In the Beginning

A new exhibit, effectively combining art and archaeology, takes a fresh look at an ancient civilization.

Treasures From the Royal Tombs of Ur Cleveland Museum of Art, 11150 East Boulevard. 216-421-7340 through April 23

Charles Yannopoulos can be reached at [email protected].

The notion that one of art's chief functions is to resemble life would not have surprised the ancient Sumerians. Many of the objects they crafted 4,500 years ago included banquet scenes and images of musicians, servants, and chariots. What is striking for a modern audience is their intensely spiritualized idea of life. We might say, for instance, that a goat reaching for leaves while standing on its hind legs is simply having an afternoon snack. The Sumerians made the same observation, but interpreted it as the sexual union between a god of animal fertility and the plant goddess Inanna.

Who were these people, and why does their art continue to speak to us today? Treasures From the Royal Tombs of Ur, the new show at the Cleveland Museum of Art, grapples with both questions. The citizens of the city-state of Ur (200,000 inhabitants strong) built the first urban culture in the Western tradition. Ur was both the ancestral home of the biblical patriarch Abraham and the acknowledged site of the Garden of Eden. Around 2500 B.C., the Sumerians were leading a life that historians have agreed had many characteristics of civilization. They domesticated animals, had a taste for leisure, and codified their customs into laws. In fact, Ken Bohac, of the museum's Department of Egyptian and Near Eastern Art, characterizes Ur as "the hub of an international trade network that constituted the world's first global economy." A kink in the fabric is that human sacrifice was part of the burial rites for the royalty of Ur. The archaeological expedition led by Britisher C. Leonard Woolley, which yielded the treasures in this exhibit during the 1920s, also turned up the unsavory news that the elaborate funeral processions in Ur concluded when each of the attendants drank poison from a small cup upon entering the burial chamber.

With this incongruous detail in mind, it makes sense that the premise of this exhibit seems to be that understanding ancient people's attitudes about their place in the world is difficult, and that art of all kinds -- from the humblest tumbler to the most luxurious lyre -- must be enlisted in this search for greater historical understanding. There are 150 items in this major traveling exhibition, organized by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which had taken part in the expedition.

As museums grew in popularity about 200 years ago, distinctions were drawn between art and archaeology. The two weren't supposed to mix. There are sound reasons for this position. While the archaeologist's attention, as scholar V. Gordon Childe writes, is focused primarily on "the equipment that enables human groups to survive and multiply," art museum curators are concerned above all with artistic quality (what Sherman E. Lee, a former director at this museum, called "nuance").

However, the gatekeeping function of the modern art museum (its insistence on high artistic quality) faces a formidable challenge when it comes to an ancient civilization about which there continues to be so much speculation. We know that the Sumerians used symbols, but we can only guess at what they mean. In such a case, it seems fitting (or, at least, not objectionable) that an inclusive stance should be taken. No one pretends that the dances that a financially strapped Mozart composed as dinner music for some of his aristocratic patrons rank among his greatest works. However, who would want to pass on the opportunity to listen to chips from Mozart's workbench, especially when his masterpieces are nearby whenever we want to refer to them? It's the same thing with this extraordinary show. The masterpieces of ancient Sumer are here, and so are the myriad cosmetics containers, hairpins, and tumblers -- chips from that culture's collective workbench.

The statuette called "Ram Caught in a Thicket" is the most famous of all the objects from Ur. This is the work in which the goat stretches for some leaves. By rendering this seemingly mundane scene in gold, silver, copper, lapis lazuli, shell, and red limestone, the artist is alerting the viewer to the symbolic implications of the scene: The richness of the materials tells us immediately that this is no ordinary goat, and that this is no ordinary tree. Archaeologist and cultural historian Henri Frankfort has said that one of the most fundamental differences between ancient and modern peoples is that the ancients perceived the world not as a place of inanimate things and natural forces, but rather, as a place "redundant with life." In a world conceived this way, it's no longer a stretch to say that goats are symbols of animal fertility and trees are goddesses. Seen this way, says Frankfort, "Life has individuality, in man and beast and plant, and in every phenomenon which confronts man -- the thunderclap, the sudden shadow, the eerie and unknown clearing in the wood, the stone which suddenly hurts him when he stumbles on a hunting trip." "Ram Caught in a Thicket" is a wonderful example of this living, dynamic interpretation of the world. The work sheds light not merely on Sumer, but on an underlying assumption shared by many ancient cultures.

The same could be said of the lion's head cast in silver, from around 2650 B.C. It was found by Sir Leonard and his staff at the entrance of Queen Puabi's tomb. The queen (and the 73 attendants who drank poison in her honor) died, but this majestic lion's head has survived the centuries. This was not an independently conceived work. Woolley noted traces of wood in the soil around it and deduced that it probably decorated a chair or a box. The bold design is striking: So finished, so complete is this head, that it's hard to imagine it yoked to a functional object such as a chair. Interestingly, the artist has not rendered the tufts of hair on the right side identical to those of the left side, and the eyes are not identical either. The slight curl of the lip (Is this lion about to bare its teeth?) is a further individualizing touch. This artist has observed lions, and he has taken care to differentiate this one from the others that he has seen. It's difficult to believe that this vibrant lion head was executed so long ago. CMA Acting Director Kate M. Sellers has cited these objects' "timeless design," and this lion's head is a perfect example.

The "Great Lyre From the King's Grave" is another of the most famous objects from the royal cemetery. The bull's head affixed to the front of the lyre is fashioned from gold and lapis lazuli. The front of the sound box is divided into four parts, each of which shows animals doing human things, like carrying food and drink, and playing the harp. What does it all mean? No one knows for sure, but scholar Donald P. Hansen, in an illustrated catalog published in conjunction with this show, offers an intriguing possibility. Says Hansen, "What could be more fitting than this lyre intended for the accompaniment of liturgical chants, whose sounds are associated with the sounds of the divine bull and whose decorated sound box gives a glimpse of the underworld banquet?" If Hansen is right, the person who fashioned this harp wasn't just making instruments for a living. He was an artist attempting to distill Sumerian religious beliefs.

A work like this leads one to wonder whether some art in Ur, aside from serving as a mirror for social conditions, was the consequence of a need within certain individuals to express themselves. Such practices as ritual suicide suggest that individuality might not have been highly prized in Sumerian culture. This fine show, by re-creating the texture of a long-lost civilization, invites the public to imagine a time when possibilities for progress and growth were limitless.

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.