Mesopotamia is considered preeminent among the world’s earliest civilizations. Not only did this region give rise to the very first cities, but it endured for more than three thousand years and saw the invention and evolvement of urban institutions, the expansion of cultural exchange and the flowering of artistic expression. Located between the Euphrates and the Tigris River, it occupied what is today Iraq, north-eastern Syria and south-western Turkey, and produced some of the finest, most sophisticated and elaborate art in western Eurasia from the fourth millennium to the sixth century BC. Sumer, home to the Sumerians as well as a host of other cultures, occupied the region of southern Mesopotamia during the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages, and is the site of the earliest known civilization. Its greatest legacy was the development of the written word, advanced by the Uruk culture circa 3200 BC.
The present amulet, pierced vertically for suspension on a cord, would have been worn around the owner’s neck, making it a very personally significant item. The four bulls are depicted recumbent, and the way they are entwined with each other gives the impression that they are almost one being. They are rendered in both a highly stylized, yet naturalistic manner; the facial features are heavily stylized, particularly the eyes, which are over life-sized, and the harness and its ornamentation are rendered using a series of lines and spiral motifs. The contortion of the animal’s bodies and legs also seems unrealistic. However, the craftsman has taken care to craft the bulls’ heads in higher relief than their bodies, thus giving a sense of depth and perspective, and, viewed from the back, the beasts’ recumbent bodies assume a plausible form. It must be stressed that the amulet measures only 4.7 x 3 cm, and so this level of detail is quite exceptional. Furthermore, it is made from lapis lazuli, one of the most expensive materials in antiquity, highly prized for the intensity of its blue colour. The use of this special material strongly suggests that it was made for a king or other elite individual.
The art of Mesopotamia includes some of the most vivid images of animals found anywhere in the ancient world. Interactions with animals shaped the daily life of its inhabitants, who shepherded flocks, guarded against wild animals, hunted for subsistence and sport and marveled at exotic beasts from far-flung location. Such animal imagery continues a tradition found in Sumerian imagery depicting sacred herds and temple estates, with bulls and birds advancing in files, a reference to fertility, the promotion of abundance and the desire to maintain prosperity. The bull, in particular, was considered sacred. It was revered for its strength and virility, and for its protective abilities. Indeed, this makes it a fitting subject for an amulet, worn as a protective device. The choice to depict bulls on this personal item may also have been linked to worship of Gugakanna, the Sumerian god also known as the ‘Bull of Heaven’, who appears in the epic of Gilgamesh. The stance of the bulls on this amulet also recalls the iconography of the bullmen, mythological half man and half bull creatures, who worked closely with humans and gods to ward off the forces of chaos. They are the precursors of the famous Assyrian lamassu, the winged bull-man who adorned palaces and temples, for example, at Nineveh.
For an amulet depicting a recumbent bull, but in limestone, and earlier than our example, see the Cleveland Museum of Art INV. NO. 1981.7. For an example of a bull-man figurine, see the statuette of an androcephalous bull in steatite, dating to circa 2500-2000, Musée du Louvre, inv. no. AO 2752.
J. Aruz and R. Wallenfels (eds), Art of the First Cities, The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003.
R. M. Collection, France, 1960s.
Private Collection, 1981-1999.