1. Identify the formal and iconographic characteristics of ancient Near Eastern art and architecture
2. Explain the relationship of art, architecture, and religion in the ancient Near East
3. Describe early writing systems and their impact on Mesopotamian cultures
4. Discuss the function of religious and secular art and architecture
5. Identify instances of intercultural exchange between ancient Near Eastern civilizations and other parts of the ancient world
6. Explain the materials and techniques of ancient Near Eastern art and architecture

ANCIENT NEAR EAST (these may vary, depending on source)
Sumerian (sub-pd-Protoliterate)
3,500 - ca. 3,000 BCE
(3) White Temple, Head of Inanna, Warka Vase
Sumerian (sub-pd-Early Dynastic)
3,000 - 2,340 BCE
(3) Worshiper Statuettes, Standard of Ur, Bull-headed Lyre
Akkadian (Dynastic)
2,340 - 2,180 BCE
(2) Head of an Akkadian Ruler, Victory Stele of Naram-Sin
2,125 - 2,025 BCE
(1) Statue of Gudea
Old Babylonian
2,025 - 1,594 BCE
(1) Law Code of Hammurabi
Kassite (Middle Babylonian)
1,594 - ca. 1,100 BCE
626 - 539 BCE
(1) Ishtar Gate
1,350 - 612 BCE
(2) Lamassu, Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions
Persian (Achaemenid)
559 - 330 BCE
(2) Persepolis (Apadana), Processional Frieze (detail)

mesopotamia map.gif

Other maps:
  • For a blank map of the present-day Middle East - click here / GIF format -or- click here / PDF format
  • For a more detailed (labeled) map of the present-day Middle East - click here
  • For a map of present-day Israel (& neighboring countries) - click here
  • For a map illustrating why this area was called the "fertile crescent" - click here
  • For a map highlighting some of the neighboring tribes / foes (ca. 3500 BCE) - click here
  • For a map highlighting some of the neighboring tribes / foes (ca. 1500 BCE) - click here

Some of the fundamental terminology / concepts:
  • hierarchy of scale (aka hieratic scale)
  • heraldic composition
  • conceptual representation
  • optical (natural perspective) vs. composite view (twisted perspective)
  • register
  • frieze
  • ground line
  • stylus
  • pictograph
  • votive offering
  • libation
  • cylinder seal
  • stele (pl. stelae)
  • standard (in reference to the object)
  • lyre
  • glazed brick
  • arch / archuated
  • apadana
  • arcade
  • cella
  • cuneiform
  • city-state
  • ziggurrat

General questions for consideration:
Students: In my continual quest to refine the content and delivery of material for each unit, I often come across questions issued by other teachers, professors, general resources. etc. Such questions may be simply pasted into the corresponding unit for consideration. Although I try to avoid redundancy, it is very possible that the same question may exist more than once.

  • Briefly describe the nature of daily life in Mesopotamia (Fertile Crescent).
  • Briefly describe the palace at Ctesiphon.
  • Describe the White Temple, Uruk (modern Warka).
  • Who was Enheduanna?
  • Summarize the Law code of Hammurabi.
  • Who was Gudea?
  • Explain how writing developed in Mesopotamia.
  • What are the unique details of Sumerian Art?
  • What are examples of narrative in Sumerian Art?
  • Describe the composition of the sound box of the lyre.
  • How did Sargon’s palace show off his power and authority?
  • Summarize the artistic style of the Assyrians.
  • Compare and contrast the roles that imaginary animals played for the Sumerians and the Assyrians.
  • What the similarities between the symbols of power of Hammurabi and Zimri-Lim?
  • What is so wondrous about Babylon, City of Wonders?
  • Why was Alexander the Great not considered so “great” by art historians?
  • How was the Persian “Gate of All Lands” indicative of Persian Art?
  • Compare and contrast Persian and Assyrian art.
  • Explain the connections between Paleolithic art and Mesopotamian art.

