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Work Statuette of a priest-king

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia

Statuettes of naked bearded men (possibly the priest-king)

© 1994 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Near Eastern Antiquities

Pouysségur Patrick

This schematically rendered figure is believed to be the representation of a 'priest-king.' The term is traditionally used to designate the dignitary of the highest rank in the earliest urban societies, which emerged in southern Mesopotamia in the Uruk period.

The birth of the city

In the second half of the 4th millennium BC, during what is called the Uruk period, the human communities established on the great alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia would witness a decisive transformation, with the appearance of the first cities. This urbanization, however, was only the conclusion of a long development undergone by the peoples of the Syro-Mesopotamian region over the preceding millennia. Born of an earlier settling process and strengthened by their mastery of farming and stock raising, village communities experienced continuous growth, leading to the emergence of a social differentiation that gradually developed towards forms of hierarchy. In the course of the 4th millennium BC, the acceleration of these social changes, combined with demographic growth on the fertile plain of Lower Mesopotamia, would lead to the emergence of true urban centers. Part of the population gathered in vast agglomerations, the most important of which being Uruk, close to the Euphrates, the city that gives its name to the period. There developed a monumental architecture of brick, represented by both civil and religious buildings, reflecting the establishment of collective institutions capable of directing a now complex and diversified society. Such administration would be further facilitated by the invention of a method for the precise and reliable recording and transmission of information: namely, writing.

The priest-king

At the apex of the new form of social organization developed in the urban centers seems to have been a figure invested with special status. Widely represented in the iconography of the Uruk period, he is shown hunting lions or presiding over religious ceremonies. This combination of warlike and religious functions has led to his being known as the 'priest-king.'
Such a figure is portrayed in this limestone statuette, of which there exist two other remarkably similar examples. Treated as a single mass, with the limbs remaining part of the body, the head resting directly on the shoulders, and the feet barely suggested by an incised mark, these statuettes mark the emergence of sculpture in the round and the birth at the same time of the tradition of royal effigies.
On the head of the priest-king is what seems to be a cap or headband. A collar-like beard, continuous with the hair, frames a face whose rounded cheeks and chin are bare. The figure stands upright, his arms across his chest.
Here, he is shown naked, although on cylinder seals and reliefs he is generally shown wearing a long skirt. This nakedness is probably connected with the figure's participation in a particular ritual - most likely a form of fertility cult. Other representations of such cults are known showing libation ceremonies in which the principal figure is also naked.

Technical description

  • Statuettes of naked bearded men (possibly the priest-king)

    Uruk period, c. 3300 BC

  • Limestone

    H. 30.50 cm; W. 10.40 cm; D. 7 cm

  • Former collection

    AO 5719 , AO 5718

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Ancient Mesopotamia, from the earliest times to the 3rd millennium BC
    Room 236
    Display case 2: The Proto-urban period. Uruk and Djemdet Nasr periods (c. 3700–2900 BC)

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