02. Ancient Mediterranean, Art & Humanities

#16. Standard of Ur from the Royal Tombs at Ur (modern Tell el-Muqayyar, Iraq). Sumerian. c. 2600–2400 BCE. Wood inlaid with shell, lapis lazuli, and red limestone.

#16. Standard of Ur from the Royal Tombs at Ur (modern Tell el-Muqayyar, Iraq). Sumerian. c. 2600–2400 BCE. Wood inlaid with shell, lapis lazuli, and red limestone.

Art Historical Background

So the title of “standard” is a bit of a misnomer: a “standard” is something that is put on a pole and typically carried in a procession or battle. The archeologist who discovered this piece in 1928, Leonard Woolley, was absolutely convinced it was a standard: “. . . I can find no other explanation of its peculiar shape.”

Again, here is a recurring issue with early art. We, as humans, like answers and when something is uncertain it perplexes us and we want to give it a definite purpose or meaning. But with this piece, as with many prehistoric pieces previously seen, we just do not know its purpose or meaning and we just may have to leave it at that…for now. Moving on, I am going to address the content of this piece one side at a time and I am going from top to bottom, left to right because that makes the most sense to me.


War Side (The battle scene)

Similar to Egyptian art, many of the figures are shown with their head and feet in profile and their body front on. This is called composite (or twisted) perspective because it shows the body in it most recognizable form, which is not necessarily naturalistic. All of the figures stop short of the border, except for one. The figure in the center is not only the tallest but is in slightly different dress and hold some kind of staff. By using these clues you can begin to piece together that he is perhaps the most important person in this scene (is he a king? chief? army general?).

The center register is neatly split into two: one side has organized and uniformed men (possibly soldiers?) and the right side: as a mix of people but most of them are  nude or in rags (POWs?). This reading is supported by the action of attack and subduing of the ragged men going on in the center.

On the bottom, we have a battle with chariots that are literally running over the dead. See those little guys under the horses??? I don’t know if this is meant to be read literally from top down or bottom up but the narrative is clear: there is a conflict going on here with definite winners and losers.


Peace Side (The banquet scene)

The top register is what gives this side its nickname. There are people sitting and eating in fancy clothes (sounds like a party! Cue the music!). What I find interesting is that there is a mix of people sitting (party attendants) and those standing (servants). As it is depicted everyone is nearly the same height, which means the servants are either hobbits or this was done on purpose (as much as I love hobbits, I am going to guess it is the later).

In art history, we have hierarchical scale (the tallest person is typically the most important, see the war side for more details). So the artist deliberately made everyone the same height to that those who are important are still “taller” even when sitting. Also do you see that guy almost all the way to the left? He is certainly THE tallest, he even breaks the border band (see war side for the same effect).

The bottom two registers can be read as banquet preparations: there are animals (presumably to eat) and more servants performing various actions such as carrying wood (for fire).

Cool fun fact! In the same tomb in which this was found there was also a lyre box (a musical instrument). That SAME instrument is being played by the musician in the top right. I think that is so incredibly unique! See the reconstructed example below.


As Woolley summed it up:

“The ‘Standard of Ur’ is the most elaborate piece of mosaic and one of the most remarkable and important objects that the soil of Mesopotamia has preserved to us. What it really was it is hard to say.”


Next Time: #17. Great Pyramids (Menkaure, Khafre, Khufu) and Great Sphinx. Giza, Egypt. Old Kingdom, Fourth dynasty. c. 2550-2490 BCE. Cut limestone.

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