 1800 B.C.] is built with bricks specially moulded to reproduce the frond-bases.

Very little has been found in the way of buildings of the al 'Ubaid period, and even so no more than the foundations are preserved; one cannot expect to recover upstanding architectural features. But when such are seen to be in use in periods not very much later, and are obviously derived from constructions which we know to have been employed by the al 'Ubaid people, we can fairly credit them with the invention. Primitive as those people were, they turned the materials provided by nature to such account that before disaster overtook them they had evolved all the basic forms of architecture: the column, the arch, the vault and the dome. These inventions they handed on to their successors, who made full use of them throughout history and spread the knowledge of them far afield; we see them in their later and more sophisticated forms, but the genesis of them must be sought in the mud and reeds of the Mesopotamian delta.

The northerners who, after the Flood, helped to repopulate the devastated country were in some ways more advanced than the people of the al 'Ubaid period. They understood the use of the potterĶs wheel, and their wheel-turned vases of plain clay, black grey or red, well shaped and for the most part finely burnished, soon supplanted the decadent painted ware of the older inhabitants. Before very long they extended the use of the wheel and introduced the wagon, drawn by oxen or asses, for draught purposes. Moreover, they were metalworkers. [p. 48] In their former home they had been more closely in touch with the copper-miners of eastern Anatolia; now, in the delta, the raw material had to be imported over a greater distance, but their own smiths, by casting and by hammering, had the skill to make all such metal objects as the culture of the time required. It is true that copper tools or weapons of the Uruk period are relatively few; but that is because the metal was costly and was therefore economically used; objects of any size would seldom be deposited in graves, and worn-out implements would not be thrown away but re-cast. That they were freely used is, however, certain. The al 'Ubaid sickles had been made of clay, fired at a very high temperature; they were effective, up to a point, but brittle, so that sites of that period are littered with an astonishing number of broken sickles. In the Uruk period the clay sickle hardly ever appears; it had been replaced by the metal type; but not a single copper sickle of that date has yet come to light. The Uruk period therefore saw the full development of the copper industry, and where the metal was employed for farming implements it was surely used for objects of luxury as well.

Lastly, the newcomers were accustomed to working in stone. In their changed conditions, with no stone available, its free use had to be abandoned, and only occasionally did they try to keep to tradition by laying foundations of limestone rubble for the walls of some particularly sacred building; on the other hand, their technical skill could be exercised on fine stone--dolerite, steatite or alabaster--imported for the purpose, so that in the temples and in the houses of the rich stone vessels began to take the place of earthenware.

But the same newcomers were quick to recognise the good work of the old al 'Ubaid people, with whom they lived on friendly terms and to profit by their example. Thus in building construction, where the materials were necessarily the same, the same principles were observed although a more wealthy community demanded greater [p. 50] elaboration in detail. The most striking example of this is afforded by the faŁade of the temple courtyard at Uruk [Warka], part of which was discovered by Loftus in 1854 and thoroughly excavated by the German Warka expedition in 1932. This faŁade and the terraced hypostyle hall is relieved by the half-columns which derive from reed construction; but both this wall and the huge brick columns of the temple entry are enriched with a mosaic of geometrical patterns executed in red, black and cream-colour. The technique is a curious one. The brickwork was coated with a mud plaster some ten centimetres thick, and into a wet mud were thrust pencil-like terra-cotta cones whose butt ends were either plain or had been dipped in paint; it was a laborious process, but the brilliant result fully repaid the labour. Something of the same sort was done on a larger scale by the Uruk builders of the earliest ziggurat platform; at intervals between the [p. 51] brick courses they laid large empty clay jars with their mouths flush with the wall surface, so that the whitewashed expanse was broken by horizontal bands of black circles; it was a rough-and-ready method aimed at obtaining a broad effect satisfactory enough when seen from a distance. Because the coloured cone technique was costly, and also limited in its possibilities, a variant was later introduced; large terra-cotta figures in silhouette with lightly modelled interior detail were pegged to the mud plaster of the wall and only the interstice between them filled in with cones; the figures might be human or animal figures or even architectural, and since these would naturally be arranged in horizontal rows their use led directly [as we shall see] to the invention of the achitectural frieze.

If mural decoration was an outstanding feature of Uruk art, another was the carving of stone vessels. The most remarkable of these is a great alabaster vase, standing about 1.20 m. high, found by the German expedition at Warka; it lay, together with other stone vases, in the Jamdat Nasr level, in the shrine of the goddess Innana, but as it had been broken and mended in antiquity it may be attributed to the Uruk period. From a technical point of view the carving, in very [p. 52] low relief in two planes with silhouetted figures relived by extremely delicate internal modelling, is masterly; the spacing of the three bands of decoration is admirably in keeping with the shape of the vase, and in each band the open ordering of the figures against a plain background gives to each its full value--it is an artistic principle which is equally noticeable in the pictorial cylinder-seals of the period. The draughtsmanship too is excellent; whereas in the bottom registers the symbolic figures of goats and of palms and barley-ears are repeated with formal exactitude, the offering-bearers in the middle register, for all their similarity of pose, are individuals, and one can almost see the anxious care with which each handles his sacred burden.

With this magnificent vase we cannot but associate an equally fine piece of sculpture in the round, the 'Lady of Warka'. This too was found in the Jamdat Nasr level, but seems to have been discarded in that period; if it is not actually or Uruk date, it must certainly be in the Uruk tradition and may serve to illustrate the art of that time. Already we have the inlaid eyes and eyebrows which were to be characteristic of all Sumerians sculpture, and the exaggerated size of the eyes anticipates later convention; the carving of the head-dress too suggests that this was completed in some other material, perhaps metal, possibly bitumen o