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Buried Between the Rivers

On looking down the third column [of the tablet], my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge.7

A Babylonian Noah! The London Daily Telegraph offered to fund an expedition to look for the missing part of the tablet. Smith duly set out, and on only his fifth day of searching through the spoil heaps of Nineveh—with luck that must have seemed divinely inspired—found a tablet fragment that filled most of the gap in the story.

The texts from Assyria were written in two closely related Semitic languages: Assyrian and Babylonian, spoken by the ancient inhabitants of northern and southern Mesopotamia respectively. As the prestigious language of higher learning, Babylonian was also used in an archaizing dialect throughout the land for literary works and royal commemorative inscriptions. So far things were much as an erudite Victorian would have expected from his reading of the Bible, where Ashur (the name of the first Assyrian capital and of the nation’s tutelary deity) appears among the descendants of Noah’s son Shem (Genesis 10:22). But the Nineveh tablets included also some bilingual texts in which the Babylonian version was accompanied by a totally different and so far mysterious language. This used the same script as Babylonian-Assyrian (and could therefore, to some extent, be read phonetically) but the language bore no relation to them, or indeed to any other known tongue. Some scholars even argued that it did not represent a real language at all but was a secret code for recording sacred knowledge by the Babylonian priests.

The issue was put to rest in the 1870s, when excavations by the French at Tello (ancient Girsu) in the south of Iraq uncovered sculptures and other objects bearing unilingual inscriptions in this language, in a clearly much earlier stage of the script (now dated around 2600–2100 BC). In the 1880s an American team began working at Nippur (which turned out to be the Sumerians’ religious capital) and found thousands more tablets recording (as we now know) literary, mythological, mathematical, and other compositions, the refuse from scribal schools from around 1700 BC. The Sumerians, creators of the earliest of all Mesopotamian civilizations, had now arrived.


But who exactly were they? Like the later Assyrians and Babylonians, the Sumerians are defined for us by their language: to be a Sumerian, whatever it meant five thousand years ago, today means a Sumerian-speaker. The language itself is not inflected as Semitic and Indo-European languages are, but agglutinative: grammatical and other elements are added on as prefixes and suffixes. Its slow and painstaking linguistic analysis has been one of the triumphs of modern philology. The texts can now be translated with reasonable confidence, though many uncertainties remain.

From the archaeological remains of those who wrote and spoke Sumerian it has been possible to reconstruct much of how they lived, their arts and crafts, religion, history, and so on. But there is virtually no evidence that bears directly on the Sumerians’ ethnic or racial identity; nor indeed is it clear that these anthropological categories are really useful at this remote date. The early Near East was polyglot and multicultural. Mesopotamian scribes of the third millennium spoke and read Sumerian, Akkadian (the Semitic ancestor-tongue of Babylonian and Assyrian), and sometimes a third language as well. Shulgi, king of the Sumerian city of Ur and a great patron of learning, claims to have spoken no fewer than five. The texts speak of interpreters (including one for “Meluhhans,” i.e., people from the Indus Valley in Pakistan), and we see parents with foreign names giving their children Sumerian or Akkadian names so they will blend in. Many times in Mesopotamian history invading peoples were absorbed into the existing population and culture. Clearly language and culture mattered, but just as clearly people moved around and were able to deal with other ways of speaking and living.

The term “Sumer” derives from “shumeru,” the name for Sumer used by the Akkadians, who lived alongside the Sumerians in the heartland itself (the region from Nippur south to the head of the Gulf) and predominated just to the north in Akkad (northern Babylonia, around modern Baghdad). The Sumerians themselves called their land kiengi(r),8 or just “the land,” and described themselves as “the black-headed ones.” When and from where they first settled near the Euphrates was much debated a generation ago, but without any clear consensus. People had settled the region and were growing crops by irrigation before 5000 BC; the best we can say is that the urbanized people who, before 3000 BC, first wrote Sumerian emerged out of this agricultural way of life and tradition without any obvious break.

