The Great Fatted Bull
Tablet #36
Sumerian Images
Sumerian History
The Royal Tombs of Ur
The Standard of Ur:  War
The Standard of Ur:  King
The "Standard" of Ur?
Vulture Stele Translation
Sumerian War Chariots
War Chariot Deconstructed
Gudea Translation
The Face of Gudea
The Face of Ur-Ningirsu
The Face of Lugal-agrig-zi
Ur-Namma Translation
The Face of Ur-Namma
Face of Ur-Namma, part II
I am Ur-Namma
The Face of Shulgi
Who Were the Sumerians?
Other Sumerian Kings
The Princess Wife
The Great Fatted Jackass
Sargon's Victory Stele
Helmet: the King of Kish
The Standard of Mari?
The Invention of Writing
Adventures in Cuneiform
The Sumerian Scribe
A Masterpiece
Site Map

Neo-Sumerian Alabaster Bust of a Priest - X.0211

Circa: 2200 BC to 2100 BC
Dimensions: 12.5" (31.8cm) high x 9.5" (24.1cm) wide
Collection: Near Eastern
Style: Neo-Sumerian
Medium: Alabaster

Click on any picture on this page to enlarge it in a separate window.

I was idly doing an "image search" on the Internet, trying to find some pictures that I
could use on this website. I was surprised to find a statue of Gudea I had never seen before. The statue was carved in white alabaster rather than the usual dark diorite. Even though it
was just a thumbnail image, on a page with dozens of similar images, I instantly knew it was Gudea. I clicked on the link to the website and was surprised (again) to see the statue listed as “a priest” rather than “Gudea”. The notes on the website said, "While this alabaster head may not represent Gudea, or even his son..."  I've seen a lot of pictures of Gudea during my research in Sumerian history, so I know what he looks like. I took another glance at the
white alabaster face and the distinctive shepherd’s hat (the crown of a Sumerian king)
and I said to myself, “That’s not just a priest, that’s Gudea.”

I immediately knew that the statue was realistic portrait of Gudea, unlike the other statues, which are rather formal and idealized. This statue is exactly how I imagined Gudea would look in real life. The face seemed strangely familiar, as if we had met before.

Once again, as with the Face of Ur-Namma, I was staring into the face of a Sumerian king across 4,000 years of history. It wasn't the same lifeless face of the other formal portraits of Gudea the king. It is a realistic portrait of a living man; a portrait of Gudea, the man himself.
The face is so lifelike, it seemed as if Gudea was staring back at me. I sat there for awhile, transfixed by his gaze, his large almond eyes filling me with a sense of serenity and calm.

It was one of Gudea’s foundation cones that I had received as a gift which first started my interest in Sumerology. The more I learned about Gudea, the more I admired him. This led me to further investigate Sumerian history. All my original discoveries about Tablet #36 (The Great Fatted Bull), the Standard of Ur, the Face of Ur-Namma, Eannatum, the Kings of Kish, Sumerian war chariots, and many other revelations, had all started with Gudea. Now, looking into his face, I knew that my Sumerian adventure had traveled full circle.

This statue is not Gudea's son, Ur-Ningirsu. To see what Ur-Ningirsu really looked like,
see The Face of Ur-Ningirsu.

Also see some other images of the above statue of Gudea.


Images of Gudea:  Gudea is recognizable mostly by his royal regalia and the inscriptions written on the statues and by the fact that the statues are carved in dark diorite stone. This rare stone had to be imported into Sumer, so it was very expensive. It is very hard, durable, and damage-resistant, and therefore difficult to carve. Because of the high cost of the stone and the difficulty in carving it, most of the statues are quite small, less than two feet high. They are called "Little Gudeas", yet they helped to insure Gudea's immortality long after the monuments of other great kings had crumbled into dust.

Seated Gudea. Note the straight mouth, square chin, rounded nose, and the overall resemblance to the face pictured at the top of the page. See a high-resolution photograph of this statue. Any "image search" on the Internet will display many images of Gudea similar to this one, which are generic portrayals of his basic facial features.

