Interpreting an Historical Artifact 7 pages

Standard of Ur, Scenes of War/Peace, 2700 bce


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The Standard of Ur is an artifact, which Charles Leonard Woolley discovered in the late 1920. It was in the Royal Tombs of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia, which was close to Baghdad presently known as Iran about 2600 BCE. Leonard was a London-based excavator who had gone to Ur in an effort to discover artifacts including archeological elements. Apparently, when he found it, he was not sure what it was; therefore, he assumed that it was a flag used back then in 2600 BCE. In addition, other people were also not sure of what it was, and some of them assumed it was a type of emblem of a king, others suggested it was a musical instrument covering.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Wolley, Leonard. Excavations at Ur: A record of twelve years’ work. (London: Routledge) ]


In this regard, the British Museum has favored this concept, where the box is currently placed. Nonetheless, the real use of the Standard of Ur remains a mystery for historians, archeologists, which explain the diverse findings on its use. Scholars have gone further to theorize that it was a box intended for the collection and holding civic funds. The Standard of Ur is, other than being an artifact, an 8.5×19.6-inch trapezoidal box, which shows how life was in times of war and peace in Sumerian society.


Historical literatures state that the Standard of Ur got the name standard because the excavator who found it supposedly found it in the corner of a room, lying close to the shoulder of a person who may have held the box on a rope.[footnoteRef:3] For this reason, Woodley called it a standard, but there is no proof, which links the box to being a standard. Although there is a current form of the box in some of the world’s renowned museums, literature asserts that the current depiction, is only a try of reconstructing the original artifact. Notably, the original artifact had stayed buried for a very long time, which contributed to the fragmentation and disintegration of some of its parts. [3: Sailus, Christopher. “Standard of Ur: Definition, lesson and quiz,” (accessed 23 April 2014)]


In addition, when the excavators found it, literature asserts that some of the mosaic pieces managed to retain their form on the soil. Therefore, the excavators carefully uncovered the broken sections of the artifact and covered them with wax in an attempt to maintain their original form.[footnoteRef:4] Later on, they managed to lift the original designs, which contributed to the reconstruction of the artifact to the present state. It was made of lapis lazuli, which literature describes as an expensive stone that was in use at the period. In addition, limestone is another rock, which constitutes the box, and as literature asserts, limestone was an essential component for Sumerians as it featured in structural art.[footnoteRef:5] [4: The British Museum. “Standard of Ur: From Ur, southern Iraq, about 2400-2600 BC,” (accessed 23 April 2014)] [5: Christopher. “Standard of Ur: Definition, lesson and quiz,”]


Ur in Context


Notably, there has been an evident confusion concerning the Ur, which is central to the Standard under research. However, the context of Ur is that of the ancient city of Sumer, Mesopotamia. In addition, the same city is also Ur of the Chaldea. Interestingly, this same Ur, is the one referred to as the home of Abraham as per the Bible. It was a crucial center of the Sumerian culture, and the prior literature comment that it was discovered in the 19th century. After the excavations, which saw to the discovery of the Standard of Ur, it became apparent that the city was a commercial center even before 2500 BC.[footnoteRef:6] [6: The British Museum. “Standard of Ur: From Ur, southern Iraq, about 2400-2600 BC,”]


The most important remains found in the city reveal a luxurious material culture, particularly due to the royal cemetery, which had harbored the Standard. There was also the temple of Ninhursag, which bore inscriptions of the various kings. The city had over three dynasties, which often crumbled due to regular warfare from neighbors. In this context, it had rules, even others mentioned in the Bible such as Nebuchadnezzar. As time passed by, there were various dwellers in the city, which included Arabs. However, the city later crumbled, and has not been heard, but owing to the Standard of Ur, the city will remain remembered. In the Bible, the city is mentioned in the books of Genesis and Nehemiah.




