By Amanda Podany
As an undergraduate, long before I chose to become an ancient historian, I took a course on ancient art history. I remember sitting in the darkened auditorium in the first weeks of the term, looking at images of prehistoric art and scribbling down notes as the professor paced the stage and pointed out features of each slide. Then came an image that took my breath away: a white marble face of a woman, almost life-size (though blown up to about six feet tall on the screen). Although her inlaid eyes and eyebrows were missing, her expression seemed so uncannily real in comparison with other sculptures we had seen. She looked slightly sad and thoughtful, the curves of her chin, cheeks, and lips perfectly rendered by an anonymous artist in the city of Uruk in southern Iraq, some 5,200 years ago. She was a survivor from a time right at the beginning of civilization, when writing was just beginning to emerge and before any kings ruled in Mesopotamia, or anywhere else for that matter.
We moderns are surrounded by facsimiles of people—photographs on our cell phones and laptops, billboards above the streets, posters on buses, mannequins in stores. We don’t think twice about them. But to an ancient Mesopotamian, a realistic image of a person or god was unusual and uncanny. The artist who made it was not employed to attempt to copy reality; he was tasked with creating a being that would wield the power of a person or god. Ancient statues of gods were often simply referred to as though they were the gods, incarnate and immortal.
Given the extraordinary workmanship of the woman’s head from Uruk and the fact that the white marble must have been imported, scholars have proposed that it was once part of a cult statue, perhaps of Inanna, the patron goddess of Uruk. Her body and robes would have been made of gold from Egypt (or of wood, plated with gold), and her eyes were perhaps inlaid with blue lapis lazuli that had been brought all the way from Afghanistan.
If this was indeed the cult statue of the goddess, the people of Uruk would have viewed her as alive, needing shelter, clothing, food, and adoration. In return they believed she watched over them, nurturing their crops and making their herds fertile. They swore oaths and drew up treaties in her presence, believing that she would punish anyone who lied under oath much more decisively than any human agency could.
When a city was conquered, the invaders sometimes captured the statue of the local god and took it away with them, holding it for ransom (but generally treating it well—they respected its power because, in their world, there was no such thing as a false god). This could have happened to the Uruk goddess at some point. But even if she avoided foreign capture she would still have traveled from time to time to visit other gods and goddesses in their cities. One highpoint of many religious festivals in Mesopotamia was the arrival of distant gods (in the forms of their statues) and their procession through the streets.
For centuries the same divine statues were worshiped and preserved, given new clothing from time to time, embellished with precious metals, and sought out for their wisdom and strength. But, in time, these Mesopotamian gods were superseded, to the point that, eventually, no one believed they brought fertility to the fields, and no one feared their wrath. Deities made of gold and silver, formerly exalted and protected from every danger, were melted down and recycled. Only fragments remained, like the marble head of the goddess from Uruk, and these were cast aside and forgotten. Eventually layers of debris entombed them in the ground, awaiting discovery by modern archaeologists.
A German archaeological team found the head about a century ago, when excavating at the site of Uruk, which was probably the world’s earliest real city. It was home to over 25,000 people at a time when the vast majority of the world’s peoples lived in villages or small roving bands. The goddess eventually found her way into the Baghdad Museum, which opened in 1923, inspiring visitors who saw her there and millions of others like me who never set foot in the museum, but who encountered her graceful face in a book or in an art history class. In my textbook, H. A. Groenewegen-Frankfort and Bernard Ashmole’s The Art of the Ancient World, the author noted of the sculpture that “the modeling has great nobility and the mouth is gentle.”
After eighty quiet years in a gallery, the goddess’s life took a turn for the worse in 2003. She was swept up in the frenzy of looting that accompanied the fall of Saddam Hussein, and she was hauled away from the museum, along with some 15,000 other precious and irreplaceable objects of the approximately 170,000 artifacts housed there. Most of the artifacts looted from the museum, many of them tiny exquisite cylinder seals, have never been found. But, incredibly, the goddess was tracked down and returned, undamaged.
The Baghdad Museum has been closed to the public ever since, but recently word has come that it is finally set to reopen to the public, perhaps as soon as February or March. The website of the museum shows bright modern galleries displaying many art works, objects of importance not only to the history of Iraq but to all of human history. The website also includes a statement that encourages us to hope that all the objects displayed have a long life ahead: “The Iraq National Museum is the only institution dedicated to protecting the comprehensive and collective archaeological heritage of Iraq from loss or destruction in order that it may be enjoyed and studied by the present and future generations of citizens and survive for additional thousands of years.” The goddess, one hopes, will still be staring pensively from her pedestal many generations from now.
Amanda H. Podany is Professor and Chair of History at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is the author of The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction; the award-winning book Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East, as well as a number of other books and articles on topics in ancient near eastern history.
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Image credit: Uruk marble head. ca. 3000 BC. Anonymous. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.