Standard of Ur, Ur, Iraq, 2600 BCE

The Standard of Ur is one of my favorite works of art from the Sumerians. It was excavated in the so-called Royal Cemetery at Ur, a Sumerian city-state (scholars are still debating whether the cemetery was for kings and queens or simply aristocrats and priests).

“war side”

“peace side”

The Standard of Ur is actually not a military standard. It was named so because Leonard Woolley, the excavator thought that the object was originally mounted to pole and that it was part of a military standard. In reality the Standard of Ur is a rectangular box (whose function remains unknown). The shells of the box are inlaid with shells, lapis lazuli, and red limestone. These fine materials indicate that during this period of time the city-state of Sumer was flourishing with wealth and trade because these are not local materials.

The box had two sides. Art historians have dubbed one side the “war side” and the other side the “peace side”. Both sides depict detailed narratives organized in registers read from left to right and bottom to top.

On the war side, chariots led by donkeys trample the enemy in the bottom register. In the middle frieze, foot soldiers lead the captured enemies. In the uppermost slide, the naked enemies (they had been stripped for the Sumerians to degrade them) are led by foot soldiers to the king, or at least a king-like figure. The depiction of the king employs the hierarchy of scale again. The king is so large relative to the other figures, and thus very significant, that his head breaks the border of the narrative.

On the other side, the peace side, the lowest register depicts men with horses carrying provisions on their back. In the middle frieze, men bring animals to the banquet which is depicted in the uppermost band. The uppermost band depicts a banquet, led by the Sumerian leader. It is most likely a celebration of the victory of a battle depicted in the war side of the Standard of Ur.

I am very impressed by the complexity and detail in the Standard of Ur. It must have taken a lot of time, precision, and accuracy for the artist inlay wood with all those shells, lapis lazuli, and red limestone. How tedious! I really like the color choices as well. I think the dark blue/indigo of the lapis lazuli in the background is a great touch because it is such a regal and commanding color.

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