Art of the Ancient Near East

Social Advancement

The cultures that grew out of the time and place we refer to as Ancient Mesopotamia were varied and dynamic. They responded to need and a desire to improve their lives through their greatest skill, creative, inventive thinking. Their greatest resource may have been clay. The alluvial plane between the great Tigris and Euphrates Rivers had little stone to build with but there was a great deal of clay. Large hand-shaped slabs of clay were left in the sun to dry then used to build everything from dykes to temples. By 6000 BCE a molding device was invented to mass-produce regularly formed clay bricks. Around 4000 BCE, true pottery kilns were being used to not only fire pottery but pottery with intricate design. Soon after, around 3500 BCE, in a natural progression of inventiveness, the people of Mesopotamia began to fire the clay bricks and use them to face their mud brick structures to protect them from weathering. Through attempts to make what is known as faïence, a synthetic lapis lazuli (lapis lazuli is a highly prized, rare blue stone) the people of this area eventually learned how to make glass, decorative glazing for pottery and developed a method of glazing their fired bricks with vivid color, (Hodges 1992) as we can see in the wonderful "Ishtar Gate and Throne Room Wall" (fig.2-21 (Stokstad 2008)). Along with the development of pottery came the development of an early form of potter's wheel or turntable and by about 3000 BCE, (Hodges 1992) Mesopotamia had developed the wheeled cart. Clay is also at the heart of the advent of written history. As cities grew and along with them the need to keep administrative records, clay was used as an abundant medium on which to keep these records. Because wet clay is easy to make marks in, it led to more and more abbreviated forms of pictographs, then between 2900 to 2400 BCE pictograph symbols evolved into phonograms and the advent of true writing. (Stokstad 2008) Continuing on with advancements connected with clay, the cylinder seal, a small, carved cylindrical stone used to press a personal "signature" image into clay documents, shows a development in designing in negative, what is carved away in the stone is raised in relief when pressed into the wet clay. This ability to design in negative gives way to the development of molded metal then to development of lost wax casting methods of sculpture and tool manufacture. (Hodges 1992) At every turn, each advancement of technical knowledge advanced the societies of the region even though there were frequent conflicts, invasions and conquests.

Art as Communication

The Code of Hammurabi teaches us that the Ancient Babylonians were a highly organized society that valued order, justice, government and religion. It is clear that the foundations of Babylonian law had been developing for some time before they were encoded into writing by the ruler Hammurabi. The code describes three social classes along with the expectations of those classes and it describes a special class devoted to religious service. It lists laws and punishments for breaking each law "…based on wealth, class and gender". (Stokstad 2008)

The Code of Hammurabi is inscribed in the Stele of Hammurabi, a 28" black diorite monument that combines an image of Hammurabi being given the laws by the sun god, Shamash with the laws inscribed in horizontal bands of cuneiform writing. By the time the law was encoded it had become a state-law with little remaining from old tribal custom. (Johns 1910-1911) Most of the laws dealt with commerce and property, only about 20% of the laws dealt with domestic issues and a mere 6% dealt with physical assault. (Stokstad 2008)The law had its base in the idea the god of the city owned all the lands, resources and people of the city and surrounding area. The ruler of the city-state was the priest/king who brought the law to the people. By inscribing the law into stone and placing it for all to see, Hammurabi set the law outside the whim of a ruler and into the hands of the people. (Stokstad 2008)

Architecture in the Ancient Near East

As small settlements grew into larger communities, the inhabitants of which began to specialize in crafts and trades, architecture developed. The earliest architecture provided security from the elements but as communities flourished, architecture began to provide security from outsiders. The walls and tower of Jericho, made of stone, were built and rebuilt over centuries to protect a natural spring. The layout of the ancient town of Catal Huyuk "turned its back" on outsiders by clustering mud-brick houses, workshops and shrines around open courtyards with continuous, unbroken exterior walls. There were no streets or open plazas. Residents moved about the city across the rooftops and entered the structures from the roof-top openings that doubled as smoke holes. This design was easily defended from outsiders, and when one considers that Catal Huyuk was a center of trade in obsidian, a rare volcanic glass used to make sharp blades for tools and weapons (Stokstad 2008), one can imagine that there may well have been a need for the city to defend itself from raids against its resources and products. The architecture of walls as protection evolved to not only provide physical barriers but also psychological barriers. Guardian beasts as well as rulers and their armies were sculpted into the walls of the cities. The images proclaimed the wealth, power and influence of the city and the virility of its ruler. The walls of Persepolis provided a large medium upon which Darius could promote his power as ruler of the Persian Empire and instill awe in his subjects as well as visitors. These polychrome reliefs were enhanced with gold leaf and were at least influenced by the Archaic Greek, if not created by imported Greek artisans, (Stokstad 2008)

As cities grew and their influence spread, they became what is known as city-states. City planning evolved as structures became specialized for specific purposes. The city of Uruk (present day Warka, Iraq) c. 3300-3000 BCE, the first independent Sumerian city-state (Stokstad 2008) shows us an established society that had inhabited the same spot for generations, building new structures over the remains of old structures. Uruk had two major architectural complexes, one was a temple dedicated to the goddess Inanna along with an administrative complex. The other a white-washed temple, dedicated to the god Anu, at the top of mound, or a type of man-made mountain, which had been built up over centuries. (Stokstad 2008) From temples placed atop man-made mountains of debris in the otherwise featureless alluvial plane that lies between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, architectural planning evolved. The Sumerian city of Ur c. 2100-2050 BCE, shows a structure, known as a ziggurat, built from the ground up with a single intent. The ziggurat was constructed of layers of mud brick with reed mats between providing reinforcement. Later, mud brick structures were faced with fired brick to prevent weathering. (Hodges 1992) The Sumerians and their successors, such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians, placed the ziggurat at the heart of their cities. At the top of the ziggurat was placed the temple of the city's god. Around the base of the ziggurat were the palace of the priest/king and administrative offices of the temple. Spreading out from there were shops and workshops and finally houses, all surrounded by the city wall. The structure of the city mirrored and supported the structure of the social strata of the city.

Works Cited

Hodges, Henry. Technology in the Ancient World. Barnes & Nobel Books, 1992.

Johns, Rev. Claude Hermann Walter, M.A. Litt.D. from the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1910-1911. Babylonian Law--The Code of Hammurabi. 1910-1911.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History Vol. 1. Prentice Hall, 2008.