The Standard of Ur has two sides, which historians have labeled “war” and “peace.” In addition, a number of prior literatures have asserted that the Standard of Ur represent events that occurred in the past. In this context, the “war” side of the box represents the chronological beginning. The top row on the “war” side represents the end of the war. The king of Ur, is drawn in a noticeable figure, appears to be accepting the surrender from the enemy. The king appears to have many of the enemies as prisoners of war. In the second row, the box shows Sumerian soldiers who are in full battle armor.[footnoteRef:7] [7: Gansell, Amy Rebecca, and Winter Irene. Treasures from the royal tombs of Ur. (Cambridge, Mass: Publications Dept., Harvard University)]


At first, the soldiers are marching, and then one can see them slaying their enemies on the field of battle. On the other hand, the bottom row has shown to be arguable due to the many diverse interpretations provided. Some historians suggest that it showed an attack on the Sumerian chariot, whereas others suggest it is an after the battle convoy, whereby, the king’s chariot is on the front leading the army to Ur. Apparently, the Standard of Ur has received attention and this explains the different points-of-view provided by scholars, archeologists, and historians. It is, therefore, understandable mainly because history is often a complicated phenomena and a case to study.[footnoteRef:8] [8: Sailus, Christopher. “Standard of Ur: Definition, lesson and quiz,” (accessed 23 April 2014)]


At the backside of the Standard of Ur, or rather the “peace” side, it shows the preparation and a celebration characterized by royalty. Similar to the “war” side of the box, the “peace” side then portrays an actual event, which took place after the Sumerian war. Therefore, the feast shown on the back side possibly took place as a commemoration of the “war” side, which the Sumerians had won.[footnoteRef:9] On the top row, the depiction is that of the king being feted and congratulated by the people, who supposedly are of equal caliber to him, and facing the king. In the background, there is playing of lyres. [9: Shannon, White. “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur: A Traveling Exhibition of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology,” Near Eastern Archaeology 67, no. 4. (2004): 229.]


On the other hand, the bottom two rows represent the preparation of the feast by the common people, who appear to be collecting the sacks of grain, cows, sheep, which they will use to feed the king and his visitors. This, somehow represents the difference, which was in the Sumerian society, and seen in the current society. In this regard, there are people of high social status, and those of low status. In addition, the people of the low status in the society are to serve the people of high social status.[footnoteRef:10] Historians suggest that the common people perhaps collect the food, and animals, which were spoils of the war. [10: Christopher. “Standard of Ur: Definition, lesson and quiz”]


It is undisputable that the elements depicted by the Standard of Ur present a unique piece of artwork. In addition, the elements appearing on the box have provided insight on the way of life of the Sumerians. This was in regards to the chariots and weapons, supposedly used during war times. Therefore, the box qualifies as a representation of the Sumerian army, and the subsequent activities, particularly after they had won the battle. Apparently, there is archeological evidence, which supports the use of the weapons, such as helmets during the Sumerian war.[footnoteRef:11] Some of the archeological evidence that coincide with the artwork includes the Gold Helmet of Dug and some other weapons found such as spears, axes, and swords. [11: Christopher. “Standard of Ur: Definition, lesson and quiz,”]


Other items or vessels, which appear in the “peace” side of the box, which include the cups and bowls, have been found in the Royal Graves at Ur.[footnoteRef:12] Apparently, although there are arguments, put forward by a group of historians, concerning the relation of the box to being a musical instrument, some of the elements depicted by the box do not show any musical instrument. In this context, it can be conclusive that the box were not related to music, despite the possibility of the King’s visitors who appear on the “peace” side, some of them being musicians. [12: White, “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur: A Traveling Exhibition of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology,”]


