Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Old Assyrian Period (ca. 2000–1600 B.C.)

The Old Assyrian period (ca. 2000–1600 B.C.) is the earliest period for which there is evidence of a distinct culture, separate from that of southern Mesopotamia, flourishing in the city of Ashur (also called Qal‘at Sherqat), located on the Tigris River in modern Iraq. This period is traditionally defined as the time between the fall of the Ur III empire (ca. 2004 B.C.) and the rise of the politically distinct Middle Assyrian rulers in the second half of the sixteenth century B.C. There is little textual or artistic evidence, however, for the early years of Ashur when it was under the hegemony of the Akkadian and Ur III kings, nor is there much for the time span between the end of the eighteenth century B.C. and the reign of the Middle Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad III (1545–1529 B.C.). The best evidence for this period is instead concentrated from the twentieth to the eighteenth century B.C., when Ashur emerged as a small, independent, and economically strong city-state perfectly situated between multiple powerful kingdoms. Merchants from Ashur organized overland trade between their city and kingdoms across Central Anatolia, establishing communities abroad (Akkadian karum, meaning “harbor”) and traveling between the two lands. This trade produced a textual record of some 24,000 cuneiform tablets that today constitute the largest corpus detailing long-distance trade in the ancient world. Most of these texts were discovered in the merchants’ private archives in the lower town of Kanesh, modern-day Kültepe, located in northern Cappadocia, Turkey.

The city of Ashur as it existed in the first half of the second millennium B.C. is archaeologically poorly understood, as excavations have focused more on the visible remains from the later Middle and Neo-Assyrian periods, when Assyria was an imperial power. The written sources discovered at Ashur for the earlier time period are relatively few and include inscriptions of the Assyrian rulers on various objects like bricks or stone slabs within the temple of the god Ashur, as well as a handful of administrative and school texts. Therefore, most knowledge about this period is filtered through the cuneiform texts and art produced and consumed by Assyrians and Anatolians 1,000 kilometers north of the city.

The Old Assyrian dynasty of Ashur, beginning with Puzur-Ashur I (r. ca. 2025–1950 B.C.), did not use the Akkadian term for king, but rather the term for “governor” (Sumerian ENSI; Akkadian ishiakkum), thereby emphasizing the ruler’s role as chief servant of the god Ashur, who shared a name with the city. Unlike royal rhetoric from contemporary cities, where the might of the king is often privileged, the texts from Anatolia also emphasize the role of the city assembly, the “City Hall,” and other institutions that worked in conjunction with the ruler to establish law and order.

During the reign of Erishum I (ca. 1974–1935 B.C.), a relative abundance of royal inscriptions describe temple and city building activities, and the Assyrian limmu-official, the head of City Hall, came into prominence. This title continued throughout the rest of Assyrian history, though the office itself changed greatly. Long-distance trade flourished under Erishum I and his successors until the Amorite king Shamshi-Adad I captured Ashur in 1808/1807 B.C. and subsumed the city under his expanding territorial kingdom in northern Mesopotamia. Shamshi-Adad maintained some aspects of Assyrian society, such as long-distance trade, while disrupting others, establishing his own son as the limmu-official and co-dedicating the Ashur Temple to the Babylonian god Enlil. After his death, the city was reclaimed by a native Assyrian dynasty, and trade continued until the end of the eighteenth century B.C., though merchants’ records are far fewer and the history of the city of Ashur during this period is almost entirely unknown.

Art and Culture

The art and texts of the Old Assyrian period provide a deep view into the dynamic lives of individual people at the start of the second millennium B.C. There is much to be discovered about Ashur, its citizens, and Anatolian trading partners during this time, and the extant evidence, mostly from Kültepe, reveals something of the lives of ancient people who were adept at working and living in a highly mobile and multicultural world.

