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Art of Ancient Near East

Denise K. McTighe & Randy H. Sooknanan

ASAG Journal

April 11, 2022

Art from the ancient Near East refers to the artistic traditions and artifacts of the region known as the Near East, which includes modern-day countries such as Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. The art produced in this region spans a vast period of time, from the Sumerian civilization of the 4th millennium BCE to the Persian Empire of the 6th century BCE.

One of the most notable features of ancient Near Eastern art is its emphasis on religious and ritualistic themes. Many of the surviving artworks were created for the purpose of honoring gods and goddesses, or for use in funerary rituals. This is reflected in the stylized depictions of deities and mythological creatures, as well as in the elaborate burial goods found in tombs.

One of the earliest forms of art in the Near East was the cylinder seal, which was used to create impressions on clay tablets and other surfaces. These seals often featured intricate designs and scenes from daily life or mythology, and were considered important symbols of power and authority.

Other forms of art produced in the ancient Near East include monumental sculptures, pottery, mosaics, and metalwork. Some of the most significant examples of ancient Near Eastern art include the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, the Assyrian reliefs at Nimrud, and the Royal Tombs of Ur.

In all, ancient Near Eastern art provides a valuable glimpse into the beliefs, customs, and daily life of some of the world's earliest civilizations.

Let's take a look at some artifacts that feature artistic elements as well...

Akkadian cuneiform tablet (1750 BCE)

Here we see one of the earliest surviving recipes ever written in the ancient Akkadian language (Fig 1). The artifact is dated to be from around c. 1750 BCE., and is a well intact cuneiform tablet that shows us 25 recipes for stews, whereas 21 are meat stews and 4 are of vegetable stews, but it does not give the measurements or cooking time. The tablet's text was translated by Jean Bottéro and Teresa Lavender Fagan and is now located at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, USA


Fig 1. This tablet includes 25 recipes for stews, 21 are meat stews and 4 are vegetable stews. The recipes list the ingredients and the order in which they should be added, but does not give measures or cooking time - they were clearly meant only for experienced chefs." YBC 4644 from the Old Babylonian Period, ca. 1750 BC
Credit:  History of Information,
Image Source:

Ancient Sumerian Astronomy

Here we see as 5,500-Year-Old Sumerian Star Map (Fig 2-3).

For over 150 years scientists have tried to solve the mystery of a controversial cuneiform clay tablet that indicates the so-called Köfel’s impact event was observed in ancient times. The circular stone-cast tablet was recovered from the 650 BC underground library of King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, Iraq in the late 19th century. Long thought to be an Assyrian tablet, computer analysis has matched it with the sky above Mesopotamia in 3300 BC and proves it to be of much more ancient Sumerian origin. The tablet is an “Astrolabe,” the earliest known astronomical instrument. It consists of a segmented, disk-shaped star chart with marked units of angle measure inscribed upon the rim.”

Ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia were the oldest civilizations in the world, beginning about 4000 BCE. We can gauge from other artifacts, like Standard of Ur (Fig 4) a number of frameworks in their society as well as their impact on arts a historical record keeping. We also know from the aforementioned Star map they dabbled in sciences, as they looked up to the sky whilst they invented the system of Time which we still use today.

One might find it curious that we divide the hours into 60 minutes and the days into 24 hours - why not a multiple of 10 or 12? Put quite simply, the answer is because the inventors of time did not operate on a decimal (base-10) or duodecimal (base-12) system but rather a sexagesimal (base-60) system. For the ancient Sumerian innovators who first divided the movements of the heavens into countable intervals, 60 was the perfect number. The number 60 can be divided by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30 equal parts. Moreover, ancient astronomers believed there were 360 ​​days in a year, a number which 60 fits neatly into six times. The Sumerian Empire did not last. However, for more than 5,000 years the world has remained committed to their delineation of time.


Ancient Sumerian Astronomy

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