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“From what we know, the earliest form of true writing was that invented in Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium BC. Closely followed by Egypt, not long after. It’s probably only a matter of a couple of hundred years, if that. But Mesopotamia seems to have it by a nose.”

Mesopotamia, the fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, was home to some of the world’s first cities. Beginning around 3400 BC, people came together in this region to build elaborately decorated buildings, form complex trade relationships, create great works of art and literature, and develop new scientific knowledge. Central to these many advancements was written language, which emerged earlier in Mesopotamia than anywhere else in the world. An exhibition at the Getty Villa, composed largely of objects on loan from the Louvre, explores the history of these first urban societies through their art and writings.

In this episode, Timothy Potts, Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the Getty Museum and curator of the Villa exhibition Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins, discusses the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia.

Blue-green tiled wall with roaring lion walking left.

Wall Panel with a Striding Lion, 605–562 B.C., Neo-Babylonian period. Glazed brick, 39 1/4 × 90 3/4 × 4 3/4 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1931 (31.13.1)

More to explore:

Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins explore the exhibition
Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins buy the book


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIMOTHY POTTS: From what we know, the earliest form of true writing was that invented in Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium BC. Closely followed by Egypt, not long after. It’s probably only a matter of a couple of hundred years, if that. But Mesopotamia seems to have it by a nose.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Tim Potts, the Maria Hummer-Tuttle and Robert Tuttle Director of the Getty Museum, about the exhibition Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins.
Mesopotamia has long been considered the world’s first civilization. Dating back to before 3000BC, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern day Iraq was the site of the first cities, the earliest system of writing, sophisticated forms of art and architecture, and networks of trade and diplomacy. Underlying all of this was a highly developed economy and bureaucracy.
I recently spoke with Tim Potts, Director of the Getty Museum, about the history of Mesopotamia as it’s represented in the exhibition Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins.
So thank you, Tim, for speaking with me today on the podcast. The exhibition Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins was co-organized by the Getty and the Louvre, and first shown at Louvre-Lens in 2016-2017. It was installed in the galleries of the Getty Villa in March 2020, but never opened to the public. Take us back to that moment when the exhibition was mounted but not yet opened, and when you knew it wasn’t going to open and weren’t sure when it going to reopen. What was it like to install but not open an exhibition? And how is it possible that it’s opening now, thirteen months after it was first installed?
TIMOTHY POTTS: It was incredibly frustrating. We had it installed; we were literally a few days away from the planned opening of the exhibition. And then on March 16th, I think it was, the decision was taken that we and pretty much the rest of the country were shutting down, and so it never got to open in 2020, as planned.
We did, however, manage to negotiate with the director of the Louvre, where most of the— almost all of the objects come from. And they were— generously allowed us to keep them. We were first thinking it might be two or three months, and then that deadline came and went. And we spoke to them again and Jean-Luc Martinez, the head of the Louvre, who is an archaeologist himself, was very understanding. And they didn’t also want to have gone to all this trouble and not have the exhibition seen by the public here in Los Angeles.
So we were able to extend it a number of times thereafter. And finally now, with the situation under control, we are able to open to the public just a couple of days from now, on Wednesday. And it’ll be wonderful to see people in the spaces.
CUNO: Yeah, it’s been fourteen months since you first installed the exhibition. Now, why did the Getty partner with the Louvre on this exhibition?
POTTS: Well, the fundamental reason is that the French were the first to excavate a major Sumerian site, that one being Tello, in the 1880s and into the early twentieth century. So the great sculptures of Gudea and many other of the masterpieces of Mesopotamian and Sumerian art are in the Louvre today. So to do an exhibition that represents Mesopotamia at its best, you really have to work in partnership with the Louvre.
And so they have the greatest collection of this early material. So being able to borrow from them is the only way to have, well, you know, one of the great exhibitions of this period in time and culture.
