Art of the Ancient Near East

The Standard of Ur War Panel, 2600 BCE / British Museum, London

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.04.2017
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


The Mesopotamian Cultures

Sumer was an ancient civilization in southern Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages. Although the historical records in the region do not go back much further than ca. 2900 BCE, modern historians believe that Sumer was first settled between ca. 4500 and 4000 BCE by people who may or may not have spoken the Sumerian language. These people, now called the “Ubaidians,” were the first to drain the marshes for agriculture; develop trade; and establish industries including weaving, leatherwork, metalwork, masonry, and pottery.

The Sumerian city of Eridu, which at that time bordered the Persian Gulf, is believed to be the world’s first city. Here, three separate cultures fused—the peasant Ubaidian farmers, the nomadic Semitic-speaking pastoralists (farmers who raise livestock), and fisher folk. The surplus of storable food created by this economy allowed the region’s population to settle in one place, instead of migrating as hunter-gatherers. It also allowed for a much greater population density, which required an extensive labor force and a division of labor with many specialized arts and crafts.

An early form of wedge-shaped writing called cuneiform developed in the early Sumerian period. During this time, cuneiform and pictograms suggest the abundance of pottery and other artistic traditions. In addition to the production of vessels, clay was also used to make tablets for inscribing written documents. Metal also served various purposes during the early Sumerian period. Smiths used a form of casting to create the blades for daggers. On the other hand, softer metals like copper and gold could be hammered into the forms of plates, necklaces, and collars.

Stele of the Vultures. Battle formations on a fragment of the Stele of the Vultures. Example of Sumerian pictorial cuneiform writing. / Louvre Museum, Paris

By the late fourth millennium BCE, Sumer was divided into about a dozen independent city-states delineated by canals and other boundary makers. At each city center stood a temple dedicated to the particular patron god or goddess of the city. Priestly governors ruled over these temples and were intimately tied to the city’s religious rites.

Map of the cities of Sumer

The Ubaid Period

The Ubaid period is marked by a distinctive style of painted pottery, as seen in the example below, produced domestically on a slow wheel. This style eventually spread throughout the region. During this time, the first settlement in southern Mesopotamia was established at Eridu by farmers who first pioneered irrigation agriculture. Eridu remained an important religious center even after nearby Ur surpassed it in size.

Vessel from Mesopotamia, late Ubaid period (4,500–4,000 BCE) / Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Uruk Period

The transition from the Ubaid period to the Uruk period is marked by a gradual shift to a great variety of unpainted pottery mass-produced by specialists on fast wheels. The trough below is an example of pottery from this period.

Uruk trough, 3300-3000 BC / British Museum, London

By the time of the Uruk period (ca. 4100–2900 BCE), the volume of trade goods transported along the canals and rivers of southern Mesopotamia facilitated the rise of many large, stratified, temple-centered cities where centralized administrations employed specialized workers. Artifacts of the Uruk civilization have been found over a wide area—from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey, to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and as far east as Central Iran. The Uruk civilization, exported by Sumerian traders and colonists, had an effect on all surrounding peoples, who gradually developed their own comparable, competing economies and cultures.

Sumerian cities during the Uruk period were probably theocratic and likely headed by priest-kings (ensis), assisted by a council of elders, including both men and women. The later Sumerian pantheon (gods and goddesses) was likely modeled upon this political structure. There is little evidence of institutionalized violence or professional soldiers during the Uruk period. Towns generally lacked fortified walls, suggesting little, if any, need for defense. During this period, Uruk became the most urbanized city in the world, surpassing for the first time 50,000 inhabitants.


The earliest king authenticated through archaeological evidence is Enmebaragesi of Kish, whose name is also mentioned in the Gilgamesh epic (ca. 2100 BCE)—leading to the suggestion that Gilgamesh himself might have been a historical king of Uruk. As the Epic of Gilgamesh shows, the second millennium BCE was associated with increased violence. Cities became walled and increased in size as undefended villages in southern Mesopotamia disappeared.

Ceramics in Mesopotamia

Although ceramics developed in East Asia c. 20,000-10,000 BCE, the practice of throwing arose with the invention of the potter’s wheel in Mesopotamia around the fourth millennium BCE. The earliest clay vessels date to the Chalcolithic Era, which is divided into the Ubaid (5000-4000 BCE) and Uruk (4000-3100 BCE) periods.

The Chalcolithic Era

The Ubaid period is marked by a distinctive style of fine quality painted pottery which spread throughout Mesopotamia. Ceramists produced vases, bowls, and small jars domestically on slow wheels, painting unique abstract designs on the fired clay.

Experts differentiate the Ubaid period from the Uruk period by the style of pottery produced in each era. During the Uruk period, the potter’s wheel advanced to allow for faster speeds. As such, ceramists could produce pottery more quickly, leading to the mass production of standardized, unpainted styles of vessels.

The Akkadian Empire

As the Akkadian Empire overtook the Sumerian city-states, ceramists continued to produce bowls, vases, jars, and other objects in a variety of shapes and sizes. Like Uruk pottery, the surfaces of these objects were left unpainted, although some vessels appear to have a form of abstract reliefs on the surface. This photograph displays the various forms (including a form that resembles a present-day cake stand) that pottery took during the Akkadian Empire.

A collection of Akkadian pottery on display at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago


The Third Ur Dynasty, better known as Ur III, witnessed the continuation of unpainted ceramic vessels that took a variety of forms. This photograph depicts an urn that resembles today’s flower vases, as well as bowls, cups, and a smaller vase.

A collection of pottery from the Ur III period on display at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago.

As in previous eras, clay was also used to produce writing tablets that were incised with styluses fashioned from blunted reeds. Often, tablets were used for record-keeping (the ancient version of an office memo). Like other ceramic objects, tablets could be fired in a kiln to produce a permanent form if the text was believed significant enough to preserve. The tablets in the photograph below contain information about farm animals and workers.

A collection of administrative texts in cuneiform writing on display at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago.

Babylonian Ceramics

Pottery produced during the “Old” Babylonian period shows a return to painted abstract designs and increased variety in forms. In this photograph, a bowl, a jar, and a goblet show remnants of paint on their exteriors.

A collection of old Babylonian pottery on display at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago.

