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The art of Mesopotamia: Lost and found

A glass bead glinting in the sun might seem a simple thing, but it has a rich history, going back to ancient Mesopotamia. There, glass was first crafted into beads during the second millennium BCE. Over time, colours were added to the glass, and it was eventually used to make vases, jars and statues.

Mesopotamia spanned the area between the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris, land which now includes Iraq and Syria. Mesopotamian clay pots and statues can be traced back to the 6000s BCE.


A photo of green and yellow cut glass beads taken by J Yeo.
Cut glass beads, J Yeo

In the hundreds of years of creation and design that followed, Mesopotamian artists developed works both emulative of their time and unique to their culture.


Many of the statues and frescoes found in the area differ from other regions primarily in motif. The majority of Mesopotamian art focused on the military victories of its leaders and the worship of deities such as the Sumerian goddess Inanna. Small figures were left near temples, and it is presumed they were meant to represent the owner and pray on their behalf.


But the art form unique to the Mesopotamians was the cylinder seal. The cylindrical stone (most were made of stone) was carved and pressed into clay to show the intended image, meaning everything had to be carved backward and words had to be in mirror image. 


A photo taken by Lei Mu of Lamassu, an ancient lion sculpture dating back to Mesopotamian times, and now displayed at La Louvre.
Lamassu, La Louvre, J Yeo

The artwork of the area was diverse and plentiful and included stone guardian lions outside a temple for the goddess Ishtar.


Lions were frequently depicted in Mesopotamian art as a symbol of the strength of its leaders. Ishtar was the goddess of war. Her animal was the lion, and she was thought to protect and support the rulers and armies of those who called on her.


Ivory carvings were also popular in Mesopotamia, as they were throughout much of the world at the time. The first ivory beads in Mesopotamia date back to 300 and 400 BCE, and many carvings have been found throughout the region.


Another example of Mesopotamian art is the golden helmet of Meskalamdug. Thought to be the helmet of King Meskalamdug of Ur, it is a detailed depiction of the wearers’ head, complete with hair and ears.

Sadly, the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, which contained a treasure trove of ancient Mesopotamian art, was looted and destroyed in 2003.


Milbry Polk and Angela M. H. Schuster created a virtual museum in honour of the lost art with their book, The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad; The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia. 

According to Donny George, director of the

An photo of colourful beaded necklaces displayed hanging in bunches by Raimond Klavins
Beaded necklaces, Raimond Klavins

museum following the looting, approximately 15,000 objects were taken from the museum, including 5,000 cylinder seals.


While accounts vary regarding how many art pieces were taken and destroyed, there was a great loss to Iraqi culture, as well as regional ancient Mesopotamian culture. Some works have been recovered—George estimated more than half—and the museum has since reopened to the public.


By Jay Fuller Evans

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