The modern world sees art as self-expression. But at the dawn of civilization, it was used to reinforce political hierarchies and maintain social stability. Such was the case in ancient Sumeria, the culture that invented the plow, the wheel and the concept of writing. Located in modern-day Iraq, Sumeria was a loose confederation of city-states that arose some 6,000 years ago. These city-states were governed by an elite class of priests and royals who claimed exclusive access to the gods. To reinforce this claim, they commissioned works of architecture, sculpture, mosaics and other decorative pieces.
Ziggurats: Architecture for the Gods
Life in Sumeria revolved around the deities. At the center of every urban community stood a ziggurat, a massive mud brick tower that narrowed towards the top. Encircled by the small clay dwellings of ordinary townspeople, the ziggurat represented the cultural heart of the city. At its top stood the temple, where gods and goddesses were said to reside. Kings and priests came here to petition the city's deities. While certainly a place of devotion, the ziggurat was also an impressive display of architecture that underscored royal authority.
Sculpture reached new heights as well. Again, its use was primarily religious. Sculpted likenesses of deities often graced ziggurats or stood in temple interiors. Above the ziggurat in Uruk, for instance, stood a full-sized sculpture of the goddess Inanna. She watched over the city with jeweled eyes that sat beneath gold leaf hair. Inside her temple - and other temples as well - stood smaller sculptures of elite Sumerians. These votive figures were commissioned by wealthy individuals and bore their likenesses. With folded hands and reverent expressions, votive figures served as stand-ins, allowing people to pay homage while going about their everyday lives.
Mosaics were another means of asserting the social order. A surviving relic known as the Standard of Ur depicts the king and his retinue overseeing war and peacetime activities. The Standard is a wooden box featuring elaborate mosaics made of shell and limestone. In various scenes, the king receives prisoners of war, visitors to court and gifts from his subjects. Another surviving artifact, the Bull Lyre, features a series of animal scenes. At the bottom are the beast gods of the Underworld. Directly above, upright lions offer sacrifice to them, while the top panel depicts the hero Gilgamesh holding a bull under each of his massive arms.
Decorative Cylinder Seals
Sumerian rulers also had their version of a royal seal. Carved from stone, these handheld tubes were rolled across wet clay tablets. Since a seal functioned as an official signature, each one had to be unique. Some featured intricately carved scenes from Sumerian mythology, while others depicted kings and priests in conference with the gods. These seals gave authority to written decrees and reinforced the belief that political power came from the deities. Along with other kinds of art and sculpture, they helped enable social harmony in Sumeria for nearly six centuries.
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