War and Peace in the Standard of Ur

From the reconstructed Standard of Ur (see: Artifact from the Grave PG 779 in Ancient Ur), it can be observed that the box itself consists of two panels, which slope together towards the top and two end pieces, which are triangular but cut off at the top (McDonald 2013). All the four sides of the Standard are covered in three registers of mosaics (Ibid.). The inlaid pieces consist of lapis lazuli, shell and red marble (limestone) set into bitumen, which is a sticky oil-by product found in Iraq (Ibid.). Conventionally, the two large sides have been called War and Peace because one side is organised around a depiction of a military campaign, whereas the other illustrates the banquet and files of people and animals (Ibid.).

“For those who believe the Standard depicts an historical account of an actual event, the ‘War’ side is the chronological beginning” (Sailus 2003-2020).

War and Peace

Dr. Diana McDonald (2013), however, believes that these panels of inlay tell principally about the dual role of a Sumerian ruler controlling a city-state and about a Sumerian society at the time around 2 550 BC. Back in time, when Sumerian city-states first began to coalesce and population pressures made resources of water and food, which was scarce in this arid land, a ruler or king had a special obligation to and role for his people; he was expected to be a leader at war and a commander-in-chief (Ibid.).

Royal entourage

The so-called War Side of the Standard of Ur shows three registers of battle scenes with the earliest representations of a Sumerian army and the aftermath of the fight (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). All the scenes are colourfully illustrated in pieces of red limestone, shell and lapis inlays (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top register. The ruler as a larger figure among his entourage. Photo by Steven Zucker. Photo source: The British Museum (2015).Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

Action seems to begin (likewise on the Uruk vase) at the bottom register (McDonald 2013). The top register shows that all the action leads up from down to the most important figure, depicted at the very top and in the centre (Ibid.). It stands turned to the right, represented in profile. Although the figure is a human-looking being, it is much broader and taller than all the others shown in the register (Ibid.). His head actually pierces the pictorial frame intended for the panel (Ibid.). This outsized man holds what appears to be a staff or a spear and faces a group of men, probably some prisoners who approach him (Ibid.). Among them, there are the men clothed in kilt like skirts with scalloped edges are wearing sheep skins and they are apparently the soldiers (Ibid.).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top register. War captives led by soldiers to the ruler. Photo by Steven Zucker. Photo source: The British Museum (2015).”Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

Differently looking men shown between them are apparently war captives (McDonald 2013). They “are portrayed as naked, bound, and injured with large, bleeding gashes on their chests and thighs” (JOM 2020). The soldiers could have captured them in a battle and they are being presented now to the ruler (McDonald 2013). The poorly looking enemies strikingly contrast with the majestic figures of the ruler and his people, which should be also understood symbolically: the victory is on the side of Ur due to its overwhelming power (Amaya March, 2017).

King’s mounts

Behind the king, to the left of the centre in the top register, there is also his battle wagon and members of the royal entourage or other soldiers with staffs (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the bottom register. One of the royal war wagons. Photo by Steven Zucker. Photo source: The British Museum (2015).”Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

The battle wagon is a fairly large and unwieldy looking vehicle (McDonald 2013). It is known, and accordingly represented, that the wagon’s blocky looking wheels were made of two pieces of wood as spoked wheels had not been invented yet (Ibid.). There is also the driver holding the reins and standing behind the vehicle (Ibid.). Horses had not been yet imported to the area so the wagon is probably driven by four asses or onagers (Ibid.). The latter was a kind of wild ass that is now extinct but was originally native to Mesopotamia (Ibid.). Some scholars think that the Sumerians actually interbred the two animals to produce an onager ass hybrid, which was easier to control and stronger than either one (Ibid.). Their tails look long and tufted at the end like an ass or a donkey’s (Ibid.). Such details reveal the ingenuity and technological capability of these people in the beginning of the third millennium BC.; they were domesticating and taming animals, creating vehicles and working on the sophisticated metal technology which allowed the wagons to be yoked to the animals (Ibid.).

