Head of a ruler; 2300–2000 B.C. Iran or Mesopotamia Copper alloy; 13 1/2in. (34.3cm) Rogers Fund, 1947 (47.100.80)
This magnificent head portrays a king of the late third millennium B.C. Its heavy-lidded eyes, prominent but unexaggerated nose, full lips, and enlarged ears all suggest a portrait of an actual person. While the date and place of manufacture of this piece have been much debated, its close similarity to the magnificent bronze head found at Nineveh make a late third millennium date most likely. The head is cast almost solid (making it extremely heavy), but a dowel hole at the base would have served to join it to a body or other support, most likely for display in a temple setting.
I was idly looking at this picture of "the unknown ruler". It had been on my website for more than a year, so I had seen the picture a hundred times before. Although I always accepted it as an unknown Sumerian ruler, on several occasions I had thought to myself, "It could be Ur-Namma. It looks like Ur-Namma. Maybe it's Ur-Namma". However, I didn't know the provenance of the artifact or the archaeological context in which it was discovered, so I thought I shouldn't hazard a guess about the man's identity. I figured that if it was known to be Ur-Namma, then someone else would have mentioned it long before now.
Earlier in the day I was doing an Internet "image search" on Ur-Namma, thinking I could use another picture of him on this website. The truth is, I was only doing it out of boredom; I didn't really need another picture of him. The point is, I had just seen many different images of Ur-Namma, all at the same time.
So later on, when I idly looked at the picture of the "unknown ruler", I suddenly knew exactly who he was. I was absolutely certain of it, as if I had just seen an old friend of mine walk in through the door. I was so filled with surprise and amazement, I actually spoke aloud. Although I was the only one around to hear it, I said, "That's Ur-Namma."
King of Ur
King of Sumer and Akkad
Ur-Namma ruled from 2112 to 2095 B.C. He restored Sumerian independence after centuries of foreign domination. He unified the various Sumerian city-states, thus creating a new Sumerian nation. He was a founder of the Neo-Sumerian Revival, the final renaissance of Sumerian civilization (see Ur-Namma Translation). Ur-Namma was the best of the known Sumerian rulers. He was an ambitious builder of temples and a just ruler of men. Ur-Namma was a king, a general, and a self-made living god. In the long history of the Land of Sumer, there had been many great kings. Ur-Namma was the greatest of them all.
The Met Museum was correct in pointing out that the statue of "the unknown ruler" was clearly meant to resemble an actual person, which was seldom the case in Sumerian art. Throughout most of their history, the Sumerians made little attempt to depict human beings as distinct individuals. Rather, like the Egyptians, the Sumerians portrayed people in a stylized and generic sort of way, as seen below. Sumerian men were drawn with large noses and big eyes, in a style that I call, "Stereotypical Sumerian". The women are distinguishable from the men only by their different clothing and hairstyles.
Sumerian faces: detail from the Royal Standard of Ur. After his victory in battle, a king drinks and celebrates with a friend (probably a general) while being attended by two servants. The king is recognizable by his traditional skirt of woolen leaf petals and by the fact that he is drawn larger than the others to signify his greater importance. Otherwise he's indistinguishable from the dozens of other men depicted on the Standard of Ur. All of the faces are the same. Circa 2400 B.C.
It wasn't until later in their history, when they became more sophisticated in their art, that the Sumerians started to depict human beings as distinct individuals. This occurred at the time of Gudea (circa 2130 B.C.) and was due in no small part to the artistic renaissance that blossomed in the city of Lagash during his reign. The "Sumerian woman" is one of the earliest examples of Sumerian sculpture that closely resembles the person it portrays, and the statutes of Gudea arguably make him the first recognizable man in history. During the reign of Ur-Namma, which started about ten years after the death of Gudea, many of the artisans of Lagash were transferred to Ur-Namma's capital city of Ur. The statue of Ur-Namma may have been created by these very same artisans.
Below is a side-by-side comparison of Ur-Namma and the "unknown ruler". The bearded image of Ur-Namma is from the "Ur-Namma Stele", seen elsewhere on these pages. The other four images are votive statues of Ur-Namma that show him at the construction of a new temple where he ceremoniously carries the first basket of earth. He is also shown as clean‑shaven, as part of the purification rites for the dedication of a new temple. The sculpture on the right is in the form of a "foundation figure" which is shaped like a nail or a peg. It is inscribed with the king's announcement to the gods that he is the one who built the temple. Many pegs similar to this one were buried beneath the temple foundations. The inscriptions on all of the statues pictured below clearly identifies them to be Ur-Namma.
Click here to enlarge the picture (add more magnification if necessary). Note how all four of Ur-Namma's distinguishing features – the heavy-lidded eyes, the rounded tip of the nose, the prominent ears, and the way the mouth is set, are depicted the same in all of the images.
