Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Ur of the Chaldees Part VI: The Standard of Ur and Art as Document

And we’re back! Sorry to have missed you guys last Tuesday, but I’m afraid that tending to a wee little gas leak in the flat took precedence over blogging. Now that it’s all fixed and things are smelling far less explodey over here, I’m excited to get back to my penultimate object from the Royal Cemetery -- the famous Standard of Ur!

As my regular readers may know, my romance with the British Museum began in earnest when I read Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects.[1] The Standard of Ur clocked in at Object #12, making it the first Ur object I ever really considered. Perhaps that’s appropriate as it might tell us more about life in Mesopotamia circa 2,500 B.C. than any other single artifact in the collection.

Reading about the Standard in 100 Objects and looking at it in person, the first thing that struck me was its sophistication, both in execution and in content. It was by far the most complex work that had yet appeared in the book, and it seemed to represent a great leap forward in terms of artistry. It certainly challenged my preconceived notions of Sumerian culture, which had been more Gozer and less tidy taxation system.

After Woolley’s restoration, the Standard was revealed to be a wedge-shaped box with large panels about 22 inches wide and 9 inches high making up most of its surface. These panels are fixed to two slim sloped sides. All four of the Standard's panels are covered with intricate mosaics of lapis lazuli, red marble, and delicately carved shell. The side mosaics feature whimsical designs, and the Museum display notes that the restorers couldn’t be 100% sure they got those exactly right.

On the side panels, people frolic among flora and fauna.

The two main panels, however, present beautifully preserved documentation of war and peace as they looked in Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago.

The "war" side.

The “war” side of the Standard depicts a Sumerian army delivering a crushing defeat to an enemy, the prisoners stripped and presented to an outsized king who stands so much taller than the others that he actually breaks through the mosaic’s top border.[2]

Captives are presented to the king and his men as soldiers brutally subdue 
naked, defeated enemies below.

A nude enemy captive is prodded toward the king on the top panel.

The bottom panel features a dramatic chariot battle with donkeys cleverly depicted as gaining speed, starting at standing on the left until they’ve reached a full gallop, crushing enemies beneath them at the right. 

The four chariots of the bottom panel as they appear gaining speed from left to right.

MacGregor tells us this isn't just one of the oldest known depiction of chariots; it's among the oldest depictions of wheeled vehicles of any sort.[3]

Woolley was delighted by this. He wrote “we know from actual examples found in [Ur’s] graves that their weapons were, both in design and in manufacture, far superior to anything that their contemporaries possessed or any other nation was to adopt” for a very long time,[4] and he was understandably excited to discover this account of the Sumerian war machine in action. The dramatic bottom panel was particularly thrilling for its similarity to the chariotry that “was to inspire an almost superstitious terror in the Hebrews at the time of the Judges,” more than a thousand years later.[5]

“The Standard is a remarkable work of art, but it has yet greater value as an historical document, for here we have figured the earliest detailed picture of the army which carried the civilisation of the Sumerians from their early settlements on the fringe of the Persian Gulf to the mountains of Anatolia and to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.”[6]

The "peace" side.

Turn the Standard around, and the scene changes from a king at war to a king enjoying the fruits of peace. In 100 Objects, MacGregor describes this panel as depicting “any ruler’s dream of how a tax system should operate,”[7] with farmers & fishermen lining up to deliver tribute to the larger-than-life king who feasts with his court as they enjoy a musical performance.[8]

The king and his court look happy and relaxed as they hold their silver cups (see below).

A harpist and a singer provide entertainment during the feast.

So, what do we make of all this? My first thought is simply that the Standard seems to provide rather good evidence for these graves truly being “royal” as Woolley believed; if the grave occupants were cult figures only (as opposed to cult figures/royals), why would one of them have been buried with an artistic depiction of the mechanisms of the state at work?

Moving on to interpretation of the mosaics, MacGregor considers the Standard to be an examination of the intimate ties between agricultural success, urban life, and the ability to make--and the necessity of making--war.

Captured enemies are beaten on the "war" side.

