War and Peace, the 4500 year old work of art

The Sumerian Standard of Ur, showing 'peace'

No, that’s not a typo in the title. I am referring to another great work of art on the subject of war and peace, one that wasn’t created by a Russian count with a big beard. I mean the so-called Standard of Ur, the 4500 year old Sumerian artefact discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley a century ago. One side depicts the civilisation at peace, and the other side shows war. Woolley thought it was a standard, to be carried into battle on the top of a pole, but this is probably wrong, and no one knows what it was really for. I think it was possibly the base of a lyre – the shape has a soundboardy quality to it – or else it was simply a One of Those, a thing in itself.

The ‘war’ side of the object

I was going to plunge straight on with my series of Life and Fate-themed posts, but instead find myself detouring into the Ancient Near East because I keep seeing this version of War and Peace bloody everywhere. It is obviously the go-to image for book designers tasked with choosing something about Mesopotamia:


 And this is just the tip of the lapis lazuli-encrusted iceberg. I don’t have anything against the Standard of Ur – it is an incredible work of art, worth lingering over in the British Museum – but I am starting to think that using it on the cover of so many Ancient Near East-related books shows an astonishing lack of imagination. It’s as though a third of all books about Ancient Greece had the same damn vase on the front. And there is so much wonderful, lively material to choose from – just look at these wonderful chaps in their sheepskin kilts:

Mesopotamian votive statues

– with all their magnificent eyeliner. There’s really no need to go for the same thing all the time, no matter arresting it is.

If you want to hear more about the Standard of Ur, I’d recommend this episode from Radio 4’s other recent magnificent project, the History of the World in 100 Objects, which appeared in conjuction with the British Museum.

Normal (Vasily Grossman-related) service will resume shortly.


One thought on “War and Peace, the 4500 year old work of art

  1. Ah, that’s a good point. Made me think of all the Soviet books that have red, black and white on their covers in a proper Socialist Realist kind of way…you’ve inspired me to a post! Is it just that we can’t look outside the box, or maybe its marketing again??


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