Category: Mesopotamian artefacts

The Mask of Warka

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The Lady from Uruk

The Mask of Warka, also known as the ‘Lady of Uruk’ or the Sumerian Mona Lisa, dating from 3100 BC, is one of the earliest representations of the human face. The carved marble female face is probably a depiction of Inanna. It is approximately 20 cm (8 inches) tall, and was probably incorporated in a larger wood cult image, though it is only a presumption that a deity is represented. It is without parallels in the period.

According to Dr. Bahnam Abu Al-Soof, the Mask of Warka was originally attached to a larger statue made of various materials. The mask was excavated in modern-day Warka in Iraq by German archaeologists who began their excavations in 1912. Uruk-Warka, is one of the earliest cities, once ruled by the legendary King Gilgamesh, and mentioned in the Genesis as the biblical city of Erech.

It is in the National Museum of Iraq, having been recovered undamaged after being looted when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

Mask of Warka: Description

The Mask of Warka is unique in that it is the first accurate depiction of the human face. Previous attempts, like the Tell Brak Head

Tell Brak Head (British museum)

were not anatomically accurate, and featured exaggerated noses and ears.

At 21.2 centimetres (8.3 in) tall, the mask was most likely originally part of a whole, life sized statue, probably made of wood, with the exposed areas of “skin” (arms, hands, feet, and most obviously the head) being the only ones made of the much rarer white marble. The back of the head would have been enhanced with bitumen and then colored metal – most likely either gold leaf or copper. This combination would have then extended over the forehead in waves. This hairpiece would have been attached to the Mask with metal studs, which could possibly have been engraved. The hollowed out eyes and eyebrows bear traces of an ancient inlay, perhaps shell and lapis lazuli. Perforations at the ears indicate that the image once wore jewelry. Parts of the eyebrows and hair were also emphasized with colored inlays.

The back of the head is flat, with drill holes for attachment.

Mask of Warka: Discovery

The Mask of Warka was discovered on 22 February 1939 by the expedition of the German Archaeological Institute, led by Dr A. Nöldeke, in the city of Uruk south of modern Baghdad. The Mask was found in the Eanna (or Ianna) district of the city – so named for the goddess Inanna to whom the temples are dedicated.

Mask of Warka: Theft and recovery

When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the National Museum of Iraq (where the Mask of Warka was stored) was looted. The Mask is thought to have been taken between April 10 and 12 of that year, along with forty other pieces, including the Warka Vase and Bassetki Statue.

The effort to recover these artifacts was spearheaded by Marine Reserve Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, who started an investigation with his team on April 21. However, it was The 812th Military Police Company (Combat Support) USAR, out of Orangeburg, New York, that recovered the Mask just before October. According to Bogdanos “An informant, an individual, an Iraqi, walked into the museum with a tip that he knew where antiquities were being held or hidden, without identifying the mask. MPs Acting on that information, members of the investigation who are still in Baghdad then went to that location, conducted a reconnaissance of the location, and then conducted a raid. The results of the raid were ultimately good, but Bogdanos explains that hopes were not initially high. “Initially they didn’t find the Mask, but they found the owner of the farm– it’s a farm in northern Baghdad– and after interviewing the farmer, he admitted that he did in fact have an antiquity, in this case the Mask, buried in the back of his farm. The investigators went behind the farm and uncovered the Mask exactly where he had placed it, and it is intact and undamaged.” It is now in the National Museum of Iraq – Baghdad.

The oldest love poem in history

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The oldest poem in history
Museum of Archaeology, Istanbul

‘Bridegroom, dear to my heart; goodly is your beauty, honeysweet; lion, dear to my heart’. These are the passionate words of a lover to a king, from more than 4,000 years ago, in the oldest known love poem ever found.

The loving words were passed down over generations, eventually inscribed on an 8 th century BC Sumerian cuneiform tablet small enough to fit in the palm of one’s hand. It was uncovered in the 1880s in Nippur, a region in what is now Iraq, and has been held by The Istanbul Museum of the Ancient Orient ever since.

Historians say the words were recited by a bride of Sumerian King Shu-Sin, fourth ruler of the Third Dynasty of Ur, who reigned between 2037 and 2029 BC, and used as a script for a ceremonial recreation of the sacred marriage. It would have been sung at the New Year festival, and at banquets and festivals accompanied by music and dance.

The full translation of the poem is as follows:

 

Bridegroom, dear to my heart,

Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.

Bridegroom, let me caress you,
My precious caress is more savory than honey,
In the bedchamber, honey-filled,
Let me enjoy your goodly beauty,
Lion, let me caress you.

My precious caress is more savory than honey.
Bridegroom, you have taken your pleasure of me,
Tell my mother, she will give you delicacies,
My father, he will give you gifts.

You, because you love me,
Give me pray of your caresses, 

My lord god, my lord protector,
My SHU-SIN, who gladdens ENLIL’s heart,
Give my pray of your caresses

Uruk Vase, with procession of naked priests carrying gifts to Inanna’s shrine. Inanna greeting them at its door marked by her gateposts. Alabaster. 3′. Uruk, Mesopotamia. Fourth millennium BCE.

According to the Sumerian belief, it was a sacred duty for the king to marry a priestess every year in order to make the soil and women fertile. The ritual of sacred marriage involved the re-enactment of the union of two deities, usually Inanna/Ishtar and Dumuzi/Tammuz. Thus, the priestess represented Inanna, the goddess of fertility and sexual love, while the king represented Dumuzi, on the eve of their union.