More sophisticated questions that relate to the material in this unit:
  • How do artists communicate.....
    • important subject or persons within a work of art?
    • issues of power and authority within a work of art?
  • Explain the similarities and differences between the Votive statues of Sumer and the Seated Gudea of Neo-Sumeria.
  • Why is the Stele of Hammurabi so important?
  • How does the Victory Stele of Naram Sin, the Stele of Hammurabi, the Assyrian Lion Hunt, the Ambassadors Bringing Gifts to the Persian King, reflect the changing religious political ideas of the Ancient Near East?
  • Compare the layout and organization of the citadel of Sargon II and the palace complex at Persepolis. What seem to have been the major concerns of the creators of each complex?


NOTE: For a link to a Menu/Page that contains larger versions of most of the following images, please click here.

The White Temple

Uruk, Iraq
ca. 3200-3000 BCE
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  • Explain the function of this structure.
  • From what material was this structure made? Why didn't the builders use limestone or sandstone - thus, ensuring a more durable structure?
  • The root word "zig" means _. In fact, the whole structure was meant to resemble a _. In turn, resemblance to this form reminded the people of source of _, flowing down to the valley.
  • How has the architect/s oriented this structure?
  • Did the architect/s steal the idea / form of a pyramidal building from the Egyptians?
  • Is the entire structure regarded as "The White Temple"? What are the dimensions of the White Temple? Elaborate.
  • What is a cella? What happened here? Who had access to the cella?
  • The manner in which one approaches the temple is referred to as a "bent axis" approach. Essentially, this is a fancy term meaning that the path to the temple is gained via an angular spiral - a series of diagonal stairways beginning on the lower E side, eventually leading to the SW side (cella entrance). What might be the reason behind such an arduous approach?
  • Make a drawing of what a ziggurat may have looked like, during its hey-day.

Head of Inanna

Uruk, Iraq
ca. 3200-3000 BCE
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Click here for alternative images of the Head of Inanna

  • Many scholars / historians consider this to be the first _ _ work of Sumerian Art.
  • Where was the find-spot of this particular work?
  • Can you explain the presence of the deep grooves / recesses carved into the brow & upper-center of the head? What about the recessed eye sockets?
  • Only the head of the figure was found; Furthermore, scholars believe it was the intention to singularly create the head only in marble. They also state the fact that the head's reverse side is flat and believe it had originally been attached to a wooden body. What information might we imply from this knowledge?
    • marble -
    • other materials -

Warka Vase

Scenes of Presentation of offerings to Inanna
Uruk, Iraq
ca. 3200-3000 BCE
external image 0205.jpg?disposition=download
Click here for alternative images of the Warka Vase

  • The notion of "importance" - How is it shown through this work? In other words, what measures have the creator/s taken in order to ensure those who are worthy of importance are represented as such? Hint: there are two (2) obvious ways demonstrated in this piece.
  • Locate the figure who scholars presume to be Inanna. List two (2) features related to her dress. What might these suggest?
  • How would you formally describe this work? In other words, how is the work organized?
  • What to you think the vase is depicting? Can you guess how this was used (its function)? How then, might the visual depictions reinforce its function?
  • Furthermore, what might this say (suggest) about the relationship between the people and the gods / goddesses?
  • Scholars / historians generally consider this to be the first _ _ _ .
  • Explain how the following terms relate to this work:
    • register / frieze
    • ground line
    • narrative
    • relief sculpture
    • profile vs. frontal
    • twisted / composite perspective
    • hierarchy of scale / hieratic
    • votive offering


Worshiper Statuettes

Square Temple, Eshunna, Iraq
ca. 2700 BCE
Gypsum, shell, white limestone
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  • Where were these figures found?
  • Who do these figures represent? Why is this somewhat unique?
  • What do scholars suggest was the function for such figures?
  • Explain how the principle material (gypsum) used to create these figures reinforce their supposed function.
  • In terms of "form", how would you describe the manner in which these figures are constructed. How does this reinforce their status / identity?
  • Were there any other materials used in the creation of such figures (originally)? Explain.
  • Make a list of some adjectives that come to mind as you examine these figures? Why have you listed these (can you explain / defend your responses)?
  • Why are the figures' hands clasped? Are they holding anything?
  • Why are the eyes treated in a rather large manner?
  • Is there a particular direction in which these figures' eyes are intently focused?
  • How small / large are these figures?
  • Can you locate other representations (examples) of such figures or are these the only specimens extant?
  • Can you list any common traits given to the representation of the male gender? The female gender?
  • Do any of these contain inscriptions of any kind? If so, what is the nature of the text?

