Use Your Imagination! The Standard of Ur

My approach to these posts has been based on the fact that you can get facts and figures and academic investigations all over the Web.  So I want to give you some perspective, make some connections.  From my personal observations, I hope to tap into something universal and to give you the freedom to observe and explore, to come to your own conclusions, and to learn from art — not only to learn about art, but also through art.

Having said that, I’m going to start out this post with some information, because the Standard of Ur is one of my favorite pieces of art (How many times have I said that now?) and one that is not so well known.  It’s really fun to look at (and to say!), yet we may not know what to make of it:

(Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BC, British Museum, London)

First of all, what’s a standard?  You might think of Roman standards (tall sticks with flags or plaques on them) that were used during Roman battles, and you might think that the Standard of Ur looks nothing like that. You’d be right.  The archaeologists who excavated it guessed that it would have been mounted on a stick and carried into battle.  But in reality, we have no idea.  The name has stuck, and it’s just a guess.

Second, what’s Ur? Ur was one of the earliest cities in Mesopotamia, present day Iraq. This is interesting (from the Penn Museum website):

In all probability, Ur is the “Ur of the Chaldees” mentioned in the Bible as the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham (Gen. 12: 4-5). Woolley [who excavated the site] routinely referenced this to attract public attention. The site’s Arabic name, Tell al-Muqayyar, means “mound of pitch” and derives from the baked bricks originally set in bitumen mortar that litter the site.

Let’s take a quick look at the Standard itself.  The Standard of Ur was made by the Sumerians in around 2500 BC and is now in the British Museum. It has two sides, descriptively called the Peace side or panel and the War side or panel. On the Peace side we see a king at the top (he’s bigger than everyone else because he was the most important, at least in his opinion, and to be fair, probably in everyone else’s opinion, too) with all different kinds of members of his kingdom lining up to give him tribute,  essentially paying taxes, but in goods rather than in money.

(Standard of Ur,  Peace Side, 2600-2400 BC, British Museum, London)

We see people with sheep over their shoulders, and goats, grain, fish and oxen, from bottom to top, left to right, on the bottom two registers (levels).  I’m particularly fond of the animals, like this (are the people’s ears not the best, too?):

and this (from the War side – don’t you love the way they showed the depth of many onagers (like donkeys) going back in space by stacking them together?):

Here’s a detail of the king and nobles (or priests? or other elite members of society?) from the top register of the Peace side, talking, drinking, chilling:

And the War side:

(Standard of Ur, War Side, 2600-2400 BC, British Museum, London)

I’m sure that you can tell which figure is the king.  Same as the other side — bigger and at the top.  The “winning” soldiers are lined up on our left side of the middle register, and the “losing” soldiers are on the right, naked in defeat and humiliation.  At the bottom, you can see the chariots trampling the enemy:

What I love the most about the Standard of Ur is that it illustrates perfectly all of the trade and cross-cultural contact that was going on at this time.  The shells (the white part of the inlay) came from the Persian Gulf, the lapis from Afghanistan, and the red limestone from India.  The bitumen (tar-like substance) which holds the inlaid pieces is local (think Middle Eastern oil).  Knowing this, I think, opens up a whole new way of thinking.  We tend to look at art in isolation, by object, or movement, or country, when in reality, so much of it is interrelated across time and geographical borders.  Looking at the Standard of Ur as an art object is interesting; looking at what it can teach us about people in a certain place and time and their relationship with their world, even what their world was, is fascinating.

Finally, check out this person playing a lyre on the Standard of Ur:

And this lyre, found at Ur:

(Queen’s Lyre, Ur, 2600-2400 BC, British Museum, London)

Seeing both the mosaic of someone playing a lyre on the Standard of Ur and then an actual, very similar lyre makes it so much more alive for me.  The excavations come alive, too, in this excerpt from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, describing the process of removing and rebuilding a similar lyre from Ur:

When Woolley and his men found the Great Lyre in PG789, the wood of its sound box had completely disintegrated, leaving only an impression in the soil. Woolley carefully recorded the size and shape of all the parts of the instrument.  The bull’s head and front plaque were conserved at the British Museum and then mounted on a new sound box constructed here at the Penn Museum upon its arrival in Philadelphia in 1929. . . .When Woolley came to Penn in 1955 to receive the Drexel Medal, he looked at the bull-headed lyre on display and remarked that the restored sound box did not appear as he remembered it. A review of his field notes showed that the sound box was indeed the incorrect size. In 1976 a new sound box was constructed that faithfully followed the dimensions specified in Woolley’s notes.

Go to the website for more information about the conservation of this lyre (now that’s a beard!):

(Lyre, Ur, 2500 BC, Penn Museum, Philadelphia, PA)

There’s so much more to it.  I cannot recommend more highly the brief chapter in A History of the World in 100 Objects (by Neil McGregor, published in 2011 — look for it at the library). The British Museum website has great photographs of the excavations of the Standard of Ur by Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and 30s. And the University of Pennsylvania museum has a great website, Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery.

I’ll leave with one more image.  How can you not smile?

(Standard of Ur, 2600-2400 BC, British Museum, London)

4 thoughts on “Use Your Imagination! The Standard of Ur

  1. Karen,

    I just love this! I smiled the whole way… I am still smiling as a matter of fact.

    This is what makes art history so great! so exciting! so much fun! and so relevant!
    There were people 4500 years ago who were just like us… they played instruments, sat in chairs, celebrated, commemorated and honored their rulers and soldiers, they were victorious and humiliated and lucky for us they felt a need to express all these things (for what ever reason) in works of art. I always enjoy their creative solutions for representing depth.

    I wish elementary school teachers could share this with their students.

    Thanks for this wonderful post. Please keep them coming.

    • Thanks, Sedef — it was fun to write. So interesting that you and others could see the joy that I felt while writing it — glad that came through! I love your comment — yes, exactly. Ties us to the past. And yes, how lucky we are that they made things like this. If I had another life, I’d try to take art history into the elementary schools. Especially things like the Standard of Ur, as you say, would be so fun for kids — and they could learn so much. It’s so comic-book-like in some ways — I think it would really grab them. Maybe some day . . . Thanks again!

  2. Karen – This was just a terrific read…and look. I’m all ready to go back to the British Museum with you as my docent. Thank you!

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