Images of Ur-Namma:
A comparison of Ur-Namma and the "unknown ruler":
1) All four of Ur-Namma distinguishing characteristics (the heavy eyelids, rounded nose, large ears, and the way the mouth is set) match those on the face of the "unknown ruler".
2) The chin, cheek bones, and the overall shape of the head, also match.
3) The unknown ruler doesn't have any other distinguishing feature to show that he is someone different than Ur-Namma.
4) With or without a beard, and with or without the royal regalia (the crown, robe, and symbols of office) they are obviously the same person, based on the facial features alone.
Although subtle and not noticeable at first, there's a certain asymmetry to Ur-Namma's eyes. His right eye is more heavily lidded than his left eye. This detail is seen on all of the known images of Ur-Namma. It's another of his distinguishing facial features. Click here to enlarge the picture.
Ur-Namma and the god Enlil with the Tree of Life between them. Detail from the "Ur-Namma Stele".
It was this picture, at this scale, which first led me to suspect that the "unknown ruler" could be Ur-Namma. I had noted the resemblance, even though this figure is rather small and it's in profile view rather than frontal view like the picture of the unknown ruler. What first caught my attention was the heavy-lidded eyes and the rounded shape of the nose. On the original stele there is another image of Ur-Namma, as shown below:
Enlil leads Ur-Namma and a worker to begin work on a new temple.
The two views of Ur-Namma are contrasted below with added magnification:
Ur-Nammaprofiles: The nose of the figure on the right is chipped and damaged. The figure on the left is a modern restoration done in plaster. The nose appears to be the correct shape, but it is perhaps a little too long.
Notice how the figure of Ur-Namma facing right is more heavy-lidded than the other figure, the "worker Ur-Namma", facing to the left. The figure facing left shows his left eye, the "good eye", as it were. Because of the asymmetry of his eyes, Ur-Namma presents a different profile depending on which direction he is facing. Click here to enlarge the picture
The left profile is shown in another image of Ur-Namma on the stele:
Ur-Namma and Ninlil, the wife of Enlil.
(The nose of the figure on the right, like the one above, is also damaged.) Because of the asymmetry of his eyes, Ur-Namma presents a different profile depending on which direction he is facing. The same is true for unknown ruler, as shown below:
In this photograph of the left profile of the unknown ruler, notice how his left eye is much more prominent than his heavy-lidded right eye, just like the images of Ur-Namma.
The photograph on the right is courtesy of Kristin Hjellegjerde of ArtEco.
The figure of the king is missing due to heavy damage on the second register of the stele (see the restored front of the stele, and see the second register in its original condition). This figure of the king was modeled on the large figure of the king at the top of the stele. According to Jeanny V. Canby, the author of The Ur-nammu Stela, "Despite much damage, the brow, eyebrow, the front of the eye with heavy lid [...] are still visible." If you look at the original reconstruction (right) you can see that the right eye never had the wide open "<" shape of the left profile shown in the picture above this one. This would explain why the modern reconstruction seems to be so unusually modeled. At the time of the reconstruction, the asymmetry of Ur-Namma's eyes wasn't known. On the other hand, the left profile on the stele (below) was in good condition, and it clearly shows the open ">" shape of the left eye.
The asymmetry of Ur-Namma's eyes can be seen on all the images of him. The asymmetry is so pronounced as to seem
intentional by the different artists. It's not as if they lacked the skill to make the eyes more closely match. These figurines were sacred objects, presumably made by the best artists available, and yet none of the artists could get the eyes to match? The figurines were modeled in clay before the were cast in metal, so if an artist didn't get the eyes right the first time, he could easily remold the clay. The figurines are symmetrical in all other respects (the arms, torso, face, and nose) and yet the eyes do not match? It is obvious that the artists intentionally made the eyes asymmetrical. They used different ways to do it, but the results were always the same. A
high-resolution enlargement of the third picture from the left (which was originally printed in photographic reverse) clearly shows the artist's attempt to portray
the asymmetry of the eyes.
The artists always show Ur-Namma's right eye as the one that is heavy lidded.
I'm no doctor, but I have diagnosed Ur-Namma's drooping eyelid as a condition called ptosis. According to Eyewiki, "Ptosis can affect one eye or both eyes. It
may be present at birth, or may be acquired later in life. If a droopy
eyelid is present at birth or within the first year of life, the
condition is called congenital ptosis. In most cases of congenital
ptosis, the problem is isolated and does not affect the vision. Any
ptosis that develops over a period of days or weeks can signal a serious
medical problem and needs further neurological and physical evaluation."
