Inana and Easter

And they call Christmas the silly season

My tetchy response to the poorly researched yet viral meme that 
does the rounds on Facebook each year

The Mesopotamian Blues: musings on Sumerian colour values


I have a problem with using modern words when talking about ancient topics.  Admittedly it is impossible to write a coherent article in English without using words specific to my language.  However, that being said, the foremost problem that I have is the outcome of studying a foolish amount of dead languages (and a couple of live ones).  So that, as a result, I am only too well aware that you cannot translate single words directly across cultures.

Different cultures and their languages frame language differently.  They don’t just frame it differently, they have whole different meaning ranges for words that a modern dictionary might arbitrarily choose to translate one on one, or provide three similes for.  This is particularly problematic for abstract or quasi-abstract concepts.  After all, a concrete noun like ‘cow’ is more or less a large female mammal with horns in any language, although subtleties and genus might vary.  However, concepts like colour, which is an idea imposed on a mechanical perception of the human retina are entirely subjective and culturally specific.

Mušḫuššu dragon from Neo-Babylonian Babylon, ca. 600 BCE
Copenhagen museum.  Image A. Sinclair.

One of my personal gripes that will inspire lengthy rants at the computer on a Sunday night is related to ancient colour and the debate about colour values in the ancient Near East.  So before we even approach the vocabulary and issues relating to this topic, it is important for me to emphasise that by using contemporary English words for colour, like red, blue or yellow, we are already on very shaky ground.  And by using these words we are imposing modern values on another culture and language, while simultaneously pushing the audience reading our work into narrow thinking without even introducing the linguistic issues. 

Therefore, I would like you to adjust your thinking away from a world where shades of colour have been completely deconstructed by post-industrial studies of pigment and dyes.  The modern rules of colour theory do not apply to pre-industrial cultures.  This means that I want you to set aside the basic idea that all colour consists of a hue-wheel involving red ‒ orange ‒ yellow ‒ green ‒ blue ‒ purple in gradations depending on mixture and saturation.  I also want you to view the word ‘blue’ with extreme caution.

Put it all aside, the colour spectrum does not belong here, because this idea is the outcome of industrialisation.  It is not wrong per se, but it skews our ability to look backwards in time.  In pre-industrial societies terms for colour are the result of their physical environment, and their experience of this, rather than 150 years of science, and therefore they are framed within different conceptual categories with different boundaries.  

This means ‘blue’ in an early culture simply may not mean what you think of as being within the normal range of blue.

In addition, before continuing, I would like you to briefly recall the last time you disagreed with a friend or family member over whether a sock was greenish, green-blue, blue green, bluish or turquoise.  Colour, regardless of language, is a very subjective issue, even without external factors like how much light or shadow is present or of physiological issues like say colour blindness. 

Now that that has been established we can move back to the topic: the carry on about whether or not there was a concept of blue in the ancient Near East.

So, how can we examine the value of a colour in a culture from approximately 4000 years before our own time? 

There are a couple of methods that archaeologists and historians use to do this.  The foremost is examining the sign system and the usage of terms in extant written texts. Next in line comes visual comparison, which involves comparing artefacts and artworks for examples of the use of a coloured material and the intention conveyed by this.  After those, there are a variety of anthropological methods that may be applied, such as comparison with values and terms from other living or historical cultures.  Finally, it is quite important to be aware of their physical environment; what materials, minerals, plants and animals made their world. 

Of these methods currently the textual method and a modern linguistic/anthropological theory dominate discussion of Near Eastern colour value.

Lapis lazuli. Image Wikipedia Commons

Beginning with theory

Discussion of colour terms in the Bronze Age is often dependant on the Berlin and Kay model of colour term evolution that was published in the 1970s.  This anthropological model studied an arbitrary group of modern minor languages and from this argued that all languages evolve a lexicon of colour terms in a consistent sequence of seven stages: from a pair; black and white, to red, to green then yellow, or yellow then green, to blue and then brown, followed by other secondary and tertiary hues. 

While it is a convenient model, it is also a burden, as it functions under narrow definitions of colour in the first place (our terms), and the validity to ancient cultures is disputed, as sample groups used were very small and are all post-industrial.  Basically it models what we call the primaries and secondaries as coming first and the tertiaries as derived terms coming later as language developed. However, at a simplistic level the model works, in that in pre-industrial developing societies, red, black and white are very dominant in the visual repertoire, but this usage may also be argued to be embedded in their physical environment and what they valued most.  

