Since my graduate school days at Columbia University, I have been drawn to the art of the ancient Near East, where circa 3500-3000 BC there emerged in an area known as Sumer in southern Mesopotamia one of the earliest known civilizations. By 3200 BC, one of its cities, Uruk (Iraq) with over 50,000 inhabitants, was thought to be the largest known settlement then existing in the world. This was a period of astonishing innovation including the invention of cuneiform script, the building of temples known as Ziggurats, and the creation of significant works of art, among them the alabaster Warka Vase from Uruk, one of the earliest surviving examples of narrative art. (The Warka Vase was looted in the Iraq War and returned in severely damaged condition.)

Fig. 1

I have been particularly fascinated by Sumerian cylinder seals (fig. 1), small transactional objects used like a signature that were rolled onto clay to seal commercial goods and mark documents. By the end of the fourth millennia BC, cylinder seals reached an apex of sophisticated design: figurative scenes intricately carved on precious stone documented evolving artistic styles and religious beliefs. These beautifully detailed images, some with cuneiform script, could carry the art of Sumer and its highly developed cosmology and rituals to distant parts of the ancient world.

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Think too of the beautifully carved alabaster votive figure with clasped hands (fig. 2) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of twelve statues found buried in a temple dating from circa 3000 at Tell Asmar (Iraq) in northern Mesopotamia, some fifty miles from Baghdad. The Met’s bearded figure with its stylized symmetrical silhouette, wide-open eyes, and presumably contemporary dress, has a beauty and energy that epitomizes the abstract style of Early Dynastic art. I return to look at it every time I visit the museum. There are other objects from the same period, some very different in style, which have had a similar impact on me, in particular the Guennol Lioness (fig. 3), a Proto-Elamite work found near Susa (Iran). This culture developed parallel to Uruk with its own form of writing (still undeciphered). On loan to the Brooklyn Museum for decades, it sold in 2007 for the astounding price of $57,200,000. This half-lion, half-human sculpture measures only 3.25 inches, yet its realistically carved and powerfully modelled body projects a monumental presence. With its furrowed brow, rippling energy, and clenched “fists,” it is imbued with humanlike emotions, an extraordinary aesthetic achievement from an ancient culture of which we know very little.

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The sense of awe and wonder I experienced when I first studied Sumerian civilization has never left me. Recently I learned about remarkable discoveries at the archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe in what would have been northern Mesopotamia and is now southeast Turkey, dating from the tenth millennia BC. Excavations, begun in the 1990s, have revealed T-shaped pillars, part of circular structures which were intentionally backfilled and abandoned in the eight millennium BC. They are thought to be the oldest known structures of significance created by humans and are remarkable, in part, because they were built by a hunter-gatherer community on the cusp of transition to cultivation.  The carvings and artifacts found on the site represent a highly developed belief system and visual symbolism prior to domestication of plants and animals. The T-shaped structures were carved with relatively sophisticated decoration, including naturalistically rendered mythical animals in full relief and elongated, schematic standing human figures with clasped hands (Figs 4-5). The specific communal purpose of this site is not known. Ongoing excavations continue to reveal additional structures, and recently, similar, although smaller sites, have been found within a fifty-mile radius, some with evidence of settlements. A few free-standing sculptures have also been found, including the almost life-size so-called Urfa man (Fig. 6). The building of Göbekli Tepe represents an enormous undertaking, and its animal-centric iconography and the quality of the artwork speak to a level of intellectual advancement that rewrites human history.

As an art historian, I look for connections and the continuity of artistic impulses. I think about these ancient works of art and how they embody the deeply human need to create visual imagery and to evoke a spiritual dimension. They reflect a quest for meaning that links artistic endeavors across time and evoke in me musings about what it means to be human. It is hard to grasp some of these extraordinary achievements, the heritage of mankind, remain at risk in this strife-torn region.