I know that Ur-Namma's ptosis was congenital, i.e., a heredity condition transmitted by the genes, and not a symptom of a serious medical condition, because his son Shulgi had the same condition:
Foundation figures of Shulgi, son of Ur-Namma,
showing the same asymmetry of the eyes, suggesting that it was an inherited characteristic.
Close-up of another Shulgi foundation figure. Shulgi has a rounder face and a broader nose than Ur-Namma. Shulgi looks similar to his father, but not the same.
The face of Shulgi. All of his foundation figures display his rounded face and features. The other figures are rather crude and generic, but this is a realistic portrait. This is how Shulgi looked in real life, when he was at the height of his power and glory. Notice the asymmetry of the eyes.
Some of the linen wrapping still remains on the statue. Click here to see the entire figure.
A foundation figure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was tentatively identified as Shulgi, "pending further investigation". I believe it's Ur-Namma because it looks like Ur-Namma, and not Shulgi, because it doesn't have Shulgi's round face. (September 10, 2010).
Ur-Namma, not Shulgi, After I wrote to the Met Museum and identified it as Ur-Namma, they (rather spitefully, I thought) dropped the "pending further investigation" and definitively identified it as Shulgi without any further explanation. I would suggest the reason it wasn't inscribed with writing is because Ur-Namma died unexpectedly in battle before the figure was completed. That is why there is no writing on it.
It was a mistake for the Met to identify this statue as Shulgi. Notice the similarity of the face to all the other images of Ur-Namma shown below:
The asymmetry of his facial features is seen on all of the statues of Ur-Namma. It's another of his distinguishing characteristics. There isn't any known image of Ur-Namma that doesn't portray the asymmetry of his features. This asymmetry is clearly portrayed on the statue of "the unknown ruler":
In this brightly lit close-up picture of the unknown ruler it is easy to see the asymmetry of his facial features: the eyes, nose, and mouth. Ur-Namma was the only ancient ruler to consistently portray himself in this asymmetrical manner. See another image of the statue that highlights the asymmetry of his features.
Because every single facial feature matches on the two men, and because there are no dissimilarities, it can safely be said that the "unknown Sumerian ruler" is in fact Ur-Namma, to the exclusion of all others. It would be difficult to imagine anyone else, ancient or modern, who could resemble the unknown ruler more than Ur-Namma does.
Three views of Ur-Namma:Click here to enlarge the picture.
The bust of the unknown Sumerian ruler ties together all the other images of Ur-Namma. The other statues of Ur-Namma (shown above) are really quite small; they're little more than "figurines". Even so, their level of detail is remarkable because they faithfully record the unique combination of facial features that makes Ur-Namma easily recognizable. The bust of the "unknown ruler" is much larger. At thirteen and a half inches, it is life-sized, and it's more highly detailed. I would suggest that the statue of the unknown Sumerian ruler is clearly modeled from life, with Ur-Namma himself sitting for this portrait.
The statues of Ur-Namma are realistic. They carefully record how he looked in life. There's no attempt to idealize his features into nullification or to make him godlike and perfect. Instead, they show him as he really was, with the heavy-lidded eyes and the ears that are perhaps too big. These are not really "flaws", just the inbalance of features that gives character to a man's face. It's what makes him a unique individual, it makes him recognizable in a crowd.
There can be little doubt that this statue of Ur-Namma was modeled from life, and that every attempt was made to show Ur-Namma as he looked in person, without abstraction and without idealization. I would suggest that this statue shows us exactly what Ur-Namma looked like when he was a living man and a reigning king. To stare into the face of this statue is to see the face of Ur-Namma, the man himself.
Which is exactly what it seemed like when I was staring at this picture. It must have been a trick of the light, in the way the picture was transmitted on the computer screen, that made it seem as if he was staring back at me. And it must have been a trick of my mind, when I first said, "That's Ur-Namma!", that he seemed to give me just the slightest nod, with a bemused look on his face and a gleam in his eye that seemed to say, "That's right". For a brief moment, I was face to face with Ur-Namma, the greatest of the Sumerian kings, who was also worshiped as a god. But I wasn't seeing a god or a king, just the man himself. In that brief instant I was looking into the face of Ur-Namma, across 4,000 years of history.
Ur-Namma and the unknown ruler: They are clearly one and the same.
Anyone who has seen the pictures on this webpage could recognize Ur-Namma in other Sumerian works of art. And once they have seen the picture of the unknown Sumerian ruler, they could recognize this man (were he alive today) even if he was dressed in a suit and tie. That's how recognizable he is. Ur-Namma's doesn't look like everyone else.
Note (9/14/2011): I have found a truly
realistic statue of Gudea. When I first wrote this page about Ur-Namma, I said
he was the first recognizable man (and king) in all of history, but now the
honor must go to Gudea because he predates Ur-Namma by a few years. See "The Face of Gudea".
