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The land between the rivers…
The name Mesopotamia (land between the rivers) refers
largely to the area of modern Iraq. At various times, it
•At times, because of the geography, many other cultures
invaded and had an influence
• before 8000 BCE, there was sparse inhabitation
•Gradually, plants and animals became domesticated
•The food supply increased, populations increased, and the
nomadic way of life was abandoned – villages, then towns and
cities would evolve
•Irrigation would occur, as there was little rainfall
•With irrigation and agriculture came the need for government
and laws, to organize, direct and protect workers, to record land
ownership etc.
•Trade evolved, as there were few resources – no stone, wood,
metals – they would need to trade what they HAD for what they
Southern Mesopotamia grew rapidly. During the early
Sumerian period (c. 3100-2000 BCE) the following emerged:
Flood control
Writing system
Religious literature
Monumental architecture
Economic organization
Codification of laws
Weights and measures
Concept of the city-state
Mesopotamia was very open to invasion –
there were many conquerors
The culture was enriched, but not
absorbed – rather, the conqueror’s culture
was absorbed into the existing culture
• Traditions of making painted pottery flourished in
agricultural villages and nomad camps throughout
the Near East by the Late Neolithic period of the
seventh millennium B.C.E.
• These early ceramics were made by hand in a
variety of techniques, including coil, mold, and
slab construction, and served as cooking, serving,
and storage vessels.
• Most early pottery is STYLIZED, simple, and
• Decoration becomes more sophisticated and
intricate as time goes on
Storage jar decorated
with mountain goats,
early 4th millennium
Central Iran
Ceramic, paint; H. 20
7/8 in. (53 cm)
Funerary beaker in Susa A style graveyard outside Susa. Ca. 4000
B.C. The horns of a stylized ibex sweep up in a geometric design,
and the rim decoration consists of long necked water birds in a
formal arrangement. Archaeological Museum, Teheran, Iran.
Funerary beaker in Susa A style from
extramural graveyard at Susa. 10.5"
tall. Elegant geometric design with
stylized foliage. Early 4th millennium
B.C.E. Le Louvre, Paris.
Susa pottery bowl with dark brown
geometric designs and birds on buff
ground. Late 4th millennium. B.C.E.
British Museum, UK.
Tell Asmar figurines c. 2700 BCE
Gods, priests, worshippers – Hierarchy of size, up to
about 30 “
• Artistic conventions evolve according to the
accepted style or tradition of a certain
culture at a certain time and place –
therefore, characteristics we seem to find
repeated often – almost a formula
• What might be conventions in the Tell
Asmar statues?
Hierarchy of size
Cylindrical, closed forms
Pose of supplication – prayer – hands clasped
Wide, staring eyes – window to the soul? Allseeing?
• Votive figurines were left as stand-ins – when the
person was dead, or away, or busy?
Gudea, Prince of
Lagash, ca. 2120
BCE, ca. 75 cm
Female votive worshipper – Khafaje 2600-2400 BCE
enamel inlay from a wall
excavated at Susa.
Important Sumerian developments include:
• The concept of the city-state
• Writing
• The concept of a powerful god communicating their desires to
humanity through the medium of a powerful priest class or autocratic
• Government by a priest class through religious power is known as a
• This system centralizes power in the hands of a small group of people
and gives political decisions a religious authority
ZIGGURAT – UR the temple was central ….the social
cement” that bound the community together -
• The ZIGGURAT was a temple raised up above the
common level from which announcements might have
come down from the gods
• It may symbolize an artificial mountain (mound) – closer
to the gods?
• Mountains are sacred in many cultures – Mount Olympus
– Ancient Greece
• Only priests went to the top (Mayans did this as well)
• Stairs and ramps represent the path up the symbolic
mountain – a spiritual journey to receive guidance
• Built of mudbrick – little stone or wood in Southern Iraq
Oval temple at Khafaje
Headdress with leaf-shaped ornaments,
2600–2500 B.C.E.
Sumerian style
Excavated at "King's Grave," Ur,
Gold, lapis lazuli, carnelian; L. 15 3/16
in. (38.5 cm)
Four strands of beads,
2500–2400 B.C.E
Excavated at the
"Great Death Pit," Ur,
Gold, lapis lazuli; L.
21.26 in. (54 cm)
Lunate earrings, 2500–2400 B.C.E
Excavated at the "Great Death Pit," Ur,
Ur – 2800 BCE – 18”
May represent the god TAMMUZ – male
principle in nature
Things really haven't changed much in the 4500 years since the ram statuette
was fashioned in ancient Ur as can be seen from this 1999 photograph of African
gerenuk on their hind legs eating the leaves of an acacia tree.