In the entire Near East in the 4th and 3rd millennia, the visual arts were dominated by the colours that were readily achieved by using natural materials like charcoal and bitumen, gypsum and red ochre.  In the middle of the 3rd millennium another colour was ‘invented’, green-blue frit (matt) and faience (shiny), and in Egypt and the Near East workshops were able to add this copper based pigment and glazes to their visual repertoire.  However, at the same time lapis lazuli also acquired significance for decorating small objects, often supplanting black in simple inlays combined with red and white.  And here is the problem, on prestige objects lapis lazuli most often replaces black, inferring inclusion in this value range in ancient Sumer (and incidentally also in Egypt).


If you look up any (credible) text on the value of blue in cuneiform you will be given the signs that make the word for the precious stone lapis lazuli in Sumerian –> ZA.GIN3 (also written za.gìn) and the later Akkadian word –> uqnȗ.  Both of these terms employ the same signs in cuneiform; ZA bead/gemstone’ and GIN3 (KUR) ‘mountain’, so literally the ‘mountain gem’, but these two signs are transliterated as ZA.GIN3 or uqnu depending on the literary context and cultural time frame (Akkadian dominated the Middle Bronze to Iron Ages, Sumerian preceded Akkadian, but remained in written use after it ceased to be spoken).


Together these two signs ZA.GIN3 make the Mesopotamian word for lapis lazuli.  This name is erroneously regarded to be a derived colour term in literature, because it is from a concrete object, a precious stone, and core or base colour terms must be abstract according to the Berlin and Kay model.  But in fact, all colour terms in Sumerian (the original language) were derived from concrete terms: The sign for ‘white’, UD is from ‘sun’ and originally more about light than colour.  ‘Black’, MI is from ‘storm, so ‘dark’, ‘green-yellow’, SIG7 is from ‘plant’, and ‘red-orange’, SU4/SI4 is blood.  In addition, lapis lazuli is attested with its etymology and value at the same time that the language and early sign system were being refined in southern Mesopotamia.

I  am not percieving a significant difference for lapis lazuli, as a base term or ‘derived’, except that we in English have a model of differentiating between, for example, ‘blue’ and ‘turquoise’, because one is deemed a core term and the other a term for a stone that has come to indicate a colour. However, linguistically all language stems from concrete terms like stone, sun, plant, so I reject the rationale that ZA.GIN3 as a colour term is necessarily a later development, and therefore that ‘blue’ by extension is a later idea.  However, it cannot be disputed that its use evolved.  That is how language works.

ZA2/ NA4,

These two signs that make lapis lazuli may also (but not always) be preceded by a determinative sign that points the reader specifically in the direction of the medium; ‘stone’  ZA2 or NA4, and abnu in Akkadian.  However, in early administrative texts this is rare, as to add ‘stone’ to ‘mountain stone’ would have seemed like over compensation when it was clear to the scribe what they were referring to.  In later texts the two signs can take other determinatives like a textile determinative when they refer to textiles, or wool if dyed wool.  Basically as language and technology developed so did the flexibility of the word.

Another handy pointer was the use of qualifiers on the term ZA2ZA.GIN3 to identify whether the ‘stone’ was from the mountains (real lapis lazuli) or from a kiln (glass).  But the subtleties of identifying synthetic lapis are still disputed and they only apply to the period after glass became a common royal technology in the ancient Near East, so after about 1500 BCE.  It is also worth mentioning that the sign ZA2  ‘stone’ is also not within our modern value range and included not just glass, faience and frit, but also amber, mussel shell and pearls.  Again, our narrow translation is an awkward substitute for the ancient value.

Can you find ZA.GIN3 in this administrative tablet from Adab?
Early Dynastic IIIA, ca. 2600‒2500 BCE. Image cdli P252035.

However, even with this quite specific pointer, a determinative, and descriptive qualifiers, it is not precisely possible to be sure you are looking at the colour, an abstract concept or stone when you see the signs without a ZA2 determinative in Mesopotamian texts, because it is not always there to indicate the stone.  The reading therefore is very much dependant on context.  And this is where I come back to the discussion I began with, because when this term is employed in a text it may never entirely lose its original value. 

