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Athena Review Exhibition Reports: 

Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium BC from the Mediterranean to the Indus

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (May 8 - August 17, 2003)

Although this exhibit was conceived and planned years ago, there is no doubt that it opens with exquisite timeliness. For Art of the First Cities focuses on the emergence of civilization in the region known to the ancient Greeks as Mesopotamia-that is, the fertile plain that roughly lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which today lies largely within the boundaries of the modern nation of Iraq. Moreover, as recent reports have revealed significant looting at Iraq's National Museum, and even more devastating pillage occurring at many of Iraq's significant archaeological sites, this exhibit provides us with a taste of just some of the artifacts that have been lost or are currently at risk. In fact, Joan Aruz, of the Metropolitan's Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, and curator of this exhibit, while lamenting that it took such tragedy to bring raise public awareness of the Mesopotamian cultural heritage, acknowledged that publicity surrounding the looting may have brought more people to see these important Mesopotamian works. Once there, she hopes that visitors will go away with an understanding that not only was this a seminal period for the birth of western culture-as well as the history of art-but also for “what stunning material it is."

And stunning it is, indeed. While the appreciation of archaeological material is often is seen as rather academic, no prior knowledge of Mesopotamian archaeology is necessary to regard the artifacts displayed here. Exquisite in workmanship as well as rich in materials, these significant works were manufactured thousands of years ago to elicit admiration and continue to do so today. And the curators have wisely let the works speak for themselves, for the most part, introducing only subtle design elements to evoke the distinctive gateways, temples and facades of the world's earliest cities. Likewise wall-texts are informative but not intrusive.  

[Fig.1: “Standard of Ur” (detail), Mesopotamia, ca. 2550-2400 BC. Shell, lapis lazuli, and red limestone, 20 x 47 cm (photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum, London).]

The first five galleries of the exhibit introduce the visitor to art from Mesopotamia in chronological order. The earliest works, dating from the Uruk and Jamdat Nasr periods, are already surprisingly sophisticated and reveal many stylistic details that will continue on throughout the next millennium, and beyond. One of the most historically important of these is the limestone sculpture of a standing male, identified as a 'priest-king' by the fillet binding his hair and crescent-shaped beard (Late Uruk, ca. 3300-3000 B.C.). Barely freed from his block of stone, the static posture of this small nude figure provides it with the gravity we should expect in the depiction of one of the world's first kings, perhaps the ruler of Uruk himself, the largest city of the time. Meanwhile, two small figures of striding horned demons (ca. 3000-2800 B.C.) from Iran reveal an early connection to the highland cultures of the fertile crescent in such details as upturned boots. Early examples of the lost-wax casting technique that would later allow the manufacture of more elaborate works, these are made of arsenical copper, an early bronze alloy in use before tin-bronze became common. Works from the succeeding Early Dynastic period are among the finest and most ornate of the millennium. Chief amongst these is the treasured "Standard of Ur" (ca. 2550-2400 B.C.) in which inlaid pieces of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone were used to depict colorful and detailed figural scenes of "war" and "peace"-the former showing the king, his helmeted infantry, and chariots in action among dead and imprisoned enemies, while the latter depicting a procession of gift-bearers and the king seated at a banquet. Together the two sides of the box represent the dual aspects of Sumerian kingship: military leadership versus the mediator between humans and divine bounty. Found in the cemeteries of Ur, the box was interpreted by the excavator C. Leonard Woolley as a processional standard but has been more recently interpreted as the sounding-box of some unknown musical device.

Such intricate inlay is used on another musical instrument displayed here from the Royal Graves of Ur, the "Great Lyre" with gold and lapis bull's head and front panel depicting an underworld banqueting scene in which animals and demon's drink and play instruments. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell as exhibited how much of the instrument has been reconstructed, but we can recognize a similar lyre being played by a musician on the top register of the Standard of Ur (fig. 1). Such banquets were probably part of the burial ritual. Queen Pu-abi (identified by an inscription on her lapis lazuli cylinder seal), for instance, was buried along with a retinue of five soldiers, a wagon drawn by two oxen and ten female attendants (one of whom was a harpist who carried a similar instrument) as well as vessels of gold and silver, and hundreds of other precious objects. The Queen herself was laid out in an abundance of gold and carnelian jewelry topped by an elaborate headdress, displayed in the adjoining room as she might have worn it, of gold and semi-precious stones whose flowing floral imagery symbolized the wealth and fecundity of the region.

Another well-known work from the Royal Graves on display has been referred to as the “Ram caught in the thicket” in reference to the famous Biblical passage (Genesis 22:13), although its depiction of a goat rearing up upon a flowering plant most probably symbolized the fertility of plant and animal life (fig.2). Typical of the composite art that characterizes the Early Dynastic, the work combines an extravagant array of exotic materials: gold, silver, copper alloy, lapis lazuli, red limestone, shell and bitumen. It is worth noting that most of these materials, as well as the carnelian beads used in Pu-abi's jewelry, do not originate in Mesopotamia.   It would be foolish to view Early Dynastic society only through the prism of these burials, however. Urban life of this period centered around the temple dedicated to the patron deity of the city. These houses of the gods were not so much areas for public worship, as are the churches and synagogues of our day, but complexes in which offerings were made, priests engaged in important rituals, and a large number of people were employed to produce agricultural goods and crafts for the deity. One of the most characteristic art forms of the Early Dynastic period were thus votive statues representing an individual worshipper which were placed in the inner sanctuary of the temple to intercede on his/her behalf to the god, as here suggested by their grouping in a small, darkened room. Such votives are easily recognized by a standard set of characteristics: hands clasped in prayer, often holding a libation cup, exaggerated staring eyes, and the rather abstracted, geometric rendering of the human form (fig.3). They also wear long spreading skirts, often with the distinctively Sumerian kaunakes pattern of overlapping, petal-shaped tufts of wool probably meant to simulate sheepskin (the same pattern is seen on the coat of the rearing goat described above; fig.2).

