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 potter═s 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 fa┘ade 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 fa┘ade 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 on the analogy of the al 'Ubaid figurines. The head is undeniably beautiful, sympathetically modelled and full of character; unique in this early period, it must rank with the few examples of later Sumerian sculpture that can be called works of genius.

If it be with a certain hesitation that we attribute a work of art to the Jamdat Nasr rather than to the Uruk period it is because there is between the two periods no hard-and-fast distinction; the Uruk tradition [p. 53] continues unbroken. The newcomers did introduce a new type of painted pottery which with its three-colour decoration was pleasing, but technically poor in that the colours were ill fixed; almost always the design is geometric, in black upon a reserved ground of the natural clay while the rest of the vessel is painted red; when, as rarely happens, the potter attempts a pictorial design, his efforts are curiously inept. Judging from the cylinder seals the art of the period was decadent. Writing had been invented in, probably, the later Uruk times, and before that time seals had been used merely as marks of ownership. In the Jamdat Nasr period writing became more general and seals, now used for signing documents, became more numerous; for the most part, they no longer show the sense of pictorial design and the skill in the carving in intaglio that are so striking in the preceding age; the treatment of animal forms is at the best but summary, the field tends to be overcrowded and the details to be repetitive, so that if the seal were only partly rolled out the design would still appear complete, while if it were rolled out too far the repetition would give the effect of a continuous frieze. Towards the close of the Jamdat Nasr period the seal-cutter had evolved what has been called the 'brocade' style, where there is no subject but a pure pattern which can be repeated ad libitum.

It is to the Jamdat Nasr period then that we may assign the stone vases from Warka which are built up from parts made of differently coloured stones, objects more curious than beautiful, and those inlaid with coloured stone or mother-of-pearl. Undoubtedly there was still good work done; a steatite bowl with figures of oxen in relief found at Ur is a fine example of what was, as crude and botched specimens [dated to the period] prove, a favourite motive. But the level of taste had declined. A limestone vase from Warka, dated by its shape, which in terra-cotta is typical of the period, has round its [p. 55] body bulls and lions carved in high relief and, flanking the spout, two figures of lions in the round; nothing could be less in keeping with the severe outline of the vase, which is ruined by this misapplied ornament. An alabaster lamp from Ur, made in the form of a shell, has a head added to it so that from below it resembles a bat in flight--a harmless piece of virtuosity, but artistically bad. But at the same time the stone-cutters were doing admirable work. Amongst the many hundreds of stone vessels from the Jamdat Nasr cemetery at Ur some show real feeling, as when the broad rim of an alabaster vase is cut to almost paper thinness so as to take full advantage of its translucence, or a great jar of grey diorite is given a shape well-nigh Greek in its perfect proportions. Some of their animal carving too is excellent; a couchant wild boar in steatite, found at Ur, is a fine piece of miniature sculpture, and from Brak comes a whole series of animal amulets which not only show a keen observation of animal life but possess real style. Forms are simplified by the omission of the unessential but there is no sacrifice of truth to nature or of vitality; within the space of three or four centimetres the intrinsic character of deer or rabbit, monkey or pig is faithfully rendered, but each little figure is so schematized as to give us not an individual but a type. There is a curious unevenness about Jamdat Nasr art. Perhaps the grotesquely carved stone vases were made to the taste of an alien ruling [p. 56] class which could not appreciate the Uruk standards; or we may say that it was a rich period and riches sometimes beget vulgarity; but the craftsmen have not forgotten the old traditions and could still do admirable work.

To the Jamdat Nasr period must be given credit for the formative influence exercised upon Egypt. It was at this time, shortly before the rise of the Egyptian First Dynasty, that Egyptian stone-carvers took as their model the works of art produced in the Mesopotamian delta . The Egyptian slate palettes borrow their technique, their style and even some of their motives from the Mesopotamian; the fact is undeniable, but the explanation of it is not obvious. Seeing that they imported stone vases from as far away as Mehi in Baluchistan the Jamdat Nasr people may well have had business connections with the Nile valley; but, in any case, it was they who laid the foundations of Egyptian art.