Seated Gudea, left profile.  Although Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian kings wore shepherds' hats as a crowns, these crowns were not all alike. This crown is distinctive to the dynasty of Gudea. It has a straight-sided brim and the stylized curls of lamb's wool, unlike the crown of Ur-Namma, for instance, which is smooth with a curved brim.

Seated Gudea, right profile. Note how these profile pictures closely match the profile pictures on the Barakat website; how the lips and chin look the same and how the nose is slightly squared off at the tip. Another feature of Gudea's square chin is that it's quite pronounced when viewed from the front, but not so prominent when viewed from the side. See this picture enlarged. These two profile pictures show that Gudea had a slight over-bite, which matches the profiles on the Barakat statue.

Gudea, right profile.

Standing Gudea.  Notice how the rounded nose, straight mouth, and the square chin matches the picture below.  See the entire statue. I call this statue "The Buddha Gudea". This statue is very stylized and artistic, the one below is very realistic.

Gudea. The statue is a “snap shot” of Gudea when he was a living man, 4,000 years ago.

Gudea and Ur-Ningirsu are the only real possibilities for the identity of this statue, for a couple of reasons: First, the crown is distinctive to the dynasty of Gudea and the city of Lagash. Second, the realistic style of this statue was developed during the reign of Gudea, and it continued during the reign of Ur-Ningirsu (see The Face of Ur-Ningirsu). Since this statue looks exactly like Gudea rather than Ur-Ningirsu, it may safely be said that it is Gudea. The facial features match in every detail. It can only be Gudea, to the exclusion of everyone else.

This is clearly the real face behind the other more idealized statues of Gudea. As such, it is ten times more valuable than all the other statues of Gudea combined. It's actually priceless.

There are two things noticeably different about this statue compared to the other statues of Gudea. First, at 12.5 inches high, it is life-size. The seated statues of Gudea, which show his whole body, are less than 18 inches high (they’re called “Little Gudeas”). Second, and most importantly, this statue is a realistic portrait, unlike the other statues of Gudea which are rather formal and idealized, typical of royal portraiture in the ancient world.

This point is best illustrated by the two statues pictured above. The statue on top is very idealized. The nose is thin and straight and symmetrical. The nose on the bust of Gudea is  less refined, it’s wider, more irregularly shaped, like the real nose on an actual man. This kind of “photo realism” was also applied to the rest of the face. Every effort was made to accurately portray the exact contours of the face, the way the lips are set and the shape of the chin. It seems that the statue was made to show Gudea as he looked in person, without abstraction and without idealization,­ with the exception of the “joined eyebrows”, which is a symbol of beauty. Even so, the eyebrows are less stylized than another image of Gudea, and therefore more realistic.

It’s been suggested that Gudea's square chin symbolized his strength of character. Because of the realism of this statue, we now know for certain that the square chin was actually one of his distinguishing facial features, along with the fact that the chin appears to be rather weak and recessive when view from the side. This kind of realism is unprecedented in a royal statue. Royal portraits were usually meant to show the king as being stronger and more imposing than he actually appeared in life.

The eyes are another telling feature. The eyes of the other statues, though prominent, are “unseeing”, with the blank uncomprehending gaze of many stone statues. The eyes on the bust of Gudea are different, they are very lifelike. It seems as though they can actually “see” what’s in front of them. In other words, the statue is looking at you, not the other way around. This is the hallmark of a realistic portrait in a sculptured face. This kind of realism is shown on just one other Sumerian statue:

Even with his heavy-lidded asymmetrical eyes, it seems as if Ur-Namma is staring back at you.

Some statues are realistic, some are lifelike. The best among them are "living". These statues of Ur-Namma and Gudea are living portraits of reigning kings. They are the only ancient kings to portray themselves the way they actually appeared in life.

A slight tilt of the head adds a natural look to the statue that isn't seen in other royal statues, ancient or modern. The eyes are slightly asymmetrical, like the eyes of most people, making the statue more realistic. The eyes of the other statues of Gudea are symmetrical. The left  and right eyes are the same size and shape, and therefore unrealistic and "unseeing"
(though Gudea's eyes aren't anywhere near as asymmetrical as Ur-Namma's). I believe
the eyes on this statue of Gudea are the correct size and shape, but the eyelids are set
slightly wide to give Gudea this intense gaze.