CUNO: Locate Mesopotamia for us. We’re standing in front of a map that’s on the wall in the exhibition space. Tell us where the major cities are and relative to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
POTTS: Sure. Well, Mesopotamia means the land between the rivers, so it is actually referring to the Euphrates and the Tigris, and so that’s why the Greeks called it that. It’s essentially modern Iraq, but it also west into Syria and north into Turkey, and a little bit, at times, also into what is now modern Iran. So it’s Iraq plus a bit of the surrounding countries, as well.
CUNO: So tell us about what I think of as a provocative title for the exhibition, Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins. Why do we make that claim that civilization began in Mesopotamia? And how do we define civilization to begin with?
POTTS: Well, very good questions, and ones for which there aren’t really short answers. From what we know archaeologically, from all the discoveries and excavations that have taken place, it is the culture which seems to have got there first, in a way. I suppose the key innovation is the invention of writing. And it is the case that, from what we know, the earliest form of true writing was that invented in Mesopotamia in the late fourth millennium BC. Closely followed by Egypt, not long after. It’s probably only a matter of a couple of hundred years, if that. But Mesopotamia seems to have it by a nose.
CUNO: Well, this is probably difficult to answer, if maybe not impossible to answer, but why did that happen first in this part of the world?
POTTS: We don’t know that. Except that the fact that Southern Mesopotamia, where this innovation took place, is a region basically desert, but very fertile through the flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. So if you are able to organize yourself in a way which exploits that natural resource of the rivers, the fertility of the soil, agriculture, it can form the economic, if you like, basis of a flourishing society.
So with the growth in population, the potential then to build buildings using mud and clay as its fundamental material, you have the sort of basics of a wealthy and prosperous society. And when you have this and it can support large populations, there is, in a way, the motive to organize those people and those structures and those activities in a more complex way. And you get to a point where that is going to require some form of writing or some way of recording events, commodities, you know, numbers of things. The number of sheep you might be herding, the quantities of wheat that you’re harvesting or whatever. So it seems like writing is going to be part of that process, to make all those other aspects of society function properly.
CUNO: There would be trade relations, one assumes, between ancient Mesopotamia and ancient other populations. What about the trade relations?
POTTS: There were. Basically, Mesopotamia has lots of clay, has the water from the rivers, and it has mud, and reeds that grow in the mud. And that’s how, as it were, writing was possible, and the architecture—you know, mud brick architecture—was possible. But they didn’t have timber; they didn’t have substantial sources of hard stones. So those were imported. And the timbers came largely from the Amarna Centaurus[sp?] Mountains in the northwest, in Syria and Turkey; some also in Western Iran.
The stones that they either used for building—which was not a lot because, you know, bringing stones long distances is obviously difficult and time-consuming. But they did import, from very far afield and very early on, precious decorative materials like lapis lazuli that comes all the way from Afghanistan, Badakhshan in Afghanistan. And that was happening already in the late fourth and early third millennium BC.
And also their metals. Critically, metals. Copper, again from Iran; some from Turkey, as well. Tin. We’re less clear where the origins of tin for making bronze were, but that also was being imported. And gold, which is fairly well distributed in the ancient Near East, so that was available.
But all by trade, on the basis of the agricultural productivity of Mesopotamia, and particularly its textiles. A lot of the exports from Mesopotamia out to other places were the wool from the sheep and the factories in which the wool was made into garments.
CUNO: Now architecture was obviously important to this, and you’ve already mentioned it with regard to the mud bricks and things. But it was important to the manifestations of rulership, as well, I think. Why was that the case? And tell us the role that the panel with the striding lion that we see in the first gallery of the exhibition played, not only in decorating these buildings that were built out of mud or stone, but also is a manifestation of the power of the ruler.
POTTS: Well, architecture was, of course, one of the ways you expressed the power of the culture, the city. Perhaps the most important of all was the city wall. And the first city that we know of on such a large scale in Mesopotamia was the city of Uruk, the in which Gilgamesh was the king. And the hymns and other things about Uruk focus particularly on the size and magnificence and strength of the city walls.
