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Urartu Art - A Sumerian Legacy ?

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

The art produced by the Urartu civilization, which flourished in ancient Armenia, eastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran from the 9th to 6th century BCE, is best seen in bronze figurines of deities, bronze cauldrons with animal and goddess head decorations, and vibrant wall paintings. A mix of Mesopotamian and indigenous subjects coupled with outstanding craft skills make the artworks of Urartu some of the star attractions in the Near Eastern collections of museums worldwide from London to Saint Petersburg.


Overshadowed by its more powerful neighbour Assyria (both in the past and today), without surviving examples of extended text of its own, and having had much of its precious material culture destroyed or looted, it can be difficult to disentangle the art of Urartu from that of the civilizations who were its predecessors, contemporaries, and even successors. One is on safer ground when examining the artefacts themselves in isolation rather than searching for their connection to each other and the art of other cultures. Certain points then become clear - the Urartians were master metalworkers, cauldrons especially being a forte. Wall painters were as accomplished as in any other culture, too. Such skills were acquired and developed over many decades, even centuries, and with such skills, one can presume there was also innovation both in technique and ideas. History shows that expert artists do not copy for very long before they begin to experiment.

The Urartu civilization was only rediscovered in the 19th century CE, and it has a lot of catching up to do with its more famous contemporary cultures, but ongoing excavations are steadily building up a clearer picture of the capabilities, inspirations, and legacy of one of the region’s most important Bronze and Iron Age cultures. It is clear that Urartian art was particularly influenced by contemporary Assyrian and Near Eastern art and that produced by the earlier cultures of the Hittites and Hurrians. Such subjects as lions, bulls, mythological creatures (e.g. griffins and centaurs), horse riders, and military themes provide a strong link between all of these cultures. Finally, Egyptian art was not unknown either, and artefacts with hieroglyphs, notably faience bowls and statuettes, have been found at Urartian sites.


A consequence of these cultural connections, coupled with the lack of identifying inscriptions in many cases, is that some artworks can be difficult to positively identify as made by artists from Urartu, Assyria or the Achaemenid Empire. An added difficulty is that many surviving Urartian artworks come from Assyrian sites where they were either taken as loot or which were produced specifically for that market by Urartian craftsmen. These works, though, may well have been produced during a period of political and artistic decline when Urartian art had lost some of its uniqueness. Thankfully, extensive excavations, such as those at Teishebaini (Karmir-Blur), have revealed the wide range of materials, media and subjects typical of Urartian art. 


Metalworking has a long history in the region, dating back to the 10th millennium BCE. Artisans in the Urartu kingdom had access to local mineral deposits which included goldsilvercopper, lead, iron, and tin. Other metals which the artisans and artists of Urartu could use included alloys such as bronze (copper and tin), brass (copper and zinc), and electrum (gold and silver). Artists also used wood, hardwood, stone, bone, stag horns, semi-precious stones (e.g. sardonyx, agate, and cornelian), enamel, faience, and ivory for their work. Common media for Urartian art includes figurines, engraved and inlaid weapons and armour, pottery, wall paintings, and highly decorative furniture.


Unfortunately, no large-scale sculpture survives except in fragments. The most important example is the six surviving pieces of a basalt relief statue of the storm god Teisheba. Dating to the 7th century BCE, the original figure stood on a bull facing a second figure with a triple spearhead between the two. It was excavated at Adilcevaz, north of Lake Van, and a full reconstruction has been made which can be seen in the Erebuni Historical and Archaeological Culture Preserve in Yerevan, Armenia.

The largest sculpture suggested by a surviving fragment is a life-size figure of a ruler. Only the torso of the figure has survived but the narrow beard and ends of long hair suggest a royal person. The left hand holds a bow and some arrows while the right hand holds either a club or whip. That such large figure statues were erected at Urartian temples is known through Assyrian inscriptions and artwork which describe and depict attacks on Urartu during the mid- to late-8th century BCE.

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