The transition from the Jamdat Nasr period to the Early Dynastic is signalized by only two definite changes; --the painted pottery goes suddenly and completely out of use, and for the normal flat-topped brick there is suddenly and uniformly substituted the 'plano-convex' brick, a most unpractical brick, rectangular in plan but with a top sharply rounded. The present writer's theory that the change was a violent one, due to a 'nationalist' uprising against a foreign régime, and that the plano-convex brick was adopted as a symbol of the complete break with that regime is not generally accepted; but it is a fact that a certain religious or sentimental significance was attached to the plano-convex brick down to th end of Babylonian history, that the Early Dynastic period does carry on the cultural traditions [p. 58] of al 'Ubaid and of Uruk with renewed enthusiasm, and that some of the Uruk kings appear, immediately after the close of the Jamdat Nasr age, as semi-divine cult heroes. Possibly we may associate with these facts a change in the fashion of the cylinder seals. In the Early Dynastic period the purely decorative 'Brocade' style is dropped, and the pictorial style is re-introduced, but with a restricted repertoire; two subjects are specially favoured, the ritual banquet, with seated figures drinking through tubes, and scenes of Gilgamesh, or of Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu, in combat with lions or bulls. These two subjects are repeated with infinite variations and sometimes, in the case of the combat scenes, with a very forceful realism, and the cutting is extremely fine: but the tendency is to overcrowd the narrow field of the cylinder; the cylinders, carved in shell, are sometimes very large, up to 44 m. in length and 29 m . in diameter [these were apparently presented to soldiers as medals rather than intended for use on documents], and the greater size gave the glyptic artist more scope for his intricate battle-pictures, while by a deeply-cut intaglio he could make his design as effective on the actual seal as in the rolled-out impression. On the other hand, the personal character of the seal is now emphasized by the owner's name being engraved upon it; at first the written signs are interspersed between the figures, wherever there is room for them, but later the inscription has a space to itself, as an essential part of the design; when, towards the close of the period, there was introduced the 'presentation═ scene, which was to be characteristic of the next age, the name-panel is needed to complete the sense of the picture. [p.60]

Comparatively little remains to illustrate architecture in the Early Dynastic period. At Kish a great hypostyle hall with columns built of specially moulded radial mud bricks carries on the precedent of Warka, though without the cone inlay; presumably the columns were painted. In the Royal Cemetery at Ur we have, as has already been said, examples of the arch, the vault and the dome. As regards decoration, the painting of internal walls seems to have been usual; traces of tempera painting with formal geometrical designs have been found at Warka in the Jamdat Nasr period, but in the Early Dynastic period we have animal figures, such as the leopard on the side of the brick throne-base at Tell Uqair and sufficient remains to show that the walls proper were adorned with lifesize human figures in colour. A different method of decorating a wall is illustrated by discoveries at Kish; here figures cut in silhouette from flat pieces of mother-of-pearl, with details added in incised lines, are set in slabs of black slate which were fixed to th wall's surface; the technique is clearly reminiscent of that of Uruk, when the silhouettes were of terra-cotta with a clay-cone background; this is a more sophisticated version. A variant of it occurs in the [slightly later] temple at al 'Ubaid, built about 2550 B.C. by the second king of the First Dynasty of Ur, A-anni-pad-da. The little temple stood on a high platform of burnt brick below and mud brick above, its walls relieved by shallow buttresses, approached by a flight of stairs with limestone treads and side walls paneled with wood. The temple entrance, facing the stair-head, seems to have had a porch, its roof supported on columns of palm-logs sheathed in copper; the doorway was flanked by copper figures [or protomoi] of lions, the eyes, teeth and tongues inlaid with white, black and red stone; against the jambs were columns also of palm-logs, overlaid with a mosaic in red and black stone and mother-of-pearl, set in bitumen, the triangular tesserae recalling the texture of the tree-trunk, and [p. 61] these sported a huge copper relief of the eagle Im-dugud grasping two stags. [2] The temple itself was whitewashed; against the foot of the wall, standing on the edge of the platform, was a row of statues of oxen, made [like the lions] of copper sheeting over bitumen covering a wooden core; the statues were 1.20 m. high and were remarkably well executed, though now the decay and distortion of the metal has made them little more than caricatures of the original; behind the [p. 62] oxen the wall was decorated with large clay cones driven into the brickwork, their heads flower-shaped and bearing petals and corolla of red, white and black stone attached with copper wire and bitumen; here a development of the Uruk tradition is obvious. Higher up on the wall face there ran a frieze 0.25 m. wide of reclining heifers in copper, the bodies of repoussé work, the heads hollow-cast in the round. Above this was a second frieze, altogether 0.22 m. wide, in which, between raised copper borders, the sacred cattle-farm of the goddess Nin-khursag is represented--lines of advancing cows, cows with their calves, the byre, a milking scene, and priests straining and storing the milk, and one mythological scene of a human-headed bull and the bird-god Zu. The figures are set against a mosaic background of black shale; some of them are very finely carved from fragments of white shell, with a delicacy of relief which is quite extraordinary, the majority in rather coarse white limestone, which very probably was finished with stucco and painted; in spite of the difference of material the connection of this frieze with that of Kish is clear. Still higher up on the wall face was a third frieze, again of limestone figures set against a black background and framed with copper, giving a row of birds, apparently doves.


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



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].