That story is what school textbooks like to call the birth of civilization, and though, like all clichés, this is an oversimplification, the uniqueness of what happened in early Sumer and its significance for world history can hardly be exaggerated. The main source of this revolution seems to have been the city of Uruk (biblical Erech, modern Warka) in southern Sumer, which by circa 3400 BC had become the largest permanent urban settlement ever created. At its core lay two monumental temple complexes dedicated to the sky-god Anu and the goddess of love and war, Inana. In and around these temples were found what are still the earliest writings from anywhere in the world, the pictographic system of recording on clay tablets that evolved into cuneiform, along with sophisticated architectural, technological, and artistic traditions illustrated by the Warka Vase and Head. Life in and around the temples was supported by well-coordinated religious, social, and presumably political administrations.

As more recent excavation has proved, the early Sumerians were also active colonizers, if not imperialists. In the centuries before 3000 BC, colonies and outposts of the “Uruk culture” were established hundreds of miles away, along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Syria and Turkey, and in western Iran, presumably to procure metals, stones, timber, and other raw materials. It is at this time also that Sumerian cylinder seals, artistic motifs, and other cultural traits are found in Egypt, suggesting some Mesopotamian stimulus in the emergence of a distinctive culture under the first dynasties there.9 How the Uruk network was achieved and maintained we do not know, but its success cannot be doubted: by the early third millennium the city had grown into a massively walled metropolis of over 1,300 acres.

The earliest writings provide a window into the minutiae of everyday life in early Sumer for which nothing else in the ancient world can prepare us. The earliest pictographic texts (circa 3400–3200 BC) deal primarily with agricultural administration—lists of livestock, disbursements of grain, and so on. But already there are a few lists of types of animate and inanimate objects—evidence of the Sumerians’ peculiar predilection for categorizing the universe. The script had taken on its distinctive wedge-shaped character by the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period (circa 2900–2350 BC) during which other genres gradually made their appearance: literary texts, proverbs, hymns and cultic compositions, and historical narratives about border disputes between rival city-states such as Lagash, Umma, Ur, and Kish.

Kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2112–2004 BC), the last and most glorious flourishing of Sume-rian culture, were great patrons of literature and learning, none more so than the multilingual Shulgi—“in my palace no one in conversation switches to another language as quickly as I do”—who claims to have “learned the scribal art from the tablets of Sumer and Akkad…. The academies are never to be altered,” he declared, “the places of learning shall never cease to exist.”10 It was probably in these academies that much Sumerian literature was standardized into something like the form we see it in the students’ exercises from Nippur three hundred years later. Scholarship of the past fifty years has done much to bring this sophisticated world back to life in epics of heroic bravery and combat (most famously Gilgamesh); the loves and rivalries of the gods; the travails of their favorites on earth; proverbs and fables; and in royal and sacral hymns of praise.11 Underneath it lies a much weightier mass of mundane ephemera from everyday life—hundreds of thousands of texts that make Mesopotamia the most fertile ground for social and economic history of any ancient culture.


Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium BC from the Mediterranean to the Indus closed on August 17 but its beautiful and scholarly catalog preserves much that was exciting about it. Having sold some six thousand copies it may also have done more than any book since Leonard Woolley’s Ur of the Chaldees (1929) to raise public consciousness of the ancient Near East in this country, and at an especially important time.

The cultural heart of the show was Mesopotamia, which is also treated in far greater depth than its neighbors in the catalog. Despite its title, the exhibition was about much more than art (many objects qualified at best as craft, but are important for other reasons) and rather more than cities (many works came from towns and small trading entrepôts). But as a leitmotif for the exhibition, the city was the right choice. Urbanism lay at the heart of what was new about culture at this time; and cities were the source of much of the greatest art, which provides the easiest point of entry for visitors today, many of whom will be unfamiliar with this region. This unfamiliarity was no doubt a large part of the exhibition’s raison d’être. Indeed, in some ways, the ancient Near East is a more exotic and alien land to New Yorkers today than it was to Londoners in Victorian times—certainly no subsequent writer has had anything like Layard’s success—and popular appreciation of its artistic achievements has fallen even further behind that of Egypt and the classical world.