[Fig.2: Rearing goat with a flowering plant, from Ur, Mesopotamia, ca. 2550-2400 BC. Gold, silver, lapis lazuli, copper alloy, shell, red limestone, and bitumen. ht.42.6 cm (The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia).]

The Early Dynastic era came to a close with the rise of the Semitic Sargon-of-Akkad (ca. 2300-2245 BC), who quickly subjected the old Sumerian city-states in southern Mesopotamia and ushered in an Akkadian empire further north. Sargon's son Manishtusu and better-known grandson Naram-Sin (ca. 2220-2184 BC) extended this empire still further and heralded a new period of building and sculptural work. Few of these major monuments survive, however, having been destroyed in subsequent rebuilding by later dynasties. The Stela of Naram-Sin, which was found at Susa, where it had been brought by the Elamite King as part of the 'booty of Sippar', is thus one of few preserved major works of Akkadian sculpture. Commemorating the Akkadian victory over Lullubi tribesmen, the skillful composition draws the eye up to the dominating figure of the king--wearing the horned cap of his divinely ordained status and striding his vanquished enemies, high above his troops and under the protective symbols of his gods.  Such well-arranged compositions, along with deep relief and attention to detail, especially with an emphasis on musculature, are characteristic of the classical Akkadian glyptic style that is also apparent in the miniature carving seen on sealstones. Many of the cylinder seals on display are tiny masterpieces, featuring finely executed scenes of contests between animals, worshippers, or battles of the gods.

The next few galleries focus on the broad connections between early civilizations ranging from the Mediterranean in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. Aruz has a long-standing interest in the interactions of cultures, and she was determined with this exhibit "not to portray Mesopotamia in a vacuum." To do so, she had to obtain objects on loan from nearly 50 museums and collections around the world--a feat that could only have been accomplished by a museum with the stature of the Met. Of course there is irony in the fact that works on loan from the modern governments of Iraq and Iran are conspicuously absent from this exhibit (while only a very few of the anticipated artifacts from Syria were able to leave the country), a casualty of present-day circumstances, indicating that trade is perhaps more impeded now by war and politics than it was in the third millennium.

[Fig.3: Votive sculpture from Kafajah, Mesopotamia, ca. 2650-2550 BC. Gypsum; ht.23 cm (The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia).]

Trade between these early civilizations appears to center on the exchange of certain limited luxury goods. Sources for the distinctive deep blue, gold-flecked stone, lapis lazuli, occur only in the Badakhshan mountains of modern northern Afghanistan, but beads and other goods manufactured from lapis dating from the third millennium have been found throughout a vast area. True etched carnelian beads were only produced in the Indus Valley, but not only were these traded throughout the Aegean and Near East, but often local cultures manufactured their own imitations from other materials. Artistic styles and motifs often were “exchanged” along with such goods. Vessels of the “Intercultural Style,” for instance, were made of particular softstones such as chlorite, and shared a range of motives in low relief including date palms, guilloche patterns, and figural elements (often animals) in predatory scenes. A particularly fine example of such a vessel, found in Mesopotamia but perhaps manufactured in Baluchistan, mixes stylistic elements originating in Iran and Central Asia with iconography (including the bulbous-nosed 'hero and the humped bull) from not only from Mesopotamia, but also Iran and the Indus Valley (fig.4).

[Fig.4: Cylindrical vessel with heroes and animals, Mesopotamia, mid-third millennium BC. Chlorite, ht.11.4 cm; diam. 17.8 cm (photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum, London).]

The exhibit ends, appropriately, at the close of the third millennium in Mesopotamia, a time when city-states in the south again rose to prominence following the collapse of the Akkadian empire. Major works from this time reflect the power of the new kings, such as Gudea at Lagash and Ur-Namma at Ur, who consolidated their rule through the construction and elaboration of temples designed to elicit divine favor.   Statues of Gudea are identified by dedicatory inscriptions to the temples he constructed, and in one telling work, now headless, he is depicted as an architect, with the plan of a major temple to his god Ningirsu on his lap, along with a stylus and graduated rule. We are fortunate that Gudea preferred that his statues be carved of hard stones (usually diorite imported from the Magan in the Arabian Gulf), thus ensuring their durability-over twenty sculptures of him and his son, Ur-Ningirsu, are known to survive. All of these share a certain elegant simplicity in modeling that, enhanced by the high polish obtainable in the material, evokes a certain strength in repose.

Fewer statues of Ur-Namma, the founder of the great Third Dynasty at Ur, are known, although he shared a taste for ambitious building programs, and is often recognized for refining the form of the impressive ziggurats that have come to characterize Mesopotamian cities. The exhibit is fortunate to have a fragment of the famed 'Stela of Ur-Namma' which originally depicted several scenes in five horizontal registers relating to the building of a temple. In the surviving fragment the King is shown pouring a libation, as well as performing the 'first brick' ritual prior to construction.   By the end of the third millennium the Sumerian empire again fell to invaders. As this exhibit clearly demonstrates, however, Mesopotamian achievements in art (as well as architecture, literature, law and the sciences) continued to influence the civilizations that came after, right up to our very own. Thus the current uncontrolled looting taking place in Iraq is revealed as a loss not only to the peoples of that region, but to all of us who are the privileged heirs of this determining culture. Who knows what further great works that could shed light on this founding civilization are now being irrevocably lost?

Michele A. Miller

From Athena Review, Vol.3,no.4.

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