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The Art and Architecture of Sumer

The Art and Architecture of Sumer

Author: Ian McConnell
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This lesson will consider the art and architecture of Sumer.

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Tutorial

Exploring the art and architecture of Sumer.

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Well, hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell and today's lesson is about the art and architecture of Sumer. Which sounds like a fancy pronunciation of summer but is, in fact, the first major civilization to develop in Mesopotamia. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. And as soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of the lesson today you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain basic aspects of Sumerian religion, explain the symbolic and religious significance of the Ziggurat, and explain the form and function of Sumerian votive figures and the importance of the eye in Sumerian culture.

Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson. First key term is Ziggurat, a Mesopotamian temple shaped as a pyramid tower and having a number of stories that is winding and round. And votive figures, sculptures placed in a shrine in fulfillment of a vow. The big idea for today is that Sumer was the first major civilization to develop in ancient Mesopotamia. So quick warning-- not really a warning but more of a notice here-- this lesson has required artwork in it and it will be listed in purple. So keep an eye out for that.

So to begin, let's take a look at what period of time we're looking at. For reference point, as usual, I've highlighted 0 AD which is not a year, but rather a single point in time. BC is before Christ and AD is Anno Domini, which means in the year of our Lord. And remember, there's no year 0, so the year 1 AD is exactly one year after 1 BC. Today's lesson covers the years from around 4,500 BC to around 2,000 BC. As another historical reference, I've also pointed out the approximate date for the founding of the Roman Republic, the precursor to the Roman Empire-- which you have undoubtedly have heard of before-- to give you an idea of how far back in time we're looking.

Quick geography lesson. Again, today we're looking at the area aptly named Mesopotamia. Sumer was a civilization that developed within Mesopotamia and consisted of a number of city-states that popped up over time, which we'll talk about in a few minutes. So here, again, is Mesopotamia, Iraq for a reference, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Mesopotamia, and here are the little city-states that popped up over time. Very nice. All right.

So why do we care about Sumer? Well, like I mentioned before, Sumer was the first major civilization to develop in Mesopotamia. People coalesced to form city-states which function more or less independently of one another, at least with respect to the local government. The religion of Sumer was of particular historical importance because of the influence it had on the Sumerian people and the role it played in their daily lives. Now, in terms of stratification, the priestly class of individuals who were the religious leaders, aside from the actual rulers of a particular city-state, the priestly class was at the top and they controlled the religious functions of the community and really had a monopoly on the available face time with the deities. Or in other words, religious ceremonies and access to religious shrines seemed to be exclusive to certain individuals rather than open to the public.

Now, these ceremonies and rights were likely carried out in the shrines atop Ziggurats which were large religious temples that had an important place within the layout of each city-state. And we'll talk more about votive figures and patron deities in a few moments.

The city-state is important. It's important to understand what it is. So why do we care about it? Well, it's a city that is independent of any outside government and it's an autonomous state that consists of the city and perhaps some surrounding territory. And early civilizations often began as city-states. And some other city-states you may have heard would be Athens in Greece-- in ancient Greece, for example-- and Sparta.

So we're going to focus on the city-state of Ur today, which is located in the southern part of Mesopotamia as seen there. Before we move forward, let me take a moment to talk about Nanna. Not my grandmother but rather the moon goddess in Sumerian religion and the patron deity of Ur. Now, city-states in ancient Mesopotamia, much like the use of patron saints in older cities throughout Europe, had a patron deity who protected the city. The religious emphasis was on honoring the city's patron deity.

Now, this image is of a work of art called The Standard of Ur and it's widely believed to have served as a standard, something that's carried around for display. But it's true use is still a mystery. It's a six sided mosaic the dates from between 2,600 and 2,400 BC. And why do we care? Well, it provides a bit of insight into Sumerian culture.

There are two main panels. The one on the right is of war-- the one I'm showing you-- and the one of war depicts a Sumerian army conquering its enemies and presenting the captured and naked foes before their leader. The peace panel, which is not shown, depicts what is thought to be a typical Sumerian banquet scene.

The major religious structure within the city of Ur was the Nanna Ziggurat. And the Ziggurat is a symbolic and religious structure-- think of it as a temple-- it was looked at as a holy mountain reinforcing the idea that the gods dwelt above humans. It was not a public gathering place, rather it was limited to only a privileged few-- the priestly class-- who conducted their business within the shrine, or the temple, at the top of the Ziggurat.

This is a reconstruction the original Nanna Ziggurat. The original remains are actually slightly visible by the people up top. Here's a more detailed CAD rendering of what the Ziggurat may have looked like in its day. Notice the stepped or tiered structure and long access ramps. These are common design elements of the Ziggurat.

Now, the tiered structure was likely a limitation of the building materials, which was predominantly mud brick which is sunbaked, and the known construction techniques at the time. Now, mud brick has a relatively decent level of compression strength, but isn't an ideal material for building tall, airy structures. Stocky would be a good description of the types of structures made with mud bricks.

At the top is the shrine, and as you can see here in my simple diagram, it has a little opening for access. Religious function would be performed inside the temple which would also serve to house votive sculptures which we'll talk about next.

Now, the votive figure played an important role for the priestly class in Sumer. The votive figure served as a representation of a person, a devout worshipper. It's purpose was to continue the act of worship while the priest was away. And this always seemed a little humorous to me, like it was a lazy way of going to church. But however, the Sumerian belief system placed a tremendous amount of responsibility in the hands of the priestly class, and their prayers were believed to appease the gods. And happy gods meant a safe and prosperous city. So 24/7 prayer vigil was a matter of national security.

The eye was, and to a large extent remains, an important symbol in Middle Eastern cultures. In Mesopotamian art, it meant to approach a deity with an attentive and respectful gaze. Another important Sumerian deity was Inanna-- not to be confused with Nanna-- who is the goddess of love, fertility and war. Sort of an interesting combination.

This mask from Warka, sometimes referred to as the Mona Lisa of Mesopotamia or the Lady of Uruk, is a very important artistic relic. It was likely a representation of the goddess Inanna and is also one of the earliest representations of a human face. And, additionally, one of the earliest representations of the unibrow.

All right. Well, that brings us to the end of this lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see if we met them. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms, explain some basic aspects of Sumerian religion, explain the symbolic and religious significance of the Ziggurat, and explain the form and function of Samaria votive figures and the importance of the eye in Sumerian culture? Once again, the big idea for today is that Sumer was the first major civilization to develop in ancient Mesopotamia. Well, that's it for today. Thanks for joining me. I'll see you next time.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Ziggurat

    A Mesopotamian temple shaped as a pyramid tower and having a number of stories that is winding and round.

  • Votive Figures

    Sculptures placed in a shrine in fulfillment of a vow.