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Art and Culture - 02 - Bronze Age Overview


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Second module for GNED 1201 (Aesthetic Experience and Ideas). This one covers the early Bronze Age historical and cultural context, from the beginnings of urban culture in Mesopotamia up to the Assyrians.

This course is a required general education course for all first-year students at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada. My version of the course is structured as a kind of Art History and Culture course. Some of the content overlaps with my other Gen Ed course.

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Art and Culture - 02 - Bronze Age Overview

  2. 2. Civilization emerged independently in at least four different locations centered around major river valleys.
  3. 3. In modern scholarship, Mesopotamia refers to the geographical area located in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, roughly equivalent to present-day Iraq.
  4. 4. There never was a country or state called Mesopotamia. Rather it refers to a geographical area and the various people that lived there (Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, etc).
  5. 5. Archeological evidence indicates that agriculture and the elements of civilization (cities, monumental architecture, writing) were combined for the first time in the Mesopotamia area around 3500 – 3100 BCE. Villages, small agriculture First cities, large irrigation agriculture
  6. 6. How do we know these dates?
  7. 7. 1. Relative Dating 2. Scientific Dating
  8. 8. Geographical Context The southern region of Mesopotamia, particularly the land of Sumer, was a flat and treeless expanse of river-watered land ideal for irrigation agriculture, surrounded by deserts.
  9. 9. Climate Change Climate and coastline in Mesopotamia area changed considerably during the millennia leading up to the development of cities.
  10. 10. Why the climate change?
  11. 11. The sudden (about 8400 BCE), then slow, draining of cold Glacial Lake Agassiz, raised global sea levels relatively suddenly and transformed global temperature patterns.
  12. 12. The sea level raise also transformed the fresh water Black Sea Lake into the salt water Black Sea. Some scholars claim the flooding of this area prompted the spread of wheat-based agriculture into the Mesopotamian area.
  13. 13. T C Turney, C.S.M. and Brown, H. (2007) "Catastrophic early Holocene sea level rise, human migration and the Neolithic transition in Europe." Quaternary Science Reviews, 26, 2036–2041.
  14. 14. Urbanization
  15. 15. In a good year Mesopotamian farmers could produce abundant crops with plenty of food left over. However, the region lacked many of the natural resources essential for continued development, and this paucity of natural resources was one of the major factors behind the unique development of the Mesopotamian cities. Because the inhabitants were forced to trade their agricultural surpluses for much-needed natural resources, they became traders and merchants who opened up and maintained trade routes with their resource-rich neighbours as far away as Egypt, India, and Afghanistan.
  16. 16. Perhaps the most important trade activity revolved around the new high technology of the day: bronze.
  17. 17. Bronze making was a transformative technology. Not only could it make weapons that stayed sharp, it was amazingly versatile. It could be cast into a wide range of shapes and sizes. Bronze is made from 10 parts copper to one part tin. As a general rule, where you find copper you don’’t find tin. Thus, the only way to have access to the key technology of that age was through trade.
  18. 18. Scientists can actually trace where the tin came from in these ancient bronze artifacts. Some tin came from what is now Turkey, Afghanistan, Spain, and even England.
  19. 19. Thus, throughout the so-called Bronze Age (approx 3300 BCE- 1100 BCE), trade and commerce (and interaction with foreign peoples) were essential.
  20. 20. In the ancient city of Kanesh, we have written records of a community of traders and merchants from Assur, a 19-day journey by mule (no horses yet). This community of traders brought in tin and textiles from Afghanistan and Egypt, and received silver and gold which they shipped back to Assur.
  21. 21. We know an enormous amount about these traders because we have f found 1000s and 1000s of their written letters (most dealing with money matters). But not all of them. Some are from their women as well, and talk of concerns that sound pretty similar to our own. One of the best of these is written by a lady called Lamasie who writes to her husband: “When you left you did not leave me any silver, not even one crooked shekle. And yet you write to me complaining about _my_ extravagance. We have no money to buy food and yet you think I am extravagant? I sent all my money to you and right now I am living in an empty house. Send me the money you make for the textiles which I made without delay. … Since you left our neighbor has made a house that is twice as large as ours. When will we be able to do the same?”
