Ancient Mediterranean + Europe
- The Sumerians and Mesopotamia
- Sumer, an introduction
- White Temple and ziggurat, Uruk
- Archaeological reconstructions
- Warka Vase
- Standing Male Worshipper from Tell Asmar
- Standing Male Worshipper from Tell Asmar
- Perforated Relief of Ur-Nanshe
- Cylinder seals
- The Standard of Ur
- Standard of Ur and other objects from the Royal Graves
- Standard of Ur
- The ‘Ram in a Thicket’
By Dr. Senta German
The violence and grandeur of Sumerian kingship
The Standard of Ur is a fascinating rectangular box-like object which, through intricate mosaic scenes, presents the violence and grandeur of Sumerian kingship. It is made up of two long flat panels of wood (and two short sides) and is covered with bitumen (a naturally occurring petroleum substance, essentially tar) in which small pieces of carved shell, red limestone, and lapis lazuli were set. It is thought to be a military standard, something common in battle for thousands of years: a readily visible object held high on a pole in the midst of the combat and paraded in victory to symbolize the army (or individual divisions of the army) of a war lord or general. Although we don’t know if this object ever saw the melee of battle, it certainly witnessed a grisly scene when it was deposited in one of the royal graves at the site of Ur in the mid-3rd millennium B.C.E.
In the 1920s the British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley worked extensively at Ur and in 1926 he uncovered a huge cemetery of nearly 2,000 burials spread over an area of 70 x 55 m (230 x 180 ft). Most graves were modest, however a group of sixteen were identified by Woolley as royal tombs because of their wealthier grave goods and treatment at interment.
Each of these tombs contained a chamber of limestone rubble with a vaulted roof of mud bricks. The main burial of the tomb was placed in this chamber and surrounded by treasure (offerings of copper, gold, silver and jewelry of lapis lazuli, carnelian, agate, and shell). The main burial was also accompanied by several other bodies in the tomb, a mass grave outside the chamber, often called the . We assume that all these individuals were sacrificed at the time of the main burial in a horrific scene of deference.
One of the royal graves (PG779) had four chambers but no death pit. It had been plundered in antiquity but one room was largely untouched and had the remains of at least four individuals. In the corner of this room the remains of the Standard of Ur were found. One of its long sides was found lying face down in the soil with the other one face up, which lead Woolley to conclude that it was a hollow structure; additional inlay were found on either side of the short ends and appeared to fill a triangular shape and which lead to the Standard being reconstructed with its sloping sides. The remains of the Standard were found above the right shoulder of a man whom Woolley thought had carried it attached to a pole. The identification of this object as a military standard is by no means secure; the hollow shape could just as easily have been the sound box of a stringed instrument, such as the Queen’s Lyre found in an adjacent tomb.
War and peace
The two sides of the Standard appear to be the two poles of Sumerian kingship, war and peace. The war side was found face up and is divided into three registers (bands), read from the bottom up, left to right. The story begins at the bottom with war carts, each with a spearman and driver, drawn by donkeys trampling fallen enemies, distinguished by their nudity and wounds, which drip with blood. The middle band shows a group of soldiers wearing fur cloaks and carrying spears walking to the right while bound, naked enemies are executed and paraded to the top band where more are killed.
In the center of the top register, we find the king, holding a long spear, physically larger than everyone else, so much so, his head breaks the frame of the scene. Behind him are attendants carrying spears and battle axes and his royal war cart ready for him to jump in. There is a sense of a triumphal moment on the battlefield, when the enemy is vanquished and the victorious king is relishing his win. There is no reason to believe that this is a particular battle or king as there is nothing which identifies it as such; we think it is more of a generic image of a critically important aspect of kingship.
The opposite peace panel also illustrates a cumulative moment, that of the celebration of the king, this time for great agricultural abundance which is afforded by peace. Again, beginning at the bottom left, we see men carrying produce on their shoulders and in bags and leading donkeys. In the central band, men lead bulls, sheep and goats, and carry fish. In the top register a grand feast is taking place, complete with comfortable seating and musical accompaniment.