This panel in particular is one part of what was the Ishtar Gate of ancient Babylon in the sixth century BC. And this was the time when Nebuchadnezzar II, or the Great, was king of Babylon. There were a number of gates, and they were named after various gods. So this is the gate named after Ishtar, the goddess of war and love. And it has the attributes of Ishtar, particularly the lion. In fact, she’s often shown standing on a lion. So the processional way leading out through the Ishtar Gate was lined with literally hundreds of images of these lions and other beasts which relate to another god, Marduk, the Mušḫuššu animal, which is a composite, actually, a mythical hybrid animal. But the lions are real lions and represent Ishtar.
But of course, the lion was also traditionally the master of beasts, and therefore, the king of the animal kingdom. So it was also indirectly an image of and representation of the power of the king.
CUNO: So you would walk into the gate, or through the gate, and in a place somewhere above eye level, there would be this great big lion. And there would be a sequence of lions as one walked along to enter into the buildings, I think. And then on the reverse, you would walk out, against the direction that the lion was facing.
POTTS: Yeah. In fact, it was called the Processional Way. And this is why the Ishtar Gate was so important. There was an annual new year’s festival, a so-called Akitu festival. And the Akitu house, which was to the north of the city wall, they would process out through the Ishtar Gate to the Akitu house, where the celebration of the new year would take place, and then back into the city.
So this was not just one of the gates; it was, in a way, the most important. And it’s where the king and the gods paraded, particularly for that new year festival.
CUNO: Throughout the first gallery of the exhibition, there are a number of images of rulers, not only in a figurative sense, like the lion that we were just talking about, but in this stele, for example. So I’m interested not only in the manifestation of a ruler, the sort of picturing of someone with great power or magic, but also why the form of the stele? Where would one come across this stele form in the cities of ancient Mesopotamia?
POTTS: Well, steles basically just mean a standing stone. Normally sort of with flat faces front back, and often a sort of curved, rounded top, as in this case. And many cultures had— You know, in fact, the Maya do in the New World; the Egyptians did; the Mesopotamians; even the Greeks and Romans, in slightly different forms. So it was a way of representing, usually, some achievement of the king in a prominent place. And there were steles where they were actually carved into the living rock on mountainsides.
But there were also these free-standing objects, which were set up usually in Mesopotamia, and put in temples dedicated to a god, celebrating the of the king and his conquest of other peoples and so on. In this case, it’s a work from about 2000 BC, perhaps a hundred years earlier than that. What we call the Neo-Sumerian period, when the Sumerians were still the principle culture and language of the region.
It shows a god. We can tell a god because he has the multiple-horned headdress on the right, and he’s seated on a throne. And he’s handing the rod and the ring, which are the symbols of rulership, to the person who’s pouring a libation to the god. So although we’re missing the top half of the image of the person pouring the libation, it’s almost certainly a king.
And he’s been handed the symbols of rulership, the rod and the ring, as appropriate to a king. We don’t know who— which one he was. This stele was probably looted from Mesopotamia at a certain time, and brought back to Susa, where it was excavated in the early twentieth century.
CUNO: What is important about the act of libation? We see it not only in this stele, but we see it over here in this standing figure, with a libation being poured. Self-libating, I guess you’d say, pouring the water over oneself, it seems.
POTTS: Well, yes. And these are two rather different forms of libation. The one we were just talking about has the king pouring the libation into a vessel, which is set up in front of the god. So that’s, in a way, the more traditional form of libation. And a palm is now growing out of the libation, expressing the sort of fertility of land.
This one is rather different. It’s showing a pair of figures, mostly damaged and broken away, but you can see they’re both holding this vessel from which flowing water, which has fish in it, which means it’s the sweet water, the underground water, as it was conceived by the Sumerians, flowing out of the vase. It’s again an expression of the fertility of the land, and therefore, the bounty, if you like, of the gods that support agriculture and prosperity in their cities.