The core value of a precious stone from distant mountains came first and sits in the background of any abstract use in later mythological language, be it for colour or for purely abstract notions like lustre or purity.  Sumerian and Akkadian had many abstract terms for lustre or radiance, which were used generously in all mythological and cult texts.  So when lapis was employed abstractly you can assume it still had its own subtle value, quite distinct from the usual term for brilliant; UD – namru which was in fact ‘white’ or ‘sunlight’.  So a bright solar radiance, particularly used to describe the divine power of high gods and of kings.  I for one find radiance inappropriate for ZA.GIN3, because UD is grounded in an idea of radiating light.

The Moon god NANNA’s journey to Nippur
Nibru lay ahead of the offerings, Tummal lay behind them. At the Shining (ZA.GIN3)* Quay, the quay of Enlil, Nanna-Suen finally docked the boat. At the White (UD) Quay, the quay of Enlil, Ashimbabbar finally docked the boat.  (source etcsl) 

*Here the translation of ZA.GIN3 as ‘shining’ misses the play on light and dark that is peppered through the myth. The translator opted for white for the ‘UD’ Quay, because poetically repeating adjectives meaning ‘radiant’ would have seemed clumsy.

I would emphasise that it is too easy to confuse words like ‘shiny’ and ‘bright’ with their opposites ‘dull’ and ‘dark’ which are not mutually exclusive to the other.  Shiny, for example, is neither light nor dark, it is about surface reflectivity and lapis may be ‘shiny’ if polished to a lustre, and it may glitter if there is pyrite present in the matrix, but it will never be light coloured, or radiant like sunlight or mother of pearl are.  And this is where we stumble over our own language terms.  Lapis lazuli is a dark glossy hue when it is a hue and perhaps darkly magically luminous when an abstract concept.  The reason we tend to fall back on light related words in English (like I just did with luminous) is perhaps that in our mental framework shiny dark lustre is not highly valued, and often negative or ominous, whereas light is, hence all the words in English associated with light and shine.

However, in Mesopotamia dark and shiny was a meaningful and magical concept associated with gods and holy objects.  When ZA.GIN3 was used to describe objects like a crown, a gilded chariot or a divine mace you can assume regardless of determinative that it was an object that was made using lapis or a lapis look alike.  And like lapis, these materials were a shade somewhere between very dark purple through to deep blue…. And shiny…. Which brings us to the likely colour range of the term when it is used in literature and administrative texts.

Plaque of the thunderbird Imdugud, from the so-called 'Treasure of Ur' found in
 the pre-Sargonic palace at Mari. Early Dynastic. Image frontispiece to Parrot 1968, Mari IV.

Values for lapis: The real world

I rummaged and rummaged in various texts, but must confess that this category was a wash out.  There are few natural world references in texts that use this stone or its abstract values, beyond those already mentioned (and they are luxury products, stones, textiles, wool).  Domestic or wild animals are not described with coats, wool, scales or feathers of lapis colour.  

The only exception to this comes from two myths.  One employs zagin to describe the colours of a peacock of the goddess Nanshe and the other is a description of the cattle herd of Nanna, which were ‘dark like translucent zagin and white like moonlight’.  And once again a text associated with the moon god uses a play on dark and light.  However, both these examples contain animals that arguably do not belong to the natural world.

Zagin was similarly not used to describe human hair (stop right now, Gilgamesh does not count, he was semi-divine).  Human hair was instead always described using MI/GI6, Akkadian ṣalmu, ‘dark brown dark – black’.  To reinforce this value, the Sumerians often referred to themselves as the black-headed people.  So, instead lapis lazuli is most visible in mythological texts as a personification of divinity or otherworldliness, sometimes the stone, sometimes a hue, sometimes an abstract idea, but none of these are necessarily mutually exclusive, the signs remain the same.  It was reserved for the hair and beards of kings, of heroes like Gilgamesh and of gods alone, and of course for their magical objects.

May the real lapis stand up: Otherworldly value

I choose to use ‘otherworldly’ here because the rationale that lapis lazuli was associated with celestial divinity is neat, and supported by the pyrite sparkles that it sometimes contains, but ‘celestial’ or ‘heavenly’ is a narrow word range and simply does not represent the range of value of this precious mineral in Mesopotamian mythology, funerary culture and cult.  

