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Standing Male Worshipper from Tell Asmar

The ancient Sumerians created alabaster figures as a form of worship, like the standing male worshiper found in the temple at Eshnunna. These figures, with their wide eyes and attentive stance, were meant to offer prayers to the gods continually. Their unique design, including the cylindrical body and geometric patterns, symbolizes timelessness and devotion.

Standing Male Worshipper (votive figure)
, c. 2900-2600 B.C.E., from the Square Temple at Eshnunna (modern Tell Asmar, Iraq), Sumerian, Early Dynastic I-II, gypsum alabaster, shell, black limestone, bitumen, 11 5/8 x 5 1/8 x 3 7/8 inches / 29.5 x 10 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • blobby green style avatar for user Jason Lamb
    Just a small correction. Dr. Zucker mentioned these were right after the Bronze Age--I'm pretty sure he meant Stone Age, as this would have been right at the BEGINNING of the Bronze Age. :-)
    (13 votes)
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  • sneak peak green style avatar for user Eden Blum
    What were these figures made out of ?
    (8 votes)
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  • starky ultimate style avatar for user Lord Vetinari
    at he says that the temple was dedicated to the god abu, who is this god?
    (5 votes)
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  • leaf orange style avatar for user Jeff Kelman
    Couldn't it be that this sort of sculpture was sold in a bazaar or marketplace and "mass" produced almost? Clearly not on any real large scale like we know of today, but given what we know about the specificity that the Egyptians would have used for their royal or wealthy figures found in burial offerings...what is stopping this from just being a figure that was bought or traded for at the bazaar for someones funeral? I get a very strong visceral feeling that this figure looks so similar to random carvings today found in small markets all over the world as "souvenirs"...
    (7 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Liam Murphy
      Certainly and models of this sort would have been copied if the original proved popular. One of the ways in which we might distinguish a copy from the 'original' is to examine the quality of finish. As a jeweller I am keenly aware that high end pieces have more care lavished on them in the manufacture. Whereas most 'copies' have much less time invested in them and subsequently there is a discernible difference in finish quality.
      (5 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Lydia Funk
    Is it unreasonable for us to make assumptions about the style of the statues? It makes sense that the sculptors may have made clasped hands to indicate devotion. However, in the video they say that these may have been stylized to contrast with a more naturalistic figure that may be "passing through," instead of worshipping forever. How much of this analysis is art historians trying to create more meaning than the artist intended, and how much is truly reasonable?
    (6 votes)
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    • purple pi purple style avatar for user barnaby welsh
      All (art) history is supposition based on what we know or have been taught, it is inevitable that the meanings we ascribe to objects or signs will be filtered through the lense of our own culture and our antecedants' understanding of past cultures. Even with documentary evidence from modern artists we can still only guess the precise meanings of their work, just as it is impossible to directly experience their lives. At a distance of five millennia, how much harder the task? Whilst we may attempt to discover and understand ancient cultures and their artists' motivations, we are probably revealing more about our contemporary concerns than intended.
      (6 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Catherine
    I wonder what the sculptor would think about his work being called "adorable."
    (7 votes)
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  • female robot ada style avatar for user Vicki Bamman
    On what do the speakers base the statement that a naturalistic figure would seem to be "passing through"? I've seen a number of figures from Eshunna and from the region and from that time period, many at the museum of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. None of them are naturalistic. To me it makes more sense to suggest that the figures were not naturalistic because of one or more of these reasons:
    1. Statue makers had not figured out how to make naturalistic sculptures. This is based on the fact that not only are the votive figures stylized but so are all other forms of representation,especially of humans.
    2. Their religion forbade the representation of real persons.
    3. The way these figures are made incorporates symbols that are important within that context.
    4. There was no reason for them to make them representational; the god being worshipped knew who the person was, without it looking like him.

