Prehistory of Comics Part 1: The Standard of Ur

The war element from the Standard of Ur.

Peace Sign/Born to Kill

Known in ancient times as the city of Urim and known today as Tell el-Muqayyar, the city that produced the Standard of Ur and many other artifacts was excavated as part of a joint operation between the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum in the 1920s and 1930s. (As a child, I used to visit the Penn museum, and revisiting later as an adult I thought I had invented the enormous, ominously lit sphinx or exaggerated its size in my head—but, nope, it is very real and very large.)

A onetime capital of one of the ancient Mesopotamian empires and later a city of great importance, Ur had many large religious buildings as well as a large cemetery section. In one of the more spacious graves in the section known as the Royal Cemetary, the Standard of Ur was discovered.

Imagined by Leonard Woolley, the lead excavator at the Ur dig site, as a battle standard and by other archaeologists as a container for currency or as a portion of a musical instrument, the true purpose of the piece we call the Standard of Ur remains a mystery.

The piece has two sides, war and peace, and each presents a picture of life in ancient Mesopotamia divided into three registers. The peace side shows farmers, shepherds and livestock keepers, and the king and his court. The war side shows chariots engaged in warfare, soldiers killing and capturing enemies, and the king and his prisoners.

The sequential or progressive nature of the piece is subtle in some ways, clearer in others. The donkeys leading the chariots in the bottom register of the war element go from walk to canter to gallop, for example. We can imagine how a chariot attack could make the infantry battle in the middle register easier, having eroded the enemies’ moral with some of that trademark Mesopotamian donkey-chariot shock-and-awe, but we can’t be certain that this reading of the chronology is what the artist(s) intended. What is more certain is that the prisoners must be taken in the middle register before being presented, enslaved, or sacrificed for the king in the top register.

The peace element is maybe more subtle. Farmers grow food. Portions of that food are given to the livestock. The excess of both of their efforts leads abstractly to the power and wealth of the royal class and leads directly to the beer, bread, and meat the king and his retainers feast on.

One very interesting note that the commentators make in the Smart History video on the Standard of Ur is how the king’s head on both sides breaks the plane, or panel. He’s so massive, so important, that he cannot be constrained by spatial limitations. It reminds me quite strongly of the way Jack Kirby breaks frames, presenting characters as too passionate, too dynamic, too eager to brain somebody with their fists to be constrained by panel edges.

(There’s a great line from a non-Kirby, pretty recent comic that goes, “I’ve got punch diarrhea and your face is the toilet bowl!” Anybody know it?)

The Standard of Ur is on display (per Wikipedia) in the British Museum.


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