The first room of the exhibition was enough to show how unbalanced this perception is. Already in the Uruk Period (circa 3400–3000 BC), the arts of Sumer and neighboring Proto-Elam^12 have the confidence and refinement of a style and approach to art that are no longer groping toward something else but have arrived at a visual language fully adequate to their creators’ expressive and aesthetic intentions. (This cannot so confidently be said of Egyptian art of the same era.) Two supremely beautiful sculptures from Proto-Elam—a lioness-demon with her clenched paws braced against her chest (see illustration on page 18), and a silver kneeling bull in human attitude, dressed and holding up a vase with his front hoofs—are gems of early naturalistic fantasy. Miniature, low-relief versions of these same subjects on cylinder seals (which become essentially two-dimensional drawings when rolled over the wet clay) show also how the idiom had been carefully adapted to the different technical and aesthetic requirements of each medium.

The rich finds from the Royal Tombs of Ur, dating from the mid-third millennium BC, are perhaps the most celebrated Mesopotamian discovery of the twentieth century. They include jewelry, lyres, vessels, and other objects all resplendently decorated in gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian. (See the Rearing Goat with a Flowering Plant on page 20.) Despite their glittering appeal as treasure, however, the artistic quality rarely rises to the level of the finest cylinder seals, where we see well-muscled heroes grappling with bull-men and lions all in a space no bigger than one inch by two. The dumpy proportions and naive-looking expressions of figures in contemporary sculptures, relief carvings, and inlay work evoke a curiously unreal, toy-like world, even when they are waging war (as in the battle scenes on the Standard of Ur and Stela of the Vultures). The wide-eyed worshiper statuettes of this period likewise leave us wondering whether, for regular-sized art, we have yet to discover the finest works by the most accomplished court artists.

There can be no doubt, on the other hand, that the succeeding Akkadian Period (circa 2350–2150 BC) was one of the pinnacles of early artistic achievement anywhere. A more intense naturalism of human and animal forms is immediately apparent, together with an adventurous expansion of composition and subject matter (in narrative, and especially mythological, scenes) and greater technical mastery in working metals and hard stones, which are now polished to a high sheen. It is a tantalizing thought that the glimpses we get from the surviving bas-reliefs of battle scenes and prisoners, bronze portrait heads of bearded kings, and mythological narratives on cylinder seals are surely only a foretaste of what lies ahead if the imperial capital of Akkad is ever found.

This sculptural tradition reaches its climax in the series of statues of Gudea and other rulers of the Sumerian city-state of Lagash around 2100 BC that were the most spectacular finds from the early French excavations at present-day Tello in Iraq. Arriving at the Louvre a generation after the fearsome depictions of the Assyrian kings in battle, these engaging images of pious stewardship suggested an altogether more humane and appealing world; they have rightly come to be recognized among the masterpieces of ancient art. Gudea is usually shown standing, wearing a cap with rows of curls (fur?), his hands clasped at his chest in dutiful worship of Ningirsu (later known as Ninurta, the Babylonian war-god), his tutelary deity. One famous variant shows him as an architect, seated with the plan of Ningirsu’s temple on his lap. This is an image of the ruler as mediator between earth and heaven, as shepherd of his flock, as architect of their prosperous future—almost a Mesopotamian buddha. Not surprisingly, it has struck a chord with museumgoers, and especially with artists, ever since.


The world of the ancient Near East outside Mesopotamia was a mosaic of disparate languages and cultures, but one showing evidence of extensive contact across very large distances. Although many of the languages remain undeciphered or unknown,13 and many of the cultures are defined solely by their archaeological remains, we can trace in considerable detail the traded goods, artistic borrowings, and other cultural exchanges between peoples from Pakistan all the way to the Aegean. It is a surprisingly large stage of interaction, one not matched until the emergence of the Persian Achaemenid empire founded by Cyrus the Great some two thousand years later. As the subtitle indicated, one aim of the exhibition was to place the civilizations of the Near East, including Mesopotamia, within this broader setting.

