Piecing Together Fragments
Alexander James Guckenberger
Dr. Whitney Kruckenberg
Art History 221
26 November 2019
Piecing Together Fragments
Lyre Fragment Plaque and Lyre Fragment Bull Head are beautiful examples of Mesopotamian art (Kleiner 38). They come from the city-state of Ur (Kleiner 32, 38). Ur was located in Sumer (which was, in turn, located in Mesopotamia) (Kleiner 32). These fragments can generally be found on display at the Penn Museum. They are gorgeous and wonderful pieces. The fragments are stylized in certain places. There is the application of organic lines combined with stylized ones. Stylized hair is present (and common for Mesopotamian art). Hybrid animals were common in the art of the ancient world (such as the art of the ancient Egyptians), but no one appears to know what the animals in the base fragment represent (Kleiner 38-39). Moreover, artistic pieces like this one are essential to our contemporary understanding of the past.
For the viewer, the bull head extends over the base with its depictions of various scenes. The bull’s head comes complete with an organic nose and stylized hair. The eyes (made with shell (“Lyre Fragment Bull Head”)) are primarily natural in their shape (relative to items like perceived volume) and in their lines. The bull’s head is relatively unique for the surviving art of this time period and place, because it is very natural. It is because of pieces like this one that we can even know this. When viewed from a distance, the head looks incredibly natural. This bull head appears texturally smooth, except for said bull’s hair and beard. The previously mentioned scenes nearer the base begin to recede inward the further down one’s eyes are drawn. This is before the scenes stop receding, and become stable and more vertical. The base is somewhat rectangular, with some exceptions to the aforementioned frontal recession. Again, this portion of the lyre is mostly smooth to the eye, with the exceptions of the scorpion body and some of the animal-hair (such as the mane of the lion).
Moreover, the artifacts were heavily stylized in parts. For example, the head of the bull fragment comes with a stylized beard and head-hair. Moreover, in the base piece, there are two figures in composite view. One is at the very top (in the middle of the other figures), and one is the scorpion man at the bottom (Kleiner 38). Mesopotamian art had a tendency to hold some stylized elements (especially in stances and in hair), but also more organic or naturalistic parts at times. In this culture, animals were sometimes depicted with more natural elements. Another Mesopotamian piece that possesses large quantities of naturalism is Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions (Kleiner 48). The lions in that piece are of note in regards to naturalistic relief. The lyre fragments do certainly contain naturalistic qualities as well. The organic lines of the bull’s nose and horns testify to this. Characters, although not always standing naturally, are made with quasi-naturalistic lines. Furthermore, even though some of the figures stand in unnatural ways, figures like the lion appear much more naturalistic. If a lion could stand and hold something like a human, perhaps he would look something like the image depicted. The profile view is much more natural than composite view, and many of the figures are in profile. Unlike other art of the same time period, there is no hieratic scale. The only possible exception here could be said to be the bull head. The rigidity of the figures is Mesopotamian (Kruckenberg). The greater iconography of the figures is debatable, but what humanity does know about these figures comes from items like the plague fragment.
Lyre Fragment Plaque is a relatively complicated piece. The fragments were found in a grave (Kleiner 38), and the base may describe religious beliefs (Kleiner 38-39). In the base, all figures are in composite view or in profile (Kleiner 38). This is regularly seen in Mesopotamian art. There are four different boxed-in depictions, which could indicate four stories to be told. The modern viewer can only guess what our ancient relatives were trying to say in these pictures. People are capable of guessing, because this fragment has been so well preserved. Not much is added to the figures in the base fragment in regards to shading or modeling. The figures are very flat. In contrast to this, the three-dimensionality of the bull’s head makes natural shading possible. However, when carving the pictures on the bottom fragment, story appeared to have been more important than realism. When the harp was originally held, the viewer may have had greater ability to see the bottom low reliefs more completely when at a slight angle.