CUNO: So we’re looking at various manifestations of the kind of belief systems within the city. And over here, there’s some worshippers, figures who are draped in cloth, I guess it is. And what is this?
POTTS: As you say, these are ex-voto. So they were statuettes placed in temples, mostly with their hands clasped in worship before the god. So they were, as it were, praying to the god on behalf of the person who had them installed in the temple. So it’s showing the piety of that person towards the god.
The ones that are wearing this rather distinctive garment, this is what’s called a kaunakes. It looks like it’s sort of a tufted sheepskin, rather heavy. And it would’ve been a very hot garment to be wearing, particularly in the heat of Iraq. But that’s what it seems to be. And it occurs not only here in Mesopotamia, but in figures all the way east through Iran, and as far as Bactria in Afghanistan. So it clearly indicated a certain type of status and importance, and had, you know, some meaning which we don’t precisely what it is, but it’s people of status who were in a position to make offerings of this kind to the god.
CUNO: Now, important to any civilization would be the emergence of writing, not only for use in the economic trade and so forth, as we discussed earlier, but also in terms of the belief systems, a way to communicate the belief systems. And we think that writing emerged around 3200 BC. Why did it emerge when it did? And when and how was it interpreted?
POTTS: Well, part of the answer is, there does seem to be a bit of a backstory to writing. For thousands of years earlier than 3200 BC, we find in excavation, small clay kind of pellets, little things that have been modeled, but they’re only really the size of a dime. And they sometimes have impressed markings on them. And these tokens, as they’re called in the archaeological literature, some of them resemble some of the earliest signs which were used in writing on the clay tablets.
So the idea is that maybe people, for some thousands of years, had been counting commodities—whether it’s wheat or numbers of sheep or whatever—and that these tokens then, at a later point in the fourth millennium, around 3400, 3200, they had the idea rather than collecting these tokens and using the to count these commodities, you could actually inscribe the same shape in a clay tablet and have, you know, more than one in a tablet, which could then convey more information more easily. So that’s sort of the backstory.
But why it happened at particularly that point, again, I think it’s to do more with the fact that the economic basis of Mesopotamian society was flourishing at this time. The agricultural— obviously, they were very sophisticated in their creation of systems of canals, controlling the flooding, managing the agriculture, the pasture lands and so on. So the more complicated, the larger the scale of those activities, the more need for something that provided a record of what they were doing and what were the yields on agricultural lands and so on.
The more that expansion took place, the more need there was for some system to record that, and that seems to have occurred to them at some point around 3400-3200 BC.
CUNO: How was it that we first interpreted the cuneiform writing? How did the code get broken?
POTTS: Ah. That’s a very interesting story, and it goes back to the Behistun inscription of Darius, which is in three languages: in old Persian, Elamite, and in Babylonian. So Babylonian being one of the later versions of cuneiform writing. But Sumerian— I suppose the important part of the answer to your question is that Sumerian is a language unrelated to any other language that we know of. And the script that they invented was, of course, unrelated to any other.
And the reason we have been able to work backwards into understanding it is that Babylonian and Assyrian are Semitic languages. We know lots of Semitic languages, and so we could work out the cognates and names from Herodotus and other things, and other Greek authors. We were able to speculate in the Behistun inscription what those names were. And in fact, they were right.
So once you’ve deciphered Babylonian and the later form of the script, fortunately, the Mesopotamians, the Sumerians, and the Akkadians were very prone to doing lists of pretty well everything. They did lists of types of animals, types of materials, types of stones and so on. They also did lexical lists, where you would say what the sign is in Sumerian, what the sign is in Akkadian, and what the meaning of the word is.
So because we have these lists that the ancient Babylonians created, we’re able to work backwards from the Babylonian and understand how the Sumerian inscriptions, what the phonetic values are and what the meanings of the terms were in Sumeria.
It still made it really hard to understand the language and the grammar. And that was just brilliant people figuring it out over, basically, in the first half of the twentieth century. So we can read Sumerian pretty well now. Not as well as Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian, because they are Semitic, as I said, and we know lots more about that. But it was a effort of, you know, really talented, able linguists working very hard.
