Mesopotamia Art By Keegan Hubbard

In this section of the wiki I break up the fascinating topic of Mesopotamia art into three different topics that I have found to be the most pertinent. The topics that I have researched and presented are religious art, private art and portable art. Within these topics I will show how the ingenuity and great diversity found in Mesopotamia, spread to other parts of the world and effected different ways of life for all.



Being one of the oldest known civilizations, Mesopotamia became a mixing pot of ideas, culture and art. Objects that we see today that are labeled as art, were not seen as such to the Mesopotamian people. Much of todays art is seen as a persons means of portraying a feeling or an idea to their audience.The Mona Lisa was not originally meant to aid a priest when bringing an offering to the alter of certain gods. however, a few thousand years ago , the people in the Mesopotamian regions made numerous masterpieces for their time. These masterpieces were not just for personal accomplishment but oriented to live better lives by pleasing the gods . Most of the figurines, pots, and carvings of the Mesopotamian culture's were meant as functional “devices” in different venues so more care was taken into account when creating such items. Therefore the amount of intricacy and craftsmanship is amazing in these Mesopostamian pieces.

Figure 1 Fragment of a bowl with a frieze of bulls in relief

Figure 1 Fragment of a bowl with a frieze of bulls in relief
In researching the topic of “art” in Mesopotamia, I found that highlighting the areas of the use of art/artistry in rituals and religion, personal pieces of art created by or for everyday normal people, and some of the more widely seen art throughout this fascinating culture, would be more productive then just trying to lump such a wide variety of art together into one big subject.To begin though I would like to elaborate on what the characteristics of Mesopotamian art are and how they differed from the other artifacts that have been found from other civilizations.
The great thing about Mesopotamia was that it was filled with such a diverse amount of cultures in independent city states, that the amount of variety found is numerous because with all these varying religions, each had different objects for certain rituals. Throughout its history Mesopotamia had eight different regions: Sumeria, Phoneicia, Assyria, Persia, Babylonia, Israel and Judah and Transcaucasus. With this melting pot of cultures feeding and inadvertently exchanging ideas and techniques we can see the diversity through the art of the people who lived during these times.
In the early dynastic period (3000-2340 B.C.E) the Sumerian's developed techniques to make jewelry and pottery like that in the video below, you can see how that pottery with this type of artistry, people would be willing to travel, with expensive goods, long distances in order to barter and possibly obtain these works of portable art.

Religious Art

First glance makes most people assume that a civilization in the third millennium B.C have to be primitive and unable to make any art that could possibly survive thousands of years. But, the reality is that the people in Mesopotamia were just as sophisticated in all facets of life, including art. Just like any great society, the Mesopotamians felt strongly about the different religions and cults in each region and then city-state followed. Located at the southern part of the Tigris-Euphrates plain, Sumeria was my choice for this section so as to show that with the limited materials found in these plains, the Sumerian's still managed to make beautiful works of art that served many purposes. These people's beliefs were centered around different gods who had human features and personalities but represented different occurrences in nature (Jones, Kramer). The main gods we see most in the Sumer region are Enki (figure 2) who was the god of water, of earth, Ki , god of air ,Enlil , and An who was believed to be the god of heaven.


  • In this image of a modern day impression of the Seal of Adda, you can see the tell-tale signs of the god Enki with the stream of water coming from his head rising from the ocean from which he was created. You can see that Enki looks like a monster but in Mesopotamia, chimeric creatures are no stranger.
  • For more on chimeric creatures check out Codys wiki on Chimeric creatures.

I will discuss later on the subject of the cylinder seals but this is just one example of how a complex society can use an art form for both religious and everyday personal purposes.

Private Art

Personal art during the height of there resources produced a lot of personal ornamentation in the form of necklaces, head bands, earrings, and other varying items. In Mesopotamia, much of the jewelry was made out of materials such as gold and silver, and inlaid with stones of agate, jasper and onyx just to name a few. Further more, most of all these materials were not found in any naturally occurring mines that were local, but imported from places located some good distance away, like Lydia.