Lyre Soundbox of Queen Puabi (18”)
Images (mythical beings) organized into registers, anthropomorphism evident
– Mesopotamian interest in combined creatures – human/animal combinations
OBJECT OF STATE - The Standard of Ur - 2600-2500 BCE
ROYAL STANDARD – UR- about 18”, shell, lapis lazuli, sound box
• The figures on the standard commemorate
all aspects of life in Sumer
• Art is a reflection of the culture from which
it springs
• In this case, the standard gives us a
narrative of Sumerian life and culture
• It is divided into registers
• Very STYLIZED combination of profile and
frontal poses – similar to the Egyptian way
of portraying the human figure
Standard of Ur – Scenes of Peace
The king holds a banquet, while commoners bring gifts of livestock, produce and
manufactured goods
Standard of Ur – Scenes of War
Soldiers in battle lead prisoners to the king – the king rides his chariot over the
dead – propaganda – use of fear to impress their enemies
Ashurbanipal's brutal
campaign against Susa is
triumphantly recorded in
this relief showing the sack
of Susa in 647 BCE. Here,
flames rise from the city as
Assyrian soldiers topple it
with pickaxes and crowbars
and carry off the spoils.
Assyrian eagle-headed spirit
Power and Authority
• To regulate trade, and matters of state, a powerful
government evolved
• The king’s court was luxurious and powerful
• The king built temples, administered justice,
maintained canals for irrigation
• At first, kings were elected, then they became
• Sumerians claimed their kings were appointed by
• Monarch’s main job was to wage war
• Conflict over land and water rights was common
• First professional army
Relief – Dying Lioness, Palace of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh, Iraq, bas relief panel,
limestone, figure: 13.75" h, c. 669-633 B.C. (British Museum, London):
• Killing lions was strictly a royal activity or
• Is the lion shown sympathetically?
• Lion often a royal symbol
The History of Writing
• Language existed long before writing
• the signature event that separated the emergence of palaeohumans
from their anthropoid progenitors was not tool-making but a
rudimentary oral communication that replaced the hoots and gestures
still used by lower primates.
• The transfer of more complex information, ideas and concepts from
one individual to another, or to a group, was the single most
advantageous evolutionary adaptation for species preservation.
• As long ago as 25,000-30,000 years BCE, humans were painting
pictures on cave walls. Whether these pictures were telling a "story"
or represented some type of "spirit house" or ritual exercise is not
• The advent of a writing system, however, seems to coincide with
the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to more permanent
agrarian encampments
• perhaps it became necessary to count one’s property, whether it
be parcels of land, animals or measures of grain, or to transfer
that property to another individual or another settlement.
•We see the first evidence for this with incised "counting tokens"
about 9,000 years ago in the Neolithic fertile crescent.
• Around 4100-3800 BCE,
the tokens began to be
symbols that could be
impressed or inscribed in
clay to represent a record of
land, grain or cattle and a
written language was
beginning to develop. One
of the earliest examples was
found in the excavations of
Uruk in Mesopotamia at a
level representing the time
of the crystallization of the
Sumerian culture.
• The pictures began as
representing what they
were, pictographs, and
eventually, certain
pictures represented
an idea or concept,
ideographs, and finally
to represent sounds.
head foot
sun"day“ hand woman
It's tempting to claim that the development of a writing system was necessitated by the
need to keep track of beer, but perhaps we can be satisfied that it was just part of it.
Eventually, the pictographs were
stylized, rotated and in impressed
in clay with a wedge shaped stylus
to become the script known as
Cuneiform. The pictograph for
woman, as seen above became:
Written language was the product
of an agrarian society. These
societies were centered around the
cultivation of grain. A natural
result of the cultivation and storage
of grain is the production of
beer. It is not surprising, therefore,
that some of the very oldest written
inscriptions concern the celebration
of beer and the daily ration allotted
to each citizen.
Early cylinder seal depicting
beer production
Cuneiform (wedge-shaped)
Babylonian school tablet - Hammurabi Dynasty (circa 19001600 B.C.E.).
Hammurabi’s Law Code
• The Code of Hammurabi is a well-preserved ancient law code, created
ca. 1760 BC in ancient Babylon. It was enacted by the sixth Babylonian
king, Hammurabi
• Only one example of the Code survives today, inscribed on a seven
foot, four inch tall basalt stone slab or stele. Originally, several stelae
would have been displayed in temples around the empire.
• Hammurabi (ruled ca. 1796 BC – 1750 BC) believed that he was
chosen by the gods to deliver the law to his people. In the preface to the
law code, he states, "Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the
exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of
righteousness in the land.“
• At the top of the stele is a bas-relief image of a Babylonian god (either
Marduk or Shamash), with the king of Babylon presenting himself to
the god, with his right hand raised to his mouth as a mark of respect.
Winged Bull –
bulls, often with
wings and
always with
human heads,
were placed as
guardians at the
entrances of
royal palaces
like Khorsabad
and Nineveh.
The general idea behind the
LAMASSU was that they
warded off evil. Usually,
they have five legs.