CUNO: Now, one of the most famous early texts is the Code of Hammurabi. Tell us who Hammurabi was and what it was about his code that made it so important.
POTTS: Well, Hammurabi’s Code is one of the law codes that have survived from ancient Mesopotamia. It’s not the earliest. We have them back to the Sumerian period. But Hammurabi’s law code particularly famous because of the extraordinary monument that is in the Louvre. Found at Susa, again. It had been looted from Mesopotamia and taken back to Susa in the twelfth century BC. It’s such a magnificent monument. It has an image of the god of justice, Shamash, and Hammurabi. And then the— all of the very long and detailed text of, ‘if a man does such and such, ten these are the consequences and this shall be the punishment or the outcome.’
And it’s so well preserved and it’s one of the great monuments that survive from ancient Mesopotamia. And there were many copies of it. We know that because fragments have been found in Susa and elsewhere. And in fact, the one from— the major one that’s intact in Paris, we know from that, that it was found in Sippar, a site also in Babylonia.
So because it’s the most elaborate, the most complete, it’s become the icon of Mesopotamian law. But as I say, many kings were lawmakers, and having a structure of law and of legal practice was, you know, an important part of Mesopotamian society.
CUNO: Hammurabi was a political figure who lived, we know, at a certain time. Is it important that this documents that kind of power that a person would have, that they would become so identified and identifiable?
POTTS: And Hammurabi was famous, frankly, in his own time not so much for his law code, although many would’ve known of that. But it was— he was a conqueror. He created the Old Babylonian Empire, if you like, which was the first time Babylon had become, you know, explicitly the master of all of Mesopotamia.
So it was a time of great change and Hammurabi was the major political figure who created the biggest empire, at that point, that had been established. It’s not large by the standards of later empires like the Assyrian and Nebuchadnezzar and the Persians; but at the time, he was the major political force. So he was seen as a great conqueror, as well, and that’s what he would’ve been feared and respected for.
CUNO: Well, tell us about Prince Gudea of Lagash. He also is represented in various manifestations within the exhibition: as an architect; as a figure holding a vase of flowing water, the kind of libation we’ve talked about; both standing and seated. And why was he so important, and how do we recognize him?
POTTS: He’s a very interesting character, and there are a lot of unknown questions about him. He’s famous, frankly, because the French excavating at Tello, ancient Girsu, the state known as Lagash, he was the ruler of that polity.
And he had a number of sculptures of himself commissioned. In, as you say, some of them, he’s seated with a, you know, tablet on his lap; others, he’s standing. Usually, he has his hands clasped in prayer, because again, these are statues showing his devotion to the gods, particularly his tutelary god, Ningishzida. And these sculptures are just among the greatest masterpieces of sculpture that have been recovered from any culture, and certainly from ancient Mesopotamia.
So they are the core of, if you like, the Sumerian collection at the Louvre. And they were hugely influential after they had been discovered during the twentieth century, many artists—Henry Moore and others—were great admirers of them, drew them, took inspiration from them. So that’s, in a way, how they’ve become sort of icons of ancient Mesopotamian art.
They do show the ruler in various, as it were, modes. One is as the architect. There’s one, which we don’t have in this exhibition, but another of these sculptures shows him with a tablet on his lap that shows the ground plan of the temple that he has commissioned to be built. This one shows a tablet with a stylus on it, but he hasn’t yet begun drawing or writing whatever he’s going to on the tablet. But you do see, on his garment, a long cuneiform inscription.
And the other very important thing about Gudea is his inscriptions on these sculptures are the most elaborate, the longest, the most sophisticated Sumerian literary compositions that have survived. So he was a patron of the arts, of the temples that his— you know, the deities in his city that he worshipped; produced great literature, produced some of the greatest sculptures that we have from ancient Mesopotamia; so has a very important part in Mesopotamian art history.
