During the so-called Early Dynastic period (ca. 2900–2350 B.C.), life in the cities of Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) was focused on the gods, who were believed to dwell in specially constructed temples. However, judging from the few excavated examples, these buildings appear not to have been congregational in nature. Access to the small central shrines was probably limited, most likely to the priests who served the god’s needs. It was perhaps due to this lack of access that the elite commissioned images of themselves to be carried into the god’s presence. These statues embodied the very essence of the worshipper so that the spirit would be present when the physical body was not. Quite how, or indeed if, the statues were presented to the god is unknown, as none have been discovered in situ but rather found buried in groups under the temple floor, or built into cultic installations such as altars, or scattered in pieces in the shrine and surrounding rooms, perhaps having been damaged when the temple was plundered or rebuilt in antiquity. Hundreds of such statues or fragments have been excavated and at no other time in the history of the ancient Near East has nonroyal sculpture survived in such abundance.
The votive statues are of various sizes and usually carved in gypsum or limestone. They depict men wearing fringed or tufted fleece skirts, and women wearing fringed or tufted dresses draped over one shoulder. Many have inlaid eyes and painted hair. The statues are usually carved with the hands clasped, right over left, at the chest or waist in a gesture of attentiveness. Some figures hold cups or branches of vegetation. Standing figures often step forward with the left foot. Male heads are frequently shown bald but sometimes wear beards, while female figures can have a variety of hairstyles or headdresses. Facial characteristics offer little variation from one statue to the next.
A large number of statues were discovered in temples at the sites of Tell Asmar, Khafaje, and Tell Agrab close to the Diyala River, a major tributary of the Tigris in eastern Mesopotamia. There is a wide stylistic range in the hundreds of dedicatory statues found here. Both naturalistic and highly abstract styles exist, possibly contemporaneous in date, originating perhaps from different workshops. A long beard and side locks characterize some male figures.
One of the largest collections of sculpture was discovered at the site of Nippur in a temple dedicated to Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of abundance. The Metropolitan Museum was a sponsor of the excavations during the 1957–58 and 1960–61 seasons and was accorded a share of the finds. Along with the statues were stone bowls, plaques, and inlays that were found either as hoards or scattered throughout the building. The most spectacular finds were made in Level VII dating to the later Early Dynastic period. Some figures from Nippur have a cuneiform inscription on their back or shoulder giving the name of the god and the profession and name of the donor.
Dedicatory sculptures have been found at a number of sites throughout Mesopotamia and neighboring regions, including Susa in southwest Iran, Tell Chuera in Syria, and Ashur in northern Mesopotamia. Almost half of the approximately seventy surviving examples of inscribed sculpture come from the site of Mari in Syria, where sculpture in a distinct style was found strewn among the destruction debris of the temples of Ishtar, Ishtarat, and Ninni-zaza. The sculpture from Mari is defined by its vitality and relative naturalism, with careful modeling and accurate proportions. The male figures from Mari often wear beards elaborated by patterns such as drilled holes—a hallmark of Mari sculpture—that separate the wavy strands of the beard. Among the many statues discovered at the site are figures of seated males and females and a masterpiece of carving that represents a musician sitting cross-legged on a woven cushion and named Ur-Nanshe in the inscription on his shoulder.