In one modern
interpretation, they combine
the strength of a bull, the
freedom of an eagle, and the
intelligence of a human
(ASSURBANIPAL) example of
Mural painting Mari
Marsh Arabs
Games and Sport
• Hunting was popular among Assyrian kings.
• Boxing and wrestling feature frequently in art,
and some form of polo was probably popular, with
men sitting on the shoulders of other men rather
than on horses.
• They also played majore, a game similar to rugby,
but played with a ball made of wood.
• They also played a board game similar to senet
and backgammon, now known as the "Royal
Game of Ma-asesblu."
Family Life
• Mesopotamia across its history became more and more a
patriarchal society, in which the men were far more powerful
than the women.
• early Mesopotamian society was ruled by a "council of elders"
in which men and women were equally represented, but that
over time, as the status of women fell, that of men increased.
• As for schooling, only royal offspring and sons of the rich and
professionals such as scribes, physicians, temple administrators,
and so on, went to school.
• Most boys were taught their father's trade or were apprenticed
out to learn a trade.
• Girls had to stay home with their mothers to learn
housekeeping and cooking, and to look after the younger
• Some children would help with crushing grain, or cleaning
birds. Unusual for that time in history, women in Mesopotamia
had rights. They could own property and, if they had good
reason, get a divorce.
• Mesopotamian religion was the first to be recorded
• Mesopotamians believed that the world was a flat disc,
surrounded by a huge, holed space, and above that,
heaven. They also believed that water was everywhere, the
top, bottom and sides, and that the universe was born from
this enormous sea
• Mesopotamian religion was polytheistic
• The people of Mesopotamia believed that their world was
controlled by gods and goddesses, demons and monsters
• There were hundreds of gods who were responsible for
everything in the world, from rivers and trees to making
bread and pottery
• Each city was protected by its own special god or
goddess and their family. Large temples were built
in the centre of the city for these gods to live in.
Priests looked after the gods with special rituals.
There were also smaller temples throughout the
city where ordinary people could make offerings.
• Demons were created by the gods with human
bodies and animal or bird heads. They could be
either evil or good. Monsters were a mixture of
animals and birds.
• Although the beliefs described were held in common
among Mesopotamians, there were also regional variations.
• The Sumerian word for universe is an-ki, which refers to
the god An and the goddess Ki.
• Their son was Enlil, the air god. They believed that Enlil
was the most powerful god.
• He was the chief god of the Pantheon, as the Greeks had
Zeus and the Romans had Jupiter.
• The Sumerians also posed philosophical questions, such as:
Who are we?, Where are we?, How did we get here?. They
attributed answers to these questions to explanations
provided by their gods.
• Anu was the Sumerian god of the sky
• Enlil was initially the most powerful god in
Mesopotamian religion
• Enki (Ea) god of Eridu. He was the god of rain
• Marduk was the principal god of Babylon. When
Babylon rose to power, the mythologies raised
Marduk from his original position as an
agricultural god to the principal god in the
• Gula or Utu (in Sumerian), Shamash (in
Akkadian) was the sun god and god of justice
• Nabu was the Mesopotamian god of writing
• Iškur (or Adad) was the god of storms.
• Erra was probably the god of drought.
Anu is the sky god. He is the supreme ruler of all the
gods. His symbol is the horned cap.
Mesopotamian myths tell the story of how the earth was
separated from heaven at the beginning of time. In
these myths, heaven becomes Anu's home.
Anu controls shooting stars, called 'kishru'. Anu is also
in charge of the Bull of Heaven who can be sent to
earth to avenge the gods.
Although Anu is an important Mesopotamian god,
there are no known pictures of him.
Enki –
God of
Shamash – Sun God (and justice)
Nabu – God of
Hundreds of graves have been excavated in parts of Mesopotamia, revealing
information about Mesopotamian burial habits. In the city of Ur, most people
were buried in family graves under their houses (as in Catalhuyuk), along with
some possessions.
A few have been found wrapped in mats and carpets. Deceased children were
put in big "jars" which were placed in the family chapel. Other remains have
been found buried in common city graveyards.
17 graves have been found with very precious objects in them ; it is assumed
that these were royal graves.
The burial rites of Sumerians are tied to their belief in the spirit world and
they followed a strict pattern.
The body was wrapped in reed matting, or occasionally placed in a coffin.
The corpse was laid on its side with a bowl of water between the hands near
the mouth.
Some treasured belongings might go in the grave.
Vessels filled with food and water were place near the body so the spirit
wouldn't be hungry and return for food.
The tombs were furnished according to what the family could the
royal tombs were filled with treasures.
Part of Mesopotamia’s legacy include:
60 sec/min
60 min/hour
The wheel – from potter’s wheel, to spoked wheel – eventually to the
chariot – which would give a military advantage
Concept of city-state
Writing – cuneiform
Concept of powerful gods communicating through a priest class –
centralized power in the hands of a small group – gives political
decisions a religious authority
Codification of law
Mesopotamia would later become part of succeeding
And, in 1921…the modern state of Iraq