Votive relief of Ur-Nanshe, King of Lagash © 1990 RMN/Philipp Bernard

Brief IdentificationEdit

Perforated stone tablets are a style of archaic Sumerian dynastic low relief hung through the center hole on temple walls using stone or wooden pegs. They are generally divided into two or three registers and depict a religious narrative involving gods, kings, battles, and importent social events. [see Sasson 2584]

This particular limestone relief found in Tello, Iraqdates from 2500-2450 B.C.E. and depicts Ur-Nanshe, king of first dynasty of Lagash during the Early Dynastic period of Mesopotamia. The plaque depicts a scene of Ur-Nanshe carrying the brick foundation of a temple in top register and sitting with a goblet at a celebratory banquet while in both registers he is flanked by his wife and sons.

Technical EvaluationEdit

Stoneworking techniques have been readily studies in ancient Egypt and Greece but Near East scultpure production remainly largely unknown. This is attributed to the lack of recovery of any evidence of workshops dating before the Achaemenid Dynasty . [see Moorey, 30-31] Specialized stone, copper, and iron tools that may have functioned for stone carving have been recovered but since there were not recovered from sculpting workshops their function can not be directly assumed. [see Moorey, 31] Sandstone and Limestone were the most readily available surface stone of the ancient Near East but were found primarily in Assyria in the north. [see Bienkowski 277-278] Sumer and Babylonia were devoid of stone and had to import stone down the Tigris and Euphrates river. [see Moorey 23] Water based shipping was the cheapest and fastestet means of transporting bulk materials like wood, stone, metals [see Moorey, 10]. This effecient transport was essential in supplying Babylonia and Sumer with essential resources.

French archaeologist Ernest de Sarzec lead the first excavation of a Sumerian site from 1877 to 1900. [see Ernest de Sarzec] His dig site was a mound in modern Tello, Iraq which he later discovered to be the Sumerian capitol of Lagash and revealed most of the current knowledge of ancient Mesopotamian art, language, and history. However, due to extensive looting and poor archeological standards much of the finds in Tello Girsu were lost. [see Myers, Eric M. 407] The piece currently resides in the Louvre Museum in the Near Eastern Antiquities

Local Historical ContextEdit

As one of the first complex civilizations Mesopotamia experienced great hardships with rivers that unpredictably flood and soil that is dry and difficult to till. The development of irrigation in 3500 BCE helped control the flooding but since subsistance farming was so difficult in Mesopotamia, the vast majority of people worked as farmers. During the Late Archaic Period from 2800-2350 B.C.E. Mesopotamia experienced both an increased population and a warming climate. [see Myers, Eric M 407] Because of the greater competition of resources, city-states became the functional unit and relied on temples as administration. [see Moorey, 11]

The gods of Mesopotamia were highly anthropomorphic and needed constant care, attention, food, and sacrifice in order to provide for the people. This created a heavy emphesis on religous devotion and adoration of the high priest who served as a king. One of the king’s main duties was to serve the gods by building and maintaining temples and was seen as a liason between the earth and the heavens. [see Bienkowski, 190]

Perforated stone reliefs were commissioned by kings to serve a functional and symbolic purpose. Art at the time is seen strictly functionally without a desire for aesthetics. Further expressing the utilitarian aspect of sculpuary, Sumarian lacks a word for “artists” and language for describing art. [see Bienkowski, 32-33]. Artists never signed their work and their work is seen as a craft that is lumped in with the royal bakers, scribes, and potters. Craftsmen who worked for the king were rewarded for their work and received clothing, land, and slaves.

World Historical ContextEdit

The use of low relief stone carving requires translating reality into two dimensions. The relief sculpture shows certain innovative conventions in perspective that are shared around the area. The head, pelvis, legs and feet are shown in profile while the chest faces forward; the face is in profile but the eye always remains in full view. [see Sasson 2583] This rudimentary style represnts a larger trend in advancement in global art. Aside from the shared perspective, craft has no centeralized stylistic unity. Because of general geographic isolation and lack of standardization of aesthetics, each region and period had its own characteristics of form and utility in scultpure. 

This particular votive brings about previously undiscovered themes of family and social hierarchy. In Mesopotamian relief sculpture, rank is literally depicted through the size of characters; Gods are always larger than kings who are larger than subjects. [see Sasson 2583] In both registers, King Ur-Nanshe is depicted as much larger than his sons and wife. Ur-Nanshe is repeatedly depicted with building materials such as the brick basket on his head as a way of expressing his achievements of building temples. [see Myers, Bernard Samual, 755] This motif is important religiously because it reinforces the piety and power of the king while establishing the necessity to honor and attend to the gods. Similar to ancient Egypt, the piece had no aesthetic intentions and sought only to convey a message to the gods through function and symbol. [see Moorey 23; Bienkowski 256]


Piotr A. Bienkowski, A. Alan Ralph Millard Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, UK British Museum Press 2000.

Moorey, P. R. S. Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence. Oxford University Press 1994

Myers, Bernard Samuel Encyclopedia of World Art, McGraw Hill NY 1987

Myers, Eric M. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. Oxford University Press 1996

Sasson, Jack M. Civilizations of the ancient Near East. Volume IV. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1995

Lourve Museum "Perforated relief of King Ur-Nanshe""

"Ernest de Sarzec." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 22 Apr. 2013. <>.

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