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

A foundation statue of Shulgi, the king of Ur, the king of Sumer and Akkad.

The above image is an enlargement of the picture
on the left, with some resultant loss of image quality
due to the added magnification.

This small picture of the statue is the only one I had.

Even at such a small scale, something about this face immediately caught my attention.

I was looking at this picture of the two foundation statues of Shulgi. I instantly knew
it was him, even before I read the caption. I've done a lot of research into Shulgi, so I know
what he looks like. I can recognize his statues at a glance, so I’m something of an expert
on the subject (a self-professed expert, admittedly, and probably the only one in the world).
I had already developed a general idea of Shulgi’s appearance based on his many statues.
I can also distinguish between Shulgi’s statues and those of his father, Ur-Namma.
They look very similar, but not the same. There are a few subtle differences between them.


The figure on the left is very crude, typical of most foundation statues throughout most of
Sumerian history. The entire statue is about 12 inches tall, so the face is about an inch high.
It’s very difficult to model the facial features on such a small scale, so the artist sculpted
just a few lines to create a rough impression of the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.

Although crude, even primitive, this statue is correct in all of its essential details. Shulgi had
a round face and a bulbous nose. He also had a down turned mouth and heavy-lidded eyes
that were asymmetrical.

When I looked at the statue on the right…

 I was looking across 4,000 years of history,
 staring into the face of a living man
 who was staring back at me.

I had been looking for this man for quite some time.

It all started in 2010, when I recognized Ur-Namma in the Met Museum.

See The Face of Ur-Namma.

Ur-Namma. The king of Ur, the king of Sumer and Akkad, and the father of Shulgi.

Ur-Namma's most noticeable features were his eyes. Not only were they heavy-lidded,
they were also asymmetric. His drooping eyelid was the result of the hereditary condition
known as “congenital ptosis”. It is present at birth and it doesn’t affect the vision.


All of Ur-Namma’s foundation statues portray the asymmetry of his eyes.

Before Ur-Namma, a foundation statue had a simple and generic depiction of a man's face.
It wasn't a recognizable portrait of the king as a distinct individual. Ur-Namma was the
first king with foundation statues that actually looked like him, the way he looked in real life.
Despite his unusual demeanor, or because of it, Ur-Namma created recognizable statues
that deliberately portrayed the asymmetry of his eyes. A drooping eyelid is not a kingly look,
but Ur-Namma was not embarrassed by it.

Since congenital ptosis is a hereditary condition, Ur-Namma transmitted it to his son.

All Shulgi foundation statues portray his asymmetric eyes.

They also portray his rounded face and his prominent nose.

Most of the Shulgi foundation statues convey his basic facial features, but many of them
are really quite crude, almost comical. This is somewhat surprising, considering the fact
that an artistic renaissance occurred during his reign. I expected better quality in the statues
of Shulgi. I thought they should have more artistic merit.

Six years ago, when I discovered the realistic statue of Ur-Namma, I immediately guessed
that his son had also made a realistic portrait of himself. It seemed almost inevitable,
given Shulgi’s pride and his artistic nature. I was certain that somewhere out there
a realistic portrait of Shulgi was waiting to be discovered.

Realistic human portraiture was a recent development in Sumer (and in the world). It began during the reign of Gudea.

[Click on any of the next three images to access their web pages]


This is the first realistic portrait
of any human being in all of history.

Ur-Ningirsu, the son of Gudea,
also had a realistic portrait of himself.

Ur-Namma, the father of Shulgi,
continued the tradition.

So where was Shulgi?

Unfortunately, very few statues of Shulgi 
survived the ravages of time. All of them are
heavily damaged. None of them have a face.

I knew a realistic statue of Shulgi was out there somewhere. I kept hoping it would soon
be discovered, but I had my doubts. Archaeological expeditions to Iraq were suspended
due to the constant warfare in the region, so I had little confidence that the statue would be discovered during my lifetime.

Little did I know, the statue had already been found.

Nippur, circa 1956 (AD).

After 4,000 years, a Shulgi statue emerges from its foundation box into the light of day.  

Meanwhile I was scouring the Internet, trying to find a Shulgi statue in a museum collection.
I was hoping it was mislabeled and overlooked, like the statues of other Sumerian kings
that I had already identified. Finding Shulgi was always at the back of my mind. Even when
I was researching other subjects, I kept looking for Shulgi.