Standard of Ur (War and Peace sides)

Royal Cemetery, Ur, Iraq
ca. 2600 BCE
Wood inlaid with shell, lapis lazuli, and limestone

War side

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Peace Side

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Click here for alternative images of the Standard of Ur.

  • Can you locate the most important figure in this work (on each side)?
  • How is importance shown in this work? In other words, what measures (or conventions) have been used in order to ensure those who are worthy of importance are represented as such? There are four (4) key measures / conventions used; Can you list them?
  • In what fashion are these panels to be read? Explain.
  • What is a standard (as it applies to a work like this)?
  • Scholars are uncertain of this function of this "box"; If not a standard, what else might it have been used for?
  • How many wheels do chariots have? What is interesting about the manner in which the chariots here are represented?
  • In what "manner" are the eyes & torsos of the figures are represented? How about their heads & legs / arms?
  • Explain what is meant by the repetition [four times!] of the horse-drawn chariots (lower register / War side). What about the repeated poses of figures in the register above?
  • Look carefully - How might the spatial organization of each panel's registers (from bottom to top) reflect yet another (5th) measure taken to emphasize the importance of the leader featured?
  • Can you translate the stories being told in each panel? Within each of their respective three (3) registers? What then, might this suggest for its importance within the Ancient Near East?
  • How are the materials found in the creation of this work reflective of its function? Essentially, how do the materials used extend our understanding of the culture?

Bull-headed Lyre

Royal Cemetery, Ur, Iraq
ca. 2600 BCE
Gold leaf and lapis lazuli on wood
external image 0210a.jpg?disposition=download

  • What is a lyre? What is the purpose of the wooden structure of this work?
  • What connection/s can you establish between this work and the previous work (Standard of Ur)?
    • in terms of materials -
    • in terms of subject matter -
    • in terms of vocab words -
  • What is the art process referred to as "gilding" & how / where was it used in this particular work?
  • Make a list of the various media (& processes) used in the creation of this work. Were these materials readily available to the artisans living in Ancient Mesopotamia? What, again, can be suggested from this?
  • The presence of a horned bull head features rather prominently in this work. It alone is an example of a composite image (both man & animal). What do scholars feel the bull head represents or suggests? Are there any other "horned-animals" that are commonly used to suggest similar meanings? Explain.
  • A careful look at the column of registers (AKA a register column) beneath the bull's head / beard reveals further use of composite figures (both animal and human). Respond to the following:
    • profile vs. composite representation -
    • heraldic composition -
  • Consider the function that an object such as this might have played in the Ancient World of Mesopotamia...
    • composite creatures (both animal and human), scenes of them engaging in musical entertainment, ceremonial cups / vases, maybe ritual (?)
    • combine the above with the large bull head, &
    • the fact that the object itself is essentially a large musical instrument...


Head of an Akkadian Ruler

Nineveh, Iraq
ca. 2250-2200 BCE
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Victory Stele of Naram-Sin

Susa, Iran
2254-2218 BCE
external image 0213.jpg?disposition=download
Click here for alternative images of the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin.

  • This work is referred to as a stele. What is a stele?
  • How tall is this work?
  • Where would it have been placed?
  • How would you classify / categorize this work, in terms of its purpose or function?
  • Explain how this artist's approach for depicting figures within a somewhat flat compositional space is similar / different from previous conventions (as seen in the earlier work of this unit). << think ground line, registers; (*) Also, the artist succeeds in accomplishing a "first" the the history of art' with this work... what is it?
  • If you have not already commented on this in the above response, indicate any significance to the manner in which Naram-Sin storms the mountain. It's almost as if he is ascending a _.
  • In what ways does the content of this stele relate to the previous works? In other words - have we seen any of this before? What is similar? Make a list.
  • Can you describe the story being told? Who are the figures inhabiting the composition? Is this a record of an actual event?
  • [spring-boarding from the last point in the previous list >>] Make a list of the artistic conventions used, by the artist, in order to ensure Naram-Sin was portrayed as the most important individual in this composition. There are seven (7) distinct conventions present here.
  • Explain why this work has been inscribed twice.
  • Elaborating upon the previous prompt, explain the story surrounding this work's find-spot - and the events / reasons leading up to this.
  • As segue into the next era of power, explain what happened to the Akkadian civilization around 2150 BCE.


