What was once the flat lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers was transformed by the Sumerians into the Fertile Crescent of the ancient world. The Sumerian art was one of great power and originality, and influenced all of the cultures of western Asia. Sumerian art was primarily made of clay, because it was their most abundant material. It’s responsible for their style of baked-mud building, and their fine-textured pottery. Other materials had to be imported. Sculpture was the main art form used. Another addition to the world that the Sumerians are responsible for is the cuneiform writing system, which they invented around 3000 B.C. most art was made for religious purposes. Ancient Sumer was made up of a dozen independent city-states, and each one was under the protection of one of the Mesopotamian gods. The rulers in Sumer were thought to be the god’s representatives on earth.
One of the best and widely known examples of Sumerian art is the alabaster vase found at Uruk, known as the Warka Vase. It is ornamented with reliefs in several registers, which are typically Sumerian in their clearness and exactness. The reliefs can be read from bottom to top or top to bottom without affecting their significance. It was found in the Inanna temple complex, and it shows a religious festival in the goddess’s honor. It is divided into three registers and the lowest one shows sheep and rams above barley and flax, and a wavy line representing water. These are used because they are the staple commodities of their economy. The use of a ground line is new in the vase, but animals being in strict profile are consistent with the time. A long procession of offering-bearers, naked men carrying baskets of fruit and vegetables, and vases, are approaching the entrance of a temple. The presents that they carry are a votive offering for Inanna. The men do not overlap, and are in composite view. The upper register is a female figure with a tall horned headdress; this could be Inanna herself, or her priestess. The food offerings have been put into the shrine of Inanna.
One of the men leads the way with a dignitary behind him. He is presumed to be the king of the city or the high priest. He has a long-tasseled belt that is held up like a train by an attendant, and he is greeted at the temple entrance by a woman that could be the goddess herself, or the High Priestess. The hierarchy of scale proves the man’s greater importance, because he is taller than the others. The Warka Vase is the oldest ritual vase in carved stone discovered in ancient Sumer and can be dated to around 3000 B.C., and stands at about four feet tall. It shows the atmosphere of the age, and gets an idea of the way man entered the presence of his gods.
A fragmentary white marble female head is another achievement of Sumerian art. It is thought to be the head of the goddess Inanna. Inanna descended from the heavens into the hell region of her sister, the Queen of Death, and she sent her messenger with instructions to rescue her if she should not return. The seven Judges hung her naked on a stake. The piece is a face with a flat back, and it was found in the sacred precinct of the goddess. It was completely fashioned by hand, and the stone had to be imported, which explains why the sculpture is only the head, because it would be too expensive for the complete body. The face has drilled holes for attachment to a head and body that is probably made of wood. The bright color of the eyes, eyebrows, and hair, overshadow the soft modeling of the cheeks and mouth. The indention at the top held a wig, which was thought to be made of gold leaf. Originally, the eyes and eyebrows were filled with lapis lazuli and shell, the original appearance was much more vibrant and ornate than the white fragment that stands today.
Another Sumerian votive statuette is the figure of Urnanshe. His intense eyes were inlaid with shell and lapis lazuli. Urnanshe has a bare chest, and has a fleece skirt on, with his arms that are now broken, in front of him in prayer. He sits with his feet crossed on a cushion, and has long hair down to his waist, which suggests that he is a eunuch. The reason he is in a skirt is that he was a singer and dancer at the Mari court. He was the official singer at the Mari court, and his statuette shows that he stands ready to serve the goddess and his ruler.
The ziggurat’s of the Sumerians were one of the most striking and extraordinary architectural achievements. A good example of one of the temples is the five-thousand-year-old White Temple at Uruk, home of hero and king Gilgamesh. It is made of mud bricks, and it is called the White Temple for its large whitewashed inner shrine. The temple stands on top of a high stepped platform forty feet above ground level in the center of the city. A stairway leads to the top, and does not end in front of any of the doorways. This requires it to use a “bent-axis” approach for the angular changes in direction. The corners of the temple are oriented to the points of the compass. The building was probably dedicated to Anu, the sky god. It was not made for large groups of worshipers, but for priests and leaders of the community. There are several chambers to the temple, but the cella was set aside for divinity and had a stepped altar within. The temple was created because men wished to build a ladder between earth and heaven, to facilitate the descent of their gods. Offerings were provided to the god and after this service to their overlord, the god would come down from the heavens to the residence prepared for him in the town below.
The cities known as Sumer came under control of Sargon of Akkad, and introduced a new form of royal power based on loyalty to a kind than to the city-state. The Akkad dynasty soon put an end to city-states around 2370 B.C., and also extended its rule over into western Iran.The destruction of the great city or Ur in Mesopotamia by the Elamites left an impression on the Sumerian people, and two lamentations on clay tablets show the memory of this event. On is the lament over the destruction of Ur, and the other is the lament over the fate of Ibbisin, the last kind of Ur, who was led away into captivity. Parts of the lament of Ibbisin translate to “…hostile Su people and Elamites will attain the inhabitants of Ur, the king of Sumer will have to leave the palace, Ibbisin will have to go to the country of Elam, go from the Sabu mountain, the “breast” of the mountain range, to the end of Anshan; like a bird which left its abode, like a stranger he will not return to his city”. Soon the end of the Sumerian city-states would occur, and lead on to the Akkadian, Neo-Sumerian, and Babylonian arts.