The statue pictured below is a simple and abstract portrayal of Shulgi’s facial features.
Trying to to find the real Shulgi based on this statue was like trying to find a real person
based on a crude composite sketch.

  I was looking for a man who
  looked something like this.

He had a round face, a bulbous nose, and a mouth turned down at the corners. His eyes were heavy-lidded and asymmetrical. I was looking for...


The face of Shulgi. It is photographic in its realism. This is exactly how Shulgi looked
when he was a living man and a reigning king.

This is not a prettified portrait. The statue is uncompromising in it realism. Like Ur-Namma,
Shulgi preferred to show his real appearance, without idealization, and without the
ancient version of Photoshop, as it were. He didn’t make his asymmetric eyes more even
to minimize his ptosis and make him seem more regal. He didn’t reduce the size of his nose
to make himself more handsome. Then again, Shulgi didn’t need to look like everyone else.
His face was not conventionally handsome, but it was strong and charismatic.

Once you’ve seen this statue, you know exactly what Shulgi looks like. Not “kinda, sorta”,
but exactly. You would instantly recognize him if you met him on a city street, even if
he was wearing a suit and tie.

Perhaps you have already met somebody who looks like this. I know I have. In a way,
it could be said that Shulgi is a “type”. But even in a room full of similar men, Shulgi
would be instantly recognizable by his asymmetric eyes.

 The first time I added magnification to this picture,
 it startled me. It was like seeing a ghost:

The blurry spectral image set on a dark background; the eerie lighting, the tattered
diaphanous robe streaming in the light; it was like the photograph of a ghost; the ghost
of a king. It's as if the spirit of Shulgi, who was buried 4,000 years ago, transmitted as a
holographic image on my computer, appearing once again exactly as he appeared in life,
in all of his power and glory. I swear, if a bright light had burst forth from my computer and
Shulgi himself appeared before me, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised. Now I knew why
he was staring at me so intently from that small little photograph. He had willed himself
into the modern world.

In a real sense, that’s precisely what he did when he made this bronze portrait of himself
in the 20th century BC. He guaranteed that he would still be around in the 20th century AD,
and beyond. With this statue, he made himself immortal.  

I love these old photographs of Shulgi (courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago), but hopefully some better high-resolution photos will soon become available.
When they are published, I'll be sure to post them.

In the meantime...

This is the actual size of the statue, based on my estimate that it was 9 inches tall (see the
entire statue). It required incredible skill and artistry to create this statue. Imagine trying to
model a photo-realistic face on such a small scale. This is by far the best foundation statue
ever created. It is in a class of its own. You've seen many foundation statues on this page,
so you already know that nothing else compares to it.

Shulgi himself did not sit for this portrait. A king didn't have a lot of time to sit around posing
for every little statue. Nor did the artist first attempt a realistic portrait on such a small scale.
It's much easier to accurately model a life-size statue, then scale it down. Shulgi posed for a
life-size portrait, and this statue is a scaled down version of it. Given the detail and precision
of the statue, I believe it was created by the same artist who created the life-sized version.
The artist clearly knew every crease and contour of Shulgi's face.

So ...

Somewhere out there is a life-size, realistic portrait of Shulgi, just like the realistic statue
of his father Ur-Namma. This would be the Holy Grail of Sumerology.

The {d} is dingir, representing divinity. It means
Shulgi was worshiped as a god during his lifetime.

I will soon add a biography of Shulgi to this website. For now, here is a brief introduction:

Shulgi was an intellectual. He was an accomplished writer and a talented musician.
He spoke several languages. The arts blossomed during his reign. Shulgi was the
world’s first “renaissance man”, long before the term was even invented.

He was a powerful athlete and a marathon runner. He hunted lions for sport.

He was also a warrior, a priest, a king, and a living god.

He ruled for 48 years when Sumerian civilization was at its peak, at its absolute pinnacle.
He was the greatest king of Sumer, where there wasn’t any shortage of great kings. In the
long history of the world, he was one of the greatest kings who ever ruled. He should be
just as famous as Caesar and Alexander. Even they would be in awe of his achievements.
He lived almost two millennia before they were born, so even they would consider him to be impossibly ancient.

Now he suddenly appears in the modern world, looking exactly as he did 4,000 years ago,
when he was a living man and a reigning king, at the peak of his power and glory.

 Shulgi resurrected.

October 27, 2016