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: A Sumerian Peg Figurine


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
A rare Sumerian peg figurine recently acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts takes its place among the oldest objects in the museum. Almost certainly from the settlement around Lagash in southern Iraq, it dates from the Early Dynastic period during the reigns of Enannatum I and his son Entemena (about 2470-2420 B.C.).The term Early Dynastic is applied to the period from 2900 to 2370 B.C. and marks the establishment of the first ruling houses in the various city-states of Sumer. The short-lived Lagash dynasty was founded by Ur-Nanshe around 2540 B.C. and was carried on by his son, Akurgal, and grandson, Eannatum. Eannatum expanded the influence of the city-state of Lagash by his conquest of Susa and several other Iranian cities and gained control of most of southern Mesopotamia. Enannatum I, his brother and the next ruler, had his difficulties with the neighboring city of Umma over water and agricultural rights. When, in turn, Entemena inherited the throne from his father, he made an alliance with the two powerful cities of Ur and Uruk that temporarily held Umma at bay. The last of the dynastic line, Entemena’s son Enannatum II, lost the lengthy border dispute and diminished the importance of his city. (Probably the best-known Lagash ruler, Gudea, lived some four hundred years later; several inscriptions of his reign have survived, many on beautifully polished stone statues of himself humbly posed before his gods.)Nine almost-identical peg figurines have come from the current American excavations at al-Hiba (ancient Lagash); one is illustrated here as figure 2a-c.1 Five others were found in the nineteenth-century French excavations at Tello (ancient Girsu, part of the Lagash city-state); see figure 3a-c.2 There are eight more in various collections which, like the example under consideration, have no provenance.3As each of the twenty-two figures differs in varying degrees from the others, it can be assumed that all were made by the lost-wax casting, a process well-known to the Sumerians. Indeed, an astounding command of metal technology is but one of three major innovations attributed to these early inhabitants of Mesopotamia. (The other two are their system of writing and their creation of an urban society with an assured food supply.) The very term Bronze Age for the span between 3000 and 1200 B.C. emphasizes the importance of this development.The Institute’s figurine is probably copper even though the manufacture of tin and arsenic bronzes was firmly established by the time it was made.4 Copper was apparently the favored material for Sumerian figurines intended, as was the Institute’s, to be placed in temple foundations. This may reflect a ritual use of copper that predates the more widespread use of bronze during the third millennium B.C.The Mesopotamian temple was the center of economics as well as religious life of the society. Most of the land was owned by the temple, and every family in one way or another was involved in its workings. Grain and oil were stored in its warehouse, both for local subsistence and for sale to other communities. Besides agricultural laborers, the temple employed fishermen, bakers, brewers, cooks, scribes, priests, exorcists, diviners, and specialized workers of all kinds to maintain the temple complex.5The Sumerians believed locations for temples were chosen by the gods and communicated through dreams or omens. Once selected, the site was ritually purified by priests or exorcists. Sometimes a literal attempt to purify the earth was made by putting down a vast layer of clean sand.6Mud brick, the major building material of Mesopotamia, was (and still is) molded during the spring and left to dry in the summer sun. Traditionally, the king himself molded bricks for the temple in an elaborate ceremony. His bricks were considered prototypes, and if they were perfectly formed it was thought to be a good omen for the entire project. There was even a god of bricks, Kulla, whose function was to assure good building materials.The shape of the brick used during the middle of the third millennium B.C., and the hallmark of Early Dynastic architecture, is an awkward one called plano-convex. The top is rounded, a form that makes the mason’s work unnecessarily difficult. Plano-convex bricks were usually laid in diagonal courses, herring-bone fashion, interspersed with regular courses. As flat-sided bricks were used in all other periods in Mesopotamia, the reason the Sumerians suddenly switched to the plano-convex shape is an unsolved mystery.Peg figurines like the Institute’s served as foundation deposits, their pointed ends being stuck directly in the earth or in the mud brick of the temple platform as if serving as tent pegs to fasten the platform to the ground. Stone tablets were found with most of the excavated figurines, and the inscriptions on these, as well as on the figurines themselves, give the names of the two Sumerian kings Enannatum I and Entemena. (The Institute’s peg seems to have had an inscription, but corrosion of the copper makes it difficult to be certain.)Inscriptions of both rulers identify the peg figurines as images of Shulutula, the personal god of the two kings. As translated by R. D. Biggs, those form al-Hiba read, in part:
“For Inanna, goddess of all lands, Enannatum, the governor of Lagash, . . . constructed the temple oval (Ibgal); for her he made (the temple precinct) Eanna better (than any other) in all the lands; he furnished it with gold and silver; he put (this) in place so that his god, Shulutula, might pray forever to Inanna in the Ibgal for the well-being of Enannatum, the one with whom Inanna communicates, the governor of Lagash. The governor who keeps it permanently in good condition will be my friend.”7
Inanna was the chief female deity of the Sumerians, the queen or lady of heaven, goddess of love and fertility. She is the subject of several poems and epics, and the amorous dalliances of the later Greek Aphrodite pale beside hers.A personal god such as Shulutula seemed to serve as an envoy to heaven for a Sumerian by relaying requests to the major gods. The Sumerian probably felt it presumptuous to speak to the most powerful deities directly, and the minor personal gods might know the most propitious time to approach with a request.The Ibgal was the construction built for Inanna at Lagash, a walled oval enclosing a temple and probably subsidiary buildings as well. Only a part of the podium foundations remains, so it is impossible to be certain what was there.8 Irregular oval wall enclosures for sacred precincts have also been discovered at Tell al-‘Ubaid and Khafajah. A double wall surrounded the oval at Khafajah. Inside the first were houses for the temple priests. The inner wall formed part of a raised podium which held various service buildings, and, toward the narrow end of the oval, the temple itself raised on a buttressed rectangular platform. Oval wall enclosures, like the plano-convex brick, are found only in Sumerian settlements of Early Dynastic date.When Enannatum I built the Ibgal he had placed in its foundations at least nine peg figurines. There is little discernible order to the placement of those found thus far; four were grouped fairly close together in one area, but the other five were widely scattered. For the most part, they were set in the thickest part of the mud brick wall mass, away from the edges, facing east.9 (Compass orientation was generally ignored by Sumerians. Lack of overall planning—axial, symmetrical, proportional—is especially noticeable in the Early Dynastic period.)The upper part of the Institute’s peg represents the figure of Shulutula with his hands in prayerful pose. (Well-developed chest muscles caused such figurines to be classified as female until clearly inscribed ones were found—even though that same characteristic also occurs on some stone statues of males.)10 The right hand holds the left wrist, and the fingers of the left hand dangle lifelessly. An ingratiating archaic smile lightens his expression. The prominent nose and large outlined eyes are familiar to much Sumerian sculpture. Small rudimentary horns on his head show that he is a divinity, a convention used throughout Mesopotamian art. The hair is done in thick rolls in the fashion of an eighteenth-century periwig; four horizontal curls at each side (where no natural hair could be) meet at the back and cascade down in waves.When the Minneapolis peg is compared with the al-Hiba and Tello pegs, certain differences can be seen. First, the shoulders of the Institute’s figurine are narrower and rounder than those of the other two. The hands in figure 3b are arranged with the left holding the right, the reverse of figures 1b and 2b. Finger treatment cannot be discerned in the excavated examples owing to corrosion.In profile, it can be seen that the Institute’s peg has four hair rolls, as well as the horned crown, while the others have only three. (However, another al-Hiba figurine, not illustrated here, also has four.)11The rear views show further differences in hair treatment. On the al-Hiba and Tello figurines the horned crown is incorporated into the hair, whereas on the Institute’s peg the crown continues as a separate band around the head. The severe arrangement of the hair on the al-Hiba peg (and on others from al-Hiba), with its marked center part and its hair masses falling straight and symmetrically in two V-shapes and four long curls is noticeably different from that on the Minneapolis and Tello pegs which have wavy hair. The Institute’s peg has two small lozenge-shaped fillers like braid segments. The al-Hiba figurine also has longer hair than the others, falling to elbow level and ending in slightly upturned curls.Figurines cast by the lost-wax process must, of course, be individually made; thus differences are to be expected among them, even among those made at the same time by the same craftsman. The treatment of the hair, however, remains the most significant point of comparison. Figure 3a is presently the only rear view of a Tello figurine which has been published, so it would be dangerous to assume from it that the other four figurines known to be from Tello are similarly coiffured. If all the Tello figurines share the same hair treatment, the Institute’s peg could be comfortably designated a member of the group and so be dated to the reign of Entemena, about 2450-2420 B.C.Joyce Geary Volk, an art consultant in New York and a lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.Endnotes
  1. Jointly sponsored by the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All nine figurines are in the Iran Museum, Baghdad. See Donald P. Hansen, “Al-Hiba, 1968-1969, A Preliminary Report,” Artibus Asiae (Hereafter AA) 32, no. 4 (1970): 246-248, and figs. 8-12; “Al-Hiba, 1970-1971: A Preliminary Report,” AA 35, no. 1/2 (1973): 62, 65; Winifred Orthmann, ed., Der Alte Orient (Propylaen Kunstgeschichte 14) (Berlin, 1975) 168, pl. 33a. The photographs of figure 2a-c, field no. 1 H 113 B, were kindly provided by Professor Hansen.
