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The Standard of Ur - an Ancient Masterpeice

Updated on February 21, 2013

Standard of Ur Detail

From the 'Peace' side, showing a musician and singer at the feast
From the 'Peace' side, showing a musician and singer at the feast

The Standard of Ur - A Treasure from the Royal Graves of Ur

The Standard of Ur, one of the oldest and most stunning works of art from the land of Sumer in Ancient Mesopotamia was found buried next to the head of a man in tomb PG779 in the Royal Cemetery of Ur. It’s purpose is uncertain, Leonard Woolley who excavated the site interpreted it as a standard, perhaps carried between two poles, though others have suggested it may have been the sound-box of a musical instrument or part of furniture. The Standard of Ur is constructed from wood with a mosaic decoration of shell, limestone and lapis lazuli inlaid in bitumen and measures 21.590 cm x 49.530 cm. The standard dates to around 2600-2400 BC.

The standard has two sides, referred to as ‘war’ and ‘peace’. The top register of the 'War' side depicts a ruler, who is shown slightly larger than the other figures in what is known as 'social perspective'; his larger size reflecting his greater importance, something which was common in all Mesopotamian art and that of Ancient Egypt. The middle register shows soldiers leading captives whilst the bottom shows ass-drawn Sumerian chariots flattening enemies. The 'Peace' side of the standard depicts a banquet, presumably to celebrate the victory shown on the 'war' panel. Again in the upper register there is a ruler depicted larger than the other figures, and dressed in a distinctive flounced skirt, which was worn by those of high status such as Kings, priests, priestesses and even Gods and Goddesses! He is surrounded by other seated figures, who are musicians and servers. The lower registers depict animals and food being brought, perhaps in tribute or as the spoils of war.

The details of the Standard are stunning, from the scales of the fish being carried for the feast to the lyre carried by a musician at the banquet, it stands out as a stunning artwork. The details in the design of the standard have shone light on things such as the chariots and weapons used during the Sumerian period, indeed it is one of the earliest representations of the Sumerian army. The depiction of the weapons and helmets used are backed up by other find from the Royal Graves at Ur including the Gold Helmet of Mes Kalam Dug, which although ceremonial was probably based on a real design, and various weapons, such as spears, battle axes and swords. Similarly vessels seen in the 'peace' side such as cup and bowls have been found in the Royal Graves at Ur.

The Standard of Ur can be seen today in the British Museum, I would certainly recommend a visit if you are in London as it is one of the finest pieces in the Museum if not the world!


What the Standard of Ur tells us about Sumerian life

We can learn a lot from the Standard of Ur, the scenes portrayed are similar in theme and style to other Sumerian artworks, such Victory Stele which were erected to celebrate victory in Battle one of the most famous being the 'Stele of Vultures' from Girsu in Southern Iraq. Mosaics from the ancient city of Mari, further to the North, show a similar battle scene rendered in the same inlaid shell style as the Standard of Ur.

Banquet scenes are also common, a plaque from the city of Khafaje, show a similar scene to the Standard of Ur, with servants bringing food and drink to a seated Chief or Lord figure. Indeed these scenes were so familiar and similarly executed that the plaque from Khafaje has been restored with a segment of another plaque from Ur!

The abundance of such scenes tells us that these were important subjects to the Sumerians, the presence of battle scenes reflects the war-like nature of Southern Mesopotamia during the 3rd millennium BC when small city states would compete over territory. We know the Sumerians enjoyed a good feast and banquet as in addition to these scenes in art we have poems and songs that reflect their love of a good party, such as this 'drinking song';

"In the troughs made with bur grass, there is sweet beer. I will have the cupbearers, the boys and the brewers stand by. As I spin around the lake of beer, while feeling wonderful, feeling wonderful, while drinking beer, in a blissful mood, while drinking alcohol and feeling exhilarated, with joy in the heart and a contented liver -- my heart is a heart filled with joy! I clothe my contented liver in a garment fit for a queen! "

Similarly in the cemetery at Ur, where the Standard of Ur, was found there are many graves or singers, musicians and warriors, some even contain the remains of asses and donkeys similar to those depicted pulling the chariots on the Standard. Grave goods such as elaborate harps and lyres, gold cups and plates as well the as the remains of a feast survive too. Personal cylinder seals, such as that found with Queen Puabi, depict banquet scenes too as well a musician playing a harp. Many musicians were found buried with their instruments, some even had their arms draped over them as if playing them!

Shell mosaic from Mari
Shell mosaic from Mari
Banquet scene on a plaque from Khafaje
Banquet scene on a plaque from Khafaje


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    • ChloeMiriam profile image

      ChloeMiriam 4 years ago from UK

      I have a BAhons in archaeology of ancient civilisations, I would love to study further but I can't afford it at the moment and am currently working on a local history project which is very different (mostly 20th c!) but fascinating. One day I'd love to travel all over, but alas finances again!

    • profile image

      Davidwork 4 years ago


      This is a wonderful hub, giving a lot of detailed information about a specific aspect of the early civilisations of the Tigris and Euphrates.

      I’ve always been fascinated by history and archaeology, particularly of the Ancient World. I became aware of the city-states of Sumer and Akkad 40 years ago, in early 1973, when I was a teenager. In the preceding year, I had developed interests in Ancient Egypt and Ancient China.

      I’ve been aware of this work of art since I first saw in in books in my local library, but your hub has enlightened me to aspects of it that I had not previously known.

      The gold helmet you’ve also mentioned is one of the most beautiful works of art from the Ancient World, although perhaps not as well-known as the gold mask of Tutankhamun.

      I see in your profile that you are an archaeologist and historian. Have you studied archaeology to Degree/Doctorate level, and have you participated in any major archaeological digs? Have you done any in Iraq?

      Iraq was very dangerous for travellers in the years after the 2003 war, but it appears to be more stable and settled now, so there may be opportunities for travel and study there. Unfortunately, as you may be aware, some of the most important museums and archaeological sites were looted or damaged in the immediate aftermath of the war.

      I’m unable to travel now, because I’m unemployed, but I hope to develop a new career as a renewable energy engineer; if that works out I can, hopefully, take a few trips, and I may put Iraq on my itinerary one day.

      I had a well-paid job in 2005, and I was able to travel to Egypt for my 50th birthday. I saw all the places I had dreamed of seeing since I had been a teenager, The Great Pyramid, The Step Pyramid of Saqqara, the temples of Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, and the Tomb of Queen Hatshepsut. It was wonderful.