Depiction of Sumerians’ Life


The Standard of Ur is a great piece of artwork, which has attracted attention from a variety of people who have attempted to explain it in detail. The scenes depicted in the box have featured in several Sumerian artworks, for example Victory Stele, where the objective of erecting it was to celebrate the victory in battle.[footnoteRef:13] In addition, the mosaics in the ancient city of Mari also portray a similar scene of battle, which appears in the Standard of Ur. Banquet Scenes are also evident, and they borrow a lot from the Standard of Ur. Therefore, the appearance of the scenes tells that they were essential subjects to the Sumerians. In addition, literature reports that Sumerians did enjoy feasts and banquets, and there are poems and songs, which support their love for good parties. [13: White, “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur: A Traveling Exhibition of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology,”]


Literature also reports that in the cemetery at Ur, where Woodley found the Standard of Ur, there were many graves and some of them contained remains of donkeys, which resemble the scenes of chariots on the Standard. Alternatively, the Sumerians also had great respect for their rulers, or deities. In the Sumerian society, there was an appointed to each city or state. Therefore, the rulers resembled higher beings to the Sumerians.[footnoteRef:14] This is why in the Standard, there is a scene where common people are gathering livestock and food to prepare a feast, which shows that the Sumerians had respect and the feasts were one of the ways they rewarded their rulers. [14: The British Museum. “Standard of Ur: From Ur, southern Iraq, about 2400-2600 BC,”]


Peace and War


Apart from the theoretical explanations given in this study, prior literature asserts that the main function of the Standard of Ur remains a mystery. The initial thought by Woodley, that it was an attempt to represent standard has received substantial criticism. There have been assumptions that it was a musical instrument, others felt it was a box to hold funds; however, in regards to the inscriptions and scenes depicted, there lacks evidence to support. Although this is the case, it is undisputable that the other possible function of the box was to portray “war” and “peace.”[footnoteRef:15] [15: Leonard. Excavations at Ur: A record of twelve years’ work.]


This has managed to provide a single narrative, which has appeared in most of the prior studies. In this case, it shows a war, which is followed by victory, and celebration. This actually appears to fit in the explanation, whereby the Sumerians described the “war” and “peace” using opposite concepts.[footnoteRef:16] Therefore, the theoretical foundation of war, which celebration later follows provides an important theoretical foundation, which appears to be true. Then again, unless a scholar or historian provides evidence in another context, this concept will remain undisputable. [16: Christopher. “Standard of Ur: Definition, lesson and quiz,”]




Charles Leonard Woolley discovered the Standard of Ur, in the late 1920s. The excavator found it in the Royal Tombs of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia, which was close to Baghdad presently known as Iran about 2600 BCE. Leonard was a London-based excavator, and his discovery in Ur was in his efforts to discover artifacts. Although he found it, he assumed that it was a flag used back then in 2600 BCE because he had found it close to the shoulder of a person near a pole. On the other hand, the context of Ur is that of the ancient city of Sumer, Mesopotamia.


It is the same city referred to as Ur of the Chaldea. Interestingly, this same Ur is the one mentioned in the Bible as the home of Abraham. As shown, the Standard of Ur has two sides, which historians have labeled “war” and “peace.” The two sides appear to have the greatest debates, and serve as the point of references when there are attempts to explain the objective of the artifact. Although there are other possible explanations given for this artifact, the “peace” and “war” explanations appear to have more support because the scenes are attributable to the same.




Gansell, Amy Rebecca, and Winter Irene. Treasures from the royal tombs of Ur. Cambridge,


Mass: Publications Dept., Harvard University, 2002.


Sailus, Christopher. “Standard of Ur: Definition, lesson and quiz.” Education Portal. Accessed 23 April 2014.


Shannon, White. “Treasures from the Royal Tombs of Ur: A Traveling Exhibition of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology,” Near Eastern Archaeology 67, no. 4. (2004): 229.


The British Museum. “Standard of Ur: From Ur, Southern Iraq, about 2400-2600 BC.” The


British Museum. Accessed 23 April 2014.


Wolley, Leonard. Excavations at Ur: A record of twelve years’ work. London: Routledge, 2009.

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