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Head of Male Statuette, photo by Olaf M. Teßmer.Middle East Museum, National Museums in Berlin

Brief Identification Edit

This half life-sized sculpture of a priest was originally sculpted from limestone in the southern Mesopotamian city-state of Lagash, around the early Neo-Sumerian period (2144-2124 BCE). The figure's smooth bald head suggests this man may have been a priest, a title that at the time encompassed both religious and secular leadership [See Schneider 2011, 01].

Today this Head of Male Statuette lies in the Middle East Museum, one of the National Museums in Berlin. Although the context of the creation and subject of this statuette is largely unknown, it is possible that, due to the similarities of facial features and distinct baldness, this sculpture may belong to one the collections of Gudea Sculptures depicting a ruler (Ensi) of the state [See Winter 2009, 257].

Technical Evaluation Edit

450px-Gudea shaven head Louvre AO12 2

Statue of Gudea of Lagash with shaven head (ca. 2120 BC)

Statues and statuettes carved from limestone early in the Third Dynasty of Ur were mainly cut by hand with stone tools and drills, as limestone was a softer stone popular with human statuary [See Moorey 1994, 25] Metal tools were rarely used, as they were both rare and expensive to obtain in most regions of Mesopotamia. According to Peter Moorey's work Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence, Northern Mesopotamia had supplies of common stone like limestone, whereas southern Mesopotamian cities like Lagash "were largely, but not wholly devoid of them" [1994, 21]. range found in the north, so most of the limestone used for carving was acquired through trade [See Wilkinson 2000, 219].

Because of transportation limitations, a Mesopotamian artist’s dependency on trade often resulted in finished statues limited by the original size and shape of the imported stone [See Azarpay 1990, 660]. The natural and proportional features found on the Head of Male Statuette suggests a system consistent with the early Sculptures of Guedea [see Winter 2009, 257]. In this system the artist separated the entire statue into sections, frequently sacrificing full-scale proportions due to material limitations [See Azarpay 1990, 660]. As indicated by the broken neck area of the Head of Male Statuette, the artist may have also carved matching sections of torso and legs. However, if these sections exist intact they still remain undiscovered or unknown.

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A team of excavators of mixed European and Middle eastern nationalities, Tello, Iraq ca. 1890.

The ancient land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, also known as Mesopotamia, covers much of modern day Iraq. However in the 1830s European countries owned the flow of goods, while the owners of the land, the Ottomans, were more concerned with levying taxes. As excavations in the region started to produce more profitable artifacts around the mid 19th century, both the Ottomans and the local Arabs desired more of a percentage of each find. This political strain combined with looting and theft of artifacts caused the separation of previously intact relics, resulting in pieces of Mesopotamian history scattered throughout Europe and the Middle East [Caubet 2009, 75-76].

Local Historical Context Edit

Early Mesopotamia saw the first of its civilizations participating in an early and undeveloped practice of socialism in which different workers in city-states would be paid a uniform wage of food in exchange for their services. In order to produce sufficient food in an unpredictable landscape of flooding and drought, a large demand of slave labor as well as a rudimentary tax system was required. However this wage system based around slave labor did free members of civilization to spend time on other professions, such as developing the first writing systems to keep record of trades, called cuneiform [See Hunger 2014, 192-193]. 

The artist profession also saw an increase of popularity, as artists were contracted to sculpt statues and carvings depicting leaders and priests. Priests in particular held the most power in early Mesopotamian city-states, as the severely unpredictable nature of floods and droughts coming from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were seen as acts of the gods, and the priests were the only ones able to communicate directly with those gods [See Schneider 2011, 01].

Thus oftentimes sculptures like the Head of Male Statuette were commissioned to practiced artisans in order to commemorate these priest leaders. Also, Mesopotamian artists put tremendous detail into small facial features like the eyebrows, chins, and lips of each statue in order to represent and preserve the leader’s personality as well as their image.

World Historical Significance Edit

Considering the subject of the Head of Male Statuette gives insight into the class structure and authority of priesthood in ancient Mesopotamian city-states. At the same time, examining the physical characteristics of the statuette allows a more complete understanding of the tools used, availability of materials, and trades required to complete the task. Though nothing stands out about the technology used to craft this half scale statuette, the detail in the facial features suggests the work of a practiced artist rather then a slave or farmer [Moorey 1994, 31].

Each of these observations points to a social class system that Mesopotamia helped incubate in a number of city-states between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This same class system that allowed skilled artisans the time develop their craft also produced the earliest forms of taxes [See Hudson 2000, 8] and literature [See Hunger 2014, 192]. This tax that was originally intended to help pay for the food income of each worker lead the way to much stronger united empires and governments like the Assyrians. Likewise, the tremendous impact of written language on world history is all that allows its significance to be communicated even now.                                                                                                                                               

Bibliography Edit

Azarpay, Guitty. "A Photogrammetric Study of Three Gudea Statues." Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1990., 660,JSTOR Journals.

Benjamin R., Foster. "JOURNAL OF CUNEIFORM STUDIES , THE EARLY YEARS." Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 2013., 3, JSTOR Journals.

Bertman, Stephen. "slavery in ancient Mesopotamia." Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2003. Ancient and Medieval History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?ItemID=WE49&iPin=MESP0821&SingleRecord=True

Caubet, Annie. "The historical context of the Sumerian discoveries." Museum International 61, no. 1/2 (May 2009): 74-80. Art Source

Hudson, Michael. "Mesopotamia and Classical Antiquity." American Journal Of Economics & Sociology 59, no. 5 (November 2000): 3. Business Source Complete

Hunger, Hermann, and Teije de Jong. "Almanac W22340a From Uruk: The Latest Datable Cuneiform Tablet." Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie & Vorderasiatische Archäologie 104, no. 2 (December 2014): 182-194. Academic Search Complete.

Moorey, Peter Roger. Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence, Winona Lake, IN: Oxford University Press, 1994

Schneider, Tammi. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion. Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2011

Winter, Irene J. "What/When Is a Portrait? Royal Images of the Ancient Near East." Proceedings Of The American Philosophical Society 153, no. 3 (September 2009): 254-270. Art Source, EBSCOhost


Ancient History Encyclopedia, “Cuneiform”, http://www.ancient.eu/cuneiform/

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Lagash”, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/327758/Lagash

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Ottoman Empire”, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/434996/Ottoman-Empire

Encyclopedia Britannica, “Socialism”, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/551569/socialism

Geology.com, “Limestone”, http://geology.com/rocks/limestone.shtml

National Museums in Berlin, “The Middle East Museum”, https://www.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/about-us/institutions/item/PQXATUOXS4VB7ZUB4FSK4SZ3PJKV23GE

The British Museum, “Third Dynast of Ur”, http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/articles/t/third_dynasty_of_ur_ur_iii.aspx

Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Statue of Gudea”, http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/329072?=&imgno=0&tabname=related-objects 

University of Chicago, “Ancient Mesopotamia”, http://mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu/

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, “ Trade”, http://www.penn.museum/sites/iraq/?page_id=52

University of Pennsylvania Museum, “Ancient Mesopotamian Gods and Goddesses”, http://oracc.museum.upenn.edu/amgg/

US Department of State Diplomacy, “Iraq”, http://www.state.gov/p/nea/ci/iz/

World Atlas, “Map of Middle East Rivers”, http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/meriv.htm