Mesopotamian Art

Mesopotamia is often referred to as the “cradle of civilization” and was a sizable ancient land that roughly corresponds geographically to modern-day Iraq, southwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey, and northeastern Syria. It was the site of a series of early cultural advances, including the first system of writing. With the disappearance of the nomadic lifestyle, there was suddenly enough security and stability for the culture to develop more formal means of religious worship in permanent structures like temples. It also led to an important series of contributions to the history of art, especially to the fields of pottery, sculpture, and metalworking.

Mesopotamian sculpture, for example, includes a wide spread of ceramic arts, varieties of stone sculptures, mosaic art, and monumental architecture. Archaeological excavations show that Mesopotamia was first settled in about 10, 000 BC by unknown tribes of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers. Around 7000 BC the culture changed from a primitive, semi-nomadic style of hunting and gathering food, to a more settled type of lifestyle where farming and the rearing of domesticated animals was their primary means of survival. During this period, the formation of settled communities like villages, towns, and cities, led to a series of new activities that the region had not seen before. This included the rapid increase of trade, the construction of boats to transport goods and the growth of religious beliefs and ceremonies. All of this led directly to improvements in the supply of food and ultimately, the rapid rise of population.

There is a common misconception that when dealing with forms of ancient art is that the culture creating the work must have been more primitive than we are today. Joan Aruz, of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says emphatically that is certainly not the case, saying that the society was actually highly elite, with sophisticated music, art, and literature. Architecture, art, and literature were some of the core creations that that rose out of the Mesopotamian era. Mesopotamian sculpture featured a highly distinct stylized aesthetic that is achieved through the repetition of lines or dots. Figures are typically presented either from the front or side on, in both sculpture and art. The statues and reliefs produced by Mesopotamian sculptors were highly impressive, with perhaps the most noteworthy being the “portal guardians” which were figures that guarded and watched over doorways. These guardians took the form of animals, real or imaginary, or animals with human heads. In fact, animal-human hybrid forms, or anthropological forms, are a fairly common feature of ancient art throughout the world and not just in Mesopotamia.

Throughout ancient history and before the rise of industry and the machine, the main types of large scale buildings that were made were typically palaces, temples, and royal tombs. Often, two of these or even all three were combined into a singular building. As such, these give us the best window into what the people of the time considered to be their best work. As the Mesopotamian area is virtually devoid of stone; bricks were made from clay and mud and were the primary construction material used. Unfortunately, this does mean that very little survived of Mesopotamian architectural as clay brick is less likely to withstand the pressures of time. Large scale Egyptian and Greek buildings do still stand, however, for the opposite reason. Stone is durable, clay faces the weathers of time with less grace. The most distinctive type of Mesopotamian architecture is the ziggurat, which is a structure shaped like a stepped pyramid. A ziggurat featured little to no interior space, instead of serving mainly as the platform for a temple. The exterior of a ziggurat was often decorated with glazed tiles, murals or mosaics.

There are four key periods in the Mesopotamian era. These consist of the Early Period, the Third Millennium, The Second Millennium and the Fall of Babylon. The Early period featured works made primarily of ceramic pottery, which, to some, was arguably far superior to any type of Greek pottery. The best examples featured geometric designs or plant and animal motifs. In addition, various artifacts and artworks began to be ornamented with precious metals. Interestingly around 3200 BC in Babylonia, we see the earliest known instance of nail art, when men coloured their nails with kohl and ancient cosmetics containing lead sulfide. The Third Millennium saw the rise of free-standing sculpture in stone and wood as well as bronze statuettes, personal jewelry and decorative designs on a variety of artifacts. The Second Millennium saw the innovation of glass working and glazing and there are several examples of multicolored, opaque glass from the region. Egyptian sculpture, as well as Ancient Persian art, would have had an influence on the carving work that came out of this period as they were existing around the same time and in a similar region. Great reliefs were carved in stone, often featuring detailed animals and royal hunting parties but human figures were still relatively rigid and wooden looking. The Fall of Babylon saw the construction of huge temples and ziggurats guarded by stone portal lions, winged bulls or genii. War campaigns were recorded in great detail in limestone slabs and many of these ventures saw them bringing back with the spoils of war, in the form of many different types of art.

This particularly is an era that was inordinately vast and complicated but saw the rise of expert craftsmanship once more. It is unfortunate that many of their physical structures no longer exist but many artifacts, artworks, and sculptures do still exist and give us an insight into one of the leading, ancient civilizations of the time who stood quite uniquely apart from the styles and influence of the Romans and Greeks.