The base fragment was crafted with bitumen and shell (“Lyre Fragment Plaque”), whereas the bull’s head was made with shell, lapis, bitumen, silver and gold (“Lyre Fragment Bull Head”). The bull’s head is covered with lapis lazuli and gold around a hidden center of wood (Kleiner 38). One may fascinate oneself with the lyre fragments, because they are made with wood and are over 4,000 years old (Kleiner 38). The eyes of the bull’s head are made from shell (“Lyre Fragment Bull Head”). The importance of keeping such fragments (as the lyre fragments) is great. There can thus be an understanding of how former societies made their art. By knowing what a piece is made from, artists in contemporary and future societies can learn about how art was once forged. This new knowledge can aid these artists, so that they can go on to create better art through the considerations that their fellow humans have made in the past.
Moreover, the eyes of Lyre Fragment Bull Head are fairly naturalistic, not overly large nor comically rounded. The majority of the fragments appear to the eye to be smooth, with some exceptions like the bull’s beard and hair, and some of the details of the figures on the charactered base. The bull’s head-hair and beard possess a number of stylized lines throughout. They are wavy, but not in a more realistic sense.
Cattle were important to the ancient world. This is another fact that would not be known without the preservation of precious artifacts. Cattle were beasts of burden who would have been used to help with any number of architectural and agricultural chores. It is my own hypothesis that cattle may have been originally domesticated, because psilocybin mushrooms grew in their feces. In the living cultural fossil, which is India, cattle are still perceived as sacred. It is thus no surprise that cattle are so often found in the art of ancient Asia. Moreover, the bull head fragment isn’t a unique part of the lyre, and cattle-based lyres were incredibly “common” (Kilmer). And, the lyre can be discovered as depicted elsewhere in the ancient world, such as in the Standard of Ur (Kleiner 37).
Lyre Fragment Plaque and Lyre Fragment Bull Head are Mesopotamian pieces (Kleiner 38). The fragments come from ancient Asia. More specifically, they are from Ur (Kleiner 38). Ur is in modern-day Tell Muqayyar, Iraq (Kleiner 38). Pieces like this one make it clear that the denizens of Ur loved music as humans do today. For an instrument that is about 4,400-4,600 years old (Kleiner 38), the viewer should understand that music is a subject of great antiquity. Communication, in the forms of music and drawings, goes back thousands of years. These fragments are testimonies to this fact. These people valued music, for one reason or another.
The base could demonstrate the mythology and/or religious practices of the citizens of Ur. The hybrid animals could be heavily symbolic (not literal representations). One can see this possibility in the depictions of the ancient Egyptian gods. In fact, the figures in the lyre’s base could also be gods, or heroes/demi-gods. They could be any combination of things. This piece shows some of the values of the citizens who used it. But, as to what those values are; who can say? Some information has unfortunately been lost to history. Perhaps, we can rediscover the lost mysteries of the ancient Mesopotamians. Until then, the base is a mystery for our meditations. One can derive from this that stories, of some kind, were valued. There is the application of naturalistic features. From this, the modern person may know that realism was valued. The stylization of the hair may indicate some preference for iconography. The reason for symbolic hair may not be entirely known, but the absence of stylized forms everywhere indicates that a level of certain symbolism was still wanted at this time. The use of drawn story below a musical instrument may also indicate a story to be sung. In turn, such an activity could point toward regular or occasional festivities of certain groups of the citizens of Ur. Parties and holidays may have been among the values of the Ur people. The festivals in the area wherein the fragments were found would have been areas wherein very long festivals (perhaps for over a week) would have taken place (Frankfort 2).
The two fragments called Lyre Fragment Plaque and Lyre Fragment Bull Head are striking examples of amazing art. They hold stylized and naturalistic qualities. They are similar and different from other cultures of the time. They help us to better understand the ancient world. They are a necessary portion of that understanding. We should all attempt to protect such items of our collective heritage. Our gratitude should extend to this small part of ancient Mesopotamia.
Frankfort, H. “State Festivals in Egypt and Mesopotamia.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 15, no. 1/2, 1952, p. 2. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/750109.
Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn. “The Musical Instruments from Ur and Ancient Mesopotamian Music.” Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-musical-instruments-from-ur-and-ancient-mesopotamian-music/.
Kleiner, Fred S., and Helen Gardner. Gardner’s Art Through The Ages. 15th ed., Cengage Learning, 2016, pp. 32-48.
“Lyre Fragment Bull Head.” Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, https://www.penn.museum/collections/object/9347.
“Lyre Fragment Plaque.” Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, https://www.penn.museum/collections/object/4466.
© 2020 Alexander James Guckenberger