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Work Perforated relief of King Ur-Nanshe

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia

Votive relief of Ur-Nanshe, King of Lagash

© 1990 RMN / Philipp Bernard

Near Eastern Antiquities

Patrick Pouysségur

Characteristic of the period of the archaic Sumerian Dynasties, this remarkable perforated stone slab is decorated with a low-relief in two registers. It commemorates the religious action of King Ur-Nanshe, the founder of the 1st Dynasty of Lagash. He is shown presiding over the ceremonies of the foundation and inauguration of a shrine - the king's role par excellence since he was the guarantor of the country's prosperity.

Perforated stone slabs

Stone slabs carved with low reliefs and pierced in the center are typical of the art of the archaic Sumerian Dynasties. They were usually carved from soft stone such as limestone and decorated with a sculpted narrative, arranged in superimposed registers. The central perforation was probably intended to peg the slab to the wall in the votive part of the shrine. Of the 120 slabs of this kind that have been found, mostly in the large cities of the Sumerian cultural area, this is one of the most remarkable in terms of its size and the quality of the execution, as well as for the wealth of iconographic detail it offers.

Ur-Nanshe and the 1st Dynasty of Lagash

The cuneiform inscription engraved on the background of the slab tells that the main person represented on it is Ur-Nanshe, the king of the Sumerian state of Lagash. Lagash was one of the city states that shared the great alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC. Its prosperity was largely due to its location on the road that led to the rich plain of Susa and from there to the Iranian plateau. Ur-Nanshe is considered to be the founder, circa 2500 BC, of what is known as the 1st Dynasty of Lagash, and was succeeded by nine kings over a period of almost two centuries. The inauguration of the dynasty by Ur-Nanshe was marked by the construction of many buildings, both civil - ramparts and canals - and religious. Temples were erected in honor of each of the country's high gods.

A king and a builder

It is the king's role as the builder and protector of the foundations of society that is illustrated by the carved decoration on the slab and the accompanying inscription in Sumerian: "Ur-Nanshe, king of Lagash, son of Gunidu, built the temple of Ningirsu; he built the temple of Nanshe; he built Apsubanda." The arrangement in two registers clearly distinguishes the person of the king, who is raised by his rank above the other men, and is thereby recognizable in both scenes by the large size conventionally attributed to him.
The upper register shows Ur-Nanshe carrying a hod of bricks on his head to help build the new shrine, probably that of Ningirsu, the divine protector of the state of Lagash. Clothed in a tufted woolen skirt known as a kaunakes, the king is accompanied by his wife and his sons, as well as high functionaries, each one identified by his name written on his garment.
In the lower register, the king of Lagash is again shown surrounded by his sons and high functionaries. Sitting with a goblet in his hand, Ur-Nanshe is presiding over a ritual banquet, which commemorates the building of the temple.
The inscription states that "boats from the (distant) land of Dilmun carried the wood (for him)." This is the oldest known reference to the country of Dilmun (now the island of Bahrain), a transit port for hard stones and precious stones, building timber and metals from India and Oman. In this early period, the princes of the Sumerian city-states traded with faraway regions.
The decoration of the relief of Ur-Nanshe thus sums up the ceremonies of the foundation and inauguration of the temples, symbolized by the hod of bricks and the ritual banquet. For in exchange for the prosperity granted by the gods, men were expected to serve them and maintain their temples. The foundation and preservation of great shrines was the vocation par excellence of the first among men - the king.


Sarzec Édouard de, Découvertes en Chaldée, Paris, Leroux, 1884-1912, p. 168, pl. 2 bis, fig. 1.
Parrot André, Tello, vingt campagnes de fouille (1877-1933), Paris, Albin Michel, 1948, p. 91.
Amiet Pierre, L'Art antique du Proche-Orient, Paris, Mazenod, 1977, pl. 44, fig. 324, p. 368.
Huot Jean-Louis, Les Sumériens, entre le Tigre et l'Euphrate, Paris, Armand Colin, 1989.

Technical description

  • Votive relief of Ur-Nanshe, King of Lagash

    Early Dynastic period III, c. 2550-2500 BC

    Tello (ancient Girsu)

  • Limestone

    H. 39 cm; W. 46.50 cm; D. 6.50 cm

  • De Sarzec excavations, 1888 , 1888

    AO 2344

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Ancient Mesopotamia, from the earliest times to the 3rd millennium BC
    Room 236
    Display case 5: Period of the Old Sumerian dynasties (c. 2900–2340 BC). Antiquities from Telloh (ancient Girsu)

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