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.