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History of Art: Mesopotamia

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Posted 6 years ago on August 23rd, 2016. Last modified on September 27th, 2019

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Welcome back
to our series on art history. In this article we’ll move on from the Prehistoric
 to Mesopotamia, birthplace of human
civilization! With the rise of organized communities comes the need for
communication not only in art but also in the form of writing. This is where
history really begins, thanks to the record created by the people who wrote it
all down and preserved their cultures.

Hanging Gardens at Babylon
Hanging Gardens at Babylon. 19th Century depiction.


Sumer was
notable for being the first civilization in southern Mesopotamia (think
modern-day Iraq) and for being the culture that first developed a writing
system in the area. Cuneiform, those wedge-like shapes found on many a stone
tablet, dates back to 3500 BCE or so.

Cuneiform tablet
Cuneiform in Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. Image: John Hill, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Unlike proto-writing,
which historians use to refer to symbols that don’t contain linguistic content,
cuneiform grew from pictograms to include abstract forms that allowed the
people of Mesopotamia to communicate and record their lives and ideas. Cuneiform
wasn’t abandoned until somewhere around 100 CE when alphabets were created and
used throughout Eurasia.

Cuneiform is
considered to be the Sumerian civilization’s greatest achievement, and it’s
them that we can thank for giving historians context for the culture and art of

and Relief Sculptures

Uruk was a
major city in Sumer that gives its name to the earlier period of Mesopotamian
culture. The art of the time consisted of a lot of pottery and carvings.

One well-known example is the Warka Vase, an alabaster vessel carved with four tiers of
designs. The first three tiers are in patterns around the vase consisting of
vegetation on the bottom, animals in the middle, and men carrying bowls and
jars on the top of the three sections. The top-most section of the entire
structure is a scene showing Inanna (also known as Ishtar), the goddess of love,
fertility, and warfare.

Warka Vase
Warka Vase. Image: Einsamer Schütze - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

piece made during this time is the Uruk Trough. Like the Warka Vase, this
decorative piece is a form of narrative relief sculpture. Artists cut into
stone, or in this case gypsum, in order to create their designs so it looks
as if the forms are popping out from the background or placed on top of the

Uruk Vase
Uruk Vase. Image: Jononmac46 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Artists would cut away the negative space, allowing the remaining materials to
form the positive image. While it was a tedious task, art in relief was more likely to
survive throughout the years because it wasn’t as fragile as a free-standing
sculpture, having one side of it still anchored to the entire structure.

Dynastic Period Art

the Early Dynastic Period (2900–2350 BCE) gave us a lot of votive statues, or
carvings of worshippers and priests. Typically, these figures stood wearing
skirts or dresses with their hands clasped at the chest. Faces didn’t vary much,
but hairstyles on women and some of the clothing or things being held by the
little figures did.

Sumerian Worshipper
Sumerian Worshipper. Image: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

This was a
time period where copper became huge for sculpture. One fantastic example can
be found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur: Ram in a Thicket. At the risk of
editorializing too much, this is one of the cutest sculptures I’ve ever seen
while running through art history.

Ram in a
Thicket was discovered crushed flat and had to be carefully restored. It once
had an inner core of wood, but it decomposed over time. Archeologist Sir Leonard
discovered the sculpture (really a pair of sculptures) and after using
wax to keep it together during excavation had to carefully press the figure
back into shape.

Ram in a Thicket
Ram in a Thicket, Image: Jack1956 at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

A variety of
materials were used for the sculpture. Gold leaf was adhered to its wooden base
while its ears were constructed of copper. The fleece on its body was made of
shell while the fleece on its shoulders and its horns were constructed of lapis
lazuli. Quite notably the figure stands on a base covered in a mosaic made of
shell, lapis lazuli, and red limestone.

The talk of
mosaics brings us to another Early Dynastic creation, the “Standard of Ur”.
This collection of mosaics depicts narratives of war and peace in lapis lazuli
and shell. Like the ram mentioned above, these mosaics were adhered to wood,
and therefore only survived in fragments. Woolley and his team are responsible for
the restoration of the Standard; they used wax to carefully remove small
portions of the mosaic until they could reassemble it to the best of their

Standard of Ur 26th century BC War panel
Standard of Ur, 26th century BC, "War" panel.

