Firstly, in continuing our discussion of the timeline of art, it seems important to address what specifically qualifies as the “Near East.” It’s not a term that we hear a lot, and it seems imprecise at best, but it proves important to know in the study of art. We all know that the “Far East” consists of Asian countries that prove the farthest east, like China and Japan. As for the Near East, countries involved often overlap with Middle Eastern countries. Generally, and, according to dictionary.com, the Near East “refers to southwest Asia, particularly Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other nations of the Arabian Peninsula.” The Middle East typically references countries spreading from Egypt in Africa to Iran in the north. In any case, early Near Eastern peoples were culturally advanced and had a flourishing artistic community.
This ancient civilization appeared in 4,000 BCE between the Tigris and Euphrates River and became known as Mesopotamia. Sumeria is the site of the earliest civilization in southern Mesopotamia. It later became known as Babylon and now exists as southern Iraq. Its ideal location between two rivers rendered it fertile and able to offer many raw natural resources for trade. Grain, leather, dates, meat, and plant products represent just a few of their exports. They also import materials they lacked, like stone and metal.
Such prowess in trade necessitated a means to communicate over a distance and keep track of goods, so Sumerians developed the earliest known system of writing called cuneiform. (Yes, writing appeared because of big business!) Cuneiform was written on clay tablets made from silt from the rivers.
A dozen or so city states comprised Sumeria, and society proved highly stratified and religious. A competing deity ruled each state. (After all, competition makes for good business.) Such focus on religion led to a highly developed religious complex that fulfilled both religious and secular functions., known as a ziggurat. Since Sumerians believed that their gods lived in the heavens or high mountains, they built tall mud brick structures with temple on top. A ziggurat seems similar in many ways to the Egyptian pyramid that was to develop later.
Patrons placed devotional clay statuettes or votives in the temples. Each figure represented a stylized version of his/her patron. All exhibited wide staring eyes, indicating their constant attention to the god. Each also holds an offering, or libation, and hands appear folded across the chest. Fleece skirts represent the fashion of the time. They vary in height from several inches to several feet.
Sumeria was also known for elaborate jewelry. Almost every technique for jewelry making was known, including, welding, alloys, filigree, stone cutting, and even enameling. Inspiration came from many sources and included geometric, animal, and vegetal designs and included color. Some of the earliest examples of jewelry come from Queen Pu-abi’s tomb at Ur from the third millennium BCE. Such skill and a wealth of material indicates a powerful society. After all, do we still show our prowess with bling?
A lot of what we know about ancient Sumeria comes from their tombs, the most elaborate of which comes from the Royal Tomb of Ur, discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 20s. Woolley described a scene of human sacrifice on a massive scale. Apparently, Ur royalty believed in having servants and retainers for an afterlife. Sumptuous objects and massive wealth appeared in a variety of goods horded for the afterlife and illustrate the power and lavish taste of early Sumerian rulers.
In any case, Whether buildings, religious statuettes, or luxury items, we discover the massive trading capabilities and power of this early civilization. Sumerians would eventually be superseded by various other cultures, including Akkadians, Neo-Sumerians, Babylonians, and Hittites, which we will address in further posts.