Standard of Ur – Sumerian art

ur

© Trustees of the British Museum

The standard of Ur is one of the most important artworks made during the Archaic Dynasties in Mesopotamia. It is the most complex expression of mosaic in the Sumerian civilization. This artifact is only 20 cm high and 47 cm long. It is made of nacre, lapis lazuli, red limestone and asphalt. The standard of Ur was made around 2600 BC and the British Museum has it in its collections.

The standard has four sides. The little sides are trapezoid shaped. On it, we can see either men or animals on three levels. The two long sides are the most important one. The mosaics represented on it are named “War” and “Peace”. Each of the panels has three levels and in order to understand them we need to read them from the bottom to the top. The first two levels have to be read left to right, but the higher level has to be read from both extremities toward the center of the picture.

The iconography is a bit complicated so I will try to be clear and describe the panels one by one. Let’s start with the “War” panel. On the bottom level, we can see four chariots. Those chariots are drawn by a pair of horses or donkeys. The chariots have four wooden wheels and their heavy chassis include a case for the weapons and a space for the driver. The soldiers stand on a narrow platform outside the chassis. The rein rings on the helm are a usual type at that time. The first team doesn’t move and the warrior is unarmed. Then you can see chariots driving over the enemies’ bodies. If you keep looking at the scene you can see the chariots going faster and faster as if the violence becomes stronger. On the middle level, the heavy infantry is depicted. The infantrymen are wearing leather or copper helmets and armored skirt with heavy nailed cloaks. These soldiers are walking one behind another with their spears pointing in front of them. In front of the infantrymen, other soldiers escort naked prisoners. On the top level, there is a central character. We can guess by his position in the scene that he is important, but his size gives it away as well. Indeed, this character is bigger than the others because he is the king. He is wearing a helmet and his combat gear. Two servants are watching his splendid chariot. On the right, we can see prisoners while there is the court on the left. All of them are walking toward the king.

On the two first levels of the “Peace” panel, we can see some porters, donkeys, a lamb-bearer, an arie, and two groups each one conducting a bull. Those two groups are separated by a fish-bearer and a little troop of sheep. Between all those different groups, we can see a character with joint hand in the orans position. On the top level, there is a banquet with songs and music. A musician is playing a lyre which has a sound box in the shape of a kneeling bull. He is playing for the singer standing behind him. All of the guests are sitting on stools, which have front feet shaped like clogs. They all hold goblets and are facing toward the king, who we can recognize by his bigger size and his kaunakes (traditional clothing). Three dignitaries stand up to serve. We don’t know what this banquet is supposed to refer to.

The standard or Ur might refer to a precise historical event but it can also summarizes the two main roles of a Sumerian king. This artifact shows us the high quality of mosaics in Ur’s workshop. All the elements have been glued with asphalt on the wooden frame. Each panel has a composition calculated precisely beforehand. Everything is perfectly centered on the king for the “War” panel and organized in two equals squares on the “Peace” panel. The standard of Ur is also a good source to explain the importance of the chariots and the heavy infantry in the Sumerian civilization.

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