One of the earliest civilizations that have influenced western culture to this day has been the civilization of Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia was perhaps the first civilization to create art in the form of huge structural creations and sculptures. This art has helped each oncoming civilization grow and develop from there, helping others to improve on their own lives. However, we cannot talk of Mesopotamian art without discussing their location, way of life, and religious traditions.
The name Mesopotamia literally means, “Land between two Rivers”. These two rivers are the Tigris and Euphrates. Farmers were often having problems with their crops because of the flooding of these rivers. Eventually, they developed methods of irrigation allowing them to grow more crops then what they actually needed. By having control over the rivers, and having excess crops, these people needed some form of record keeping.
Historian Delahunt believes that cuneiform was the first writing system developed in the world in about 3500 BC. They used wet clay tablets and used sharp reeds to scratch the records onto the tablets. The tablet would dry becoming a permanent record. However, not everyone could read or write therefore, official scribes had that duty. Scribes became important people since even some kings couldn’t read. Knowing that the scribes kept all the records, it is logical that the scribe’s duty would also included having good math skills just like in Egyptian culture.
It would be common then to make sculptures of their scribes as a tribute to them. One such sculpture that is believed to be a minister of finance is the stone sculpture of Ebih-Il, the Superintendent of Man. The sculpture found in the Temple of Ishtar is made of a type of stone called alabaster. A closer look at the statuette reveals cheerful optimism by the person and a fur skirt, which tries to portray realism. With clasped hands and wide eyes there is a sense of divinity revealed by this sculpture.
Also, the control of these two rivers allowed for the people of Mesopotamia to settle into city-states. Each city-state was protected by thick walls and had a towering mud-brick building in the center of the city. This structure is called a ziggurat. These ziggurats were towers constructed as terraced pyramids with inclined walkways connecting each terrace.
The ziggurats were used as temples for worship of their many gods and goddesses according to Delahunt. Stone figures found in the Abu Temple, from about 27– 2600 BC, reveal some interesting facts about religious traditions. These Tell Asmar figures were “stand-ins”. These figures were part of a religious ritual of leaving stand-ins at the temple when a person was dead.
The Tell Asmar statues are stylized with large eyes and are in a pose of supplication. Every element of the Tell Asmar figures except the faces is reduced to the simplest form possible. This method reinforces the “power” of the faces.
The figures are dominated by huge eyes (eyes that would have once had colored stones). Also, the different sizes of the statues reveal that there was a hierarchy in this society. Males generally were made taller, had long hair and a heavy beard. The female is smaller in size with a heavy coil arranged vertically from ear to ear and a bun behind.
A consistent symbol of Mesopotamian royal power has been the bearded bull’s head. Ancient Mesopotamians valued cattle. Cattle were good working animals, provided milk, leather, meat and had religious importance to them. The Bull headed lyre, was part of an ancient Sumerian harp. It has gold-decorated posts, four narrative scenes, and a bulls head with a lapis lazuli beard. The lyre was found near the body of a musician who may have performed during the burial ceremonies.
Another interesting sculpture that represents the Mesopotamians and gives us more insight into who they were is the Ram caught in a thicket or also called He-Goat in Flowering Tree. This sculpture was made in 2800 BC and is roughly 18 inches long. First this ram is not really a ram. It is a golden goat. It was found in a Sumerian grave at Ur.
The animal’s head and legs, as well as the flowering tree, were made of wood overlaid with gold. His coat is of shell, his horns and eyes are of lapis lazuli.
The ram is much different from the Figures of Tell Asmar. There is lots of energy and power in the bearded face, bright eyes, curling horns, and springing flowers. The ram may represent the god Tammuz-the male principle in nature. This figure is stylized in some respects, but the overall effect is one of life and energy. Also, it is considered to be a symbol of fertility.
One more sculpture worth mentioning is Head from Nineveh. This sculpture is a magnificent copper head. It most likely represents Naram-Sin, Sargon’s grandson. It accentuates the nobility of Akkadian Kings, who by 2300 BC began to take on godlike aspects.
Also, sculptures began to express a new idea. The idea gave emphasis to dignified and powerful monarchs. The hair is plaited, wound around the head and gathered in a tight bun. As mentioned by Robert C. Lamm, in The Humanities in Western Culture, this head reveals “he is a ruler in absolute control.”
Mesopotamian sculpture and art was elaborate and complex. Clay was the most abundant material while stone, wood and metal had to be imported. Art was primarily used for religious purposes or had religious association. The Mesopotamian way of life, location, and religion helped to further develop the great civilizations that were about to follow.