This statue is clearly a complex portrait of Gudea and not just an idealized portrayal of his facial features. I would suggest it shows us exactly what Gudea looked like. This is the true face of Gudea when he was a living man and a reigning king. It's obviously modeled from life, with Gudea himself sitting for the portrait. The statue may represent Gudea in his later years, portraying some of the strain of his twenty year rule. Here you will see the serene and pious face of a priest, which is the usual interpretation of Gudea. More important, you will also see the face of a hardheaded realist, one who was shrewd enough and tough enough to reign during difficult and dangerous times. For a brief biography of him, see "Gudea Translation".

This statue makes Gudea the first human being in all of history where we know exactly what he looked like. Not "kind of, sort of" what he looked like, but exactly.

As the first recognizable human being in all of history, this statue of Gudea is the most important statue in the world today.

Gudea, during the artistic renaissance that flourished during his reign, was the first to invent realistic human portraiture. Heretofore, sculpted human portraits (i.e., royal portraits, since expensive statues weren't made for peasants) were done in a stylized, generic sort of way. They were idealized, and not meant to be realistic, recognizable portraits of individual men.

The idealization of a ruler's facial features to the point of making him unrecognizable was not a practice that was restricted to the Sumerians. It was done throughout history, all over the world, until the present day (and the invention of photography). Royal statuary and portraiture is all about "The King", and not "the man". It isn't meant to portray the individual features (or flaws) of the king (or emperor, or pharaoh); rather it is meant to show him as strong and handsome, wise and powerful, a godlike being. This, for instance, is the reason why all Egyptian pharaohs look alike. Although there may have been some small attempt to portray a pharaoh's individual features, pharaonic images are always "symbolic" rather than "representational". They are meant to project the power and majesty of the pharaoh, with   little regard for the man's personal appearance (which in real life may have been somewhat less than awe-inspiring). An Egyptian pharaoh is recognizable mostly by his royal regalia and by the hieroglyphic inscriptions, and not by his facial features. All of us have seen the face of Tutankhamen, but we still don't know what he looked like. None of us would recognize him, even if he walked into the room.

I had earlier stated that Ur-Namma was the first recognizable man and king in all of history. For a while this was true, but now the title must go to Gudea because the reign of Gudea (2140 ‑ 2120 B.C.) predates the reign of Ur-Namma (2112 - 2095 B.C.). Although there is only a slight difference in the dates for the statues, this sculpture of Gudea is indeed the first realistic portrait of any man (or king) in all of history. Never before had the world seen such realistic sculptures of human beings, and it's somewhat surprising that the Sumerians, who usually depicted the human face so "generically", even crudely, should lead the world in realistic portraits of human faces. There was nothing comparable to these statues in China, Greece, Egypt, or anywhere else in the ancient world. The statues of Gudea and Ur-Namma are comparable only to each other, which is perhaps unsurprising. Gudea and Ur-Namma were contemporaries. They knew each other. They lived only 40 miles apart.

It would be difficult to over-emphasize the importance of these statues. They are not just masterpieces of the Sumerian civilization, they are masterpieces for all of humankind. It is a miracle of history that both of these masterpieces, one of stone and the other of metal, somehow survived the millennia. As a result, we have these priceless “photographs” of the two most interesting and important kings in ancient history, two very different types of kings; one a warrior, the other a priest. Ur-Namma was the “mighty man” and Gudea was the “righteous shepherd”.

A little more than a hundred years after their deaths, Sumerian civilization was destroyed and then completely forgotten. Over time, the statues were buried beneath the ruins of
several collapsed civilizations. It would be more than fifteen centuries later, during the time of the ancient Greeks (around 500 B.C.) before people once again saw lifelike human faces sculpted in metal and stone.

It would then be another twenty-five centures before Gudea and Ur-Namma were "resurrected", to once again be seen exactly as they appeared in life.

Gudea/ Ensi/ Lagash.  See Gudea Tablet for a high-resolution photograph of this commemorative tablet.

Also see The Face of Ur-Ningirsu.

September 14, 2011