In the second register, in the middle, there is a scene of warfare, showing the Sumerian infantry, carrying spears (McDonald 2013). At the left, there is a disciplined phalanxof soldiers, who are wearing some kind of protective clothing, probably a leather armour and helmets (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013). The infantry faces a group on the right consisting of soldiers who are killing or leading off enemy prisoners (McDonald 2013). The latter are either “killed with axes [or] paraded naked [as those above] presented to the king” (The British Museum 2015). It means that the middle register depicts the battle itself (McDonald 2013), which is already shown as a decisive victory of the Standard’s owner.

Battle wagons

On the lowest register, there is the force of battle wagons (McDonald 2013). While some historians believe it to be a depiction of the Sumerian [‘chariot’] attack, others think it is the post-battle procession, [with the ruler’s wagon in front] leading the army back to Ur” (Sailus 2003-2020). If the last interpretation is real, however, the whole sequence of the register should be read from up down, and not the other way round as it is generally assumed.

The depicted vehicles are presumably early forerunners of chariots as they are bulkier and less flexible versions of equid-drawn that are horse-drawn vehicles (McDonald 2013). The line of battle wagons begins at the left with a vehicle, which is drawn by four of these asses or onagers (Ibid.).

Standard of Ur, ca. 2 550 BC. War panel, detail. The illustration of the battle wagons in the bottom register are showing the movement speeding up from left to right. The British Museum; Room 56. Image cropped. Public domain. Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the back of the wagon, there is a warrior and inside it a driver holds the reins, which pass over the high front of the vehicle and then through what is called a terret or a rein ring, and which was yoked to the animals, which have got nose rings (McDonald 2013). The metal bit had not yet been invented at that time (Ibid.). In this way, all these carefully rendered scenes show a detailed account of transportation technology of the Sumerians (Ibid.).

Pictures in motion

There is also the use of the narrative in the quickening pace of the lower register (McDonald 2013).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the bottom register. One of the royal war wagons trampling the enemies. Photo by Steven Zucker. Photo source: The British Museum (2015). “Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

By observing the next wagon to the right, it is really easy to get the impression that the asses have picked up a bit of speed and their gait is now a canter (McDonald 2013). The animals’ legs are farther apart, stretched in galloping, whereas in the space between them, lies a prostrate figure of a nude dead enemy (Ibid.). The rhythm picks up again with the next two groups of speeding animals and trampling the enemies (McDonald 2013; The British Museum 2015). While one group of mounts is galloping, the last appears to be already in a flying gallop (McDonald 2013). The picking up of speed in these register scenes is a possibly new invention in art (Ibid.). Much later it was applied most notably in the Greek Parthenon frieze, with the huge marble sculpture of a procession with horses that pulses with speed towards the central scene (Ibid.).

Rhythm and hierarchy

The so-called Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects and is probably symbolic of Sumer. the British Museum; Room 56. Standard of Ur is catching visitors’ attention by its intensively vivid colours. The British Museum, Room 56. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The other notable aspect of the way the mosaic has been created is a rhythmic pattern, not just of the individual groups, who vary between active and static poses, but also in bright colours of lapis lazuli and red limestone (McDonald 2013). And this rhythmic pattern of colours punctuates the scenes in a pleasing and sophisticated design (Ibid.). Also, the whole design is hierarchical from bottom to top in scale and in placement; it underlines and attests the dominance and leadership of a powerful ruler (Ibid.). He is portrayed as victorious and is set triumphantly amidst and atop the battle, which is complete with his prisoners dead and the nude enemies at the very bottom below the galloping animals (Ibid.).

Religious banquet?

The other side of the Standard of Ur shows a completely different aspect of the Sumerian leadership (McDonald 2013). This side which was often referred to as Peace, has also been called victory but its meaning is perhaps much broader than either name evokes (Ibid.).

This side depicts a big banquet at the very top register (McDonald 2013). It could perhaps be a cultic banquet with some religious significance but it is also interpreted as a victory feast (Ibid.). The latter is a theory proposed by scholars “who believe the Standard portrays an actual event” (Sailus 2003-2020).