It’s because
of the use of materials like stones, metals, and shells that we have art from
thousands of years ago. While wood may have been a common material, it
decomposed over time, losing its place in history.


The Akkadian
Empire controlled Mesopotamia from 2271–2154 BCE or so. This gives
us a time period in which their culture ruled the day, and we look to their
contributions to art. Unsurprisingly when we talk about cultures that conquered
large areas, they tend to have artwork that focuses on kings, leaders, and
their empire. The Akkadian Empire was no different, so we have a
sculpture of one of the Akkadian kings. The sculpture below was rendered in bronze.

Akkadian king head
Akkadian king head.

of kings were also preserved. A stele is a large stone slab (they can also be
wood) erected as a monument or commemorative piece. The “Victory Stele of
Naram-Sin” is a relief carving that measures six feet tall (approximately 1.8
meters) and depicts King Naram-Sin of Akkad leading his people to victory while
wearing a bull-horn helmet.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin
Victory Stele of Naram-Sin. Image: Rama - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr.

This piece is significant because it shows the king
wearing a helmet previously only shown to be worn by gods. Add to this the king’s
position within the carving and you have a prime example of showing a leader as
a divine figure, something pretty common throughout human history.


Jumping to
the Assyrians, we have another culture whose artistic contributions focused on
victory, the military, and its leaders. The bright side of this era, lasting from
1500 BCE to 612 BCE or so, was the focus on creating large, showy art pieces
decorating their public buildings and palaces.

Winged Genii from the palace of King Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin
Winged Genii from the palace of King Sargon II at Dur Sharrukin.

A lot of
focus was put on the depiction of animals and animal features. Minute details
were rendered into relief carvings showing human figures riding on horses into
battle. A notable contribution added the “Winged Genius” into history, which
often consisted of a relief carving of a man with wings. Like the Akkadians
before them, Assyrian leaders were said to have commissioned these art pieces
as depictions of their own divinity. This notion is based on the only
difference between carvings of kings and genii being the wings.

Later these
winged men influenced Greek art during its Archaic period and resulted in such
well-known mythological creatures as the Chimera, Pegasus, Griffin, and Talos.


Jumping further
ahead, we reach the Babylonians. Typically when you hear about the Babylonians
you think of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Being gardens, something easily destroyed, there are only artistic
depictions and written accounts of the gardens, but none that were first hand.

Hanging Gardens of Babylon 20th-century depiction
Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Early 20th-century illustration.

The written accounts
of the gardens describe them as being this great multi-level construction that
resulted in a mountainous-like appearance, filled with trees, vines, bushes,
and plants of all sorts. Since these accounts are from hundreds of years later,
however, or simply quote lost texts, the gardens may have been Assyrian rather than Babylonian or may be entirely mythical.

Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin
Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Image: Rictor NortonCC BY 2.0.

famous example of Babylonian contributions to art is the Ishtar Gate. Unlike
the Hanging Gardens, we know this to have existed thanks to 20th-century excavations. A part of
the Wall of Babylon, the Ishtar Gate was constructed around 575 BCE under Nebuchadnezzar
II’s rule.

Lions and flowers on the Ishtar Gate
Lions and flowers on the Ishtar Gate. Image: Josep Renalias - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Once considered to be a part of one of the Seven Wonders of the
Ancient World (the Walls of Babylon were replaced on the list by the Lighthouse
of Alexandria), the gate is decorated with glazed bricks depicting dragons,
lions, and bulls amongst bright blue glazed bricks that may or may not be lapis
lazuli. The animals refer to deities of the Babylonians (Ishtar, Adad, and
Marduk). It’s said the gate was a part of a processional way that led to the temple
of Marduk, chief god of Babylon.


With the
birth and widespread use of writing systems came the context that we, as viewers of
the past, need in order to understand the culture and expression of our
ancestors. From relief sculpture to copper to large buildings and structures
meant to honor leaders and gods, art was in full bloom in the Fertile Crescent.

These are
just some highlights from these eras. Our species has a long history of
creating art for a variety of reasons, and this is just a taste of the art
throughout Mesopotamia. Next time we’ll journey a bit west, to Ancient Egypt!

Want to read
more about Mesopotamian Art? Check out these links below!

Source: Photoshop Tutorials +