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Sumerian Art at the British Museum: Masterpieces of Mesopotamia in London

The ancient Near East and its environs witnessed the development of the world’s first cities in the Third Millennium B.C. Many of the complex and organized societies that inhabited Mesopotamia, the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, produced written records of their dynastic history and mythology in decipherable cuneiform or wedge-shaped text. In addition, they created distinctive works of art. Four objects in the British Museum’s astonishing collection reveal much about Mesopotamia’s Neolithic cultures, particularly that of Sumer.

C. Leonard Woolley and Ur’s Archaeology

British archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley (1880-1960) became Assistant Keeper of Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum in 1905. Beginning in 1922, he supervised a joint British Museum-University of Pennsylvania excavation of ancient Sumer’s royal cemeteries at Ur in present-day Iraq. Woolley was ably assisted by Sir Max Mallowan (1904-1980), the second husband of popular mystery novelist Agatha Christie (1890-1976). Recovered gold and silver artifacts, inscribed cylinder seals and funerary objects from Ur’s Third Dynasty (2097-1989 B.C.) were divided between the two institutions. Other significant finds appear in the inventory of the Iraq National Museum.

“Ram” in a Thicket

The “Ram” in a Thicket (ca. 2550-2400 B.C.) is one of a nearly identical pair, its companion in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, co-sponsor of the landmark 1922 dig. Woolley’s penchant for biblical interpretations led to the archaeologist’s misnaming the two wooden sculptures. He likened them to the Old Testament ram, entangled by its twisted horns in a bush, that the Patriarch Abraham sacrificed as a burnt offering to God instead of his son Isaac (Genesis 22:13). In point of fact, they are representations of rearing goats.

Excavated from the Great Death Pit in Ur’s Royal Cemetery, the statues were found crushed, their wooden cores having disintegrated under centuries-old pressure from the soil’s weight. The head and legs of the British Museum’s example are covered in gold leaf. Its lapis lazuli and shell fleece, copper ears and gold genitals have been remarkably preserved. The figure stands atop a rectangular base, upright in the branches of a tree with golden flowers.

Standard of Ur

Discovered above the right shoulder of a male skeleton in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, Woolley whimsically imagined that the Standard of Ur (ca. 2550-2400 B.C.) was carried on a pole, hence its present designation. Other archaeologists have since interpreted the artifact as a musical instrument’s soundbox. In actuality, the object’s wooden frame (now restored) was crushed after unearthing, obscuring its true purpose.

Bitumen was used in the Standard of Ur’s mosaic scenes, arranged along three horizontal registers, to make the intricate shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone components adhere to its original wooden surface. One side depicts war, specifically a Sumerian army with chariots drawn by four onagers (wild asses), spear-carrying infantrymen and enemy soldiers assailed by axes. The slaughtered are paraded naked in front of a Sumerian ruler. The reverse image, one of peace, displays a banquet of seated figures, outfitted in characteristic wool skirts and receiving animal, marine and other tributes in a procession to the tunes of a lyre-playing musician.

Spouted Cup

Found in Ur’s largely intact tomb of Queen Puabi, laden with human and oxen remains, was a gold Spouted Cup (ca. 2550-2400 B.C.), one of four such artifacts. Its sleek curved spout was hard-soldered to the vessel. Decorative herringbone and zigzag patterns, hammered around the fluted cup’s outermost rim, attest to the Sumerians’ superior craftmanship in the Third Millennium B.C.

Game Board and Pieces

One of Woolley’s most noteworthy discoveries was a Game Board (ca. 2550-2400 B.C.). The hollow wooden frame decayed, its lapis luzuli, red limestone and shell inlay remained in position upon excavation, suggesting to restorers the board’s original design. According to ancient texts, a roll of the dice determined which of two players moved his or her pieces across 20 squares decorated with circled dots, eyes and lucky rosettes. Tokens from other Games of Twenty Squares have survived, providing Sumeriologists with a composite view of what one entire set might have included.