Ironically, he’s not mentioned in the document called the Sumerian King List. We presume, therefore, he wasn’t a hugely powerful ruler in the political sense. He kind of fills a period, or is a figure in the period of a hundred years or so between the Akkadian and Neo-Sumerian Empires, when he seems to have become powerful in local terms in Southern Mesopotamia, in Sumer, ancient Sumer, but not a world conqueror.
He wasn’t someone who left his mark on history that way. And probably for that reason, is not listed in the Sumerian King List.
CUNO: So in this room, we’re surrounded by examples of writing. In this case, on a stele. And again, a stele that’s about two feet tall, I suppose. But it’s quite dramatic in its depiction of beasts at the top, and then the writing, cuneiform writing that’s carved into it at the bottom. What’s important about this?
POTTS: A number of things. One, it’s one of the very earliest cuneiform inscriptions that made it to Europe, and so declared to the world that there was this interesting civilization in the Middle East, in Mesopotamia.
The top half has a number of images of symbols of the gods. One is Marduk. You can see this sort of serpent-dragon figure with horned headdress. That’s Marduk. Another one from Nabu, others for Shamash. And so there’re these symbols of the gods, and then the cuneiform inscription below.
This is early, very early, right at the beginning of the nineteenth century. And no one could read cuneiform at this point. and some speculative attempts were made, but of course, they were totally wrong.
We now know that this is one of a category of objects called kudurrus by the Babylonians. And they record transfers of land. Not so much sales documents, but often where the king has conquered and is a region, or taken over a property, and is assigning it to various of his officers or subordinates. Or sometimes there might be private contracts, as well, which are recorded in this form, where sales and distributions of land, or parceling up of land, have taken place. And these were probably put in temples as records of those transactions.
CUNO: Now, in addition to the manifestations of writing that we’re surrounded by in this gallery, the second gallery of the exhibition, and the seated images of Gudea, there’s also this small demon made of bronze from the Neo-Assyrian period, a demon called Pazuzu. Which is poignant, given the circumstances we find ourselves in today, in the middle of this pandemic, given what he stood for. Tell us about him.
POTTS: Yes. He’s the sort of demon who both brings the ill wills from the west, as they saw it, which bring evil forces. And of course, sickness and plague and so on were assumed to be the actions of the gods and of demons and of evil spirits, rather than— they didn’t, of course— weren’t able to think in medical terms. S
o Pazuzu was this fearsome creature. He’s got the head, in this case, it looks semi-human, but often it seems much more like a snarling dog or lion. He’s got claw-like hands, he’s go four wings, he’s got sort of eagle’s claws at the bottom, and he’s got a scaly skin, often. So he’s a very devilish-looking creature, very powerful.
But one of the interesting things about Mesopotamian sort of thinking is that these powers could also be turned to your advantage. So why would people wear amulets of Pazuzu’s head? And many did. It’s not because they were, as it were, devil worshippers; they were using the power of Pazuzu to keep these forces at bay. So if you could control Pazuzu and have him on your side, then you would avoid sickness, plague, and all these terrible things that could happen to you.
CUNO: Yeah. I mentioned that it was made of bronze, and there’s a few other works of bronze in the exhibition, but it’s primarily an exhibition of stone of various kinds. Also of clay, for the cuneiform writing and so forth. What role did bronze play in the materials of— historically?
POTTS: It’s very important. It’s the main material for weapons, of course. So for warfare, most weapons were of bronze. Sculptures like this and some very large-scale objects. We know from texts, that bronze was also used in architecture. And we have things like bronze gates in the Assyrian period and so on. So very large-scale castings of bronze did take place. But it was also the more durable material for sculpture, particularly small-scale things like this.
But it had to be imported, mostly from Iran, Turkey. In later periods, from Oman, also, in the Persian Gulf. And stones, likewise. The hard stones of the Gudea sculptures, they had to be imported from the Persian Gulf.
So they were prepared to put the resources into trading heavy but important materials from many hundreds, and with Afghanistan, more than a thousand miles away.
