Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Uruk: The First City

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  • For thousands of years, southern Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) was home to hunters, fishers, and farmers, exploiting fertile soil, rivers, and abundant animals. By around 3200 B.C., the largest settlement in southern Mesopotamia, if not the world, was Uruk: a true city dominated by monumental mud-brick buildings decorated with mosaics of painted clay cones embedded in the walls, and extraordinary works of art. Large-scale sculpture in the round and relief carving appeared for the first time, together with metal casting using the lost-wax process. Simple pictographs were drawn on clay tablets to record the management of goods and the allocation of workers' rations. These pictographs are the precursors of later cuneiform writing. Until around 3000 B.C., objects inspired by Mesopotamia were found from central Iran to the Egyptian Nile Delta. However, this widespread culture collapsed and Mesopotamia looked inward for the next few centuries. Yet cities such as Uruk continued to expand. During the following Early Dynastic period (2900–2350 B.C.), when city-states dominated Mesopotamia, the city rulers gradually grew in importance and increasingly sought luxury materials to express their power. These goods, often from abroad, were acquired either by trade or conquest. At this time Uruk was surrounded by a massive wall, which according to tradition was built on the orders of King Gilgamesh. Although he may have been an actual king of Uruk around 2700 B.C., Gilgamesh became the hero of many later stories and epics.

    Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
    A view of the site of Uruk.

    Excavated walls at the site of Uruk.