West Asian Art - Mesopotamian Art
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West Asian Art

Neolithic figure

West Asian art goes back to the earliest presence of people in West Asia, in the form of little stone or clay fertility figurines. By 7000 BC, in the first little settled towns, people were making masks and big statues of people. This one is made of gypsum plaster, with tar eyes, and although it isn't life-size, it is about three feet tall. At around the same time, people first started to make pottery out of clay.

Neolithic pots

These pots are not among the first ones made in West Asia (which is the earliest pottery made anywhere), but they were made in the Stone Age. You can see that it didn't take long before people were decorating the pots in beautiful and complicated ways. These helped to show what culture you belonged to.

Mycerinus
Egypt

Sumeria (Mari)

By the beginning of the Bronze Age, about 3000 BC, the Sumerians were making much more complex statues. Because there is not much good stone in Mesopotamia, and also a terrible shortage of wood, the Sumerians made most of their statues out of clay. This makes Sumerian statues look very different from Egyptian ones of the same time, because the Egyptian ones, cut from square blocks of stone, tend to be squarish, while the Sumerian statues, built up out of lumps of clay, tend to be roundish.

Vulture Stele
Vulture Stele

By around 2500 BC we begin to get representations of actual historical events, mainly war victories, which were set up in the temples to thank the gods for helping out, and to show how powerful the king and the gods were. One example is the Vulture stele, shown here.


Gudea

Under Babylonian rule, around 1700 BC, you still see those rounded West Asian forms, even though these statues are made out of stone. By now it has become part of the way people think about their bodies and about the world in general.

Can you see the writing all across the skirt? This is a way of representation that begins in Egypt, but seems to be taken over into Mesopotamian art about a thousand years later.

Learn by doing: Mesopotamian Art
More about West Asian art

Bibliography and further reading about Mesopotamian art:

Hands-On Ancient People, Volume 1: Art Activities about Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Islam, by Yvonne Merrill and Mary Simpson. Art projects for kids, though the directions are really aimed at teachers or parents.

Mesopotamia, by Julian Reade (1991). Good pictures of objects in the British Museum.

The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient, by Henri Frankfort (5th edition 1997). The standard for college art history classes.

More about West Asia
Islamic Art
Egyptian Art
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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