Ur-Namma: This is the head of a statue in the Baghdad Museum. It is labeled simply as a "male with a cap" (it's actually a shepherd hat, the crown of a Sumerian king). It's displayed on their website "Treasures of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad" (page 4, #34, IM 41014). Surprisingly, it isn't cataloged under their classification of "king". The statue is dated as "Neo-Sumerian 2150 - 1950 B.C.", which is the historical age of Ur-Namma. It's origin is listed as Uruk, the same provenance that's given for a foundation statue of Ur-Namma in their collection. Uruk was Ur-Namma's home town. From this angle, his eyes look asymmetrical, with his right eye smaller and more heavy‑lidded than his left eye, though it doesn't seem as pronounced as later images of him. Even if
the eyes are not overly asymmetrical, I still say this is Ur-Namma, based on
the hat alone. Not all shepherd hats were the same. For instance, Gudea wears
a different kind of crown; his crown has a straight brim and it has
the stylized curls of a fleece shepherd's hat. On the other hand, this
crown is smooth, with a fluted brim (it’s really quite jaunty) and it
looks exactly like the crown on all the other images of Ur-Namma. Since the
face is beardless, it may represent Ur-Namma when he was young. The
statue of the "unknown ruler" shows Ur-Namma in his later
years. I suggest that the earliest portraits of Ur-Namma did not emphasize
the asymmetry of his eyes. I believe that Ur-Namma as a young man was
self-conscious about his ptosis. A drooping eyelid is not a kingly look. People
expected their kings to have no outward signs of disability or imperfection. To
superstitious minds, a physical deformity could be a sinister sign, a mark of
disfavor by the gods. The young Ur-Namma was probably dismayed by the new
realism in royal portraiture that was recently begun by Gudea. For his part, Gudea
had no problem portraying himself realistically because his face was
charismatic (see below). His son Ur-Ningirsu also had no problem with realistic
portraits because he was actually quite handsome. At first, Ur-Namma must have
been reluctant to portray himself realistically. He would prefer a stylized
depiction of himself which minimized his ptosis. However, once he embraced the
concept of realist portraiture, he did it wholeheartedly. Thereafter, all his
portraits show the asymmetry of his eyes and his other features.
Gudea, Ur-Ningirsu, and Ur-Namma, with their willingness to be realistically portrayed, are the first truly recognizable men in all of history. There were no earlier examples of Egyptian pharaohs who are immediately recognizable by their facial features alone (and in ancient Egypt, life-like depictions of the pharaohs never really did catch on). This kind of "photo realism" in a royal portrait would not occur again for another fifteen centuries, at the time of the Greeks and Romans, in the statues of Caesar and Alexander. Nor was there anything like it in ancient China. During this period of history (about 2100 B.C.) when the Sumerian civilization, already ancient, was at its apex and was soon to be eclipsed, the Chinese civilization was just beginning to form. Nor was there anything like this sculpture in the rest of the world. When this sculpture was forged in metal, most of the rest of the world was still living in the Stone Age.
Ur-Namma: Notice his heavy eyelids and the rounded tip of his nose. His ears are prominent beneath his shepherd's hat. In Sumer, a shepherd's hat is the crown of a king.
The "unknown" Sumerian ruler: Notice how his ears are bent down, as if he is still wearing a shepherd's hat. It's probable that the statue was adorned with a removable shepherd's crown.
This is clearly the face of a man who was meant to rule.
There are several different places where this statue could have been displayed: palace, temple, or city square. I agree with the Met's assessment that this statue was once part of a temple setting since King Ur-Namma was also worshiped as a god in his lifetime. Given the importance of this statue, it was probably displayed in the temple where Ur-Namma was worshiped as a god. In which case, the statue itself would have been worshiped as a god, as the divine embodiment of Ur-Namma.
In the same way that the Mona Lisa is a masterpiece of painting and Tablet #36 is a masterpiece of literature (as seen on these pages), the "unknown Sumerian ruler" is a masterpiece of sculpture. Interestingly enough, all of these works contain some element of mystery, but more importantly, all of them are examples of the very best that can be produced in their given art forms. The sculpture of the "unknown Sumerian ruler" rivals the best sculptures of The Classical Age, fifteen centuries before the Greeks and Romans. The skill and artistry of the unknown craftsman who created this piece should not be overlooked. He created a living protrait in copper that rivals the painting of the Mona Lisa, thirty-five centuries before Leonardo da Vinci.
As simply "an unknown Sumerian ruler", this sculpture is a rare and valuable artifact. As a known portrait of Ur-Namma, it has great historical importance. As an artistic masterpiece, it is a treasure. As a recognizable portrait of a man, a king, and a living god, it is priceless.