Standard of Ur. Sumerian artwork, ca. 2250 BC. From tomb 779 Ur. British Museum. Detail. Photo by Michel Wal (2009). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The ruler is again the largest figure of all in the topmost part of the panel but this time he is seated at the left with his six bald men facing him as they lift their cups (McDonald 2013). He is also holding a cup and is naked above the waist (Ibid.). He is wearing a fleecy garment or fringed skirt, is bald and sits on a stool with some animal-like legs (Ibid.). It could be a gazelle or a hoof of a similar animal (Ibid.). The slightly smaller seated figures are wearing kilts with a fleecy border and are seated on similar stools as their ruler (Ibid.).

Similarly dressed, three or four other men (the upper-part of the fourth, on the left, is apparently missing) are standing near the ruler (McDonald 2013). They seemed to be attendants for the banquet (Ibid.). To the extreme right, there is a musician playing a lyre, which is similar to the elaborate inlaid bull lyres, which were actually found at the cemetery of Ur (Ibid.; see Wakely 1999). A figure with longer hair at the right of the musician has arms crossed as if singing (Ibid.). This may very well be the musicians for the banquet (Ibid.).

The bounty of land

Below, there are two registers of mostly bald men who guide different kinds of livestock and other goods as if to show the bounty of the land, as much as it is represented on the Uruk vase (McDonald 2013).

“Peace”, detail showing a lyrist and possibly a singer. Original uploader was Ex0pos at en.wikipedia (2005). Public domain. Photo source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the second register, there are bald Sumerians wearing similar fleece bordered skirts as in the banquet scene and probably leading the animals of the land to the ruler depicted above (McDonald 2013). Animals are one of the most carefully and frequently represented subjects by the Sumerians, as much as by most of the early cultures of the Near East (Ibid.). After all, it is from them that the bounties of the land flow: meat, milk, cheese, wool, leather and even transportation (Ibid.). Also the cultivation of the earth for crops is made easier by the beast of burden, such as an ox (Ibid). Hence the procession of these precious animals led by people: the bull at the right, rams and sheep, and finally a cow and a goat (Ibid.). One bald figure in the middle also holds two large fishes in either hand (Ibid.). Such animals represent the bounty of the lands of Sumer, both marshes and cultivated pastures (Ibid.).

The last row of the side shows a slightly different procession of bounty (McDonald 2013). People depicted there are dressed differently and some bear burdens on their shoulders and backs while other lead asses by their nose rings (Ibid.). It is thought that these people must come from elsewhere, most likely from the north, the region later known as Akkad (Ibid.). Sumer and Akkad were linked as two regions of Mesopotamia and they both complemented each other in their produce and in their topography: marshes in desert versus hillier, more temperate regions in the north (Ibid.).

The same language

The two lower registers of the Peace side move in the opposite direction to the seated men depicted on top (McDonald 2013). By these means, a rhythm is set up (Ibid.). Assuming that the motion of the processions is from bottom to top, it would be again a hierarchical definition of the Sumerian society, where the largest and so the most significant figure is the ruler and just after him the ruler’s closest entourage, probably priests, who are smaller than their ruler but still larger than the banquet musicians and attendants (Feinblatt, Cornelius 2012; McDonald 2013).

Both techniques also appear in the registers of the Uruk vase and one message seems to be common to both artifacts: the bounty of the land prevails and the ruler holds sway over its productivity (McDonald 2013). On the Uruk vase, priests are depicted while making offering to Inanna on behalf of a ruler (Ibid.). Similarly, the banquet, which seems to be religious in nature on the Standard of Ur, positions the ruler at the top and he is receiving the bounty of the land, yet this time without the deity represented (Ibid.). In the object from Ur, however, the fertility theme is in a colourful inlay of shell, lapis lazuli and red limestone, as if it was a more fully realized, colorized version of the vase of Uruk, yet made several hundred years later (Ibid.). Accordingly, both objects show similar concerns : depicting the ruler in a ritual scene with the fertile products of his land display (Ibid.).

Historic events?

Providing that the Standard has recorded a historic event, some scholars interpret the bottom row of the Peace side as the procession of goods being the tribute brought in by the losing side in the battle, shown on the other side of the standard (McDonald 2013).