  2. From the excavations of Ernest de Sarzec, 1877-1900: A02353A, Louvre Museum, Paris; 1520-1523 (presumably those from Tello), Istanbul Museum (Eski Sark Eserli Muzesi). See E. de Sarzec and L. Heuzey, Découvertes en Chaldeé (Paris, 1884-1912), pp. 240-241, 420, and p. V bis, 1 a-c; E. de Sarzec & L. Heuzey, Une villa royale chaldéenne (Paris, 1900), pp. 86-87, figs., 56-57; L. Heuzey, Musée national du Louvre. Catalogue des antiquités chaldéennes (Paris, 1902), pp. 299-300, no. 145; E. Unger, Sumerische und akkadische Kunst (Breslau, 1926), p. 85, 25-26, Istanbul; E. Nassouhi, Musées des antiquités de Stamboul. Antiquités assyro-babyloniennes. Guide sommaire (Constantinople, 1926), p. 32 and pl. 4, lower left: “Grundungsurkunde,” Reallexicon der Vorgeschichte (hereafter RV) 4, no. 2, ed. M. Ebert (Berlin, 1926): 565 and taf. 265b; “Nagelurkunde,” RV 8 (Berlin, 1927): 422 and taf. 139a-c, Istanbul; G. Contenau, Manuel archéologie orientale, vol. 1, (Paris, 1927), pp. 434, 457; V. Christian, Altertumskunde des Zweistromlandes (Leipzig, 1940), p. 181, taf. 153, 3a, b; A. Parrot, Tello (Paris, 1948), p. 105, pl. VIIIb, and p. 107, fig. 25b, c; E. Sollberger, Corpus des inscriptions “royales” présargoniques de Lagas (hereafter Corpus) (Geneva, 1956), Ent. 2-5, 7; R. Ellis, Foundation Deposits in Ancient Mesopotamia (hereafter FDAM) (New Haven and London, 1968), p. 53. Figure 3a-c is a photograph of the drawing in Une ville royale chaldéenne (see above), p. 86, fig. 56. Surely an Istanbul Museum figurine, for the Louvre figurine has its head embedded in the inscribed stone tablet.
  3. 1) BM 116,685, British Museum, London: G. Perrot and C. Chipiez, Histoire de l’art dans l’antiquité, vol. 2, Chaldée et Assyrie (Paris, 1884), p. 604, fig. 295; E. D. Van Buren, Foundation Figurines and Offerings (hereafter FFO) (Berlin, 1951), p. 9 and pl. III, fig. 6; Ellis, FDAM, p. 54, no. 55, 5.
    2) VA 3024, Staatliche Museen, Berlin: V. Muller, “Zwei neue mesopotamische Nagelmenschen, Altorientalische Studiem (Leipzig, 1928-1929), pp. 129-131, taf. 1, abb. 1,2; Van Buren, FFO, pp. 8-9 and pl. III, figs. 4-5; Ellis, FDAM, p. 54, n. 55,1.
    3) Iraq Museum, Baghdad, no number given: A Guide to the Iraq Museum Collections (Baghdad, 1942), pp. 108-109, fig. 90 left.