  22. 22. Sumerian City States The city-state was the system of political organization used in the southern part of the Tigris– Euphrates river valley during much of the third millennium BC . The city-state originated around 3500 BC, and consisted of an urban centre with as many as 50000 inhabitants, which served as the administrative, economic, and cultural core for the surrounding region. These city states are often referred to collectively as Sumer and their people as Sumerians.
  23. 23. Uruk This city-state is sometimes considered the first Mesopotamian city c. 4000 - 3000 BCE Eventually, other Sumerian city states developed, the most prominent were Ur and Kish.
  24. 24. Uruk (today) The Euphrates River has shifted over time and the land occupied by Uruk is now very arid. Interestingly, over a space of three or four hundred years, the people of Uruk built, tore down, and rebuilt, again and again, as if they were experimenting with architecture and urban forms.
  25. 25. Uruk was surprisingly large, just over 6 square kilometers, larger than classical Athens and almost as large as ancient Rome at its height.
  26. 26. Cone Mosaic from Uruk
  27. 27. Marble head from Uruk
  28. 28. Uruk culture, along with its urban organization, was very successful, and other so-called Uruk colonies spread across the wider Mesopotamia area.
  29. 29. These Bevel-Rimmed Bowls (BRB) are perhaps the most common indicator of Uruk culture. They are found in great number (almost ¾ of all pottery) and do not hold liquid. Believed to be ration payments for work performed.
  30. 30. Because these BRBs did not hold liquid and are of standardized size, they are believed to be ration payments for work performed. Agriculture irrigation cities power accounting writing
  31. 31. Ziggurat at Ur: uncovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1930s, partially reconstructed in 1980s under Saddam Hussein.
  32. 32. Sir Leonard Woolley and his team in the 1920s and 1930s excavated the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur.
  33. 33. Woolley and his team examined more than 1800 burials from about 2500 BC. In the midst of excavations, Woolley noted, “We are doing marvelously well: I’m sick to death of getting out gold headdresses.”
  34. 34. PG1237 was the most spectacular of Ur’s royal tombs. Woolley dubbed it “The Great Death Pit” and it included 6 men and 68 women.
  35. 35. Inside PG789, the Big Man’s burial chamber. Woolley: “The body of the dead ruler inside the sealed chamber, while outside the enclosure slowly filled with mourners, ladies in waiting, loyal soldiers and slaves, loudly bewailing their terrible loss. Then while a solemn music is playing, the tomb is shut from the outside and the mourners take poison. Lit from the flames of guttering oil lamps, they die one by one, presumably to be reborn and serve their master in the next world.”
  36. 36. According to Wooley, PG789 was the grave of an unknown king, who left behind a loving wife and queen so devoted that she wished to lay near him in death. She, therefore, had her own tomb chamber placed alongside her husband’s, but being a queen, she needed her own “death pit” for her court attendants. With no other space presumably available, her death pit was laid over the top of her husband’s tomb chamber, PG789. Yet when Wooley unearthed it, the King’s Chamber unlike Queen’s was empty of Chamber, the Queen s, goods: the builders of the queen’s tomb had looted her husband’s chamber! Queen’s Tomb King’s Tomb
  37. 37. In Ur, the king was called the Lu-gal, literally, the Big Man.
  38. 38. What the Standard of Ur was used for remains a mystery but it seems to have royal connections. It was buried in a royal grave and depicts two contrasting scenes of a king of Ur. It is about the size of a briefcase.
  39. 39. “One side shows what must be any ruler’s dream of how a tax system should operate. In the lower two registers, people calmly line up to offer their tribute … and on the top register, the king and the elites … feast on the proceeds while somebody plays the lyre.”
  40. 40. “From having a surplus, you get the emergence of classes, because some people can live off the labour of others, which they couldn’t do in small agricultural communities. Then you get the emergence of a priestly warrior class, or organized warfare, of tribute and something like a state – which is really the creation of a new form of power.”