That being said, ZA.GIN3 could be used to describe the dark glory of the midnight sky in literature, such as for the background to the moon god Nanna in his glorious radiance at night or the sun god Utu breaking through darkest night at dawn.  But the emphasis here is on contrasting magical radiances: pure light against pure darkness.  It could also be used as a poetic metaphor for the demon infested darkest hour of the night ‘the zagin crown of night’.  However, if you were wondering about the blue of the sky in daytime, it was within the SIG7/warqa, ‘yellow tan green – blue’ range.

Lapis lazuli was equally heavenly when used to describe the holy shrine of Marduk in the second level of heaven, but it was not used to describe the heavens themselves in the same text.  For its other associations with gods, the goddess Inana was indirectly associated with zagin.  While her range of colour related epithets varied as diversely as the goddess herself and as a general rule 'dazzling ‒ white' and 'terrifying ‒ red' dominate her titles, due no doubt to various complex aspects of this goddess, descriptions of her physical environment, her temples and her bodily adornment are all lavish with zagin.

Her jewellery in the myth of her Descent to the Underworld is pointedly named as lapis, and directly associated with her powers.  Her temples at Aratta and Umma were the E2-ZA.GIN3, the ‘zagin/dark-lustrous house’.  At Akkad the E2-INANA, the ‘house of Inana’, was ‘of pure zagin’.  In the myth of Enmerkar and En-suḫgir-ana her bridal bed is strewn with zagin blossoms, which the ETCSL translates as ‘pure’.  However, the translation is poetic and context based. The written signs remain the same; plant determinative + ZA.GIN3, but this is usually interpreted as conveying ‘pure’ or ‘fresh’, rather than a blue flower.  Equally, this description of a divine bedchamber extended to the goddess Bau and other holy of holies in divine dwellings.

The use of lapis lazuli for holy places was not exclusive to Inana and the mythical temple of Nanshe was named the ‘Zagin Temple’.   The ‘Mountain Temple’ of Enlil at Nippur was ‘zagin’, but this may be translated as the ‘shining E2-KUR in some texts, and in others the lapis mountain.  In the myth of his journey to Nippur Enki constructed his own temples with silver or gold and ZA-GIN3.  Temples of other gods were compared to ZA.GIN3 in their praises; the Giguna shrine of Ninḫursag at Kish had ‘lapis lazuli appearance’, perhaps here a dark glowing appearance, while the temple of Nisaba at Eresh was both the E2-ZA.GIN3 and ‘ornamented with lapis’. 

In two Early Dynastic II texts from Girsu, Urukagina of Lagash emphasised the crimes of his enemy the king of Umma by claiming that he stripped every temple of its lapis lazuli.  The Amorite king Apil-Sin commemorated his 4th year by building the city walls of Babylon with ZA.GIN3.  Regardless of material or colour, or indeed both, that may be referred to in these texts, that is a truly extravagant way to build a temple or to face a wall.  Blue tiles, whether glazed or the actual precious stone, were unfathomably decadent in the Bronze Age.  This made them the exclusive preoccupation of gods and kings and not a day to day phenomenon, unless you were the poor peasant ploughing your field near Babylon in 1850 BCE.

I have not included paint pigment here, because it would be the wrong hue. Before 1500 BCE 'blue' was achieved using copper ore and it was therefore SIG7.  Also ultramarine the pigment made from ground lapis is not attested from Bronze Age Mesopotamia and the earliest evidence from Egypt and the Aegean is from 1500-1300 BCE.

Zagin hair on warriors from the palace of Darius I at Susa,
Persian period, ca 500 BCE. Pergamon Museum Berlin.  Image Wikipedia.

ZA.GIN3 in art and archaeology

Lapis lazuli was, like gold and silver, a top of the range precious material that was not local to southern Mesopotamia.  Wherever it is found in the Near East it originally had to be shipped over thousands of kilometres from the mountains of northern Afghanistan in order to supply the demands of kings and to adorn the gods.  As a rare and very precious material it acquired significance for the making of divine statues and for royal furnishings.  This is also why synthetic lapis in the form of glazed ceramic and true glass were so valuable to later kings.  Once industrial techniques were mastered around 1500 BCE kings were in a position to produce their own moulded ‘mountain stone’ on an industrial scale. And they did just that.

