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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)
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