Fifty years ago this undertaking would have had a very clear story line: it would show how civilization, once born in Mesopotamia, was diffused to Egypt and eventually right across the Old World: ex oriente lux, “from the East, light.” The argument was founded on findings of distinctively Mesopotamian artifacts and bureaucratic practices (writing, sealing, etc.) in Syria, Egypt, Iran, and even the Indus Valley; more rarely those of these other cultures in Mesopotamia. In some cases there was clear evidence of trade (especially along the Gulf between Mesopotamia and the Indus, and northwest with Syria); in others the suggestion of Sumerian colonies (Syria and Iran). But often, as with Egypt, quite what these “cultural contacts” amounted to in human experience remained unclear.

While the evidence for such a diffusionist picture has multiplied dramatically, however, interpretation has headed in precisely the other direction—away from cross-cultural influence toward independent invention and regional distinctiveness. Partly this resulted from the realization that the idea of diffusion as a passive, one-way transfer of cultural capital from one place to another was flawed; even where influence can be demonstrated it is a multidirectional and selective process in which “peripheries” often played as large and active a part as “cores.” The Egyptians adopted the idea of writing from the Sumerians (if indeed they did so) because it suited their own rulers’ political and social purposes. Many other cultures chose not to do so—not because they didn’t know about it or were not smart enough, but because they did not have, or did not wish to have, the political and social institutions within which writing could function as a useful instrument of coercion and control.14 But this shift, it must be said, also has more than a little to do with fashion in academic thinking, in particular the growing resistance to seeing cultures in “primary” and “secondary” tiers. If there was a quibble with the exhibition as a whole it was its reluctance, having presented the evidence, to grapple with the changing interpretations that scholars have placed upon it.

The catalog ends appropriately with a discussion of the Mesopotamian cultural tradition and its legacy through the Hebrew Bible to the West—the Sumero-Babylonian stories that parallel, to varying degrees, the Creation, the Garden of Eden, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. The thoroughly pagan Gilgamesh, Sumer’s most famous son, has been much harder to identify in art than his literary renown would suggest, and there were no certain images of him in the exhibition. A tragic hero whose great achievements as king of Uruk still cannot bring him the one thing he truly wants—immortal life—Gilgamesh is a sympathetic and human foil to the Egyptian kings who revel so comfortably in their assured divinity. He has of course had an immortality of sorts in the legacy that this exhibition triumphantly proclaimed. We can only hope that the violence still being inflicted on it in the mounds of Iraq will soon be brought to an end.

  1. 7

    The Chaldeans were a tribe who inhabited southern Babylonia; in the Bible (and for Victorian scholars) the term is used more or less interchangeably with “Babylonians.” See R. Campbell-Thompson, A Century of Exploration at Nineveh (London: Luzac, 1929), p. 49.

  2. 8

    Its meaning is unclear; it is made up of elements meaning “place,” “lord,” and “noble.”

  3. 9

    This is the one point where the virtual exclusion of Egypt from the exhibition (only two objects) leaves out of account a crucial aspect of Mesopotamia’s seminal influence on its neighbors.

  4. 10

    See the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, www-etcsl.orient .ox.ac.uk.

  5. 11

    See the ETCSL above.

  6. 13

    Aside from the languages which can be classified as Semitic (Akkadian, Eblaite, Amorite, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Canaanite, Hebrew etc.) or Indo-European/Iranian (Hittite and others in Turkey, Old Persian and Median), all the known languages of the ancient Near East are isolates with no known relatives or descendants.

  7. 14

    See articles by John Baines and Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky in Culture through Objects: Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honour of P.R.S. Moorey, edited by T.F. Potts et al. (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 2003), pp. 27–75.

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