Sculpture in Mesopotamia

The current archaeological record dates sculpture in Mesopotamia the tenth millennium BCE, before the dawn of civilization. Sculptural forms include humans, animals, and cylinder seals with cuneiform writing and imagery in the round or as reliefs. Materials range from terra cotta, stones like alabaster and gypsum, and metals like copper and bronze.

Hunter-Gatherers and Samarra

Because the artists of the hunter-gatherer era were nomadic, the sculptures they produced were small and lightweight. Even after cultures discovered agricultural methods, such as irrigation and animal domestication, artists continued to produce small sculptures. The seated female figure below (c. 6000 BCE), likely carved from a single stone,  hails from the prehistoric Samarra culture (5500-4800 BCE). Like many prehistoric female figures, the features of this sculpture suggest that it was used in fertility rituals. Its breasts are accentuated, and its legs are spread in a position that might resemble a woman in labor. While the artist emphasized areas of the body related to reproduction, he or she did not add facial features or feet to the figure.

A female statuette from Samarra (c.6000 BCE) on display at the Louvre Museum, Paris

Uruk Period

Spirituality and communication are reflected in sculptures dating the Uruk period (4000-3100 BCE) of the late prehistoric era. Scholars believe that the gypsum Uruk trough was used as part of an offering to Inanna, the goddess of fertility, love, war, and wisdom. In addition to reliefs of animals, reliefs of reed bundles, sacred objects associated with Inanna, adorn the exterior of the trough. For these reasons, scholars do not believe the trough was used for agricultural purposes.

Animals, along with forms of writing, also appear on early cylinder seals, which were carved from stones and used to notarize documents. Officials or their scribes rolled the seals on wet clay tablets as a form of signature. Cylinder seals were also worn as jewelry and have been found along with precious metals and stones in the tombs of the elite members of society. The trough, cylinder seals, and various other sculptures of the Uruk period serve as examples of the rich narrative imagery that arose during this time.

An Uruk-period cylinder seal and stamped clay tablet (4100-3000 BCE) featuring monstrous lions and lion-headed eagles, on display at the Louvre Museum, Paris

The Uruk period also marked an evolution in the depiction of the human body, as seen in the Mask of Warka (c. 3000 BCE), named for the present-day Iraqi city in which it was discovered. This marble “mask” is all that remains of a mixed-media sculpture that also consisted of a wooden body, gold leaf “hair,” inlaid “eyes” and “eyebrows,” and jewelry. Like most sculptures produced during the time, the sculpture was originally painted in an attempt to make it look lifelike.

Uruk Head, also known as the Mask of Warka (c. 3000 BCE). The eyes and eyebrows on this Uruk marble head are hollow to accommodate the original inlay.

Early Dynastic Period

Sculpture built on older traditions and grew more complex during the Early Dynastic Period (2900-2350 BCE). Although artists still used clay and stone, copper became the dominant medium. Subject matter focused on spiritual matters, war, and social scenes.

A cylinder seal discovered in the royal tomb of Queen Puabi depicts two registers of a palace banquet scene punctuated by cuneiform script, marking a growing complexity in the imagery of this form of notarization. Each register features hieratic scale, in which the queen (upper register) and the king (lower register) are larger than their subjects.

Cylinder seal and stamped clay fragment from the tomb of Queen Puabi (c. 2600 BCE). The queen sits on the top register, while the king sits on the bottom. Each figure is set apart from his or her subjects through hieratic scale. / Louvre Museum, Paris

Another sculpture of note is a mixed-media bull’s head that once adorned a ceremonial lyre found in Puabi’s tomb in Ur. The head consists of a gold “face,” lapis lazuli (a blue precious stone) “fur,” and shell “horns.” Although much of the lyre, whose dominant material was wood, disintegrated over time, contemporaneous imagery depicts lyres with similar decoration. Scholars believe that lyres were used in burial ceremonies and that the music that was played held religious significance.

Bull’s head from ceremonial lyre (c. 2600 BCE). This lyre was found in the tomb of queen Pu-Abi. The lapis lazuli, shell, red limestone decoration, and the head of the bull are original. The bull’s head is covered with gold. The eyes are lapis lazuli and shell. The beard and hair are lapis lazuli. A lyre of the same type is shown on the Standard of Ur. / British Museum, London

Sculptures in human form were also used as votive offerings in temples. Among the best known are the Tell Asmar Hoard, a group of 12 sculptures in the round depicting worshipers, priests, and gods. Like the cylinder seal found in Queen Puabi’s tomb, the figures in the Tell Asmar Hoard show hieratic scale. Worshipers, as in the image below, stand with their arms in front of their chests and their hands in the position of holding offerings. Materials range from alabaster to limestone to gypsum, depending on each figure’s significance. One common feature is the large hollowed out eye sockets, which were once inlaid with stone to make them appear lifelike. The eyes held spiritual significance, especially that of the gods, which represented awesome otherworldly power.

Votive figure of a male worshiper from Tell Asmar (2750-2600 BCE). The votive figure—made from alabaster, shell, black limestone, and bitumen—depicts a male worshiper of Enil, a powerful Mesopotamian god. / British Museum, London

Akkadian Empire

During the period of the Akkadian Empire (2271-2154 BCE), sculpture of the human form grew increasingly naturalistic, and its subject matter increasingly about politics and warfare.

A cast bronze portrait head believed to be that of King Sargon combines a naturalistic nose and mouth with stylized eyes, eyebrows, hair, and beard. Although the stylized features dominate the sculpture, the level of naturalism was unprecedented.

Head of an Akkadian ruler, probably Sargon (2270-2215 BCE). This portrait combines naturalistic and stylized facial features and was cast using the lost-wax method. The eye sockets were once inlaid. / British Museum, London

The Victory Stele of Naram Sin provides an example of the increasingly violent subject matter in Akkadian art, a result of the violent and oppressive climate of the empire. Here, the king is depicted as a divine figure, as signified by his horned helmet. In typical hieratic fashion, Naram Sin appears larger than his soldiers and his enemies. The king stands among dead or dying enemy soldiers as his own troops look on from a lower vantage point. The figures are depicted in high relief to amplify the dramatic significance of the scene. On the right hand side of the stele, cuneiform script provides narration.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (12th century BCE). The king stands in the center of the stele wearing a horned headpiece. His dead and dying enemies surround him while his own soldiers passively observe. / Louvre Museum, Paris

Babylon and Assyria

The second millennium BCE marks the transition from the Middle Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age. The most prominent cultures in the ancient Near East during this period were Babylonia and Assyria. Clay was the dominant medium during this time, but stone was also used. The most common surviving forms of second millennium BCE Mesopotamian art are cylinder seals, relatively small free-standing figures, and reliefs of various sizes. These included cheap plaques, both religious and otherwise, of molded pottery for private homes.

Babylonian culture somewhat preferred sculpture in the round to reliefs. Depictions of human figures were naturalistic. The Assyrians, on the other hand, developed a style of large and exquisitely detailed narrative reliefs in painted stone or alabaster. Intended for palaces, these reliefs depict royal activities such as battles or hunting. Predominance is given to animal forms, particularly horses and lions, which are represented in great detail. Human figures are static and rigid by comparison, but also minutely detailed. The Assyrians produced very little sculpture in the round with the exception of colossal guardian figures, usually lions and winged beasts, that flanked fortified royal gateways. While Assyrian artists were greatly influenced by the Babylonian style, a distinctly Assyrian artistic style began to emerge in Mesopotamia around 1500 BCE.

Burney Relief (c. 1800-1750 BCE). The Burney Relief is a Mesopotamian terra cotta plaque in high relief of the Old-Babylonian period, depicting a winged, nude, goddess-like figure with bird’s talons, flanked by owls, and perched upon supine lions. Apart from its distinctive iconography, the sculpture is noted for its high relief and relatively large size, which suggests that is was used as a cult relief, which makes it a very rare survival from the period. / British Museum, London

Architecture in Mesopotamia

Domestic and public architecture in Mesopotamian cultures differed in relative simplicity and complexity. As time passed, public architecture grew to monumental heights.

The Mesopotamians regarded “the craft of building” as a divine gift taught to men by the gods, and architecture flourished in the region. A paucity of stone in the region made sun baked bricks and clay the building material of choice. Babylonian architecture featured pilasters and columns, as well as frescoes and enameled tiles. Assyrian architects were strongly influenced by the Babylonian style, but used stone as well as brick in their palaces, which were lined with sculptured and colored slabs of stone instead of being painted. Existing ruins point to load-bearing architecture as the dominant form of building. However, the invention of the round arch in the general area of Mesopotamia influenced the construction of structures like the Ishtar Gate in the sixth century BCE.

Domestic Architecture

Mesopotamian families were responsible for the construction of their own houses. While mud bricks and wooden doors comprised the dominant building materials, reeds were also used in construction. Because houses were load-bearing, doorways were often the only openings. Sumerian culture observed a rigid division between the public sphere and the private sphere, a norm that resulted in a lack of direct view from the street into the home. The sizes of individual houses varied, but the general design consisted of smaller rooms organized around a large central room. To provide a natural cooling effect, courtyards became a common feature in the Ubaid period and persist into the domestic architecture of present-day Iraq.


One of the most remarkable achievements of Mesopotamian architecture was the development of the ziggurat, a massive structure taking the form of a terraced step pyramid of successively receding stories or levels, with a shrine or temple at the summit. Like pyramids, ziggurats were built by stacking and piling. Ziggurats were not places of worship for the general public. Rather, only priests or other authorized religious officials were allowed inside to tend to cult statues and make offerings. The first surviving ziggurats date to the Sumerian culture in the fourth millennium BCE, but they continued to be a popular architectural form in the late third and early second millennium BCE as well.

The Chogha Zanbil ziggurat was built in 1250 BC by Untash-Napirisha, the king of Elam, to honor the Elamite god Inshushinak.

The image below is an artist’s reconstruction of how ziggurats might have looked in their heyday. Human figures appear to illustrate the massive scale of these structures. This impressive height and width would not have been possible without the use of ramps and pulleys.

An artist’s reconstruction of a ziggurat.

Political Architecture

The exteriors of public structures like temples and palaces featured decorative elements such as bright paint, gold, leaf, and enameling. Some elements, such as colored stones and terra cotta panels, served a twofold purpose of decoration and structural support, which strengthened the buildings and delayed their deterioration.

Between the thirteenth and tenth centuries BCE, the Assyrians replaced sun-baked bricks with more durable stone and masonry. Colored stone and bas reliefs replaced paint as decoration. Art produced under the reigns of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE), Sargon II (722-705 BCE), and Ashurbanipal (668-627 BCE) inform us that reliefs evolved from simple and vibrant to naturalistic and restrained over this time span.

From the Early Dynastic Period (2900-2350 BCE) to the Assyrian Empire (25th century-612 BCE), palaces grew in size and complexity. However, even early palaces were very large and ornately decorated to distinguish themselves from domestic architecture. Because palaces housed the royal family and everyone who attended to them, palaces were often arranged like small cities, with temples and sanctuaries, as well as locations to inter the dead. As with private homes, courtyards were important features of palaces for both utilitarian and ceremonial purposes.

By the time of the Assyrian empire, palaces were decorated with narrative reliefs on the walls and outfitted with their own gates. The gates of the Palace of Dur-Sharrukin, occupied by Sargon II, featured monumental alto reliefs of a mythological guardian figure called a lamassu (also known as a shedu), which had the head of a human, the body of a bull or lion, and enormous wings. Lamassu figure in the visual art and literature from most of the ancient Mesopotamian world, going as far back as ancient Sumer (settled c. 5500 BCE) and standing guard at the palace of Persepolis (550-330 BCE).

This is only one example of how a lamassu would appear in Mesopotamian art. Other sculptures wear conical caps, face the front, or have the bodies of lions. In literature, some lamassu assumed female form. c.721-705 BCE / University of Chicago Oriental Institute

Although the Romans often receive credit for the round arch, this structural system actually originated during ancient Mesopotamian times. Where typical load-bearing walls are not strong enough to have many windows or doorways, round arches absorb more pressure, allowing for larger openings and improved airflow. The reconstruction of Dur-Sharrukin shows that the round arch was being used as entryways by the eighth century BCE.

Palace of Dur-Sharrukin. Round arches can be found in the central portal, as well as in each window on the right and left.

Perhaps the best known surviving example of a round arch is in the Ishtar Gate, which was part of the Processional Way in the city of Babylon. The gate, now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, was lavishly decorated with lapis lazuli complemented by blue glazed brick. Elsewhere on the gate and its connecting walls were painted floral motifs and bas reliefs of animals that were sacred to Ishtar, the goddess of fertility and war.

Ishtar Gate (c. 575 BCE). The reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

The photograph above shows the immense scale of the gate. The photograph below shows the detail of a relief of a bull from the gate’s wall.

Detail of bull relief on Ishtar Gate. An aurochs, or bull, above a flower ribbon. / Pergamon Museum, Berlin


The Assyrian Culture

The Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian capitals of Nimrud, Dur-Sharrukin, and Nineveh are known today for their ruins of great palaces and fortifications.

Nimrud and Ashurnasirpal II

Nimrud is an ancient Assyrian city located in southern, modern Iraq on the River Tigris. In ancient times the city was called Kalhu. The ruins of the city are found some 30 kilometers (19 miles) southeast of Mosul.

The Assyrian king Shalmaneser I made Nimrud, which existed for about a thousand years, the capital in the thirteenth century BCE. The city gained fame when king Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria (c. 880 BCE) built a large palace and temples on the site of an earlier city that had long fallen into ruins. Nimrud housed as many as 100,000 inhabitants and contained botanic gardens and a zoologic garden. Ashurnasirpal’s son, Shalmaneser III (858–824 BCE), built the monument known as the Great Ziggurat and an associated temple. The palace, restored as a site museum, is one of only two preserved Assyrian palaces in the world. The other is Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh. Nimrud remained the Assyrian capital until 706 BCE when Sargon II moved the capital to Dur-Sharrukin, but it remained a major center and a royal residence until the city was completely destroyed in 612 BCE when Assyria succumbed under the invasion of the Medes.

Excavations at Nimrud in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries revealed remarkable bas-reliefs, ivories, and sculptures. A statue of Ashurnasirpal II was found in an excellent state of preservation, as were colossal winged man-headed lions, each guarding the palace entrance. The large number of inscriptions pertaining to king Ashurnasirpal II provide more details about him and his reign than are known for any other ruler of this epoch.

Gate Guardians: The Man-Headed Lions. This Portal Guardian (Lamassu) from Nimrud guarded the entrance to the palace at Nimrud. / British Museum, London

Portions of the site have been also been identified, such as temples to Ninurta and Enlil, a building assigned to Nabu (the god of writing and the arts), and extensive fortifications. Furthermore, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, discovered in 1846, stands six-and-a-half-feet tall and commemorates the king’s victorious campaigns from 859–824 BCE. It is shaped like a temple tower at the top, ending in three steps.

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III commemorates the king’s victorious campaigns from 859–824 BCE. / British Museum, London

On one panel, Israelites led by king Jehu of Israel pay tribute and bow in the dust before king Shalmaneser III, who is making a libation to his god. The cuneiform text on the obelisk reads “Jehu the son of Omri” and mentions gifts of gold, silver, lead, and spear shafts. The “Treasure of Nimrud” unearthed in these excavations is a collection of over 600 pieces of gold jewelry and precious stones.On one panel, Israelites led by king Jehu of Israel pay tribute and bow in the dust before king Shalmaneser III, who is making a libation to his god. The cuneiform text on the obelisk reads “Jehu the son of Omri” and mentions gifts of gold, silver, lead, and spear shafts. The “Treasure of Nimrud” unearthed in these excavations is a collection of over 600 pieces of gold jewelry and precious stones.

Black Obelisk detail. Depiction of either Jehu son of Jehoshaphat son of Nimshi, or Jehu’s ambassador, bowing before Shalmaneser III. / British Museum, London

Sargon II and Dur-Sharrukin

Dur-Sharrukin, or present day Khorsabad, was the Assyrian capital in the time of King Sargon II. Today, Khorsabad is now a village in northern Iraq, and is still inhabited by Assyrians. The construction of Dur-Sharrukin was never finished. Sargon, who ordered the project, was killed during a battle in 705. After his death, his son and successor Sennacherib abandoned the project and relocated the capital with its administration to the city of Nineveh.

Dur-Sharrukin was constructed on a rectangular layout. Its walls were massive, with 157 towers protecting its sides. Seven gates entered the city from all directions. A walled terrace contained temples and the royal palace. The main temples were dedicated to the gods Nabu, Shamash, and Sin, while Adad, Ningal, and Ninurta had smaller shrines. A ziggurat was also constructed at the site. The palace was adorned with sculptures and wall reliefs, with its gates flanked by winged-bull shedu statues weighing up to 40 tons. On the central canal of Sargon’s garden stood a pillared pleasure-pavilion which looked up to a great topographic creation—a man-made Garden Mound. This mound was planted with cedars and cypresses and modeled after the Amanus mountains in northern Syria.

The colossal bull statue (lamassu) was uncovered outside the throne room. It was found split into three large fragments. The torso alone weighed about 20 tons. Since Dur-Sharrukin was a single-period site that was evacuated in an orderly manner after the death of Sargon II, few individual objects were found. The primary discoveries from Khorsabad shed light on Assyrian art and architecture.


Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, and the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Its ruins are across the river from the modern-day major city of Mosul in Iraq.

Today, Nineveh’s location is marked by two large mounds, Kouyunjik and Nabī Yūnus “Prophet Jonah,” and the remains of the city walls. These were fitted with fifteen monumental gateways which served as checkpoints on entering and exiting the ancient city, and were probably also used as barracks and armories. With the inner and outer doors shut, the gateways were virtual fortresses. Five of the gateways have been explored to some extent by archaeologists.

Nineveh was an important junction for commercial routes crossing the Tigris. Occupying a central position on the great highway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, Nineveh united the East and the West, and received wealth from many sources. Thus, it became one of the oldest and greatest of all the region’s ancient cities, and the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The area was settled as early as 6000 BCE, and by 3000 BCE had become an important religious center for worship of the Assyrian goddess Ishtar.

It was not until the Neo-Assyrian Empire that Nineveh experienced a considerable architectural expansion. King Sennacherib is credited with making Nineveh a truly magnificent city during his rule (c. 700 BCE). He laid out new streets and squares and built within it the famous “palace without a rival”, the plan of which has been mostly recovered. It comprised at least 80 rooms, many of which were lined with sculpture. A large number of cuneiform tablets were found in the palace. The solid foundation was made out of limestone blocks and mud bricks. Some of the principal doorways were flanked by colossal stone-door figures that included many winged lions or bulls with the heads of men. The stone carvings in the walls include many battle and hunting scenes, as well as depicting Sennacherib’s men parading the spoils of war before him.

Royal Nineveh carving. The king hunting lion from the North Palace, Nineveh / British Museum, London

Nineveh’s greatness was short-lived. In around 627 BCE, after the death of its last great king Ashurbanipal, the Neo-Assyrian empire began to unravel due to a series of bitter civil wars, and Assyria was attacked by the Babylonians and Medes. From about 616 BCE, in a coalition with the Scythians and Cimmerians, they besieged Nineveh, sacking the town in 612, and later razing it to the ground.

The Assyrian empire as such came to an end by 605 BC, with the Medes and Babylonians dividing its colonies between them. Following its defeat in 612, the site remained largely unoccupied for centuries with only a scattering of Assyrians living amid the ruins until the Sassanian period, although Assyrians continue to live in the surrounding area to this day.

Architecture in Assyria

Assyrian architecture eventually emerged from the shadow of its predecessors to assume distinctive attributes, such as domes and diverse building materials, that set it apart from other political entities.

During the Assyrian Empire’s historical span from the 25th century BCE to 612 BCE, architectural styles went through noticeable changes. Assyrian architects were initially influenced by previous forms dominant in Sumer and Akkad. However, Assyrian structures eventually evolved into their own unique style.


Little is known of the construction of Assyrian temples with the exception of the distinctive ziggurats and massive remains at Mugheir. Ziggurats in the Assyrian Empire came to be built with two towers (as opposed to the single central tower of previous styles) and decorated with colored enameled tiles. Contemporaneous inscriptions and reliefs describe and depict structures with octagonal and circular domes, unique architectural systems for the time. Little remains of the temple at Mugheir, but the ruins of its base remain quite impressive, measuring 198 feet (60 m) long by 133 feet (41 m) wide by 70 feet (21 m) high.


Building plans remained rectangular through much of the empire’s history. The fortress of Sargon II (reigned 722–705 BCE) at Dur-Sharrukin, or Khorsabad, was the best known. Consisting of a stone foundation punctuated by seven gates, the fortress housed the emperor’s palace and a ziggurat among massive load-bearing walls with regularly spaced towers.

Reconstruction of the palace of Sargon II at Dur-Sharrukin. Image shows the typical rectangular plan and massive fortified walls of Assyrian palace architecture.

Despite the intended political symbolism of Assyrian superiority, these fortified walls signify preparation for an attack by enemy invaders. Among the ornamental features excavated was a monumental lamassu outside the throne room. After the death of Sargon II, the site was abandoned.

Lamassu from Dur-Sharrukin / British Museum, London


Lamassu figures abounded throughout the Assyrian Empire, featuring in the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883-859 BCE) at Nimrud. Reconstructions show that they adorned the gateways of the palace, including an entrance marked by a round arch. According to contemporaneous inscriptions, the palace consisted of wood from a diverse number of tree species, alabaster, limestone, and a variety of precious metals. As with Dur-Sharrukin, the palace of Ashurnasirpal II was surrounded by fortified load-bearing walls.

Balawat Gates

Builders increasingly used wood, particularly cedar and cypress, in architecture. As a result, much of the architecture has decayed, leaving archaeologists to produce reconstructions for present-day scholars. One example is the Balawat Gates, from the Assyrian outpost of Balawat, or Imgur-Enlil. Two sets were commissioned during the reign of Ashurnasirpal II and one addition set under the reign of his son Shalmaneser III (859–824 BCE). Assyrian inscriptions suggest the gates were made of cedar. Experts estimate that the gates stood over 22 feet high. The metal bands that adorned the gates suggest that they measured 285 feet wide. Lacking hinges, the gates opened by turning enormous pine pillars that rotated in stone sockets. Despite the long-term fragility of wood, the scale of the gates and the mechanisms by which they opened and closed point to the political instability of the time and the need to defend all parts of the empire.

Reconstruction of the Balawat Gates at the British Museum. Woman in photograph provides an idea of the scale of the gates.

Artifacts of Assyria

Artifacts produced during the Assyrian Empire range from hand-held to monumental and consist of a variety of media, from clay to bronze to a diversity of stone. While reliefs comprise the majority of what archaeologists have found, existing sculptures in the round shed light on Assyrian numerical systems and politics.

Assyrian Lion Weights

Assyrian Lion Weights. These weights represented one of only two known systems of weights and measures in Mesopotamia at the time.

The Assyrian Lion Weights (800-700 BCE) are a group of solid bronze weights that range from two centimeters (approximately 0.8 inches) to 30 centimeters (approximately 12 inches). Admired as sculptures in the round today, the weights represent one of only two systems of weights and measures in the region at the time. This system was based on heavy mina (about one kilogram) and was used for weighting metals. Additionally, they bear inscriptions in Assyrian cuneiform and Phoenician script, indicating use by speakers of both languages. Eight lions in the set bear the only known inscriptions from the reign of Shalmaneser V (reigned 727-722 BCE).

Statue of Ashurnasirpal II

Statue of Ashurnasirpal II. The king’s beard and hairstyle set him apart from his subjects. He holds a sickle as a form of mythological defense and a mace as a symbol of authority. / British Museum, London

This magnesite (magnesium carbonate) sculpture of Ashurnasirpal II (9th century BCE) serves as a rare example of sculpture in the round produced during the Assyrian Empire. The kings stands stiffly with a sickle in his right hand (at his side) and a mace in his left, which he holds to his torso. Both objects are symbolic; the sickle was used as a weapon against monsters, while the mace was a symbol of political and religious authority. The inscription on his chest announce his genealogy, titles, and military triumphs. Although the sculpture is stylized, it gives the viewer a glimpse into fashion norms for rulers at the time. The length of the king’s hair and beard set him apart from commoners, who would have found such styles impractical.


Lamassu from Nimrud. Each lamassu figure faced a specific cardinal direction. / British Museum, London

The lamassu was a mythological guardian figure with large wings, the head of a human, and the body of a lion or a bull. Originally a protective spirit to the households of Babylonian commoners, the lamassu was later adopted by Assyrian royalty to protect political and religious interests. In Assyrian sculpture, lamassu figures bear similar beards and hairstyles to those of Ashurnasirpal II in the sculpture discussed above. These monumental sculptures usually appeared in relief form in pairs at major entrances to cities, palaces, or fortresses. Each lamassu directed its gaze toward one of the cardinal directions, which explains why some look straight ahead and others have their heads turned.

Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III

Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. This limestone obelisk contains 20 registers depicting conquered kings paying tribute to Assyrian power and celebrating the military campaigns of Shalmaneser III. / British Museum, London

Erected during a time of civil war (825 BCE), the limestone Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III is the most intact Assyrian obelisk found to date. Each side consists of five registers of bas reliefs that celebrate the achievements of King Shalmaneser III (reigned 858-824 BCE). Three registers on each side focus on conquered kings from specific regions paying tribute to the Assyrian ruler. The registers at the top and bottom of each side bear an inscription from the annals of Shalmaneser III, celebrating his annual military campaigns.


The Neo-Babylonian Empire, also known as the Chaldean Empire, was a civilization in Mesopotamia that began in 626 BC and ended in 539 BC.

During the preceding three centuries, Babylonia had been ruled by the Akkadians and Assyrians, but threw off the yoke of external domination after the death of Assurbanipal, the last strong Assyrian ruler. The Neo-Babylonian period was a renaissance that witnessed a great flourishing of art, architecture, and science.

The Neo-Babylonian rulers were motivated by the antiquity of their heritage and followed a traditionalist cultural policy, based on the ancient Sumero-Akkadian culture. Ancient artworks from the Old-Babylonian period were painstakingly restored and preserved, and treated with a respect verging on religious reverence. Neo-Babylonian art and architecture reached its zenith under King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from 604–562 BC and was a great patron of urban development, bent on rebuilding all of Babylonia’s cities to reflect their former glory.

It was Nebuchadnezzar II’s vision and sponsorship that turned Babylon into the immense and beautiful city of legend. The city spread over three square miles, surrounded by moats and ringed by a double circuit of walls. The river Euphrates, which flowed through the city, was spanned by a beautiful stone bridge. At the heart of the city lay the ziggurat Etemenanki, literally “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth.” Originally seven stories high, it is believed to have provided the inspiration for the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

It was also during this period that Nebuchadnezzar supposedly built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, although there is no definitive archeological evidence to establish their precise location. Ancient Greek and Roman writers describe the gardens in vivid detail. However, the lack of physical ruins have led many experts to speculate whether the Hanging Gardens existed at all. If this is the case, writers might have been describing ideal mythologized Eastern gardens or a famous garden built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (704–681 BCE) at Nineveh roughly a century earlier. If the Hanging Gardens did exist, they were likely destroyed around the first century CE.

19th-century reconstruction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Two lamassu sculptures in the round face each other in the foreground, while another reconstruction of the ziggurat Etemenanki dominates the background.

Most of the evidence for Neo-Babylonian art and architecture is literary. The material evidence itself is mostly fragmentary. Some of the most important fragments that survive are from the Ishtar Gate, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed in 575 BC by order of Nebuchadnezzar II, using glazed brick with alternating rows of bas-relief dragons and aurochs. Dedicated to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, it was a double gate, and its roofs and doors were made of cedar, according to the dedication plaque. Babylon’s Processional Way, which was lined with brilliantly colorful glazed brick walls decorated with lions, ran through the middle of the gate. Statues of the Babylonian gods were paraded through the gate and down the Processional Way during New Year’s celebrations.

Ishtar Gate detail. An aurochs above a flower ribbon with missing tiles filled in (Ishtar Gate bas-relief, housed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin). A prominent characteristic of Neo-Babylonian art and architecture was the use of brilliantly colorful glazed bricks.

The reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, built at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin in 1930, features material excavated from the original site. To compensate for missing pieces, museum staff created new bricks in a specially designed kiln that was able to match the original color and finish. Other parts of the gate, which include glazed brick lions and dragons, are housed in different museums around the world.

Ishtar Gate at Pergamon Museum. This was reconstructed in Berlin in 1930, using materials excavated from the original build-site.


Arts of the Persian Empire

Persia, centered around present-day Iran, was the site of a vast empire that existed in three general phases. The Achaemenids (550–330 BCE) established the first Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great, who quickly expanded the empire’s borders. Zoroastrianism, an ancient monotheistic religion, dominated the Persian Empire until Islam supplanted it in the seventh century CE. While the religion was unique, the art of the empire was largely syncretic, combining the styles of diverse conquered and neighboring peoples. The result was a new, unique Persian style.

Early Persian Empire. In the Achaemenid  period, the Persian Empire stretched across a vast swath of the Middle East into northern Africa and southern Europe.


One artistic technique incorporated from other cultures involved the smithing and hammering of gold, possibly adopted from the Medes. The most common surviving metal objects are ceremonial drinking cups called rhyta made of gold and silver. Rhyta were used in prehistoric Aegean and Greek cultures, most notably the Mycenaeans in the sixteenth century BCE. The gold rhyton below, which bears a stylized ram’s head in relief, dates to the Achaemenid period.

Gold rhyton, 550-330 BCE / National Museum of Iran, Tehran

Better known than ceremonial rhyta is the Oxus Treasure, a 180-piece trove of reliefs, figurines, jewelry, and coins made of gold and silver. The treasure is important because it demonstrates the variety of forms in which metal was worked during the early Persian Empire. The gold chariot below demonstrates the precision possible with small sculptures and includes a small votive based on the Egyptian god Bes.

Gold chariot from Oxus Treasure, amalgamated from fragments of other objects in the trove / British Museum, London

The griffin-headed bracelet also found in the treasure was once inlaid with enamel and precious stones. Once thought to have originated with the ancient Egyptians, the manner of goldsmithing evident in the amulet was later found in Assyrian art. The style of the animals originated with the Scythians, who inhabited the Steppes of Russia.

Bracelet from the Oxus Treasure. Indentations show where the bracelet once held enamel and stone inlay. / British Museum, London

Cyrus the Great

Persian art incorporated not only the styles of conquered peoples but also their languages. A large bas relief representing Cyrus the Great as a four-winged guardian figure proclaims his rank and ethnicity as an Achaemenidian in three languages. The stylized profile pose in which the king stands recalls the dominant Egyptian style of depicting the human body in art.

Cyrus the Great as a winged guardian figure. This stylized relief of Cyrus borrows from the Egyptian style of depicting the human body and proclaims the king’s ethnicity and rank in three languages. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Cyrus is believed to have died in December 530 BCE and was interred in a tomb that further demonstrates the syncretism of Persian art. The load-bearing tomb, pyramidal-roofed, sits atop a geometric mound that resembles a stepped pyramid of Pre-Dynastic Egypt. Despite the razing of the original city centuries ago, the tomb remains largely intact.

Tomb of Cyrus the Great. Syncretic attributes include the pyramidal base of the tomb. / Pasargadae, Iran

Art and Architecture of the Achaemenid Empire

Ancient Persian art developed and flourished under the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550–330 BCE), an Iranian empire in Western Asia, which eventually came to rule the ancient world from the Indus Valley in the east to Thrace and Macedon in the west.

Not only was the Achaemenid Dynasty militarily and politically influential, but it also left a long-lasting social and cultural legacy throughout its vast realms. Among its greatest cultural achievements was the development of Achaemenid art and architecture, which were intimately intertwined, reflected techniques and influences from the many corners of its huge empire, and synthesized different styles to develop a unique Persian style.

Decorative frieze from the palace of Darius the Great at Susa, ca. 510 BCE. Decorative panels from the terra-cotta griffins’ frieze. The vivid colors were preserved, thanks to the ruins being buried underground and protected from the elements. / Louvre Museum, Paris

The Achaemenid Persians were particularly skilled at constructing complex frieze reliefs; crafting precious metals into jewelry, vessels, statuettes, and a myriad of other shapes; glazed brick masonry; decorating palaces; and creating gardens. They also constructed spectacular cities for governance and habitation, temples for worship and social gatherings, and mausoleums honoring fallen kings. The quintessential characteristic of Persian art and architecture is its eclectic nature, combining elements of Median, Assyrian, and Asiatic Greek styles.


The extraordinary architectural legacy of the Achaemenids is best seen in the ruins of the opulent city of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire. Located about 70 kilometers northeast of the modern Iranian city of Shiraz, Persepolis is a wide, elevated complex 40 feet high, 100 feet wide, and a third of a mile long.

Panoramic view of the ruins of Persepolis / Photo by Hansueli Krapf, Wikimedia Commons

It consists of multiple halls, corridors, a wide terrace, and a symmetrical double stairway providing access to the terrace, decorated with reliefs depicting scenes from nature and daily life. The largest hall in the complex is the audience hall of Apadana. This hypostyle hall has a total of 36 fluted columns with capitals sculpted into unique forms. It famously features the exquisite “Treasure Reliefs”—friezes emphasizing the divine presence and power of the king and depicting scenes from all across his vast empire and his army of Persian immortals.

The construction of Persepolis was initiated by Darius I (550–486 BCE), who also commissioned the construction of a grand palace in the city of Susa. The palace featured imperial art on an entirely unprecedented scale. Materials and artists were drawn from all corners of the empire to work on it. Styles, tastes, and motifs intermingled in a lavish expression of the hybrid art and architecture that was characteristic of the Persian Achaemenid style. This attention to diversity also appears in the reliefs from the hall of Apadana, in which leaders and dignitaries from various provinces appear in regional fashions beneath a frieze punctuated by male lamassus adopted from previous Mesopotamian cultures.

Relief from Apadana Hall, Persepolis. Features 5th century BC carving of Persian and Median soldiers in traditional costume. Note the subtle differences in the clothing and style of the soldiers on each side. The Medians are wearing rounded hats and boots. / Wikimedia Commons

The palace at Persepolis stood for nearly 200 years. In 330 BCE, the Macedonian emperor Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE) captured the city and allowed his troops to loot the palace. Inscriptions describe a great fire that engulfed “the palace” but do not specify which palace. Scholars believe these writings describe the destruction of Persepolis, based on the condition of the ruins found there. The fire likely started in the living quarters of the former emperor Xerxes I (518–465 BCE) and spread throughout the rest of the city. This event brought an end to the Achaemenid Empire and made Persepolis a Macedonian province.

Key Points

  • The Eridu economy produced abundant food, which allowed its inhabitants to settle in one location and form a labor force specializing in diverse arts and crafts.
  • Writing produced during the early Sumerian period suggest the abundance of pottery and other artistic traditions.
  • Elements of the early Sumerian culture spread through a large area of the Near and Middle East.
  • The Sumerian city states rose to power during the prehistorical Ubaid and Uruk periods.
  • The invention and evolution of the potter’s wheel allowed individuals to produce vessels at increasing speeds and in increasing numbers.
  • Ubaid pottery was more decorative and unique than Uruk pottery.
  • As ceramics evolved, shapes and sizes of clay objects became more varied.
  • Clay could also be used for writing tablets that could be fired, if the owner believed the text was important.
  • Mesopotamian sculptures were predominantly created for religious and political purposes.
  • Common materials included clay, metal, and stone fashioned into reliefs and sculptures in the round.
  • The Uruk period marked a development of rich narrative imagery and increasing lifelikeness of human figures.
  • Hieratic scale was often used in Mesopotamian sculpture to convey the significance of gods and royalty.
  • After the end of the Uruk period, subject matter began to depict scenes of warfare and became increasingly violent and intimidating.
  • Mesopotamian cultures used a variety of building materials. While mud brick is the most common, stone also features as a structural and decorate element.
  • The ziggurat marked a major architectural accomplishment for the Sumerians, as well as subsequent Mesopotamian cultures.
  • Palaces and other public structures were often decorated with glaze or paint, stones, or reliefs.
  • Animals and human-animal hybrids feature in the religions of Mesopotamian cultures and were often used as architectural decoration.
  • Nimrud, also known as Kalhu, was the Assyrian capital from the thirteenth century BCE until 706 BCE. Ashurnasirpal II made the city famous when he built a large palace and temples on top of ancient ruins c. 880 BCE.
  • Dur-Sharrukin was a single-period site; therefore, few individual objects were found. The primary discoveries shed light on Assyrian art and architecture.
  • Nineveh, the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, rose to greatness under Sennacherib. He laid out new streets and squares and built within it the famous “palace without a rival”, the plan of which has been mostly recovered.
  • Inscriptions and reliefs produced under the Assyrian Empire depict structures with octagonal and circular domes, which were unique to the region at the time.
  • Assyrian ziggurats eventually consisted of enameled walls and two towers.
  • Massive fortified walls are a common attribute in Assyrian fortresses, pointing to the political instability of the time and the need for architectural defense.
  • Architectural materials in the Assyrian empire were quite diverse, consisting of a variety of woods, stones, and metals.
  • The Assyrian Lion Weights and the Statue of Ashurnasirpal II represent rare examples of surviving Assyrian sculpture in the round.
  • The Assyrian Lion Weights represent the importance of weights and measures and accommodation of more than one language.
  • The Statue of Ashurnasirpal II, the lamassu reliefs, and the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III provide examples of art rich in political and religious symbolism.
  • The Statue of Ashurnasirpal II and the lamassu reliefs provide examples of royal hairstyles and beard lengths.
  • The Neo-Babylonian Empire was a civilization in Mesopotamia between 626 BCE and 539 BCE. During the preceding three centuries, Babylonia had been ruled by the Akkadians and Assyrians, but threw off the yoke of external domination after the death of the last strong Assyrian ruler.
  • Neo-Babylonian art and architecture reached its zenith under King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from 604–562 BC. He was a great patron of art and urban development and rebuilt the city of Babylon to reflect its ancient glory.
  • Most of the evidence for Neo-Babylonian art and architecture is literary. Of the material evidence that survives, the most important fragments are from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
  • Neo-Babylonians were known for their colorful glazed bricks, which they shaped into bas-reliefs of dragons, lions, and aurochs to decorate the Ishtar Gate.
  • Assyria, ancient Egypt, and Mycenae are three of many cultures whose styles feature in Persian art.
  • Gold and silver objects demonstrate advanced skill in metalworking among artists living in the Persian Empire.
  • Multilingual inscriptions, such as those on a relief of Cyrus the Great, demonstrate the diversity of those living in the Persian Empire.
  • The Achaemenid Empire stretched across western Asia from the Indus Valley in the east to Thrace and Macedon in the west.
  • The quintessential characteristic of Persian art and architecture is its eclectic nature, combining elements of Median, Assyrian, and Asiatic Greek styles.
  • The Achaemenid Persians were particularly skilled at constructing complex frieze reliefs, crafting precious metals, and glazed brick masonry. They also constructed spectacular cities for governance and habitation, temples for worship and social gatherings, and mausoleums honoring fallen kings.
  • The ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire was Persepolis, which preserves the best of ancient Persian architecture. It is best known for its pillared Apadana Hall, decorated with complex sculptural reliefs depicting the king and his subjects.
  • The palace at Persepolis stood for nearly 200 years until it was looted and burned by the armies of Alexander the Great in 330 BCE.


alto relief: A sculpture with significant projection from its background.

aurochs: An extinct European mammal, Bos primigenius, the ancestor of domestic cattle.

bas reliefs: Sculptures that minimally project from their backgrounds.

capital: The topmost part of a column.

casting: A sculptural process in which molten material (usually metal) is poured into a mold, allowed to cool and harden, and become a solid object.

ceramics: The craft of making objects from clay.

Chalcolithic: Also known as the Copper Age, a phase of the Bronze Age in which the addition of tin to copper to form bronze during smelting remained yet unknown. The Copper Age was originally defined as a transition between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age.

colossal: Extremely tall.

Cuneiform: One of the earliest known forms of written expression that began as a system of pictographs. It emerged in Sumer around the 30th century BC, with predecessors reaching into the late 4th millennium (the Uruk IV period).

cylinder seal: A small object adorned with carved images of animals, writing, or both, used to sign official documents.

fluted: Having semicylindrical vertical grooves, either for decoration or to trim weight.

frieze: Any sculptured or richly ornamented band in a building or, by extension, in rich pieces of furniture.

glazed: Having a vitreous coating whose primary purposes are decoration or protection.

hieratic scale: A visual method of marking the significance of a figure through its size. The more important a figure is, the larger it appears.

high relief: A sculpture that projects significantly from its background, providing deep shadows.

hypostyle: Having a roof supported on a row of columns.

Immortal: A member of an elite regiment of the Persian army.

in the round: Sculpture that stands freely, separate from a background.

kiln: A special kind of oven used for firing ceramic objects at high temperatures.

lamassu: A guardian figure consisting of the head of a human, massive wings, and the body of a lion or bull.

load-bearing: A form of architecture in which the walls are the structure’s main source of support.

lyre: A hand-held stringed instrument resembling a small harp.

mixed-media: Artwork consisting of two or more different materials.

nomadic: Mobile; moving from one place to another, never settling in one location for too long.

obelisk: A tall, square, tapered, stone monolith topped with a pyramidal point, frequently used as a monument.

pilaster: A rectangular column that projects partially from the wall to which it is attached; it gives the appearance of a support, but is only for decoration.

private sphere: The home, or the domestic realm.

public sphere: The world outside the home.

register: A usually horizontal division of separate scenes in two- or three-dimensional art.

relief: A sculpture that projects from a background.

rhyton: A large ceremonial drinking cup fashioned in the shape of an animal’s head.

stacking and piling: A form of load-bearing architecture in which the walls are thickest at the base and grow gradually thinner toward the top.

stylus: A writing implement that incises lines into surfaces, such as clay.

syncretic: Art that bears the style(s), themes, or other attributes of more than one culture.

terra cotta: Clay that has been fired in a kiln.

theocratic: A form of government in which a deity is officially recognized as the civil ruler. Official policy is governed by officials regarded as divinely guided, or is pursuant to the doctrine of a particular religion or religious group.

throwing: Shaping clay on a potter’s wheel.

votive: An object left in temples or other religious locations for a variety of spiritual purposes.

ziggurat: A towering temple, similar to a stepped pyramid, that sat in the center of Mesopotamian city-states in honor to the local pantheon.