In a very confusing article at first, but still interesting none the less, published July of 2008, Mark Schwartz and David Hollander did a set of tests that “addresses issue of inter-regional trade for the world's first colonial trading system, the economic expansion of state societies from southern Mesopotamia into southwest Iran and southeast Anatolia..” In short the article goes on to explain how in Mesopotamia the land is rich with bitumen (natural petroleum) and land able to sustain livestock but no available resources of metal and stones. So the stones and metal we see in the necklaces in figure 3 , are traded and imported from other countries, then assembled back in Mesopotamia. For more details about trade routes take a look at Justin C's Section..
Figure 3

Figure 3

The terracotta figurines at ed-Dur are a great example of how people had some pieces of art for personal use, and not for religious purposes or rituals but rather from trading(Daems,92-104). These figurines occur in isolated areas through out the area rather then being used for the usual local religious beliefs. People were making these for some reason and were spread around either through gifts or trading with traveling peoples. Maybe it was a style or a fad that caught on for a time but these figurines could be made out of a different materials and take on many different shapes as you can see in figures 4 & 5.

Figure 4

Figure 5

Figure 4 Figure 5

Public Art

With new sites being discovered everyday, the amount of information gathered from looking at fine details of a pot can tell researchers large amounts of information. For example, I found an Archaeological journal through the library that describes, in eastern Arabia, a pottery vessel found to be the oldest one of its kind so far, while also being the best-preserved in that area (Abu Dhabi Discovery). The interesting thing about this discovery is that it brings to light how early trading was going on between early civilizations. One of the ways researchers could tell that it was from Tell Al-Ubaid, which is in the center of Mesopotamia, were the “pale-green surface and is painted with black geometric lines and chevrons” (Archeology, 2004). This was a surprisingly early trade between the different cultures on the Gulf because before then, most researchers thought that trade routes had not reached that far. This further shows how the art created in the Mesopotamian area, and how far reaching the influence of this area was.
Another great example of the art created for everyone is that of the Striding Lion found at the gates leading into Babylon, also known as the Processional Way. This lion stands with an open mouth appearing to roar (figure 6) . It was once glazed on bricks and then placed at the massive gates at the edge of Babylon representing the goddess of love and war, Ishtar, whose symbol was that of this powerful beast. Again this is a perfect example of how these diverse people not only used art as a way to pay homage to the gods but to put it in a place where everyone who entered that gate could see is a testament to the wide acceptance

Figure 6, striding lion, 604–562 B.C.; Neo-Babylonian period, reign of Nebuchadnezzar II,Glazed brick; H. 38 1/4 in. (97.2 cm),Fletcher Fund, 1931 (31.13.2), The Metropolitan Museum of art

Figure 6, striding lion, 604–562 B.C.; Neo-Babylonian period, reign of Nebuchadnezzar II,Glazed brick; H. 38 1/4 in. (97.2 cm),Fletcher Fund, 1931 (31.13.2), The Metropolitan Museum of art
of ideas by others. With the different ideas and techniques used on these gates, the ideas could have been seen by traders from other societies and then passed on to other regions and countries, further expanding the reach of the people of Mesopotamia.
Rather then writing their name on a tablet in order to identify that it was a specific person who sent the item, cylinder seals were used. Produced between 3500 and 500 B.C.E ,cylinder seals had many applications in Mesopotamia but in its most basic use, the seal was rolled onto a piece of wet clay that would have been placed on the opening of an object, that would display an image that would identify the sender to the recipient. The cylindrical shape made it possible to transport a complicated scene describing persons name, the inventory of the container, or even instructions to the people who were to receive it, in a small portable device as you can see in figure 6. In its most complicated use the seal could be engraved with a complicated narrative (Gibson, 42) and then produced as many times as you could roll it. The people who “cut” into the cylinders were known as cutters and were some of the most skilled artisans for their minimalist designs that could still portray an entire story or message.

Figure 7
Figure 7
For more detailed information about cylinder seals look at Justin's Section


With the amount of trade obviously occurring , there is no surprise that we encounter diversity in a complex societies art. We have explored how people in the varying regions of Mesopotamia have used art as a means to show devotion to their gods, using art for personal enjoyment, and lastly how people made art available to be viewed by everyone and not just the elites and priests of a temple. All these areas go to show how even though it was one of the oldest known societies, in no way could someone view it as primitive and simple. Huge brick masterpieces weighing thousands of pounds and intricate jewelry showed that these people had the ability to plan, ration, and even import materials from other areas in order to fulfill their artistic needs. The small intricacies of a cylinder seal show that the people occupying this area not only knew that it was important to hone the skills necessary to portray stories and myths on a small scale, but also that they could give themselves the option to take it where ever they wanted. These are just a couple of bases that I touched on in order to show the diversity of Mesopotamia but the amount of artifacts yet to be discovered may show just how far the reach of these innovative people really reached.