Statue of Gudea

Louvre, Paris - from Girsu (modern Telloh), Iraq
ca. 2100 BCE
external image gudea-seated.jpg
Click here for alternative images of the Statue of Gudea.

  • Who was Gudea (his title, dwelling location)?
  • During his reign, what was he best know for establishing?
  • How did Gudea explain his "good fortune"?
  • Towards his people, what was the specific role which which Gudea best wished to be associated?
  • List the material (type of stone) from which this statue has been fashioned. How would one describe the structural quality of this stone? Furthermore, where might the source for such a material have been located in the Ancient World? Why are these factors significant in our discussions of this individual, Gudea?
  • Describe the general scale (size) of this & other statues of Gudea.
  • Respond to the number (quantity) of Gudea's representations that we have today. Is this significant? Why or why not?
  • What are the various ways (characteristics / poses) in which Gudea was represented? Describe.
  • Which two (2) bodily features are emphasized in this (& other) representations of Gudea? Can you, based on previous discussion and examination of Ancient NE art, surmise the reasons behind this?
  • In some representations, Gudea is shown holding a vase - from which flows two streams of life. These rivers give water & fish. What do you think the artist was attempting to underscore with such a representation? (think - his role as the king; think - geography of Mesopotamia)
  • In other representations, Gudea is holding a tablet upon his lap. Exactly what is this? How does this underscore / reaffirm his role among his people? ...among the god-structure?
  • Easily taken for granted by our calloused eyes, are you able to state the one measure / approach taken by the sculptor/s (in their representations of Gudea) that single-handedly represents an extremely bold assertment / reinforcement of the Gudea's importance to his people? Hint: It can be seen in this work.
  • Perform a bit of research and locate a translation of a cuneiform inscription placed upon one of Gudea's statues. This inscription boasts a particular quality. What does this inscription state? What does this, in turn, say about Gudea?


Law Code of Hammurabi (Stele)

Susa, Iran
ca. 1780 BCE
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Click here for alternative images of Hammurabi's Law Code.

  • How tall is this work of art?
  • What is the measurement of its circumference at the base?
  • What can be suggested by the overall form of this work?
  • What is taking place in the uppermost portion of this stele?
  • List two (2) symbols of divine power and explain how they are being handled b/t the figures.
  • What term do we use to describe the manner in which Shamash has been depicted? Why was he portrayed this way?
  • How is the theme of "mountains" yet again underscored in this work?
  • Elaborate on the reasons why the following items are considered artistic innovations / attempts:
    • Handling of Shamash's beard -
    • Depiction of Shamash's throne -
    • Headdress with four (4) pair of horns (*) -
    • Handling of Hammurabi's arms -
  • How has the sculptor of this work managed to transcend the Naram-Sin stele? In other words, how has Hammurabi asserted his importance as a figure worthy of attention? think: degree of 'relief'
  • How did this work function?
  • In his law code, Hammurabi distinguishes between 3 levels of individuals. List these.
  • How many clauses are located on this stele?
  • His clauses were aimed as protecting the _ from the _. Yet, explain the consistency (or inconsistency) with which the upper and lower classes were punished.
  • Locate a translation of Hammurabi's law code and read some of his clauses. Which of these do you find most interesting? Please list.
  • For which crimes would "death" be the punishment rendered?
  • In your research, were you able to discover any irony surrounding Hammurabi's law code?

Related links:




A bit of the historical backdrop framing this dynamic, violent, tumultuous time period in Mesopotamia...

