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Visitor trails Sumerian City-States

Near Eastern Antiquities - Length: 1 hr 30 mins - Tour days: Monday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

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Relief perforé du roi Ur-Nanshe (détail)
Relief perforé du roi Ur-Nanshe (détail)

© R.M.N./P. Bernard

00Introduction

The appearance of the first towns in Mesopotamia inaugurates the age of city-states. Writing and monumental architecture contributed to the growth of royal power, which fostered the growth of Sumerian art.

After a period lasting several millennia which saw the rise of agriculture and stable settlements, urban civilization emerged on the great alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC. Already an economic center, the town became the seat of a system of government which took on a monarchical character. Political power acquired a powerful instrument of control: writing. An official art emerged, dominated by the representation of a bearded figure shown engaged in warlike or religious activities: the priest-king. He was the embodiment of the new social order.
In the first half of the 3rd millennium, some twenty city-states occupied southern Mesopotamia, known as Sumer. Each was organized around an urban center surrounded by a more or less extensive tract of agricultural land. Each city-state came to be governed, in the name of the city god, by a ruler who was the deity's representative among men. This mediator between the human and the divine endeavored to impose his prerogatives on the powerful clergy. His growing power found expression in the palace, which was both the king's residence and seat of his administration. The ever-growing need for raw materials led to a huge expansion in trade well beyond southern Mesopotamia, which in turn fostered the spread of Sumerian culture and its main vehicle: cuneiform writing.

 

How to get to the next stop:
From the Pyramide, follow the signs to the Richelieu wing. After the ticket barrier, turn right and take the escalator. Enter Room 1 of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art and make your way to display case 1.

Statuette féminine
Statuette féminine

© R.M.N./H. Lewandowski

01Female statuette

This small, stylized figurine, carved in alabaster, comes from the Neolithic site of Tell es-Sawwan, on the east bank of the Tigris where it enters the great alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia. Water from the river allowed the inhabitants to cultivate domesticated varieties of cereals and legumes. The principal period of occupation of the site was in the Samarra period (c. 6200-5700 BC), but the alabaster figurines discovered there may date to the Hassuna period that preceded it (c. 6500-6000 BC). These were found in individual graves, mostly children's, dug beneath a large house of unbaked brick that must have belonged to an important figure in the village.
Most of the figurines found in the Tell es-Sawwan graves are representations of women. They have been seen by certain scholars as images of mothers intended to accompany the buried children to the hereafter, but some of the figurines have been found in the graves of adults. The recurrence of female symbolism, emphasized by the nakedness of the figures, suggests rather that they represent a protective deity traditionally called the "mother-goddess," a primordial embodiment of fecundity and fertility who played a central role in the imaginative life of the earliest agricultural communities of the Near East.

How to get to the next stop:
In the same display case, look now at this stylized terracotta figurine.

Figurines féminines fragmentaires
Figurines féminines fragmentaires

© 2004 RMN / Franck Raux

02Ubaid female figurine

This stylized terracotta figurine comes from the Neolithic Obeid culture, which emerged in the 7th millennium on the great alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia. Although the culture did not produce ceramics of a quality comparable to those of northern Mesopotamia, Obeid architecture developed in remarkable fashion, bearing witness to major changes in social organization. In the Obeid III period of the late 6th millennium there appear buildings of tripartite plan with a vast central room, generally built above a terrace. The construction of these important buildings, used for assemblies and their associated banquets, must have required the mobilization of the whole community under the direction of a recognized authority. The expansion of village communities was thus accompanied by the growth of social hierarchy, which would only become more marked in the future.
Obeid figurines were modeled by hand from clay, then fired and painted. The figure here, which has lost its head, is shown naked, the detail of the body delineated in black paint. Most such figures are female, continuing a tradition common to the Neolithic period as a whole. They embody a principle of fecundity and fertility whose protective power was held to be of primordial importance in societies based on agriculture.

How to get to the next stop:
Go to display case 2.

Statuettes d'hommes barbus, nus représentant peut-êtrele roi-prêtre
Statuettes d'hommes barbus, nus représentant peut-êtrele roi-prêtre

© 1994 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

03Statuette of a priest-king

This statuette, carved in limestone and schematic in form, testifies to the earliest beginnings of kingship in the first cities. Appearing in southern Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium, these urban centers saw the emergence of collective institutions capable of managing a now diversified and complex society. At the head of the new form of social organization was a privileged figure, represented in the iconography of the period as smiting his enemies, hunting lions, or presiding over religious ceremonies. This combination of warlike and liturgical functions has led to his being traditionally described as the "priest-king." His face framed by a collar-like beard of even length, the priest-king is shown wearing a cap or headband, no doubt an indication of his status. His standing posture, with arms held against the chest, and the fact that he is shown naked, not wearing the customary long skirt, are connected with his participation in a particular kind of ritual. This must have related to a fertility cult, of which there are also other depictions, illustrating libation ceremonies, in which the principal officiant also appears naked.