Standard of Ur, ca. 2550 BC. Peace panel; the bottom register, detail. Gifts carried to the ruler shown at the top. The British Museum; Room 56. Public domain (image cropped). Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, “[the] feast [would have taken] place in commemoration of the preceding side’s military victory; [the] top row [would show] the king being feted and congratulated by his lords who are facing him, [whereas], the bottom two rows [would represent] the preparation of the feast by the common folk, who gather sacks of grain and livestock to be fed to the king and his lords” (Sailus 2003-2020). But there are also other interpretations, such as a recurring theme of the Sumerian leadership and its dual function (McDonald 2013).

Two sides of the kingship

The two sides of the Standard could actually be showing the two sides of the kingship itself: the role of the king as a leader in warfare and his religious role as a leader of his people in worship of the gods (McDonald 2013). He is the one responsible for providing that the fecundity of the land continues to feed his people (Ibid.). The ruler is positioned as a mediator to the deities; his actions and his prayers connect with the divine in order to support his people (Ibid.). So the ruler was not only the protector of his city in war conflict but also the one responsible for the very fertility of the land, which provided for his people (Ibid.).

War side of the Standard of Ur. Detail from the top and middle registers. The royal wagon, soldiers and infantry below. Photo by Steven Zucker. Source: The British Museum (2015).”Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

The two complementary sides of kingship, warrior and provider, are very clearly represented in Sumerian artworks (McDonald 2013). In fact, these aspects of kingship occur in artistic representations all over the world because they are the heart of the legitimacy of any ruler; they must defend their people and provide for them (Ibid.).

The Sumerians are by no means the only people who had such concerns and expectations for their rulers, and a theme of an offerings procession occurs in many contexts in art (McDonald 2013). Similar scenes occur later in Greek art, as in the mentioned above sculpture of Parthenon, where there are both martial and offering or fertility themes, all directed towards a goddess of the city that appears to coalesce (Ibid.).

Still a mystery

The actual usage of the standard of Ur still remains a mystery (see: Artifact from the Grave PG 779 in Ancient Ur); the box like reconstruction does not seem to be ideal for a standard used in war (McDonald 2013). It is because its scenes were apparently meant to be seen up close and understood on a detailed level (Ibid.).

Cylinder seal of Pu-abi, ca. 2600 B.C., lapis lazuli, 4.9 x 2.6 cm, from Ur. ©Trustees of the British Museum. Source: The British Museum (2015). “Standard of Ur,” in Smarthistory, December 18, 2015, accessed December 11, 2020.

Skilled craftsmen who knew how to communicate a message about the kingship and religion in the Sumerian state were engaged in telling a story that rolls out like a narrative, similar to the use of the comic book register, which is also observed in the cylinder seals of the period being very central to Sumerian tradition (McDonald 2013). Banquet scenes, like the one on the Standard of Ur, were also represented on such objects, for example the seal of the so-called Queen Puabi, which was also found in Ur and equally exposed in the British Museum (The British Museum 2015).

Fanciful scenes

Unlike major panels of the Standard, its end panels are usually neglected in detailed interpretations as they are thought to be only fanciful scenes, which were added by the artist merely as a lush decoration (Shukur 2018).

End panels on the Royal Standard of Ur. Source: Shukur (2018). In Sumerian Shakespeare.

Some authors think that it is unlikely and the depictions on the shorter sides have got a deeper meaning and so deserve thorough explanations (Shukur 2018). As in the case of the longer sides of the Standard, both end panels are also divided into three registers but due to limited space, they depict just a few pictures in comparison to the long panels of War and Peace sides.

Heralds of failure or victory?

The end panel to the left of the War side shows a ram in the top register; it is standing on its hint legs while “feeding on the high branches of a tree” (Shukur 2018). Such an image resembles a famous Sumerian sculpture, known as the Ram in a Thicket, which was also found among the burial goods from Ur and is today on display just beside the Standard. The same image also occurs on many other Sumerian objects (Ibid.) and “it seemed to be symbolic of Sumer itself” (Ibid.). On the other side of the tree, there is an incomplete representation of a creature with hooves and a tail, which can be a half-human hybrid typical of Sumerian mythology (Ibid.).

