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Standard of Ur: Definition & Concept

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the artwork and possible uses of the Standard of Ur. First excavated from the Royal Tombs of Ur in the 1920s, its function has been debated by historians ever since.

Lost and Found

Have you ever gone through your closet and found something that seemed like it did not belong? It may have broken off of another item or belonged to something that is no longer useful. Surely, it must have been important at some point, otherwise it would not be in your closet, right? Questions that you and I face with long lost household items are similar to those that archaeologists address on a daily basis with the items they find during excavations. The Standard of Ur, first excavated from the Royal Tombs at Ur by Charles Leonard Woolley in the late 1920s, is one such item.

The Standard of Ur is an 8.5x19.6-inch trapezoidal box that depicts common life in Sumeria in times of war and peace. Its practical use is still a source of mystery for ancient historians and archaeologists, and some scholars have theorized that it may have been a musical instrument (this theory is favored by the British Museum, where it is kept) or a box used to hold civic funds. Others believe the box was likely mounted to a pole and used as a battle standard. In addition, many art historians have praised the Standard of Ur as one of the best preserved examples of ancient artwork, with three delicately sculpted and painted scenes on each side.

Artwork

War side of Standard of Ur
War side of Standard of Ur

Historians have labeled the two sides of the Standard 'War' and 'Peace,' and for those who believe the Standard depicts an historical account of an actual event, the 'War' side is the chronological beginning. The top row on this side depicts the end of the battle. The king of Ur (who is noticeably larger than the rest of the figures) accepts the enemy's surrender, while also taking many prisoners of war. The second row depicts the Sumerian soldiers, in full battle armor, at first on the march and then slaying their enemies on the field of battle. The bottom row has proven to be one of the more contentious rows of the Standard. While some historians believe it to be a depiction of the Sumerian chariot attack, others think it is the post-battle procession (with the king's chariot in front) leading the army back to Ur.

Peace side of Standard of Ur
Peace side of Standard of Ur

The reverse side, labeled the 'Peace' side by historians, portrays the preparation and celebration of a royal feast. Those who believe the Standard portrays an actual event believe this feast took place in commemoration of the preceding side's military victory. The top row shows the king being feted and congratulated by his lords who are facing him. In the background, lyres are being played. The bottom two rows show the preparation of the feast by the common folk, who gather sacks of grain and livestock to be fed to the king and his lords.

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