Medium: Shell, limestone, lapis lazuli, bitumen Dimensions: 21.59 cm wide by 49.53 cm long Date: c. 2600-2400 BC Discovered: Royal Cemetery of Ur, during 1920s Location of creation: From tomb 779 Ur, in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, today’s Iraq Current Location: British Museum, London, UK Period: Sumerian Empire Subject: Civilization Theme: War and Peace
Nearly 4500 years old, the Standard of Ur may be the first detailed depiction of ancient warfare. Discovered at the Royal Cemetery of Ur, from the Sumerian Empire, in today’s Iraq, it shows depictions of the lives of the ancient people. Elaborately decorated in precious stones, overtaken by the shimmering blue of the lapis lazuli, it is the finest example of mosaic inlay from ancient Mesopotamia.
A Sumerian artefact, the Standard of Ur was created in the 3rd millennium BC during the first dynasty, in the city-state of Ur (the present day Iraq). Ur, located in Mesopotamia widely considered the birthplace of civilization, was one of the earliest cities in the world, and one of the most significant of this time. The standard is a hollow box, in the form of a trapezoid, elaborately decorated, inlaid with mosaic created of shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli on both sides, depicting intricate narratives. The scenes portrayed are of war and peace, depicting, on both scenarios, the importance of the King, believed to be the Sumerian king of Ur, possibly Ur-Pabilsag, accompanied by soldiers and servants. The box is small enough to be carried easily, measuring just 50 cm long. The use of the various materials make it exemplary of the various exchanges between cultures of the time: the lapis lazuli came from mines in Afghanistan, the red stone would have come from India, and the shells might have come from the Gulf, a region in Papua New Guinea.
It was found in the royal cemetery of Ur in the 1920s, by Leonard Woolley, who found it in the corner of a chamber. Woolley considered it to be a royal tomb, associated with a king, who had passed away in around 2550 BC. When excavated by Woolley, the box was lying close to the shoulder of a man, who had died while he was holding it, probably on a pole. For this reason the artefact has been interpreted as a standard. When it was found, the wooden frame and bitumen glue were in great decay, and it was partly fragmented and broken. However, due to the soil it was buried in, the mosaic was kept intact, and therefore was able to be recovered.
Schematic depiction of the grave where the Standard was found
The box is considered to be one of the most significant artefacts of the Summerian civilization, and one of the best preserved examples of ancient artwork. Its importance is accentuated due to the fact that it acts as a living testament to the culture of this ancient world, not only to its artistic capacity in mosaic technique, but also to the way the civilization was organized and the various tasks they carried out during their existence. Narrating their life, in war and peace, the box allows us, 4600 years later, to understand how society life was organized.
Ruins/remains of the City of Ur (CC BY-SA 2.0, M.Lubinski from Iraq,USA.)
Its original purpose is a mystery, and it is only due to its location (near the shoulder of a man) that it was interpreted to be a standard – the name given to a flag that is brought into battle. The excavator hypothesized that the box could have been attached to a pole, and transported into battle, however this is just speculation. It is a fact that the object was intended to be part of the burial ceremony, as it was found in a cemetery, inside of the royal tomb. Other speculations of its purpose include the possibility of it being a musical instrument, or a box to contain something important, either for war or civil and religious purposes. Significantly, the scenes and objects presented and depicted in the box were found reflected (and present) in the tomb, where various bones of the servants were found, which like in Egyptian society, aimed to accompany the monarch in the afterlife. Speculated to be the tomb of one the kings of Ur, possibly King Ur-Pabilsag, the standard reveals as much as it hides in mystery.
Elaborately decorated with schematic and archetypal designs, the Standard of Ur depicts in its mosaics a series of scenes organized in three rows (upper, middle and bottom). While one side, which can be entitled ‘war’, represents military scenes, the other side, could be entitled ‘peace’, which represents scenes of prosperity and of a time of festivity. They can either be read individually as two distinct moments – wartime and peacetime – or they can be seen as being a result of one or the other, the festivities and celebrations (the peace side) which follows the victorious battle (from the war side). Another interpretation is that it can symbolize two distinct roles of the King in both scenarios. Stylistically, the figures are depicted very abstractly and in a synthesized manner. In profile, with a frontal eye (similar as in Egyptian art), with specific marks depicting features, clothing or wounds.