CUNO: And another example of bronze in the exhibition is this foundation peg. Describe it for us.
POTTS: Foundations deposits were a peculiar thing in Mesopotamia. When a temple was being built or a palace, an important structure of any kind, often in the four corners of the building, they would have a box, if you like, lined with bricks and sometimes with bitumen, in which they would deposit an image of the god or the king, and a text, a tablet, either in stone or in bronze, recording the fact that this building was being founded by this person. Usually a king. And exhorting anyone who finds it in the future to respect and celebrate that king’s achievement, and certainly not damage it or destroy it.
In this case, the sculpture is in the form of a deity. He’s got the horn headdress that shows he’s a deity. And he’s kneeling down on the ground and holding a peg into the soil, which is, in a way, a symbolic way of founding, of grounding the building in the land and connecting it to the underworld, where of course, there were important deities, also.
CUNO: We’ve been talking about images that have been made of stone, that have been made of bronze, that have been made of clay. Now we have this cylinder seal. And describe what a cylinder seal is and what role, function it had played.
POTTS: Yes. Cylinder seals come into existence around the same time of writing, and absolutely in connection with it. They are, as the name implies, cylinders with a perforation through the middle, which could be rolled over the wet clay of a tablet. And so they complemented the writing, the inscription on the clay tablet, and they served more or less as a signature of the person who owned that sea.
So they’re an important part of bureaucracy. They were, as it were, an authentification or giving an official credence to what was contained in the written part of the document. The seal we’re looking at is one of the, perhaps the most famous to have survived from ancient Mesopotamia. The subject matter of the seal is unique in a Mesopotamian glyptic at this time. And it shows a pair of water buffalos being fed the sweet waters of the underworld, the world of Enki, from flowing vases. And it’s remarkable that they would’ve used this motif because water buffalos didn’t exist in Mesopotamia at this time; they were an exotic beast. We have not found any bones or other evidence of water buffaloes at this time. But they clearly had a prestige as being exotic and remarkable.
CUNO: So in addition to this extraordinary image on this cylinder seal, there’s some beautiful writing on it. It’s rather extensive writing.
POTTS: There is. And it’s such a small scale it’s remarkable that it can be done so delicately. It does record, as cylinder seals do, the owner and his title and so on. In this case, it refers to the king, Shar-Kali-Sharri, king of Akkad. Ibni-Sharrum, the scribe, is your servant. And this was the typical sort of acknowledgement of an officer of the state and of the king. And this authorized them, as it were, to use this seal in contexts, to give it, you know, legal force.
CUNO: It’s about an inch and a half or two inches tall, and that’s it. But there’s something also about the cylinder seals that’s so compelling, and that is the luxurious quality of the luster of the stone, from which the cylinder seal is made. And sometimes it’s the color of the stone, whether it’s purple or blue or yellow or orange or black or silver, as this one is. What about the sort of character of the stone itself that is so attractive?
POTTS: Yeah. This one is carved from one of the dark diorites or gabbros that were used for the sculpture. They’re very hard stones and they take a polish very well, which is why it has that, you know, polish to it. And remarkable for something that’s over 4,000 years old. But that’s why they selected these hard, dark stones. But they also carved, at this period and later, rock crystal, carnelian, lapis lazuli, hematite. So a number of other hard stones, as well.
And you’re absolutely right that the color and the attractiveness of the stones was clearly part of why they selected those materials for cylinder seals. And poorer people had mostly cylinder seals of marble and calcite, so much less prestigious materials.
CUNO: So now we’re in the last room of the exhibition, and Prince Gudea is once again featured prominently in a number of manifestations. In this case, there’s a libation goblet of him. Describe it for us.
POTTS: Yes. This is another unique, absolutely unique object. Very few vessels that we can know were used in the rituals of temples, of important temples, have survived from the early Sumerian period. This is one of the very, very few. And it is, as you said, from the time of Gudea. It shows the images of Ningishzida. Another one of these highly hybrid objects.
