The Standard of Ur

The “Standard of Ur” is a small trapezoidal box (8.5 Inches high by 19.5 Inches long) whose two sides and end panels are covered with figurative and geometric mosaics made of pieces of shell, lapis lazuli, and red limestone set into bitumen. It was found in PG779 near a soldier whom Woolley thought had carried it on a long pole as the royal emblem of a king. Although it is more likely to have been the sound box for a musical instrument, the name Woolley gave it—“the Standard”—is still used.

The Standard of Ur is at the British Museum.

The mosaics on the Standard depict life in early Mesopotamia. The two sides, dubbed the “War Side” and the “Peace Side,” tell a story read from bottom to top. The top register on each side depicts a king, who is larger in scale than the other figures. The Standard shows the two most important roles of an early Mesopotamian ruler: the warrior who protected the people and secured access to water and natural resources and the leader who served as an intermediary between the people and the gods.

The Standard of Ur in War

The Standard of Ur in War
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The Standard of Ur in War
The Standard of Ur in War

The Standard’s War side shows the defeat of some unknown enemy. At the bottom, war carts, drawn by onagers (donkeys), race with increasing speed from left to right, trampling naked enemy soldiers. The second register shows a phalanx of armed soldiers to the left, while on the right soldiers in a variety of poses dispatch some captives and lead others away. The top register shows the ruler, his height exceeding the border of the field, facing right. Behind him, his cart is drawn by four onagers alongside his attendants. In front of him, soldiers parade nude and bound prisoners.

Detail of the Standard of Ur in War
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Detail of the Standard of Ur in War
Detail of the Standard of Ur in War

By the 3rd millennium BCE, southern Mesopotamia was organized into 20-30 city-states, consisting of urban centers, towns, villages, and hamlets. Each city-state had its principle guardian deity. Ur’s patron was Nanna, the moon god. Officially, the city-state was the deity’s property. These deities chose and nurtured the city-state’s ruler, whose title varied from place to place. Lugal, literally, “big man,” was one title. For their part, city-state rulers acted on the deity’s behalf, even on the battlefield. Though sources provide evidence of peaceful cooperation among city-states, they equally record conflicts, both local disputes and more wide-ranging conquests. A long simmering dispute over the border between Lagash and Umma and involving access to water is the best documented interstate conflict. The Standard of Ur and other royal monuments provide graphic illustrations of these battles and their aftermaths.

The Standard of Ur in Peace

The Standard of Ur in Peace
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The Standard of Ur in Peace
The Standard of Ur in Peace

The Standard’s Peace side has a completely different theme from the War side. Its two lower registers illustrate the bounty of the land. The bottom one depicts men carrying produce in bags on their shoulders and in backpacks supported by headbands, as well as men leading onagers by ropes. The second register shows men leading bulls and caprids (sheep and goats) and carrying fish, presumably the produce of the pastures, rivers, and swamps. The upper register depicts a royal banquet. The ruler, wearing a kilt composed of tufts of wool, is shown larger in scale than the others—the center of attention. The other banqueters, who wear plain-fringed kilts, face him and raise their cups together while attendants provide food and drink. Banqueting in early Mesopotamia usually involved music. A lyre player and a singer, distinguished by their long black hair, stand to the right of the scene.

Detail of the Standard of Ur in Peace
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Detail of the Standard of Ur in Peace
Detail of the Standard of Ur in Peace

In addition to being a warrior, the city-state’s ruler was an intermediary between the gods and the people. One of his major responsibilities was to build and maintain the temples of the city’s gods and goddesses, a responsibility that included provisioning their cults. In doing so he guaranteed the fertility of the land, which the Standard’s Peace side so vividly illustrates.

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