Elam >> the rise of Susa
  • To the east of Sumer, Akkad and Babylonia, the civilization of Elam (present-day western Iran) began to flourish. Elam ultimately gained enough strength to plunder Babylonia and re-appropriate some of the art within their capital, Susa.
  • In 641 BCE, the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal destroyed the Elamite Empire.
  • side note: [Despite this sack, the region of Elam would soon rise again -- this time as the Achaemenid Persian Empire].
  • Assyrian "over-extension"? Towards the end of King Ashurbanipal's reign, the Assyrian Empire began to disintegrate.
  • During the subsequent reigns of Ashurbanipal's successors, the Assyrian Empire began to crumble from the simultaneous onslaught...
    • The threats from the Medes (in the East)
    • The continual rebellions from the Neo-Babylonians (in the South)
  • Assyria - You're not alone!
    • Cyrus of Persia (r. 559-529 BCE) established the Achaemenid Persian Empire.
    • Not only would Cyrus conquer the dreaded Assyrians, his armies scaled King Nebuchadnezzar's mighty wall and lay waste to Neo-Babylonia.
    • Cyrus didn't stop here. In fact, by 525 BCE - Egypt joined the ranks of those conquered by the powerful Persians.
    • In fact, by 480 BCE - the Persian Empire was the largest entity in the known world.
    • Only the strong resistance from the 5th C BCE Greeks slowed them down.
    • Achaemenid line ended with death of Darius III, who was defeated by Alexander the Great in 330 BCE.



Citadel of Sargon II, Iraq
ca. 720-705 BCE
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Click here for alternative images of a Lamassu.p

Questions (in general):
  • Locate a map of Mesopotamia, during the reign of the mighty Assyrians. List both the name & location of their major city.
  • Explain how / from where they derived their city's name? Explain.
  • Which river served as the major water source for the Assyrians?
  • How would you describe the structure of a typical Assyrian city-state? What does this reflect about their society?

Questions (Lamassu):
  • If you were to describe a lamassu to someone who has never seen one, what would that sound like?
  • Where would such a work have been placed / located, specifically (within the Assyrian Empire)?
  • What was the function of a lamassu?
  • Who a/o what did a lamassu represent?
  • Explain the manner in which one should view (interact with) this work. Does the figure function differently from the front view than from the side view?
  • Scholars state that this work does not represent a "composite view", nor an "optical view". Instead, they insist that a "conceptual view" is a more accurate label. Explain the difference between these types of views. Furthermore, explain why (cite examples) this work best falls under the "conceptual view" framework.
  • Were the Assyrians concerned with the notion of "completeness"? Why / why not?
  • What classification of sculpture is this (relief, in-the-round...)?
  • How does this work connect to the previous works we have examined?
  • Create a 2-3 sentence written statement about Assyrian art. Use the following words / terms within your framework:
    • clarity
    • economy of communication
    • completeness
    • documentary detail

Related links:
  • Brief student-made video narrative relating to a lamassu - link
  • Quality educational discussion about a lamassu (c/o SmartHistory) -link

Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions

North Palace of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh, Iraq
ca. 645-640 BCE
external image 0223.jpg?disposition=download
  • How does this relief sculpture support the notion that Assyrian art was obsessed with the representation of the "conceptual" nature of its subjects?
  • What does this relief (and the many other similar relief sculptures) celebrate?
  • How does the art of the Assyrian Empire differ from the art of the earlier civilizations, namely as it pertains to the manner in which authority, power & victory are portrayed?


Ishtar Gate

Restored in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Babylon, Iraq
ca. 575 BCE
Glazed brick
external image 0224.jpg?disposition=download


Royal Audience Hall (apadana)

Persepolis, Iran
ca. 521-465 BCE
external image Persepolis_24.11.2009_11-44-53.jpg

Processional Frieze

[detail from the] Royal Audience Hall (apadana)
Persepolis, Iran
ca. 521-465 BCE
external image 0226.jpg?disposition=download

Relevant Links (Mesopotamia - in general):
  • Mesopotamia / ART HISTORY RESOURCES - courtesy of Christopher LTC Witcombe - link
  • Ancient Near East - courtesy of Smart History - link
  • Mr. Walker's Youtube playlist - Mesopotamia - link
  • For a lively overview of Mesopotamia - Crash Course World History (c/o John Green) - link