- 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
Twelve statues from the "Square Temple" at Eshnunna (modern Tell Asmar, Iraq)
The group of twelve statues from Tell Asmar are among the most important examples of early sculpture from the .
The figures date to the Early Dynastic period of ancient Mesopotamia (2900–2350 B.C.E.) and were discovered during excavations in Iraq in 1934. These figures were found below the floor of a temple known as the "Square Temple" (likely dedicated to the God Abu). They range in size (from 9 to 28 inches; 23 to 72 cm) and in condition (some still displaying painting and inlay; others broken). All of them, however, appear deeply focused, staring straightforward, some with very large eyes, most with hands clasped, some holding cups. The figures were excavated by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago but are now dispersed in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum, New York, the National Museum of Iraq, and the Oriental Institute, Chicago.
The figures and their archaeological context
Of the twelve statues found, ten are male and two are female; eight of the figures are made from gypsum, two from limestone, and one (the smallest) from alabaster; all would have been painted. They appear to all be performing the same act and what we know about their archaeological context can help us understand what that might be. One statue in particular stands out from the rest: the tallest man with long dark flowing locks.
Not gods, but adorants
From the Early Dynastic period sculptures such as these were common in temples. They are generally understood by art historians and archaeologists to be an image of the god to whom the temple was dedicated. They would be placed on raised platforms and were the recipients of gifts, as a proxy for the god.
However, the collection of statues from Tell Asmar appear to be of a different type, not images of gods and goddesses but rather adorants, mortals who stand in perpetual worship of the god of the temple. We know this because some of the statues are inscribed on the back or bottom with a personal name and prayer; others state “one who offers prayers.” Therefore, these sculptures represent a very early form of individual actions of faith, expressions of personal agency. Some of the sculptures are holding small cups which look a lot like a common cup of the era known as the solid-footed goblet. Hundreds of cups of this type were found deposited in a space near to the sanctuary where the sculptures were found, likely used to pour libations.
Who were these early pious actors? The statues were discovered together, packed one on top of another in several layers within a 33 x 20 inch (85 x 50 cm) pit and just by the altar of the temple. Because of the circumstances of this find they are assumed to be a group of alike sculptures, although of a special kind, for sure. Given the high status material from which they are made, the inclusion of writing as well as their privileged space within the temple, we might assume these represent elite people, both men and women, interestingly.
Although their style is abstract and there is no sense of portraiture among them, they are all unique in small ways, either in the rendering of hair, facial expression or even feet; the material of the inlays is also variable, some of white shell or black limestone and even one of lapis lazuli. These sculptures might also represent a clue about how society was changing in the Early Dynastic period. Archaeologists believe that this group of sculptures representing mortals from Tell Asmar were not only working spiritually on behalf of each individual but also as a group, asserting a new status of elite non-religious classes within the context of the temple.
One figure who stands out
As mentioned above, one figure stands out from the group. He is the tallest with curly locks flowing down over his wide shoulders, his face slightly upturned, making him seem somewhat less obsequious than the rest. On the base of this sculpture there is a rough image carved as well, which also differentiates it from the others. This image shows an clutching two horned animals, one in each claw. This configuration—of Anzu clutching animals—is associated with the thunder god Ninurta (also known as Ningirsu), and also associated with the god of vegetation Abu.
This figure’s luxurious hair, more engaging face and godly image on the base has led to his identification of a very old character type in Ancient Near Eastern art and literature, the long-haired hero who is sometimes nude and sometimes belted.
If this identification is true, we might wonder if the person who dedicated this statue saw himself as a heroic, Gilgamesh-like character (Gilgamesh was a hero in ancient Mesopotamian mythology and the protagonist of the Epic of Gilgamesh, an epic poem written during the late 2nd millennium B.C.E.).
Henri Frankfort, Sculpture of the Third Millennium B.C. from Tell Asmar and Khafājah (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939).
Essay by Dr. Senta German