Sumerian art shows great detail and ornamentation. Semi-precious stones, imported from far and wide, such as lapis lazuli, marble and diorite, and precious metals, such as hammered gold, were incorporated into the design of their artifacts. Since stone was rare it was reserved for sculpture. The most widespread material in Sumer was clay, as a result many Sumerian artifacts were made of clay, such as their cuneiform tablets. Metals such as gold, silver, copper and bronze, along with shells and gemstones, were used for the finest sculpture and inlays. Small precious stones such as lapis lazuli, alabaster and serpentine, were used for cylinder seals.
The Royal Cemetery of Ur, excavated between from 1922 and 1934 by Leonard Woolley, have provided us with the majority of the Sumerian art on display.
The Standard of Ur
Dating to c. 2600 BC, the standard was constructed in the form of a hollow wooden box with scenes of war and peace represented on each side through elaborately inlaid mosaics. Although interpreted as a standard by its discoverer, its original purpose remains unknown. It was found in a royal tomb in Ur in the 1920s next to the skeleton of a ritually sacrificed man, who may have been its bearer.
Ram in a Thicket
The Ram in a Thicket is a pair of figures excavated in Ur, which date to c. 2600–2400 BC.
The ram’s head and legs are layered in gold leaf, which had been hammered against the wood and stuck to it with a thin wash of bitumen, while its ears are copper. The horns and the fleece on its shoulders are of lapis lazuli, and the body’s fleece is made of shell, attached to a thicker coat of bitumen. The figure’s belly was silver plate. The tree is also covered in gold leaf with gold flowers. The figure stands on a small rectangular base decorated with a mosaic of shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli.
A cylinder seal is a small round cylinder, typically about one inch in length, engraved with written characters or figurative scenes or both, used in ancient times to roll an impression onto a two-dimensional surface, generally wet clay.
Other Grave Goods from Ur
The Warka Vase
The Warka Vase is a slim carved alabaster vessel found in the temple complex of the Sumerian goddess Inanna in the ruins of the ancient city of Uruk. Like the Uruk Trough and the Narmer Palette from Egypt, it is one of the earliest surviving works of narrative relief sculpture, dated to c. 3200–3000 BC.
The bottom register displays naturalistic components of life, including water and plants, such as date palm, barley, and wheat. On the upper portion of the lowest register, alternating rams and ewes march in a single file. The middle register conveys naked men carrying baskets of foodstuffs symbolizing offerings. Lastly, the top register depicts the goddess Inanna accepting a votive offer. Inanna stands at the front portion of the gate surrounded by her richly filled shrine and storehouse (identifiable by two reed door poles with dangling banners). This scene may illustrate a reproduction of the ritual marriage between the goddess and Dumunzi, her consort that ensures Uruk’s continued vitality.