Ancient Sumerian Art

The world’s earliest civilization developed in the Mesopotamian area of Sumer in present-day Iraq. Sumerian civilization spanned a period of three thousand years beginning around 5300 B.C. Early cities like Eridu and Larsa revolved around year-round agriculture. The Sumerians invented such important landmark inventions like the wheel and writing. Their civilization also developed their own distinctive art.

Like many ancient cultures, the Sumerians developed art that was largely reflective of their religious beliefs. Some artistic archeological finds depict flora and fauna of the region. The Sumerian art medium of choice was clay which was abundant in the region, but statues made from stone have also been unearthed. Many of their statues depicted smoothly rounded elements that are unlike the statues of other Mesopotamian civilizations. Often artist decoration adorned functional items such as pottery, weapons, or even farm implements.

Painting and sculpture were both important artistic mediums for the Sumerians. Sumerian artisans had to import some materials like stone and wood into their area, but trade was certainly important to the civilization as it grew. Artists also favored more precious materials such as lapis lazuli and shell for important objects of worship or state. Many of the tallest statues produced by Sumerian artists were religious in nature and generally depicted female mother-goddess figures whom they worshipped and hoped would grant them prosperous harvests, fertility, and protection from enemies. Sumerian statues of figures are notable for their large eyes that dominate round faces. The bodies of these statues tend to be carved into simple cylindrical shapes.

Considerable examples of Sumerian art have been uncovered from the cities of Babylon, Ur, Kish, Lagash, and Uruk. As the civilization aged, its art became ever-more sophisticated as evidenced by famous artifacts like the female head found at Uruk known as Lady of Warka (c.3200 B.C.). Other important finds dating to Sumer’s artistic peak include a mosaic laden wooden harp, a wooden game board inlaid with precious materials, and various busts of males and females. Many of the statues also feature the typical staring eyes, clasped hands, beards, long hair, and pleated skirts.

Sumerians are noted for their architecture as well—most notably their ziggurat temples that were pyramidal structures. The Sumerians also produced jewelry and richly carved cylinder seals that were used to create personal signatures. Much of the painting, according to archeologists, was in the form of frescos and would have adorned both temples and palaces. Sumerian art influenced the art of later Mesopotamian cultures. The Sumerian style waned, however, with the invasion of Semitic peoples from outside the region.