One of the triangular end panels show fanciful scenes, found damaged. Object of uncertain original function. Asset number 811995001. ©The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo and caption source: the British Museum (2021).

In the middle register, there is the same ram but this time it is accompanied by a Sumerian man on the right, who “is making a ceremonial offering to the [animal]” (Shukur 2018). On the left, there is another figure, probably of an “Akkadian enemy in the angled-skirt” (Ibid.). He is probably holding a sort of weapon, whose blade seems to spear the ram’s body (Ibid.). At the bottom, the ram disappears as if killed by the enemy (Ibid.). But it has left its tree behind it. Now, it is flanked by two seated man-headed bulls, probably symbols of Sumer (Ibid.). Are these images metaphorical heralds of the coming war, depicted on the longer side of the Standard? (Ibid.).

On the other side, if the registers are read from down up, it would mean that the ram appears in the second register and is still present in the final scene, together with the opposite creature, which may be a key to the meaning of the whole story. If it is one of the man-headed bulls from the bottom, the scenes may announce the Sumerian victory.

From war to peaceful bounties of life

The opposite end panel also represents interesting, yet mysterious images. Starting from the bottom, there is possibly the same ram, which is now on top of a mountain or jumping over it. The mountain front can be also interpreted as a gate or door (Shukur 2018). It “is probably [also a] part of a locking mechanism by which the Standard could be attached or removed” (Ibid.). The middle register above shows in turn the ram (its horns are damaged and so are invisible) being chased by a leopard (Ibid.). Finally, the topmost scene represents “two flowering plants with the eight-pointed rosettes, […] symbolically important to the Sumerians” (Ibid.) Above, there may have been also a larger rosette (Ibid.). Unfortunately, now the uppermost image is erased.

The Standard of Ur, in the British Museum, Room 56. Photo by Denis Bourez from France – British Museum, London. Uploaded by SunOfErat. CC BY 2.0. (image cropped). Source: “Standard of Ur” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As it seems, the two end panels complement each other by the imagery portrayed on them in the three successive registers. If the sequence of events is read from down up in both cases, the scenes of the both sides seem to correlate. The bottom pictures probably build a scenery of peace just before the war, whereas the two middle registers always show the ram in danger. Providing that the ram is identified with Sumer, such imagery may evoke some menace to the city-states, such as war. Nevertheless, the top registers reveal that Sumer has not only been saved but also turned out to be victorious; the ram feeding on a tree and flowering plants may imply an abundance of the land that has become even wealthier afterwards, as much as it is visible on the Peace side of the Standard.

The Standard’s story

But while the Standard does not reveal all its secrets it does tell a story about a society, which was full of hierarchy and wealth (McDonald 2013). Its trade routes reach far and wide to receive the luxury goods of lapis lazuli from Badakhshan, in Afghanistan, to the red marble or limestone, which may have come all the way from India (Ibid.).

Elaborate mosaics must have been crafted by skilled artisans, which implies that a society that could support art and artists devoted only to that and fed by others had developed in Sumer (McDonald 2013). The artists’ skills were in turn directed towards the support of the elite, the king or ruler and his nobles (Ibid.). Rulers are depicted in art in such a way that their role above the others in the society must have been legitimatized; they were protectors of their people in warfare and bringers of peace, continuously acting as the conduit between fertility and human survival, and by extension, between the earthly world and heavens (Ibid.).

Featured image: War side of the Standard of Ur, wide layout. Hollow box, possibly part of a musical instrument; decorated on all four sides with inlaid mosaic scenes made from shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli, set in bitumen. One of the long sides shows a war scene; a Sumerian army with chariots and infantry charges the enemy; prisoners are brought before the king, who is accompanied by guards and has his own chariot waiting behind him. Asset number 12550001. ©The Trustees of the British Museum. CC BY-SA 4.0. Image cropped; colours intensified. Photo and caption source: the British Museum (2021).

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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