The Warka Vase, a.k.a. the Uruk Vase, a carved alabaster stone vessel, is one of the earliest surviving works of narrative relief sculpture. It was found in the temple complex of the Sumerian goddess Inanna in the ruins of the ancient city of Uruk, located in southern Iraq.
So many important innovations and inventions emerged in the ancient Mesopotamia during the Uruk period (circa 4000 to 3000 BCE and named after the Sumerian city of Uruk). One of these was the use of art to illustrate the role of the ruler and his place in society. The Warka Vase, circa 3000 BCE, was discovered at Uruk (Warka is the modern name, Uruk the ancient name), and is probably the most famous example of this innovation.
In its decoration, we find an example of the cosmology of ancient Mesopotamia. The vase has four registers – or tiers – of carving. The relief carvings on the exterior of the vase run around its circumference in four parallel bands (or registers, as art historians like to call them) and develop in complexity from the bottom to the top.
Beginning at the bottom, we see a pair of wavy lines from which grow neatly alternating plants that appear to be grain (probably barley) and reeds, the two most important agricultural harvests of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Mesopotamia.
There is a satisfying rhythm to this alternation and one that is echoed in the rhythm of the rams and ewes (male and female sheep) that alternate in the band above this. The sheep march to the right in tight formation, as if being herded—the method of tending this important livestock in the agrarian economy of the Uruk period.
The band above the sheep is blank and might have featured painted decoration that has since faded away. Above this blank band, a group of nine identical men marches to the left. Each holds a vessel in front of his face, and which appear to contain the products of the Mesopotamian agricultural system: fruits, grains, wine, and mead. The men are all naked and muscular and, like the sheep beneath them, are closely and evenly grouped, creating a sense of rhythmic activity. In Mesopotamian Art, nudity is generally presented as an expression of frailty and destitution, for instance, in the representation of enemies killed in battle, defeated and imprisoned or enslaved. In the Warka Vase, the nude figures are presented in a different context, and therefore with a different meaning and different expression. Here we may observe that the display of the naked human body in a religious context “anticipates”, so to speak, the role of the nude in Greek Art.
The top register is a full scene, rather than a continuous pattern. The top band of the vase is the largest, most complex, and least straightforward. It has suffered some damage but enough remains that the scene can be read. The centre of the scene appears to depict a man and a woman who face each other. A smaller naked male stands between them holding a container of what looks like agricultural produce which he offers to the woman. The woman, identified as such by her robe and long hair, at one point had an elaborate crown on her head. Behind her are two reed bundles, symbols of the Inanna, one of the chief goddesses of Mesopotamia and later known as Ishtar in the Akkadian pantheon, whom it is assumed, the woman represents. This scene may illustrate a reproduction of the ritual marriage between the goddess and Dumunzi, her consort that ensures Uruk’s continued vitality.
The Warka Vase, one of the most important objects in the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, was stolen in April 2003 with thousands of other priceless ancient artefacts when the museum was looted in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Warka Vase was returned in June of that same year after an amnesty program was created to encourage the return of looted items.
The Warka Vase underlines its expressive and communicative dimension and the symbolic meaning of reproduction, fertility and abundance as gifts of the Goddess in return for the performance of ritual exchanges that ensure the reproduction of life and of society.