The side of War, on the bottom line, depicts four chariots pulled by either horses or donkeys, carrying a driver and/or warrior. Some of the figures are marked with wounds on the skin, while others carry swords and other weapons, and under some of the chariots are fallen warriors being trespassed over. The middle line depicts numerous soldiers ready for a battle or war, marching with helmets and capes, and in the midst of the line, some enemies are being slayed and/or killed. The top line depicts the king in the middle (emphasizing his power by his posture and exaggerated size), and soldiers on each side, bringing prisoners of war to be given to the king (prisoners who are depicted naked and with wounds in their flesh). In sum, this is a scene of both humiliation and power.
The side of peace seems to depict peacefulness and prosperity. Organized in three rows as well, it depicts various functions and roles of society at a time of peace. At the time, since food and survival was assured (mesopotamian cities thrived because of agriculture), it allowed the society to focus on developing other crafts such as music or priesthood, which are two of the scenes depicted in the panels. On the bottom line, people are portrayed carrying things and labouring, and in the line above, people are depicted with animals (sheep, lambs, bulls, and others), while walking side by side. On the top line, the King is portrayed on the left side, on a larger scale than the other figures, accentuating his importance and dominance, accompanied by six men facing him, sitting, with cups (figures who seem to be part of a celebration or festivity). At the far end right of this row, two figures are depicted with musical instruments that seem to be entertaining the others. The scale of the figures is also of importance while reading this piece, as the size of these figures, besides the King, is organized according to levels of society, as the servants are smaller than the seated men.
Mostly described as depicting “fanciful scenes” – scenes of a fantastic and imaginative nature -, the end panels are also pointed by others as having a deeper and symbolic meaning, also divided into three rows. On one side, on the lower level, there is a depiction of a flanked tree at the middle accompanied by two creatures, that seem to recall a bull with the head of a man (a common representation in Sumerian culture), as they are about to be attacked by other two Anzû (a mesopotamian beast, often portrayed as a fire and water breathing bird, sometimes represented as a lion-headed eagle, as it is in this case). This narrative may also add to the general dichotomy of the piece, as it may indicate an act of war. In the middle row, there is a figure at the left, a smaller figure at the right, and a representation of a ram at the center. Following the rule of the scale/status, from the main panels, one can infer that the figure of the right, that seems to be making an offering to the ram, is from a lower class than the one on the left. And in its top row, there is a representation of a tree, from which a ram feeds on its higher branches, depicted in front of it, while a figure stands on the right side (a figure which is highly damaged). The representation of a ram feeding of a tree is a common one in Sumerian artefacts, which usually symbolises the Sumerian culture itself. On the other side, a much simpler than the other, there are depictions of a ram jumping over a hill-like formation, at the lower row, a ram being chased by a leopard, at the middle row, and two blossoming eight-pointed rosettes (a sumerian symbol known as the Star of Ishtar or the Star of Inanna – representing both the god and the goddess).
The mosaic and tile work are a traditional craft which originated in the 3rd millennium BC, in Mesopotamia civilizations. Used not only on architecture, by the application of terracotta tiles or pebble based tiles (used to reinforce floors), for example, mosaics inlaid with precious stones were also a must in the rich empires, such as Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylon Empires. These rich mosaic works were often used to decorate and cover wooden objects, achieving its pinnacle with the Standard of Ur, the finest example from Mesopotamian mosaics. The method used here is the mosaic inlay, a method which involves the cutting of a tile sheet in several small pieces, which are later embedded into a solid and smooth surface. In addition, the tiles are made from the most precious stones, from which the lapis lazuli (one of the most expensive semi-precious stones from ancient times) stands out, as it gives it the most unique and shimmering look.
Detail of the figure of the King on the “Peace” side (CC BY-SA 3.0, Michel wal)