As MacGregor explains, Ur owed it existence to the fertile land surrounding the Euphrates. The excellent agricultural conditions enticed people to live in close proximity to one another, and the abundance of workers combined with the bountiful earth allowed a surplus of food to develop. With a surplus, the society rose above subsistence level, and it became possible for some members of the community to be exempt from food production tasks. These people became craftsmen, warriors, priests, and the ruling class.

A farmer brings his tax on the "peace" side.

Eventually, all of this wealth and specialized division of labor adds up to a proper city.  The rich city must be defended, and an army is formed.

The king's men flank him on the "war" side.  
The three taller men hold axes like one pictured below.

The army protects the city, the city flourishes, and more resources are put into the army.  Perhaps the army becomes so strong that it goes beyond defense and begins to conquer some of the neighbors.  The neighbors' resources are claimed, and the city becomes wealthier still. The city grows, the army grows, more neighbors are conquered, and the cycle perpetuates.

Look at those lovely little fish!  "Peace" side.

In this way, agricultural wealth and the mighty military are inexorably intertwined. The two sides of the Standard of Ur are a rather literal depiction of the “guns and butter” of Poli Sci 101.

“This object, from one of the oldest and richest 
cities of them all, seems to say quite clearly 
that the power of cities to get rich 
is indissolubly linked to 
the power to wage and win wars.”[9]

If I were king, I'd make everyone pay their tax in adorable animals.  On the "peace" side.

But wait! There’s more! In addition to this little lecture on state theory, the Standard offers visitors to the British Museum an exciting glimpse of some of the other objects in Room 56 as they were used in their own time. As one views the Standard, she is surrounded by the very objects depicted upon it.

For starters, Woolley notes that the soldiers on the Standard wear “copper helmets exactly like those found by us in the king’s grave . . .”[10]

Above:  A copper helmet from a royal grave, its owner's crushed skull still gruesomely enclosed.  
Below:  Helmeted soldiers depicted on the "war" side of the Standard of Ur.

I love how the guy in the middle looks like he's smiling.  

An ax found in a royal grave is also depicted . . .

. . . as are these stacked conical drinking cups like the ones held by the king and his court members in the feast scene.

Last but certainly not least is this fabulous little rein ring with a donkey on top from the grave of Queen Puabi.  It was used to keep the donkeys' reins from getting tangled.

As you can see, it's much like those used by the Standard’s chariot drivers. I imagine it must have been a very important piece of equipment given the outsized depiction it receives on the Standard.

The super-sized rein rings make the donkeys look like wind-up toys.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this two-part look at the Standard of Ur. I can hardly believe it, but I only have one more Royal Grave item to discuss. It’s a good one, though--the delightful Ram in the Thicket.

This little guy is pretty special to me.  I'll tell you why next week.  

After that? Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, opening March 28! And just maybe we’ll have a little blog giveaway to celebrate. Stay tuned.

[1] MacGregor, Niel, A History of the World in 100 Objects (London, 2010). 
[2] I credit MacGregor with the “broken border” observation. I probably would have chalked that up to a restoration error. Page 73.
[3] MacGregor at 76.
[4] Woolley, Charles Leonard, Ur of the Chaldees, (London, 1929) 6th printing, 1930, at 86.
[5] Id. at 87. Woolley actually wrote that no one else would have weapons or an army like Ur “for two thousand years” (p. 86), but Woolley was operating with a miscalculation of the age of the Royal Cemetery. Still, Ur was very precocious.  We now know Woolley’s Royal Cemetery finds date to around 2,500 B.C.; according to the International Bible Society, the events depicted in the Book of Judges happened roughly between 1,380 and 1000 B.C., more than 1,000 years after the Standard of Ur.  See
[6] Woolley at 86.
[7] MacGregor at 73.
[8] Woolley interpreted the scene a little differently, believing the king was being presented with the spoils of war captured by the victorious army shown on the reverse. Either way, the message would seem to be that war and agriculture wealth are two sides of the same coin. Page 85.
[9] MacGregor at 69.
[10] Woolley at 85.

No comments: