Mischa Park-Doob
Art History 150, Seidel


The Standard of Ur: Observations on Common Motifs

          The large plaque referred to as the "Standard of Ur," one of the earliest Mesopotamian examples of the battle narrative, has features that foreshadow elements found in later Mesopotamian works such as the Stele of Naram-Sin, as well as features that link it to older works such as the Palette of Narmer. Thus it links itself stylistically with its contemporary counterpart, the Old Kingdom of Egypt, while simultaneously providing clues to the origins of certain motifs found in works of Mesopotamia from hundreds of years later.

          The plaque is composed of flat white shell figures arranged in three long horizontal frames of shell and red limestone, with all the empty space filled by pieces of dark blue lapis lazuli. The lowest frame depicts the chariots of Ur each led by four horses who trample the vanquished the enemy, the middle frame shows armed infantry attacking and driving the naked, defeated enemies to the right, and the top frame shows the prisoners being presented to the king, whose power is signified by his greater height.

          Like the Palette of Narmer, the Standard exhibits intense two-dimensionality on a flat ground line, and restriction of movement: each figure is seen in profile, with no overlapping, and the horses, while meant to be four abreast (with three hidden on the other side of the first horse), are drawn so that a piece of the outline of each background horse is visible directly next to the outline of the front horse—this announces the exact number of animals but fails to give any impression of depth. Beneath the legs of the horses are the dead, bleeding enemies, which clutter the space and make movement seem impossible—across the entire plaque every figure seems all the more frozen by the pieces of dark blue lapis lazuli that fill every space between them. Just as Narmer seems locked in a pose by the edges of his frame, the king in the top frame of the Standard rises tall enough that a piece of the white frame is missing to make room for his head; this single point of disruption of the frame accentuates the location of the ruler, but gives the impression that his head is stuck in the ceiling!

          The Stele of Naram-Sin seems in some ways to depart drastically from the style of the Standard of Ur: the ground lines are jagged like real mountain ledges, and the vanquished foes seem to actually fall from one jagged line to the next, as if slipping from the cliffs of a real mountainside—this movement and breaking free from ground lines gives the impression of real depth, since the background can be thought of as the side of the mountain itself. But several strong motifs appear in both the Standard as well as the Stele: just as Naram-Sin's forces form an ordered mass of identical soldiers advancing from the left, so do the infantry of Ur in the middle frame of the Standard. The defeated enemy is likewise depicted in both as wounded and in complete disarray, being driven off to the right. Thus both have a kind of bilateral symmetry, capped at the top center by the king—this symmetry is unbalanced in both by the perfectly ordered left side against the disorganized right. The legs of the horses in the Standard all bend the same way, as if glued together side to side, an order which contrasts sharply with the disorder of the crumpled bodies beneath them. Even though the soldiers of the Standard have simplistic limbs and patterned wool skirts in the manner of the Tell Asmar statues, their right arms are modeled subtly—with the addition of a few simple marks—to look muscular, which seems to foreshadow the importance of this motif as a symbol of strength in all later Mesopotamian works.

          A few important facts distinguish the Standard from both the Stele of Naram-Sin as well as the Palette of Narmer: While the king of Ur is locked in position, like Narmer, and stands at the top center of the work, like Naram-Sin, he contrasts with both of the others in that he is only slightly taller than the soldiers and prisoners, and he is not at the head of his forces, but is instead depicted as if in a royal hall, being presented the defeated prisoners. While his pose, stature, and clothing are obscured by damage, he seems definitely not to have his weapon raised to dispatch a final enemy, and may instead be about to pass judgment on the defeated foes. There are also no features to identify the Standard as the commemoration of any single event. So we see that the Standard of Ur, while containing many common features of both the Palette of Narmer and the Stele of Naram-Sin, seems to glorify the power of Ur itself over its enemies, rather than the greatness of a single ruler's victory at a specific battle.