On the left, the largest figure, the king, is seated wearing a richly flounce fur skirt, again so large, even seated, he breaks the frame. Was it an epic tale of battle that the singer on the far right is performing for entertainment as he plays a bull’s head lyre, again, like the Queen’s Lyre? We will never know but certainly such powerful images of Sumerian kingship tell us that whomever ended his life with the Standard of Ur on his shoulder was willing to give his life in a ritual of kingly burial.
Dorota Ławecka, "Who were the Tribute-Bearing People on the ‘Standard of Ur’?," Journal of Near Eastern Studies, volume 76, number 2 (2017).
Joan Aruz, editor, Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003).
Sarah Collins, The Standard of Ur (London: British Museum Press, 2015).
Dominique Collon, Ancient Near Eastern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).
Harriet Crawford, Sumer and Sumerians (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Nicholas Postgate, Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History (London: Routledge, 1994).
Michael Roaf, The Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (New York: Facts on File, 1990).
Leonard Woolley and P.R.S. Moorey, Ur of the Chaldees, revised edition (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1982).
Norman Yoffee, Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilization (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Richard L. Zettler and Lee Horne, editors, Treasures from the Royal Tomb at Ur (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).
Essay by Dr. Senta German
Want to join the conversation?
- We read "...Along with the lyre, which stood against the pit wall, were the bodies of ten women with fine jewelry, presumed to be sacrificial victims..."
Were there signs of trauma dealt to the bones of the "victims"? How can we be sure that these were "sacrificial victims"?(10 votes)
- I don't know how you feel about Wikipedia as a source, but the entry there states, "Recent evidence derived from CAT scans through the University of Pennsylvania Museum suggests that the sacrifices were likely violent and caused by blunt force trauma. A pointed, weighted tool could explain the shatter patterns on the skulls that resulted in death, while a small hammer-like tools has also been found retrieved and catalogued by Woolley during his original excavation. The size and weight fit the damage sustained by the two bodies examined by Aubrey Baadsgaard, PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania."(25 votes)
- I've been noticing that many Sumerian artifacts are in the British Museum, rather than in their land of discovery. Is this controversial? Why haven't the artifacts been returned? What are the politics around this issue?(8 votes)
- Here's a book from 1980 with more than 400 pages on the topic. Yes, it's political and controversial.
- Ur seems like a big, inhabited graveyard. Why would anyone want to live anywhere with graves all over the streets?(1 vote)
- Uf seems like a graveyard because the tombs survived while the houses made of perishable materials like mud bricks did not.(12 votes)
- Is Queen's Lyre also known as sound box?(3 votes)
- The sound box is the hollow, lower portion of the lyre (below the strings) http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=368339&partId=1(5 votes)
- Was Ur a residential area, or was it more a hub for the people surrounding it? This article makes it seem more like a capital, where nobody really lived.(2 votes)
- Ur was a city. It is usually identified as a city-state, meaning that the city and its surrounding territory were independent, not part of some larger entity,(1 vote)
- How do you cite this article page?(1 vote)
- Cite this page as: The British Museum, "Standard of Ur and other objects from the Royal Graves," in Smarthistory, March 3, 2017, accessed February 26, 2018, https://smarthistory.org/standard-of-ur-and-other-objects-from-the-royal-graves/.(3 votes)
- so i caint remember anything about ur(2 votes)
- Maybe you have not yet been taught. Read a wikipedia article on Ur, then wait 5 minutes and see if you can remember then.(0 votes)
- Was the lyre a common stringed instruments among the people in the various ancient kingdoms of this region?(1 vote)
- I realize that many of the artifacts that survive are "grave goods" because those were valued pieces that were buried and not touched. But, doesn't it bother anyone that so many religious/funerary artifacts are now taken from their original resting place? It just doesn't seem like a good idea.(1 vote)
- You're right. It isn't a good idea. But once someone has taken the items, let's imagine someone like Indiana Jones in the 1930s, and the stuff is outside the original location, what would you like to see done with it? would your idea stretch from what should be done with things taken from graves of people to what should be done with dinosaur fossils or things from the Tar Pits in Los Angeles?(1 vote)