How to get to the next stop:
Still in the same room, move on to display case 3.

Tablette à écriture précunéiforme
Tablette à écriture précunéiforme

© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

04Archaic writing tablets

This limestone tablet, finely engraved with pictographic signs, is a remarkable example of the earliest known writing. Although difficult to date precisely, as it does not come from an archaeological excavation, it is nonetheless related to others which it has been possible to date. These pictographic tablets, for the most part of clay, are found in southern Mesopotamia, especially at Uruk, the oldest dating to around 3300 BC. The appearance of the earliest writing is connected with the growth of urban centers, which developed collective institutions appropriate to an increasingly complex society. In this pictographic system, each sign is a picture representing an object or concept; it also has numerals, represented by circles or strokes. These various signs appear in boxes, each of which represents a unit of meaning.
The pictographic tablets are essentially accounting records, simple aides-mémoires grouping isolated words without any representation of grammatical structures. At the turn of the 3rd millennium, this limited system developed into a more elaborate system of writing called "cuneiform," which was able to transcribe the complexity of spoken language by ascribing phonetic values to the signs.

How to get to the next stop:
Turn now and have a close look at the great copper spearhead in display case 5.

Lance colossale inscrite au nom de "Lugal, roi de Kish"
Lance colossale inscrite au nom de "Lugal, roi de Kish"

© Photo RMN / F. Raux

05Copper spearhead in the name of "Lugal, King of Kish"

This copper spearhead of impressive size is inscribed and engraved with a rearing lion in a style characteristic of the Sumerian Early Dynastic Period, between 2800 and 2600 BC. Fitted to its wooden shaft and deposited in one of the shrines of the city of Girsu, it would have made a votive offering of great distinction.
The spear was dedicated by a ruler of the city of Kish, whose name and title are given in the inscription on the blade, which does not, unfortunately, survive in its entirety: "Lugal . . . king of Kish." Kish was then the capital of the area immediately north of the land of Sumer, the majority of its inhabitants being Akkadians. It would appear, however, that for some time its rulers exercised some form of control over the city-states of Sumer, as witnessed by the offerings made by some of them in the sanctuaries of Girsu.

How to get to the next stop:
Also in the same display case, see this limestone mace head.

Masse d'armes vouée par Mesilim, roi de Kish
Masse d'armes vouée par Mesilim, roi de Kish

© 1998 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

06Masse d'armes du Mace head of King Mesilim

Ornée de l'aigle léontocéphale dominant six lions cabrés, cette masse d'armes est exceptionnelle par sa taille et la qualité du décor sculpté en relief. Il s'agit d'un objet de nature votive, ainsi que l'indique l'inscription sumérienne gravée en signes archaïques : "Mesilim, roi de Kish, bâtisseur du temple de Ningirsu, (y) a apporté (cette masse) pour Ningirsu, Lugalshaengur (étant) prince de Lagash". Les masses d'armes, apparues vers la fin du IVe millénaire, sont, en Mésopotamie non seulement des armes de combat, mais également des emblèmes de pouvoir.
L'inscription désigne comme auteur du dépôt votif Mesilim, qui régna sur la cité de Kish vers 2550 avant J-C. Son geste montre qu'il disposait d'une forme d'autorité envers le prince de l'état de Lagash. Kish, puissante cité établie au nord du pays de Sumer, semble en effet avoir exercé une suprématie politique et religieuse sur plusieurs des cités-états sumériennes entre 2700 et 2500 avant J.-C.
Tout en affirmant son pouvoir, le souverain de Kish souhaite honorer Ningirsu, le dieu tutélaire de la cité de Girsu, dont il vient de reconstruire le temple. La masse est ainsi décorée sur sa face supérieure de l'aigle à tête de lion, symbole de la nuée d'orage qu'accompagne le rugissement du tonnerre, et emblème du dieu Ningirsu, garant de la prospérité du pays. Il agrippe dans ses serres six lions cabrés, image de la soumission des forces naturelles à l'ordre social régi par le souverain en tant que médiateur du divin.

How to get to the next stop:
Still in display case 5, have a look now at this limestone plaque with its central perforation.

Relief votif d'Ur-Nanshe, roi de Lagash
Relief votif d'Ur-Nanshe, roi de Lagash

© 1990 RMN / Philipp Bernard

07Perforated relief of King Ur-Nanshe

Among the characteristic products of Early Dynastic Sumerian art are perforated plaques with a narrative motif in relief arranged in horizontal registers. The perforation in the middle was probably intended to allow the plaque to be fixed to the wall by a peg in the votive area of the shrine. This large plaque commemorates the religious activities of the king Ur-Nanshe, who founded the first dynasty of Lagash around 2500 BC. His reign saw the construction of a number of major buildings, including temples, among them the temple of Ningirsu, tutelary deity of the city of Girsu.
The decoration of the plaque thus shows the ruler, conventionally depicted larger in size, presiding over the ritual ceremonies connected with the construction of a shrine. At the top is a ceremony marking the start of construction, showing Ur-Nanshe carrying a basket of bricks on his head, accompanied by his wife and son and high officials. Beneath this he is shown goblet in hand, presiding over the banquet marking the opening of the new shrine. The correct performance of rituals lay at the heart of everyday life, for men had to maintain and serve the gods in exchange for the prosperity granted to them. The establishment and upkeep of great shrines was the prime duty of the ruler, the first among men.