J. Stuckey (2005) describes the ritual of the sacred marriage:

From extant hymns, we can piece together what happened in the ritual. First, Inanna was bathed, perfumed, and adorned, while Dumuzi and his retinue processed towards her shrine.

The famous Uruk vase may represent this procession. All the while, temple personnel sang love songs, many of which are extant. Resplendent Inanna greeted Dumuzi at the door, which, on the Uruk vase, is flanked by her signature standards (gateposts), and there he presented her with sumptuous gifts. Subsequently, the pair seated themselves on thrones, although sometimes the enthronement took place only after sexual consummation. The deities entered a chamber fragrant with spices and decorated with costly draperies. Lying down on a ceremonial bed constructed for the occasion, they united in sexual intercourse. Afterwards, pleased by and with her lover, Inanna decreed long life and sovereignty for him and fertility and prosperity for the land.

Muazzez Hilmiye Cig, a retired historian at the Museum, who worked with Professor Samuel Noah Kramer in 1951 to identify and translate the text, explained that the Sumerians “believed that only love and passion could bring them fertility, and therefore praised pleasures”.

In the agriculture-based Sumerian community, she said, lovemaking between the king and the priestess would have been seen as a way to ensure the fertility of their crops, and therefore the community’s welfare, for another year.

The Standard of Ur

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The Standard of Ur is a wonderful example of Mesopotamian artistic achievement that reveals a wealth of information about one of the world’s great ancient civilisations. This object was discovered by the archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley during excavations at ancient Ur (modern Tell al-Muqayyar), in southern Mesopotamia (south Iraq). The most spectacular discoveries at Ur were made within a cemetery of the Early Dynastic III period (c. 2600–2300 BC), that Woolley named ‘The Royal Cemetery’. Here, among hundreds of more modest burials, were sixteen graves that he distinguished as ‘Royal Tombs’ because of their construction, abundance of grave goods and evidence of elaborate burial rituals and human sacrifice. The Standard was discovered in the corner of one of the tomb chambers of a Royal Tomb (PG 779) that had been thoroughly robbed in antiquity.

  
It was named at the time of its discovery by Leonard Woolley who initially proposed that it may have been carried on a pole like a battle standard, but its original function is unknown. The two rectangular panels of engraved shell figures and mosaic tesserae of lapis lazuli, red limestone, and shell were originally attached to wood that did not survive being buried in a tomb for thousands of years. These two panels which are sometimes referred to as ‘War’ and ‘Peace’ were discovered lying back-to-back and crushed, with some of the pieces displaced. The shape of the wooden mount that these panels are fixed on today is based on Woolley’s suggestion that there were also two truncated triangular shaped end panels. However, the arrangement of the inlays on the end panels is speculative.
The Standard is an excellent example of Mesopotamian narrative art; the scenes illustrate a story or a sequence of events. It is almost certain that what is shown on the two main panels of the Standard are consecutive episodes of the same story – the end of a victorious battle of a king of Ur and the banquet or ritual celebrations after the battle.

The Flood Tablet

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The most famous cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia.

Relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, From Nineveh, northern Iraq, Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC.
The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BC) collected a library of thousands of cuneiform tablets in his palace at Nineveh. It included letters, legal texts, lists of people, animals and goods, and a wealth of scientific information, as well as myths and legends.
The best known of these was the story of Gilgamesh, a legendary ruler of Uruk, and his search for immortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a huge work, the longest piece of literature in Akkadian language  (the language of Babylonia and Assyria). It was known across the ancient Near East, with versions also found at Hattusas (capital of the Hittites), Emar in Syria and Megiddo in the Levant.
This, the eleventh tablet of the Epic, describes the meeting of Gilgamesh with Utnapishtim. Like Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Utnapishtim had been forewarned of a plan by the gods to send a great flood. He built a boat and loaded it with all his precious possessions, his kith and kin, domesticated and wild animals and skilled craftsmen of every kind.
Utnapishtim survived the flood for six days while mankind was destroyed, before landing on a mountain called Nimush. He released a dove and a swallow but they did not find dry land to rest on, and returned. Finally a raven that he released did not return, showing that the waters must have receded.
This Assyrian version of the Old Testament flood story was identified in 1872 by George Smith, an assistant in The British Museum. On reading the text he … jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.
Courtesy & currently located at the British Museum, London. Photo taken by Jessica Spengler.

A War Scene

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Gypsum wall panel relief from the palace of Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III 745–727 BCE

Two Assyrian cavalrymen charging against enemies. Both have short curly hair, pointed beards, and wear a kind of pointed helmet with earflaps. The first horseman wears a fringed tunic, highly ornamented with discs set in squares, and a cuirass. The horses have the usual triple tasselled decoration on top of their heads, and two tassels attached to their plaited collars. The second horseman is spearing the horse of an enemy which is sinking down. The headless rider pitches forwards. He wears a garment held by a multiple girdle and low boots. Behind the Assyrian horses a headless figure, dressed in a long garment, lies upside down. He also seems to wear boots with slightly upturned toes. Above the slain a vulture flies to the right carrying entrails in its claws and beak.

NeoAssyrian
Excavated by: Sir Austen Henry Layard, 1849
Nimrud, Mosul
Central Palace, reused in the south west palace
Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III 745–727 BCE
British museum