Artworks of the Ancient Near East: Materials, Forms & Functions

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  • 0:02 A Land of Innovations
  • 0:39 Materials
  • 3:23 Forms
  • 6:13 Functions
  • 7:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the materials, forms, and functions of the art of the Ancient Near East. We will pay special attention to forms like steles, cylinder seals, votive figures, and lyres.

A Land of Innovations

Artists love to play and experiment. They like to work with new materials. They enjoy creating new and unique forms of art. They even relish using their art for fresh functions. The artists of the Ancient Near East were no different. Like all artists of all times and places, they explored innovative materials, forms, and functions in their art. In fact, they were part of a larger trend in the Ancient Near East, which produced innovations in agriculture, law, transportation, and settlement. In this lesson, we'll explore a few of the materials, forms, and functions of the art of the Ancient Near East.

Materials of Ancient Near Eastern Art

The artists of the Ancient Near East worked with the materials they had close at hand and materials that rulers and merchants imported from around the world. Artists paid particular attention to the hardness and durability of their materials, living as they did in a hard and brutal land where things tended to disappear quickly. But they also paid attention to the colors and textures of their materials and enjoyed using precious gems and metals to make their work stand out and deliver their messages of power, divinity, and skill.

The following are a few of the most commonly-used materials of Ancient Near Eastern artists:

  • Stone - Artists used stone for everything from sculpture to jewelry. They often worked in sandstone and limestone but preferred the shiny, hard diorite for especially important works. Artists also enjoyed incorporating gemstones, like lapis lazuli and carnelian, into their better, more prestigious pieces.
  • Metal - The artists of the Ancient Near East were among the first in the world to work in metals. They formed gold, silver, iron, copper, lead, and bronze into jewelry, relief sculptures, cylinder seals, and ceremonial vessels and weapons and also used it for inlay details in other works of art.
  • Shell and ivory - Artists used animal materials, like shells from mollusks and ivory from elephants, to carve luxury items, figurines, small decorative boxes, cylinder seals, musical instruments, and especially jewelry. They also employed these materials to embellish furnishings with contrasting colors and textures.
  • Glass and ceramics - Ancient Near Eastern artists began making glass in the 1000s BCE. They typically used glass for small items, like beads and cylinder seals. They developed skill in ceramics even before that, perhaps as early as the 5000s BCE when they began making pottery vessels and tablets.
  • Building materials - Artists who were also architects were especially mindful of available building materials. Because wood was fairly rare, most builders used mud bricks or stone to create ziggurats (temples) and palaces. As time passed, artists learned how to make bricks using molds that impressed decorative patterns onto each brick.
  • Paint - Although very few painted objects have survived from the Ancient Near East, texts from the region tell us that artists painted everything from palace walls to pottery in bright colors.

Forms of Ancient Near Eastern Art

As creative as they were with their materials, the artists of the Ancient Near East were even more imaginative in the forms they selected to express their artistic endeavors. Like artists around the world, they created free-standing and relief sculptures, pottery, jewelry, furniture, and impressive temples and palaces. Ancient Near Eastern artists, however, are especially known for four forms of art: steles, cylinder seals, votive figures, and lyres. Let's take a brief look at each of these.

Steles are stone pillars or monuments that stand upright, pointing to the sky, and are usually covered in relief sculptures and inscriptions that commemorate an event or a ruler. Famous Ancient Near Eastern steles include the Stele of Hammurabi, which inscribes this Babylonian king's code of law; the Sumerian Stele of Vultures, which depicts the victory of a local king over his neighbor; and the Akkadian Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, which commemorates King Naram-Sin's conquest in war.

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