In addition to textiles and tin (66.245.10), which were exchanged for silver and gold, merchants also imported their administrative technologies into Anatolia—namely cuneiform writing on clay tablets and the use of cylinder seals. Old Assyrian writing is characterized by a smaller number of signs and higher frequency of syllabic spellings than other forms of Akkadian, features that allowed for ease in communication and reflected a higher literacy rate for efficient trading activities far from home. Several writing genres are represented in the archives, including personal letters (66.245.1), court depositions and other legal texts (66.245.5a), silver loans and commercial notes (66.245.17a), and even literary works and magical incantations. Many of these tablets were originally enclosed in clay envelopes, which were usually impressed with a seal by participants or witnesses (66.245.5b). These texts are material manifestations of the social relationships that formed in a mercantile community and provide evidence not only for business partnerships, but also for familial ties between Assyrians and Anatolians, as in a letter from an Assyrian merchant to his Anatolian wife (1983.135.4a).

Before the arrival of the Assyrians, Anatolians used stamp seals for administrative purposes and quickly adopted the cylinder seal into their daily practice, though they continued to use stamp seals during and after the Old Assyrian period. Numerous impressions of such stamp seals were found on clay bullae (used for labeling agricultural products or trade commodities) in the storage rooms of the eighteenth-century B.C. Sarıkaya Palace (36.70.17) at the site of Acemhöyük. Located to the west of Kültepe, this site is the probable location of the city of Ulama, which hosted an Assyrian outpost. Like cylinder seals of this period, most stamp seals were made from dark stones like steatite and hematite (93.17.111). Common Anatolian motifs include powerful animals such as lions and birds of prey, herbivores like gazelles, and geometric patterns (99.22.3). The same motifs form the core repertoire of Hittite glyptic art in the following centuries (1999.325.203).

The multicultural community at Kanesh/Kültepe is reflected in the rich and varied glyptic style of the cylinder seals and impressions found on clay artifacts. Assyrian iconography derives from earlier Ur III seals and includes traditional Mesopotamian scenes such as the presentation scene, in which a worshipper, most likely the seal’s owner, is led by a goddess to a seated deity or ruler (1988.380.2; 66.245.15b). Old Assyrian cylinder seals comprised two main types. The first, an Old Assyrian glyptic, is distinctive for its linear style, sharply rendered faces and hands, hollow feet, and inscribed legends. It is represented in seal impressions dating to the first generations of Assyrian merchants (66.245.17b). Subsequent generations of merchants and their Anatolian counterparts created the second type, an “Assyro-Cappadocian” style that combined Mesopotamian genres like the presentation scene with distinctly Anatolian motifs and spatial arrangements. This seal type is marked by an even more angular rendering of human faces and bodies. Old Babylonian seals and seals incorporating Syrian motifs were also popular at Kültepe.

A specifically Anatolian style of cylinder seal also developed during this period. The figures and faces are carved in a less linear manner, clothing exhibits an Anatolian herringbone pattern, the traditional Mesopotamian ground line is lost, and multiple focal points emerge as the presentation scene is often replaced by libation or other ritual scenes. A particularly fine green quartzite seal exemplifies this bountiful style (1991.368.3).

Personal items such as jewelry, weapons, and tools discovered in households and burials across Central Anatolia speak to the daily activities and identities of those living in the towns along Assyrian trade routes. Objects such as game boards carved from soft volcanic stone or ivory provide glimpses into the leisure activities of these men, women, and children. A fragment discovered at Acemhöyük is a version of the “Game of 58 Holes” (36.70.37g), popular in Anatolia as well as across the ancient Near East and Egypt (26.7.1287a–k).

Pottery recovered from Kültepe represents a diverse corpus bursting with creative forms, treatments, and whimsical details. Vessels used for drinking and pouring liquids in dining or ritual activities appear in a myriad of shapes. Zoomorphic vessels in forms such as a ram’s head (67.182.1) were particularly common, and such objects, rendered in precious metals, were integral to later Hittite cultic ritual (1989.281.11).

In addition to these household objects, art decorating the Sarıkaya Palace at Acemhöyük provides evidence of the artistic tastes of the local Anatolian elite, as well as clues to social and political networks that stretched beyond Anatolia. Carved ivory inlays and supports, most probably from a chair, depict the same types of animals represented in glyptic and ceramic art, but with Egyptianizing aspects such as the Hathoric curls of the sphinxes (36.70.1), anthropomorphic postures, lotus flowers, and the dress of a lion figure (36.70.14). Like the cylinder seals, these works illustrate the exchange of ideas, materials, and technologies across the eastern Mediterranean during the Middle Bronze Age.