How to get to the next stop:
Turn around and make your way to the central display case.

Stèle de victoire d'Eannatum, roi de Lagash dite "Stèle des Vautours"
Stèle de victoire d'Eannatum, roi de Lagash dite "Stèle des Vautours"

© 1995 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

08Stele of the vultures

Partially reconstructed from numerous fragments found among the remains of the Sumerian city of Girsu, this victory stele, known as the "Stele of the Vultures," is the oldest known historiographic document. A long Sumerian inscription narrates the recurrent conflict between the neighboring city-states of Lagash and Umma, and records the victory won by Eannatum, king of Lagash, who ruled around 2450 BC.
The triumph of this ruler, placed under divine protection since his birth, is illustrated with a wealth of detail in the remarkable relief carving that adorns both sides of the stele. The so-called "historical" side shows Eannatum marching at the head of his troops, who advance in a tight phalanx, trampling over the dead bodies of the enemy. The lower registers show the victory parade, led by the ruler in his chariot, and then the funeral ceremonies that ended the military engagement. The other, "mythological" side is dominated by the majestic figure of Ningirsu, the protector god of the city-state of Lagash, who has the enemy troops entrapped in a gigantic net and strikes them with his mace.
One side narrates the actions of men and the other the intervention of the god, in a thematic division that has symbolic importance: human determination and divine protection come together to ensure victory.

How to get to the next stop:
Continue the trail by going on to display case 6.

Bas-relief votif de Dudu, prêtre de Ningirsu, au temps d'Entemena, prince de Lagash
Bas-relief votif de Dudu, prêtre de Ningirsu, au temps d'Entemena, prince de Lagash

© 2007 RMN / Franck Raux

09Perforated plaque of Dudu

This votive plaque with its relief decoration and central perforation is characteristic of Early Dynastic Sumer. The narrative motif, as was customary, is organized in horizontal registers. A Sumerian inscription identifies the person portrayed as Dudu, high priest of the god Ningirsu in the reign of Entemena, king of Lagash around 2450 BC. Occupying the height of two registers, Dudu wears the kaunakes, the fleecy skirt characteristic of the period. Around him are symbolical figures, no doubt connected with his religious functions. At the top, the god Ningirsu is evoked by his emblem, the lion-headed eagle called Imdugud, shown with wings outspread, two lions gripped in his talons. In the middle a calf, perhaps intended for sacrifice, is shown lying down, while the lower register is filled by a plait-like motif, probably representing the subterranean reserve of fresh water. The lion-headed eagle, symbolizing the storm that brings life-giving rain, the sacrificial calf, and the subterranean reserve from which comes water for the crops evoke the celestial, terrestrial, and chthonian sources of fertility which all contribute to the prosperity of human communities.

How to get to the next stop:
This brings us to the end of the trail. You can continue your exploration of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art by entering the Cour Khorsabad, or retrace your steps back to the Hall Napoléon under the Pyramide.

Ebih-Il, l'intendant
Ebih-Il, l'intendant

© Musée du Louvre, dist. RMN / Raphaël Chipault

10Ebih-il, the Superintendent of Mari

Exceptional in both its execution and its state of preservation, this large statue shows a high dignitary of the city of Mari during the Early Dynastic Period. A short cuneiform inscription on the shoulder gives his name, Ebih-il, and his title, which might be translated as "superintendent." The city of Mari, founded in the early 3rd millennium, owed its prosperity to its control over river traffic on the Euphrates, standing halfway between the urbanized regions of Mesopotamia and Syria. This prosperity is evident in the scale of building in the city at that time and the wealth of furniture recovered from the many temples and from the palace, which was linked to an impressive shrine.
A large proportion of the votive objects deposited in the temples consists of praying figures, of which this statue of Ebih-il is a remarkable example. Realistic and sensitive in its treatment, it shows a youngish man wearing the traditional fleecy skirt called the kaunakes on a seat of woven fiber. His bearded face is lit up with a smile and the gaze of the eyes, their pupils inlaid with lapis lazuli, is striking in its intensity. He holds his hands clasped together against his chest, in the traditional attitude of Sumerian worshippers, addressing an eternal prayer to the gods.

How to get to the next stop:
To finish your tour of the Sumerian city-states, go to Room 1b to see the statue of the superintendent Ebih-Il.

 

Author(s) :

Patrick Pouyssegur, département des Antiquités orientales