  41. 41. Sumer decline and new empires By about 2000 BCE the Sumerian city states as a civilization was finished. Some have blamed environmental collapse as the cause of this decline. A variety of other peoples/cultures (Akkadians, Medians, Elamites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians) with different languages invaded/settled in the Mesopotamia area. These new people tended to adopt certain Sumerian practices (such as cuneiform writing).
  42. 42. The oldest known dictionary/encyclopedia is a series of 24 cuneiform tablets from the Akkadian empire with bilingual wordlists in Sumerian and Akkadian. The very first entry is a definition for the Sumerian word hubullu meaning interest-bearing debt, which says all you need to know about the priorities of the ancient Sumerians. Tablets 4 and 5 list naval and terrestrial vehicles, respectively. Tablets 13 to 15 contain a systematic enumeration of animal names, tablet 16 lists stones and tablet 17 plants. Tablet 22 lists star names.
  43. 43. Babylonians
  44. 44. Ishtar Gate was the eighth inner gate in Babylon. Now in Pergamon Museum in Berlin
  45. 45. The gate was in fact a double gate. The part that is shown in the Pergamon Museum today is only the smaller, frontal part, while the larger, back part was considered too large to fit into the constraints of the structure of the museum. It is in storage, which tells you all you need to know about the philosophy of 19th century European archeology.
  46. 46. Assyrians
  47. 47. The Assyrians were from the land just to the north of Mesopotamia, and have become a kind of by-word for ancient militarism. A wide range of impressive Assyrians palace carvings are in the British Museum in London and in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
  48. 48.
  49. 49.
  50. 50. Assyrian King Ashur-nasir-pal: “I built a pillar over the city gate, and I flayed all the chiefs that revolted. And I covered it with their skin. Some of them I enclosed alive within the pillar. Some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes Many captives among them I burned with fire and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, others their ears, some their fingers. Of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another pillar of heads heads. I bound other heads to the trees around the city. Their children I burned in the fires. Twenty men I b h brought to my l palace d and l d enclosed li alive within my palace walls. The rest of their army I consumed with thirst in the desert.”
  51. 51. Assyrian King Ashurbanipal : “The tombs of their [the Elamites] old kings I destroyed and devastated. … For twenty miles I scattered salt and i prickly plants over all their farms. The dust of their cities I gathered and took back to Assyria. The noise of the people, the tread of cattle and sheep, the glad shouts of rejoicing I banished it from their lands.” Assyrian King Sennacherib: “As a hurricane proceeds, I attacked Babylon, and like a storm I overthrew it. Its inhabitants young and old I did not spare and with their corpses I filled its streets. The city itself, from its building foundations to its roofs I devastated. By fire I overthrew. So the future would not remember it, I used water to wash away their temples. I turned everything else into a salted pasture. I took its soil and transported it to the mountains. Some of it I kept in a covered jar in my palace.”
  52. 52. Reconstruction of Nineveh. These carvings would have been painted and would have served a clear propaganda purpose: obey us … or else suffer the consequences!
  53. 53. Notice the desolation/emptiness of the land where these Bulls, which once adorned the palace at Nineveh (the Assyrian capital).
  54. 54. Even today, there is not much left of Nineveh excepts its walls.
  55. 55. Fall of Assyria After existing as a continuous kingdom/empire from about 2000 BCE, Assyria was destroyed in 612 at the height of its power by a coalition of Persians, Babylonians, and Scythians (horse archers from north of Mesopotamia). Its cities were so utterly destroyed that 200 years later, the Greek writer Xenophon passed by the ruins of its capital Nineveh with its huge walls (10 meters tall by 15 meters thick with30 km perimeter) in astonishment. None of the people living near by had any knowledge of the city nor did they know anything of what had happened to it.
  56. 56. Modern reconstruction of a section of Nineveh’s walls
  57. 57. Nineveh’’s 30km of walls superimposed on Calgary
  58. 58. We tend to think that our civilization and our way of life will last forever and is the pinnacle of human achievement. Yet every civilization that we will look at in this course also thought that way as well.