It’s got a sort of feline and snake-like body, with horns on its head and the sort of head of a reptile of some kind. So this is the image of Gudea’s own tutelary god. So his, as it were, personal patron amongst the gods. And it would’ve been used to pour libations. And it has the two images of Ningishzida and then these intertwined serpents, snakes twisting up the side of the vase, very much like, you know, the traditional image for, you know, medicine, if you like, in modern times.
Anyway, here we have these intertwined serpents, which are, as it were, another aspect of Ningishzida, the underworld, the [inaudible], the world under the ground, where there were very important forces, as well. And this would have been used in pouring libations to Ningishzida in the temple that Gudea himself had built in Girsu in around 2150 or so BC.
CUNO: Was he, as a prince, as important as he seems to be by virtue of all the different manifestations of Prince Gudea in the exhibition?
POTTS: I think it’s probably more a reflection of the fact that his temples and the sculptures that he had made during his lifetime, probably through accidents of history, survived. We do know in the Hellenistic period—so thousands of years later—there are records showing that the king of that period, or the ruler in that region at that period, discovered these works of Gudea, and as it were, kept them in the temple.
So he was lucky, in that his temples weren’t totally destroyed by later rulers, there wasn’t a major rebuilding done, and that his objects survive. If we were able to find, let’s say, the palace of Sargon or temples built by Sargon a few hundred years before Gudea, they would be equally, and maybe even more, magnificent, those sculptures. But they just haven’t been discovered yet and maybe don’t survive, even under the ground, to this day.
CUNO: So it’s an extraordinary exhibition. And as we leave the fourth and last room of the exhibition, tell us what brought about the end of Mesopotamia.
POTTS: Well, I think the main sort of factor was the great conquest of Alexander the Great, of the whole ancient Near East, including Mesopotamia, in the late fourth century, because in his wake, that brought Greek culture, if you like, as a veneer of a second way of seeing the world, on top of the traditional Mesopotamian one. It did, though, have a positive effect in the exchange that then took place between Greek thinking and Mesopotamian thinking.
And much of the scholarship on astronomy, mathematics, and other things that the Mesopotamians had achieved over millennia were transferred to the Greeks at this point. What happens, though, over then the following centuries, from the fourth into the first century AD, is a gradual decline of Mesopotamian culture. And if you have to put a date on it, it’s around 70 AD, when the last datable cuneiform document in Babylon is written, that has been found to this point, anyway.
So by the first century AD, you would have to say that Mesopotamian culture essentially has passed away.
CUNO: Well, it’s a beautiful exhibition, an important exhibition. It’s in the context of a series of exhibitions that you and the Villa, the Getty Center— Getty Center and the Getty Villa have put together in a series called Classical World in Context. The next one’s going to be Persia.
POTTS: Mm-hm.
CUNO: Tell us about that.
POTTS: Yes. So we started with Egypt. And the concept here is we want to look at the cultures that the Greeks and Roman[s] were in contact with and influenced each other. So it’s not a question of just the Greeks influencing the Egyptians, but also the Egyptians influencing the Greeks and so on. So we started with Egypt. Now we’re moving on to Persia and after that, Thrace and the Levant and other regions.
And the idea is that these exhibitions and the publications that go with them will build up into a pretty comprehensive account of how the Classical world interacted with the greater Mediterranean, Near East, and in contact through the Silk Road, all the way to China. So it’s really to emphasize the point that cultures were not isolated entities with clear boundaries or borders—there was trade, there was immigration; there were all of these influences back and forth—and that to understand any of these cultures, you really have to understand the dynamic of interaction between them.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, it’s a very beautiful and important exhibition, so thank you for joining me on the podcast to talk about it
POTTS: Thank you.
CUNO: The exhibition Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins is on view at the Getty Villa April 21 to August 16, 2021.
This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
TIMOTHY POTTS: From what we know, the earliest form of true writing was that invented in Mesopotamia...

Music Credits
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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