(2008). Artstor. Retrieved March 20, 2009, from ARTstor Web site:|search|1|mesopotamia|Multiple20Collection20Search|||type3D3126kw3Dmesopotamia26id3Dall26name3

"Abu Dhabi Discovery." Archaeology 57.5 (Sep. 2004): 10-11. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 22 Apr. 2009 <>.
Dames, Aurelie. "The terracotta figurines from ed-Dur (Umm al-Qaiwain, U.A.E.): the human representations." Arabian Archaeology & Epigraphy 15.1 (May 2004): 92-104. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 22 Apr. 2009 <>.

Gibson, Eric. "Epics in miniature." New Criterion 25.4 (Dec. 2006): 42-45. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 22 Apr. 2009 <>.

Schwartz, Mark, and David Hollander.. "Bulk stable carbon and deuterium isotope analyses of bitumen artifacts from Hacinebi Tepe, Turkey: reconstructing broad economic patterns of the Uruk expansion." Journal of Archaeological Science 35.12 (Dec. 2008): 3144-3158. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. [Library name], [City], [State abbreviation]. 22 Apr. 2009 <>.
Tom B. Jones, "Sumer,"
Grolier Electronic Encyclopedia, 1993; Samuel Noah Kramer, Cradle of Civilization, New York: Time Incorporated, 1969; World History, Volume One, St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company, 1991;

All Wiki Module Assignments

Module 8 assignment (JSTOR article)
"The floodplains along the Nile constitute an important but as yet little utilized series of laboratories for comparative study of the origins and interaction of ancient civilizations."

Baked pottery (terra-cotta) encyclopedia Britannica(module 10)
This substance is very well known for its uses in the art world of ancient civilizations. Cross culturally we see its uses in Asia with the mass produced Terra-Cotta Wterra.jpgarriors (right image). With being an easy medium to work with, one can see how that back when substances were harder to produce, the clay like substance terra-cotta was an easier substance to work with and easier to come by. Many buildings and stuctures in Mesopotamian cities were made with the same material seen used to shape some of the beautiful artwork made by skilled artists of the time. This interaction between regular workers and skilled artisans suggests that there could have been an amount of communication between the two. I say this becuase with the multiple uses of the substance the 2 people had to interact some where, wether it was through just obtaining the material from a centralized hub, or if it was through trading knoweledge of the material in how to shape and baking techniques, either way we can assume that terra-cotta was a binding factor not only in buildings and art but also in social interaction.

(module 12)I thought it was important to show on google earth the Nile. I will add more pertinent google images as my research continues


(Module 13) The Rosette in Mesopotamian Art
When I was looking for articles having to do with Mesopotamian art, I came across an article having to do with the famous art phenomenon, the Rosette. Seen in almost every culture that has its own unique art, different adaptations of this flower have been interpreted by different artists. The drawing is usually simple but has different meanings in every culture and one such example of this diversity is seen in cylinder seals from Warka that include the Rosette which to these people symbolized the goddess Innin. What makes this symbol so interesting is that not one culture takes claim to it which means that there was a good amount of culture stratification between cultures. A trading of ideas took place in some way and caused this symbol to be used in many different forms.

Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie. Volume 45, Issue 2-3, Pages 99–107, ISSN (Online) 1613-1150, ISSN (Print) 0084-5299, DOI: 10.1515/zava.1939.45.2-3.99, 1939
Published Online: 26/10/2009

(Module 14)//

The art and architecture of the ancient Orient By Henri Frankfort
This article talks about how the Mesopotamian art of the day influenced so many of the other cultures. It goes on to talk about how many of the the ideas coming out of Mesopotamia were influencing Egypt art in many ways. One was the use of certain materials. We can see cross culturally the use of certain materials and techniques used to perform a certain task, whether it be creating a large mural or a small piece of mobiliary art. Tricks of the trade are passed from people to people during trade and sometimes even social get togethers like a feast. Knowledge was very valuable at this time and trade could be conducted with just sharing the information one has with another artisan.