The Royal Standard of Ur, "peace side", three-quarter view. PG 779, the tomb where the standard was discovered, is seen below. The standard is circled in red. The object next to the standard is the skull of a soldier. Click on any of the images to enlarge them.
The Standard of Ur was discovered by Leonard Woolley in PG (“Private Grave”) 779 in the Royal Tombs of Ur. It was found above the shoulder of a man whom Woolley believed to be a soldier, as if it had been carried aloft on a pole. Woolley therefore thought it was a standard, the kind carried in front of the troops in battle or during ceremonial processions of the king. Hence the name, the “Standard” of Ur.
Roman battle standard.
This theory soon fell out of favor. Recent scholarship suggested that the standard is probably a sound box for a musical instrument. This is how it is described by the British Museum, where the standard is kept. I personally never bought into this theory. The war side of the standard, with scenes of wounded and dying men, naked prisoners cinched up with ropes, and bodies being trampled beneath charging chariots, is a bit too gruesome to be a decoration on a musical instrument.
There are also other reasons to suggest that the standard is not a sound box:
First, it doesn’t resemble any of the other stringed instruments that were found in the tombs, such as the lyres and harps (see Lyres, The Royal Tombs of Ur). None of these instruments have a trapezoid shape like the Standard of Ur. Second, the standard doesn't include any of the accessories usually associated with a musical instrument, such as tuning pegs and the attachments used to anchor the strings. Third, since all four of the vertical surfaces are covered in mosaic inlays, there’s no place to attach the strings on the sides, like on a lyre; and there’s no support plate to indicate the strings were attached to the top, like on a harp. Last but not least, the mosaic inlays are set in bitumen, a soft tar-like substance that is not very hard or durable. Therefore the standard could not withstand the rough handling that is routinely applied to a shoulder-mounted instrument, like the lyre shown on the standard itself:
Shoulder mounted lyre, as seen on the Standard of Ur. The lyre is supported by straps that go around the lyre and over the shoulder of the musician. Note the attachment of the strings on the side of the lyre.
Other lyres found in the Tombs of Ur were “Great Lyres” that are very large. For example, the Silver Lyre is 38 inches across. They were mounted on the floor or a table when played. The mosaic inlays on the lyres are only on the front plate and in narrow borders on the sides, so they weren't subject to a lot of handling. The standard, on the other hand, is quite small (8.5 x 19.6 inches) so it’s too small to be a floor-mounted instrument, and the mosaic inlays make it too delicate to be a hand-held instrument. In addition, any soundbox needs to be a thin‑walled structure, like a modern guitar, so the sides can vibrate (resonate) and thus amplify the sound. The heavy inlays of shell, lapis, and limestone embedded in soft bitumen make the sides of the standard too thick for this purpose. In fact, it would actually have the opposite effect, being a "sound dampener". It is therefore unlikely that the Standard of Ur was a musical instrument.
Another theory, advanced by Paola Villani, suggests the standard was used as a chest to store funds for warfare, civic projects, and religious works. This seems a plausible explanation since there is a small door in one of the end panels through which the funds could be added or removed.
The Standard of Ur end panel, "peace side", with an access door at the bottom.
Nonetheless, there are a couple of problems with this theory.
First, the door is too small for a man to fit his hand through it to pull out the ingots of gold and silver (Sumerians didn't have metal coins). The alternative is to shake the standard like a piggy bank to remove the ingots, but the inlays are too delicate for this kind of handling.
Second, the Standard of Ur is too small to contain enough funds to finance a war, a temple, or a civic project (such as building a canal), especially since the door being on the bottom makes it difficult to stack the ingots very high.
Besides, there were other more practical and secure ways to store the funds, so the theory that the Standard of Ur was a cash box is not widely accepted.
The current theory, 85 years after the standard was discovered, is that “we just don’t know” the original purpose of the Standard of Ur.
I would like to propose a “new" theory, one that is suggested by the standard itself:
Battle line, the Standard of Ur. Left: The Sumerian soldiers attack in a phalanx formation. Middle: There is a brief battle. Right: The enemy runs away, as seen below:
The enemy retreat. They flee before the Sumerian king (left).
