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Victory stele of Eannatum, King of Lagash, called the "Vulture Stele"

© 1995 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
Pouysségur Patrick

Partially reassembled from a number of fragments discovered among the remains of the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, this victory stele represents the oldest known historical document. A long inscription in the Sumerian language tells of the recurrent conflict between the neighboring city-states of Lagash and Umma and of the victory of Eannatum, king of Lagash. His triumph is depicted in a wealth of detail in the remarkable reliefs covering the two faces of the stele.

A unique historic document

Despite its fragmentary nature, this tall stele, sculpted and inscribed on both sides, is a monument of incomparable value, being the oldest known historical document. Excavations at Telloh revealed several fragments, dispersed among the remains of the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu. The stele commemorates, in text and images, an important victory by Eannatum, king of Lagash, over the neighboring city of Umma. The two cities had been in recurrent military conflict over the determination of their common border, a fairly typical situation in the Early Dynastic Age.
Grandson of Ur-Nanshe and founder of the 1st Dynasty of Lagash, Eannatum reigned around 2450 BC; under him the city reached the apogee of its power. The carved inscription on the Stele of Vultures, of remarkable length despite only having survived in part, exalts the triumphs of a ruler who had benefited from divine protection since birth. Nourished on the milk of the goddess Ninhursag and taking his name from the goddess Inanna, it was from the god Ningirsu himself that he had received the kingship of Lagash. Assured of the protection of the gods by a prophetic dream, Eannatum was resolute in his struggle with Umma for control over the Gu-edina, the border territory disputed by the two cities.
"I, Eannatum the powerful, called by Ningirsu, to the [enemy] country, with anger, that which was in all times I proclaim! The prince of Umma, each time when with his troops he eats the Gu-edina, the well-beloved lands of Ningirsu, may the [latter] lay him low."

The 'historical' face

The narrative of the military campaign against Umma is spectacularly illustrated by figurative compositions carved in relief, arranged on the stele in accordance with the traditional system of registers. These depictions are distributed between the two faces of the stele, those on one side being 'historical' in significance, and those on the other 'mythological,' showing the deeds of men in the one case and of the gods in the other. Human determination and divine protection thus come together to bring victory.
The 'historical' face shows, in the upper register, the king of Lagash marching at the head of his army. Eannatum wears the fleecy skirt called the kaunakes, partly obscured by a woolen tunic over the left shoulder, and he has the helmet with tress exclusive to persons of high rank. The soldiers, also helmeted and carrying long pikes, advance in serried ranks, collectively protecting themselves behind tall rectangular shields. The triumphant army of Lagash tramples the bodies of its enemies, on which a host of vultures has already begun to feed - the scene from which the stele takes its name. The inscription proclaims: "Eannatum struck at Umma. The bodies were soon 3,600 in number [...]. I, Eannatum, like a fierce storm wind, I unleashed the tempest!"
The second register shows what seems to be a victory parade. The soldiers march in two columns behind their king, who is mounted on a chariot. They hold their spears raised and carry battleaxes on their shoulders. Eannatum too brandishes a long pike, as well as a curved saber, a ceremonial weapon. He stands on a four-wheeled chariot with a tall front panel, behind which emerge a number of javelins stored in a quiver.
The third register, much of it missing, shows the funeral ceremonies that followed the engagement. To bury the heaped bodies of their comrades, the soldiers of Lagash climb up a ladder, carrying baskets of earth on their heads. Nearby are animals, including a bound bull on its back, which are awaiting sacrifice, while a libation is poured over large vessels holding branches.

The 'mythological' face

The 'mythological' face shows the divine intervention that brings Eannatum victory. It is dominated by the imposing figure of Ningirsu, the tutelary deity of the city-state of Lagash. He holds the enemy troops heaped pell-mell in a gigantic net, striking them with his mace. The god's favored weapon of war, the net is held shut by the emblem of Imdugud - the eagle-headed lion, the attribute of Ningirsu - shown with wings outspread, gripping two lions in its talons.
The rest of the 'mythological' face, a great deal of which is missing, seems to show the presence at the god's side of a goddess, probably Nanshe, Ningirsu's wife, also associated with the lion-headed eagle. The lower register offers a glimpse of the god on a chariot, accompanied by the same goddess.
Having praised Eannatum's victorious deeds, the inscription devotes considerable space to the oaths sworn by the two kings before the great gods of the pantheon. Having recovered Gu-edina for Lagash, Eannatum establishes the border with Umma, on which a stele is erected. But as human undertakings can only prosper by divine favor, it is the latter that is invoked to guarantee the permanence of the new order: "Let the man of Umma never cross the border of Ningirsu! Let him never damage the dyke or the ditch! Let him not move the stele! If he crosses the border, may the great net of Enlil, king of heaven and earth, by whom he has made oath, fall upon Umma!"

Bibliography

Amiet Pierre, L'Art antique du Proche-Orient, Paris, Mazenod, 1977, p. 369, fig. 328.
Huot Jean-Louis, Les Sumériens : entre le Tigre et l'Euphrate, Paris, Errance, 1989, pp. 222-224.
Parrot André, Tello, vingt campagnes de fouilles, 1877-1933, Paris, Albin Michel, 1948, pp. 95-101.
Sarzec Édouard de, Découvertes en Chaldée, Paris, Leroux, 1884-1912, pp. 36, 68, 94-103, 174-195.
Sollberger Edmond, Kupper Jean-Robert, Inscriptions royales sumériennes et akkadiennes, Paris, Cerf, 1971.

Technical description

  • Victory stele of Eannatum, King of Lagash, called the "Vulture Stele"

    Early Dynastic period, c. 2450 BC

    Tello (ancient Girsu)

  • Limestone

    H. 180 cm; W. 130 cm; Th. 11 cm

  • E. de Sarzec excavations, 1881
    Gift of the British Museum

    AO 16109, AO 50, AO 2346, AO 2348

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Ancient Mesopotamia, from the earliest times to the 3rd millennium BC
    Room 1a

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