Ur Project: September 2015

October 5, 2015

An Ubaid Period Quadruped Figurine from Ur
Another Game of ‘What Animal Is It Anyway?’
U.12772 (Museum Nr. 31-17-322)

What animal is it? U.12772, 31-17-322
What animal is it? Broken quadruped figurine from Ur, Pit G (U.12772, 31-17-322)

I’ve been looking into the theme of transportation in the ancient world lately and attempting to use the information and artifacts we are gathering and presenting at Ur-Online to research the question. How was transport displayed in ancient artworks? What animals were shown in use for carrying goods and people and what kinds of carts were in use?

We have a number of clay model carts and wheels (Sumerians invented the wheel, after all) as well as animal figurines and a few depictions of their usage on plaques and seals. Unfortunately, the figurines rarely show enough detail to know exactly how the animal was being used, or sometimes even what animal was being depicted (see the question of the ‘owl’ in last month’s blog, for example). In many cases the figurines are so crudely made that it must have been the mere symbol of a quadruped that was important. Perhaps they were meant to represent sheep or goats, as these were common offerings to the gods. It could be that the symbolic offering of a tiny clay animal was the next best thing to offering a real sheep or goat.

What we don’t often see, particularly in the early periods at Ur, are quadruped figurines with any indication of harnessing. Yet, we know that pack animals were very important in the ancient world. We know this mainly from cuneiform texts; for example, the Old Assyrian trade network around 1900 BCE tells of donkey caravans consisting of up to 100 donkeys moving some 800 miles from Assur (in northern Iraq) to Kanesh (in east central Turkey) carrying about 200 pounds of goods each. Donkeys were certainly used in local transport too, yet it would seem that making models of pack animals was much less important than making models of animals that might be offered to the gods.

In my search for representations of animals that might have been used for transport, I came across the figurine at the top of this blog entry–field number U.12772, Penn Museum number 31-17-322. It has some detail, including painted lines in a particular pattern that resembles cloth and leather strips along the animal’s back. At first I thought it might be showing a kind of early saddle or padding for carrying goods, and the line around its nose might indicate a bridle. But it seemed less likely the more I thought about it. First of all, the form of the figurine does not resemble any kind of pack animal; it has small ears at the side of its head and a rather sloped back. Secondly, this is a very early figurine, found deep in Pit G, from the late Ubaid period probably around 4500-4000 BCE. That’s long before any depictions of saddles.

Of course, it could be padding for strapping goods onto the animal’s back, but we have to consider the possibility that the lines represent fur or are simply decorative. Curvilinear decorations in dark brown paint are common on Ubaid pottery so this might just be a stylistic issue, not meant to represent anything at all. We need more information and the best way to get it is to look for comparable figurines. I managed to find a few possible parallels at other sites.

Ubaid animal figurine from Nippur; (B12168) mountain lion?
Broken quadruped figurine from Nippur; (B12168) mountain lion?

Above is Penn Museum number B12168 from the site of Nippur. It shows a somewhat similar quadruped with hunched shoulders and sloping back, but its head is clearer than the Ur example. It seems to show big cat (or bear?) characteristics. The ears are larger and rounder and the nose is shorter than the Ur example but there are definite similarities to our mystery animal. In an early publication of the Babylonian Section of the Penn Museum, this Nippur figurine was described as a panther with “powerful shoulders and feline head … happily and forcibly expressed by the artist.” It again has the dark brown stripe on its nose that resembles a muzzle or bridle but it also shows a long dark stripe at its shoulder and no indication of cloth or other design on its back. Perhaps it and the Ur figurine represent exotic animals that were subdued and muzzled to show the prowess of the hunter?

Broken quadruped figurine (31-52-328); probably a donkey.
Mostly complete quadruped figurine from Billa (31-51-328); probably a donkey.

Next is Penn Museum number 31-51-328 from Tell Billa. This animal is more identifiable than the others and one of the few that really seems to depict a donkey (or jackal?). Its ears are tall and pointed and it has a slightly raised mane down the back of its neck. It has a relatively stubby nose and has the dark brown stripe like a muzzle or bridle. There is no indication of loading this animal, however. No lines are shown on its back that might indicate packing of any kind of burden so it doesn’t really help us in understanding ancient techniques of transportation even if it is a donkey.

We often have to go beyond the Ur data to help refine our understanding, but we can begin to ask questions about aspects of life in the ancient Near East with the data at hand. To assist with such investigations at Ur-Online we are creating hierarchical categories that are most reliable at the upper levels. In other words, something tagged ‘animal’ or ‘quadruped’ is likely to be correctly identified, but more specific categories beneath that, such as ‘donkey,’ are more open to interpretation. Researchers using our site have to remember that our tags are modern interpretations, but they can still be very helpful in limiting search categories to more manageable data sets and refining research to specific objects. By moving up a level in the hierarchy of terms, a researcher can check other objects in the wider category to see related artifacts. Try a search for the keyword ‘pig,’ for example, to see objects from Ur that were probably meant to represent pigs or related animals. And be sure to let us know if your searches are helpful and interesting. We are continually improving the site and feedback helps us do that.