Stone Sculpture of a Sumerian Priest

SKU AM.0096

3000 BC to 2500 BC


8″ (20.3cm) high




Central Asia

Gallery Location



This elegant figure pertains to the Sumerian civilisation, an extremely advanced and complex society situated in modern day Iraq. Lasting for some four thousand years, the Sumerians were among the first cultures to develop most of what we now take for granted, from complex economies to advanced record keeping, literature, international trade and recorded mythologies. In terms of date, we know that it comes from a period known as the Late Uruk to the late Early Dynastic, which is roughly contemporary with the European Bronze Age. However, we also have a great deal more information to add context. Thanks to the Sumerian habit of recording everything on clay tablets using cuneiform – one of the first complex writing systems – we can infer a great deal about the society, and postulate further on the significance of this figure. We know that Sumer was characterised by various city-states, running in competition with one another for wealth and conquest, while sharing similar characteristics and material goods. They used slave labour, based around large temples and palaces, and were keen to form alliances and thus push out the boundaries of their nation into Central Asia and Turkey. Their trade networks were extensive, and colonies of Sumerian peoples have been identified all across the region. Rule was by kingship; rulers varied considerable in their methods although extreme cruelty and martial law (such as that exercised under Eannatum of Lagash) was the exception rather than the rule. It is significant to note that many of the rulers of Sumerian city states were described as “priest-kings”, which hints at the significance of the priestly class in ancient Mesopotamia. The temples were the mainstay of local economies. It was here that produce was brought as tax, legal proceedings carried out and deals were struck. Records of this period are almost exclusively written by scribes who lived within the temple walls and worked under the auspices of the administrators, who were themselves under the authority of the priests. It is, therefore, difficult to overestimate the importance of priests in the eyes of the contemporary population.

This stone carving depicts a standing male figure, holding a vessel in both hands. The carving is exceptionally fine, especially the face, which is depicted with unusual grace and clarity. The eyes are rimmed and almond-shaped, under chiselled brows, with an aquiline nose and a small, pursed mouth. It seems to depict a man of a certain age, perhaps with a shaven head, and with not a little authority in his expression and general bearing. His chest is bare, giving way to a tunic which is belted at the waist, and extends to the ankles. The proportions are naturalistic, and the sculptor has even managed to portray the musculature of the arms, chest and back. The fingers and toes are likewise faithfully rendered. The right arm is holding the neck of a spouted vessel, the bottom of which is supported by the left hand. While it is impossible to be sure, it is in line with contemporary interpretations of friezes from royal palaces at Ur and elsewhere that the vessel would have contained sacrificial produce to be offered to one of the vast pantheon of Sumerian gods. In assuring his sculptural immortality, it is unlikely in the extreme that he would have himself portrayed in anything less than his most important role/incarnation. It is possible that the bare areas of bare stone were once painted or even dressed in fibre clothing, for contemporary sources state that temples were always decorated in considerable finery. This, then, is a superb rendition of a priestly aristocrat who lived and died over 4000 years ago. While being a socially significant emblem of religious authority, it is also a superb masterwork of ancient Sumerian art.

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