An enemy soldier, third from the right in the retreat scene. Enlarge.
This soldier is carrying something under his arm. He is the only soldier, either friend or foe, who carries something other than a weapon, so it is symbolically important. Unfortunately, the object is damaged and it's difficult to tell what it is. Upon closer examination, however, it looks oddly familiar. The hole on the bottom looks like the object is meant to be mounted and displayed on the pole he is carrying. The dark line on the bottom represents one of the lower edges. The hole in the middle is where the pole would be inserted. The object has the same trapezoid shape as the Standard of Ur, with sloping sides and a narrow width. This is exactly how the Standard of Ur would look if held at the same angle. I would suggest that the object is a symbolic "furled standard", indicating defeat. This standard, which the enemy proudly carried aloft while marching into the battle, is now carried in disgrace under the arm of a standard bearer in headlong retreat. It's the perfect symbol of a defeated enemy.
The fact that a standard was removable from its pole suggests the access panel on the side was part of a locking mechanism by which the standard was fastened or removed.
There is yet another standard on the Standard of Ur. The above picture shows the king inspecting the prisoners taken in battle. It was originally assumed he was holding a spear, and the object on it was perhaps a tassel symbolizing royalty. The object is actually a standard, shown from the side. Despite its damaged and eroded condition, it is clearly the same trapezoid shape as the end panel of the Standard of Ur. See a high-resolution photograph of this standard.
Once it's known what to look for:
The Sumerian king captures the enemy king. He has the enemy king's skirt draped over his arm and he holds the robe in his hand. Note the box between the legs of the enemy king. It too is a standard. The fallen standard symbolizes the abject defeat of the captured king.
A Sumerian soldier dispatches a fallen enemy with his spear. This soldier
is right behind the Sumerian king during the battle. Interestingly, he is the
only person on the Standard of Ur who doesn't have both feet planted flat on the
ground. He is shown kicking something as he drives his spear into the belly of the
enemy. Notice the square area where he is kicking. I would suggest that it is another fallen
battle standard, which is now missing due to damage. The standard broke off along the straight outlines where it was deeply incised into the figure. This is not just erosion like the rest of the damage done to the figure. Above the missing standard is the broken staff that was used to hold it aloft. Click here to enlarge the picture.
As described in The Standard of Ur: King, the presence of a standard is an artistic device that is used to
identify a king. The above picture symbolizes the death of the enemy king and the destruction of his army. The aforementioned "standard bearer" with his standard under his arm is also a king.
It seems that the Standard of Ur is all about standards.
The prisoners are presented to the Sumerian king.
The captive enemy king (left) is escorted by a Sumerian soldier. This is the same king who was earlier seen being captured (above). His skirt and robe have been restored to him for the formal surrender ceremony.
It looks as if the Sumerian soldier is holding something in his hands, displaying it for the Sumerian king. Perhaps it's the captured enemy's battle standard. The presentation of the captured standards was part of the traditional surrender ceremonies in the ancient world. This would perfectly symbolize the victory of the Sumerian king. He imperiously holds aloft his own battle standard while being presented with the captured standard of the defeated enemy. Unfortunately, the above figure is too damaged to tell if a standard is being shown.
It seems unlikely that the Standard of Ur itself was an actual battle standard, the kind that was carried into combat. The mosaic inlays are too delicate for the rigors of war and the imagery is too complicated. A battle standard needs to be recognizable from a distance, so it should have only one simplified symbol, not the intricate tableau seen on the Standard of Ur. A Sumerian battle standard probably had crossed battle axes, for instance, or perhaps Anzud, the lion-headed eagle, a symbol of war (much like the mythological creature shown on the Roman battle standard pictured above). It's also unlikely that a battle standard would have a "peace side". The War and Peace sides indicate that it's a royal standard, the kind of standard carried during processions of the king.
So Leonard Woolley was right all along. The Royal Standard of Ur is a royal standard after all.