Sumerian art: Standard of Ur Standard of Ur, c. 2600-2400 B.C.E., 21.59 x 49.5 x 12 cm (British Museum) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris
Sumerian art: Standard of Ur
- Man: On the back of a US dollar bill,
- there is an emblem of an eagle.
- In its talons, you have arrows --
- of course a symbol of war,
- but on the other side, you have an olive branch --
- a symbol of peace.
- Woman: That's not so different than this object we are looking at
- that's nearly 4500 years old,
- an object known as the Standard of Ur
- which comes from the city-state of Ur
- which is now in present-day Iraq.
- Man: In Mesopotamia, really the birthplace of civilization,
- and Ur is one of the great early cities.
- The word "standard" is a little misleading
- because the standard is really a flag
- that's often brought into battle,
- and the original excavator of this hypothesized that
- perhaps this was on a pole originally and was brought into battle.
- But in truth, we have no idea.
- Woman: So often when we are in the museum,
- and we are talking about ancient objects,
- we are talking about objects that had been buried
- but buried just because of the passage of time.
- And here we are looking at objects that were intentionally buried.
- They were part of what seems to have been an elaborate burial ritual.
- These were excavated in the 20s and the early 30s
- by a man named Leonard Woolley
- who discovered about 16 tombs that he called "royal" tombs.
- Man: Again, we really don't know.
- But what we do know is we see fabulously expensive objects.
- Woman: And one of those valuable objects
- was the object we call today "The Standard of Ur"
- which is small, but quite beautiful and elaborately decorated.
- Man: Historians have thought that perhaps this is
- a sound box for a musical instrument.
- Others have thought it might have contained something important,
- perhaps even the currency that was used to pay for warfare.
- But we simply don't know.
- Woman: So that's one of the wonderful things about this object,
- is that it tells us so much,
- and at the same time, it tells us so little.
- Man: So let's start off with just a simple description.
- So we have this object that is small enough
- so that it could easily be carried.
- Woman: One long side seems to represent a scene of peace and prosperity.
- Man: It's divided into three registers
- and it's framed with beautiful pieces of shell.
- Now this is important because it really does show us
- the long distance trade that this culture was involved with.
- You've got blue lapis lazuli that came from mines in Afghanistan.
- You have a red stone that would have come from India.
- And you've got the shells
- which would have come from the gulf
- just to the south of what is now Iraq.
- And it reminds us that these first great cities were possible
- because agriculture had been successful.
- In the river valley between the Tigris and the Euphrates,
- it was possible to grow a surplus of food
- that allowed for an organization of society
- where not everybody had to be in the fields all the time.
- Once there was enough food,
- some people could devote their lives to being rulers
- and some to becoming artists or artisans.
- Woman: And some to priests, right?
- You had a whole organization of society
- with different people performing different roles.
- That was suddenly possible.
- Man: And you can see that organization represented in the three registers here.
- The most important, wealthiest, most powerful figures are towards the top,
- and then we have the common laborers down at the bottom.
- Woman: And it's really typical in Ancient Near Eastern art
- for us to see scenes divided into registers.
- Man: So let's start down at the bottom and move up.
- I see a human figure bearing a heavy bag
- Woman: And that's really what we have along the entire bottom register.
- Figures who seem to be bringing things to a destination.
- We see animals, figures carrying things
- across their shoulders or on their backs.
- Man: Just above that, you can see a number of people
- leading more clearly identifiable animals.
- You can see somebody herding along
- what looks like a sheep or a ram.
- You see a bull in front of that being led by two people.
- And then perhaps goats, perhaps sheep,
- ahead of that, and another bull.
- These are people that might be bringing these animals to sacrifice
- They might be bringing them as a kind of taxation.
- We really don't know, but people have hypothesized
- that this is showing a kind of collection
- perhaps for the king, for the city.
- The register at the top clearly shows one figure
- that's more important than the rest.
- The king is larger. In fact, so large
- that his head breaks into the pictorial frame.