    So, I am very curious about where the idea of "just passing through" came from.
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Clint James
    Are all 12 held by the Metropolitan Museum?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user leona.parrish
    Where were these made
    (1 vote)
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  • marcimus pink style avatar for user freemana1956
    why would they bury them
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(light piano) - [Steven] Almost 5,000 years ago somebody carefully buried a small group of alabaster figures in the floor of a temple. - [Beth] And we're looking at one of those figures now and the Metropolitan Museum of Art calls this a standing male worshiper. He was buried along with 11 eleven other figures for a total of 12, most of them male. - [Steven] We're looking at one of the smaller figures. They range from just under a foot to almost three feet. - [Beth] The temple where these were buried was in a city called Eshnunna in the northern part of ancient Mesopotamia. - [Steven] What is now called Tell Asmar The figures from Tell Asmar are widely considered to be the great expression of early dynastic Sumerian art. And we think the temple was dedicated to the god Abu. - [Beth] At this time, the third millennium BCE, in this area around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers some of the earliest cities in the world emerged and writing emerged. This is a watershed in human history. The cities had administrative buildings, temples, palaces, many of which have been unearthed by archeologists. - [Steven] This is the transitional period right after the Bronze Age, the tail end of the Neolithic when civilizations are founded in the great river valleys around the world. And he's adorable. - [Beth] He is adorable. His wide eyes and his sense of attentiveness are very appealing I think but of course he wasn't meant to be looking at us. He was meant to be attentive to a statue, a sculpture of a god who was believed to be embodied in the sculpture. - [Steven] In fact, we believe that the person for whom this was a kind of stand-in was also embodied in this figurine. - [Beth] So an elite member of ancient Sumerian culture paid to have this sculpture made and placed before the god to be a kind of stand-in to perhaps continually offer prayers, to be continually attentive to the god. - [Steven] His hands are clasped together, he stands erect, his shoulders are broad so there is a sense of frontality. - [Beth] Even though he is carved on both sides he was meant to be seen from the front. Although that term "meant to be seen" is a funny one. - [Steven] Well he was meant to be seen by a God. You can see that the hair is parted at the center of the scalp and comes down in wavelets or perhaps braids that spiral down and then frame the central beard which is quite formal and cascades down in a series of regular waves. His hands are clasped just below the beard. His shoulders are really broad, his upper arms very broad and then there's very fine incising at the bottom of his skirt. - [Beth] But it's odd to me how cylindrical the bottom part of his body is and how flattened out the torso is. - [Steven] If you look at the face carefully, you can see that the very large eyes are in fact inlaid shell and in the center the pupils are black limestone. And you can also see that there is an incising of the eyebrows that might have originally been inlaid as well. - [Beth] This really different from Egyptian culture which emerges at the same time. In Egyptian culture, the sculptures primarily represent the pharaoh, the king and indicate his divinity but in the ancient Near East instead we have these votive images of worshipers but not so much of the kings. At least during this early dynastic period. The figures at Tell Asmar that were unearthed are very similar. They're not meant to be portraits of a specific person but a symbol of that person. - [Steven] But he does look very humble, his mouth is closed, his lips are sealed together and of course he is wonderfully attentive. - [Beth] And the fact that his hands are clasped I think makes him seem more humble as well. - [Steven] There is some interesting subtle choices that whoever carved this made. Look at the way that the skirt extends out and attaches itself to the forearms a bit wider than we would expect. - [Beth] And the torso it's just this almost V-shape. There is a sense of geometric patterning here and not the naturalistic forms of the body. - [Steven] If you look at the back of the figure you can see that there is a little cleft that's been carved in horizontally. And there's also what seems to be the indication perhaps of a tied belt that hangs down. - [Beth] You understand I think the artist's decision not to make a naturalistic figure because a naturalistic figure before the god might give a sense of someone just visiting, just passing through but this idea of a static, symmetrical, frontal, wide eyed figure gives a sense of timelessness of a figure that is forever offering prayers to the god. (light piano)