So, for the sake of a production I'm working on a lot of digital artwork meant to represent a slightly-fantastic, but based in fact, representation of ancient Sumeria. Think 5000 years+ ago; dawn-of-history level. (Specifically it's a portrayal of the Enuma Elish creation story, but it needs proper suspension of disbelief. I'm willing to let some things slide, but there can't be any glaring flaws.)

I'm just about to the point that I'll be inscribing cuneiform on temple walls, and what I would like to know from fellow history buffs and historians on this forum is, what would they likely portray or be about? I specifically do not want to reference any cultural or spiritual codex which would not have existed near the very dawn of Sumeria (think foundation-of-Babylon level).

[The thing is, I realize that in reality, in the absence of a city we likely didn't actually have any temples at all, certainly not heavily organized ones. Little things like residences and agriculture tend to show up before that. So, by necessity this is going to reach into fiction slightly; and may also be a good question for World Builder's Stack Exchange.]

The culture of Sumer has, by all of my research to this moment, been rather direct about much of its terminology and tradition. Its word for "king", lugal, literally translates to "Big Man". (Yes, "Big Man" Hammurabi, father of laws. They were not being sarcastic or snarky. Let that sink in for a moment.) The ritual of Šurpa, for resolving curses of unknown origin, was basically a public apology for everything you may have screwed up in the past and a promise to do better, followed by some disposable symbolism with a little garlic or wiping with dough. (I have to admit I love these guys.) There also likely was no precedent to follow for even having temple decor; I suspect they were more like community centers.

So in the earliest temples we have record of, what was the traditional decor like? What did it portray? Before we had religion as we know it, what did people cling to spiritually?

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    The last sentence/question seems to be non-sensical, or somehow specious (in need of definition!) — but I guess it's better just removed? – LаngLаngС Jun 3 at 0:24
  • Google images has quite a few examples if you type in your title question. Do these help? If not, can you edit your question to clarify what it is you need that can't be found with a simple google search? – Lars Bosteen Jun 3 at 1:20
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    I'm confused: the founding of Babylon is much later (around one millennium later!) than the early Sumerian period. In particular the Enuma Elish is a Babylonian myth, not a Sumerian one (although it does contain elements coming from earlier myths) – Denis Nardin Jun 3 at 6:31
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    @MichaelMacha It would have been helpful if you could have included the information on Marduk in your comment in your question. My suggestion was made to be helpful so please don't take it the wrong way. – Lars Bosteen Jun 3 at 7:51
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    @LarsBosteen I thought I was clear, pardon me; the fiction necessarily assumes that Marduk's tale was fact; so it must predate all accounts of him. – Michael Macha Jun 3 at 12:44

As a quick note on chronology, "5000+ years ago" would put your setting in the Jemdet Nasr period or earlier (Uruk III–V; yes, archeological periods are numbered backwards).

This is around the time when the earliest forms of "cuneiform" writing first evolved out of pre-literate pictographs used for accounting, and the signs used at the time looked quite different from later cuneiform. In particular, I'm putting the word "cuneiform" in scare quotes here, because this time period actually falls right in the middle of Sumerian writing evolving from a "linear" style to a "cuneiform" style as scribes increasingly simplified the signs, which were originally rather detailed and pictorial line drawings, and started composing them out of wedge-like line segments made by pressing the side of the stylus into clay.

In other words, if you want your temples to feature period-appropriate writing, don't think this:

Image from Wikimedia Commons: The Assyrian king Shalmaneser III receives tribute from Sua, king of Gilzanu, The Black Obelisk
The upper 1st (top) register, side A, of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. Neo-Assyrian period, 825 BCE. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) via Wikimedia Commons, used under the CC-By-SA 4.0 license.

but rather something more like this:

Image from Wikimedia Commons: Proto-Cuneiform tablet: administrative account of barley distribution with cylinder seal impression of a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars. Probably from the city of Uruk.
Administrative account of barley distribution with cylinder seal impression of a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars. Probably from the city of Uruk. Jemdet-Nasr period, c. 3100–2900 BCE. Photo donated to Wikimedia Commons and dedicated to the public domain by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

or even like this:

Image from Wikimedia Commons: The Blau Monuments (BM 86260 and BM 86261)
The Blau Monuments. Uruk III / Jemdet Nasr / ED I period, c. 3100–2700 BCE. Illustration by from A history of Sumer and Akkad by L. W. King (1869-1919) published in 1910, now in the public domain.

or this:

Image from Wikimedia Commons: Stele of Ushumgal MET DT849
The Stele of Ušumgal. ED I–II period, c. 2900–2700 BCE. Photo donated to Wikimedia Commons and dedicated to the public domain by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Ps. The Wikipedia links above should take you to a bunch of images of period-appropriate inscriptions and statues. For more images, consider searching museum collections or the CDLI for objects from the appropriate periods. (Note that CDLI doesn't recognize "Jemdet Nasr" as a distinct period, but searching for e.g. "Uruk III" or "ED I-II" gives you objects from c. 5000 years ago.)

Note that most if not all of these statues and reliefs would've originally been painted in bright colors. Most of the pigments have just decayed or rubbed off over the millenia, leaving us with limited evidence of their original colors. For some reconstructions of the original colors in ancient Mesopotamian sculpture, you could take a look at the recent book Mesopotamian Sculpture in Colour (ISBN 978-3-935012-42-3) by Astrid Nunn and Heinrich Piening (eds.) published last year.

One well known example of artwork from this period with (partially) preserved colors is the so-called Standard of Ur, a wooden box with colorful mosaic decorations depicting scenes of warfare and a court banquet. The striking blue and red colors of these scenes have survived, as instead of paint they were made with inlays of lapis lazuli and red limestone respectively. Some boards for the "Royal Game of Ur" with colored inlays have also survived.

Image from Wikimedia Commons: The Standard of Ur exhibited in the British Museum, London.
The "Standard of Ur" on display in the British Museum. Early Dynastic period, c. 2600 BCE. Photo by Denis Bourez via Wikimedia Commons, used under the CC-By 2.0 license.

  • This is excellent advice, thank you! – Michael Macha Jun 3 at 12:42
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    Well, the Standard of Ur is Early Dynastic, which is a little different from Jemdet Nasr, but the choice is of course up to @MichaelMacha. – Spencer Jun 3 at 16:24

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