    4) M.-L. and H. Erlenmeyer Collection, Basel: M.-L. and H. Erlenmeyer, “Uber einige verwandte sumerische syrisch-anatolische und agaische Darstellungen,” Orientalia, n.s. 24 (1955): 20-23, taf. 1, abb. 1-3; E. Sollberger, “Le galet B d’Enanatumu Ter, ibid.: 16-19; Sollberger, Corpus, En. Ier, 21. From what can be read through the corrosion, this figure has the same inscription as those from al-Hiba. The stylization of the hair, etc., is the same as the nine excavated pegs, and it is undoubtedly from that site.
    5)Istanbul Museum (Eski Sark Eserli Muzesi), no number given: Sollberger, Corpus, Ent. 6; Ellis, FDAM, p. 54, no. 55,6.
    6) Leon Pomerance Collection, New York: D. von Bothmer, ed., Ancient Art from New York Private Collections (Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalog, 17 December 1959 to 28 February 1960), pl. 5, 20; The Pomerance Collection of Ancient Art (Brooklyn Museum exhibition catalogue, 4 June to 2 October 1966), p. 16, 4; Ellis, FDAM, p. 54, no. 55,2.
    7) A7121, Oriental Institute of Chicago: Ellis, FDAM, p. 54 and n. 53. He mentions that the tablet of the “set” carries an inscription of Entemena but does not mention one on the figure.
    8) Norbert Schimel Collection, New York: O. W. Muscarella, ed., Ancient Art: The Norbert Schimmel Collection (Mainz, 1974), 107.
  4. Dr. Pieter Meyers has kindly informed me that the Conservation Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art did a qualitative emission spectrographic analysis of the peg figurine from al-Hiba which was there for a special loan exhibition in the fall of 1973. It proved to be copper, not bronze. The report reads, in part: “Cu – major high; Sn – n.d.; As – minor; Sb – tr; Pb – tr; Zn – n.d.; also minor to trace elements Na, K, Ca, Mg. Other elements not sought.”
    An earlier spatulate foundation figure from Tello dating to the time of Ur-Nina was also tested (P.E.M. Berthelot, Histoire des sciences, vol. 1, La chimie au moyen-age (Paris, 1893), pp. 391-393) and found to be copper. It seems likely that this is also true of the untested Institute figurine.
  5. For a good summary of Sumerian temple organization, see A. Falkenstein, “La cité-temple sumérienne,” Cahiers de l’histoire mondiale 1 (1954): 784-814, recently reprinted with an introduction and translation by M. deJ. Ellias as The Sumerian Temple City (Los Angeles, 1974).
  6. See P. Delougaz, The Temple Oval at Khafajah, (Oriental Institute Publications 53) (Chicago, 1940), pp. 11-17. The temple at al-Hiba was also surrounded by an oval with a thin layer (Hansen, AA 32: 245).
  7. For the full inscription, see AA 32: 247-248.
  8. AA 32: 244-246 and fig. 1.
  9. AA 32: 246, and AA 25: 62-63 and fig. 1 which shows the placement of all the foundation deposits.
  10. For some examples, see A. Moortgat, Art of Ancient Mesopotamia: The Classical Art of the Near East (New York, 1969), 54 (Khafajah), 66 and 69 (Mari), 70 and 74 (Tell Chuera), 76 (Khafajah), 81 and 82 (no provenance).
  11. Field no. 1 H 115 B.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. a-c. Sumerian XXV century B.C.
    Male torso foundation figurine
    Copper (?), 10 1/2 x 2
    The Katherine Kittredge McMillan Memorial Fund 74.23
  2. a-c. Sumerian XXV century B.C.
    Male Torso foundation figurine
    from excavations at al-Hiba, filed no. 1 H 113 B
    Photo courtesy of Prof. Donald P. Hansen
  3. a-c. Sumerian XXV century B.C.
    Male torso foundation figurine
    from excavations at Tello (now Istanbul Museum)
    Photo from a drawing in Une villa royale chaldéenne (Paris, 1900), figure 56
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Source: Joyce Geary Volk, "A Sumerian Peg Figurine," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 64 (1978-1980): 62-67.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009