- Woman: And he also wears different clothing
- that helps to identify him.
- Man: He's seated on a chair that is interesting
- because it's got three straight legs
- and one leg that seems to be the leg of an animal.
- Woman: Some of the objects that we see here
- are objects that were also found in the burials.
- But I don't think they found a chair that resembles that.
- That would be fun to see.
- Man: One of the objects that has been found; however,
- are the cups that so many of the figures here are holding.
- So, clearly these figures are joining the king in some libation.
- They are drinking perhaps beer perhaps wine.
- We are not sure.
- Woman: There is some kind of celebration going on
- some festivity, or perhaps a religious ceremony.
- Man: It's worth noting that even the secondary figures here
- that is the figures who are seated but are not the king,
- are larger than the servants
- that surround them, that are standing.
- And so even within the register, you have a hierarchy
- that shows the relative importance of three levels of society.
- Woman: And then we have two figures at the far end
- who seem to be entertaining the seated figures who are drinking.
- One is playing a harp,
- and another figure on the far right, perhaps singing.
- Man: Let's go to the other side. It's a very different story.
- Woman: So again we have a scene divided into three registers,
- but here we see terrible scenes of violence.
- Man: We see a rendering of what is pretty clearly warfare.
- There are four chariots that are pulled
- by what seems to be four male donkeys.
- On the back of each chariot
- seem to be a driver as well as a warrior.
- The figure towards the rear, you will notice,
- is holding either a spear or an axe.
- And then being trampled by the horses
- perhaps felled by those weapons are the enemy.
- If you look closely, you can see some extraordinary detail.
- Look at one of the men that has been felled under the horse.
- You can see his wounds,
- you can see blood flowing.
- And if you look closely, you can notice
- the mechanism of the actual wheels of the chariots.
- There is kind of specific engineering that's being rendered here.
- Woman: One of the most interesting things about the bottom panel
- is a kind of naturalism in the battle that seems to be taking place.
- Man: You seem to move from a walk
- to a kind of canter, to a full gallop.
- Woman: On the other hand some elements are really symbolic.
- Like the felled enemies that you were talking about before.
- I don't think were meant to assume that
- there were actually just four people who died in this battle--
- that's the number we see,
- but clearly that's symbolic of many more.
- Man: The middle register shows a line of soldiers readied for battle.
- They are in full garb.
- They are wearing helmets and
- these helmets have again been found in the so called "Royal" tombs.
- Woman: What's wonderful about these soldiers is their regular placement
- that gives you a real sense of an army that is sort of marching along.
- Man: Well you get a sense of order
- you get a sense of structure,
- you get a sense of real discipline.
- But towards the middle of that register
- you see the actual battle taking place
- and you see these soldier victorious slaying their enemies.
- On the right side of that middle register
- you see soldiers that are perhaps being captured.
- Woman: And our eye in the top register goes immediately to
- the large figure at the center
- which is obviously once again the king.
- His head, again, breaks the decorative border along the top.
- On the left, a chariot and soldiers,
- and on the right, other soldiers or attendants
- bringing to the king prisoners of war.
- And we can tell these are prisoners of war
- because they are naked, they've been stripped
- and they are wounded and bleeding.
- Man: So there is a sense of their humiliation, their enslavement,
- and the great victory of the king.
- It's interesting to look closely at
- the stylistics conventions of the rendering of the figures.
- Just about everybody is seen in perfect profile,
- we see one eye, and that one eye is not so much
- looking forward as looking out.
- Woman: Right it's sort of frontal on the side of the face.
- Man: That's right, in a way that is familiar from Egyptian art.
- We see the shoulder squared with the picture plane
- and we see feet pushing in one direction
- rather than being seen in perspective.
- Woman: So we can use our visual detective work,
- but there still so much that is a mystery.
- Man: What it does tell us though,
- is that the way that we tell a story,
- the way that we tell one over time,
- the way that we organize our society.
- Even now, in the twenty-first century
- has a lot in common with the 3rd millennium BCE.
- (piano music)
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