If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Standard of Ur

The standard of Ur is a 4,500-year-old object from Mesopotamia that shows scenes of peace and war. It is made of wood and precious materials from distant lands. It reveals the hierarchy and activities of ancient society, but its original function is unknown. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: On the back of the 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: That's not so different than this object that we're looking at that's nearly 4,500 years old, an object known is the Standard of Ur, which comes from the city-state of Ur, which is now in present day Iraq. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: In Mesopotamia, really the birthplace of civilization, and Ur is one of the great early cities. The word standard is a little misleading because a 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: So often, when we're in a museum, and we're talking about ancient objects, we're talking about objects that had been buried, but buried just because of the passage of time. And here we're 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Again, we really don't know. But what we do know is that we see fabulously expensive objects. DR. BETH HARRIS: 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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. We simply don't know. DR. BETH HARRIS: 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: One long side seems to represent a scene of peace and prosperity. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 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 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 field all the time. Once there was enough food, some people could devote their lives to being rulers and some to becoming artists or artisans. DR. BETH HARRIS: And some to priests, right? You had a whole organization of society with different people performing different roles that was suddenly possible. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: And it's really typical in ancient Near Eastern art, for us to see scenes divided into registers. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So let's start at the bottom and move up. I see a human figure bearing a heavy bag. DR. BETH HARRIS: 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: And he also wears different clothing that helps to identify him. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: Some of the objects that we see here are objects that were also found in the burials. But I don't think they found the chair that resembles that. That would be fun to see. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: One of the objects that has been found, however, are the cups that so many of the figures here are holding. And so clearly, these figures are joining the king in some libation. They're drinking perhaps beer, perhaps wine. We're not sure. DR. BETH HARRIS: There's some kind of celebration going on. Some festivity or perhaps a religious ceremony. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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. DR. BETH HARRIS: And then we have two figures at the far end who seem to be entertaining the seated figures who were drinking. One is playing a harp and another figure on the far right, perhaps singing. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Let's go to the other side. It's a very different story. DR. BETH HARRIS: So again, we have a scene divided into three registers. But here, we see terrible scenes of violence. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We see a rendering of what is pretty clearly warfare. There are four chariots that are pulled by what seem 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'll notice, is holding either a spear or an ax. 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's a kind of specific engineering that's being rendered here. DR. BETH HARRIS: One of the most interesting things about the bottom panel is a kind of naturalism in the battle that seems to be taking place. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: You seem to move from a walk to a kind of canter to a full gallop. DR. BETH HARRIS: On the other hand, some elements are really symbolic, like the felled enemies that you were talking about before. I don't think we're 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. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: The middle register shows a line of soldiers readied for battle. They are in full garb. They're wearing helmets. And these helmets have, again, been found in the so-called royal tombs. DR. BETH HARRIS: What's wonderful about these soldiers is their regular placement. That gives you a real sense of an army that's sort of marching along. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 soldiers victorious, slaying their enemies. On the right side of that middle register, you see soldiers that are perhaps being captured. DR. BETH HARRIS: 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 that these are prisoners of war because they're naked. They've been stripped. And they're wounded and bleeding. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So there's the sense of their humiliation, their enslavement, and the great victory of the king. It's interesting to look closely at the stylistic conventions of the rendering of the figures. Just about everybody's seen in perfect profile. We see one eye. And that one eye is not so much looking forward as looking out. DR. BETH HARRIS: Right, it's sort of frontal, on the side of the face. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right. In a way that is familiar from Egyptian art, we see the shoulders squared with the picture plane. And we see feet pushing in one direction rather than being seen in perspective. DR. BETH HARRIS: So we can use our visual detective work, but there's still so much that's a mystery. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: 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 21st century, has a lot in common with the third millennium BCE. [MUSIC PLAYING]