But it remained the exclusive right of royalty and their courts.  Don’t be fooled into thinking of glass like we think of it was a cheap substitute, 
in 1500 BCE it was equally magical and powerful as the stone.

But before they could do this, kings had to use the precious stone, so the objects in this material were particularly special, and by virtue of the otherworldly associations of the stone they were used for consecrated objects and to show divine favour.  In myth, the Gods themselves wore zagin crowns and wielded zagin maces and sceptres.  The symbolic value of the medium is illustrated well by a hymn where the Assyrian king Išme-Dagan claimed to have been given a pure zagin throne that contained 'all divine powers' by the goddess Bau.

It was standard for divine and royal paraphernalia to be made using gold, silver and lapis lazuli.  It was not just standard, it was mandatory.  In the year names of Neo-Sumerian and Amorite kings the name itself often emphatically describes these materials on thrones, royal standards and weapons.  In temples consecrated to various gods the statues were ideally constructed using all the precious elements in heaven and on earth including lapis.

‘Year (Bur-Sin) made for Ninurta his helper a 3 headed mitytyum-weapon in gold, his 
shita-weapon in lapis-lazuli and a great emblem. ’Bur-Sin of Isin.

So this brings us to the other ‘old chestnut’ that dogs the, lets call it, dubious research skills end of the internet;  blue eyes on statues of Mesopotamian people.  There is nothing like doing a quick internet search of those words, and perhaps ‘Sumer’, to make your own hair curl with stylish conviction without a trip to a salon (and was incidentally partially what inspired this article).  Because, in the tradition of cultural ignorance, but the ability to write a blog, the cult statues with blue eyes from Sumer are interpreted by people desperate to connect with cool dead cultures as proof that the Sumerians had blue eyes, and to add insult to injury, were therefore European.  

Detail from the statue of Ebi II from the temple of Ishtar at Mari, 
Early Dynastic IIIb, ca. 2400 BCE. Louvre Museum.  Image Wikipedia

Zagin inlaid pupils were in fact characteristic of cult statues of worshippers that were left by (rich) people in temples.  These big ‘blue’ eyed statues are actually a visual convention intended to show adoration and awe, but also a connection to the divine by employing a divine material lapis.  They are therefore a visual metaphor for ‘worship’ using a material with a direct connection to the gods.  To reinforce the innate value residing behind the image the pupil of the eye in text was called MI/ṣalmu: ‘the black’.  So the material does still retain its connection to colour, they are visual metaphors for dark eyes, dark shiny eyes. Again the inner value and hue of the material is retained and emphatic.   

However, if you have difficulty imagining the visual parallel from sculptures intended to represent dark haired and eyed people from around 2400 BCE, how about we turn instead to cult objects from say the Royal Tombs at Ur.  They are a neat and famous example of the visual and artistic value of lapis lazuli and the probable value range of ‘blue’ in the middle of the 3rd millennium.

The Queen's Lyre, Royal tombs of Ur. Early Dynastic III, ca. 2400 BCE.   
Image © British Museum (Creative Commons Licence).

Let’s take the various animal lyres that are now in the British Museum and the famous ‘Ram (it is actually goats) in the Thicket’ cult stands.  Lapis lazuli was used for the long beards and forehead curls and for the wool of sacred bulls and goats.  And I emphasise ‘sacred’ bulls and goats.  There is nothing mundane about them.  Lapis was also used for horns and for eyes and pupils in the same manner as for votive statues of people from this era, yet I have not come across anyone arguing that Sumerian goats and cattle were blue eyed.

Instead, what this use infers is that the eyes and hair of powerful magic or divine figures were made in a material that had the overall value of otherworldly ‘dark’.  After all, in life these cult stands and lyres were considered divine, with their own sacred names and cult rituals.  Finally, it should come as no surprise that lapis was favoured for decorating funerary objects that were buried with kings and members of the Mesopotamian court, because these objects were all discovered in funerary contexts and will have the most prestigious materials, but also those with apotropaic value and links to the otherworld.

The cult stand from UR, Early Dynastic III, ca. 2400 BCE.  The 'ram in the thicket' name 
is a Biblical reference.  Image © British Museum (Creative Commons Licence). 

The same argument applies to divine figures from cult spaces.  Where lapis lazuli was employed for statues of gods and heroes the value range of our inadequate word ‘blue’ was actually ‘brown black – brown-purple – dark blue’.  It is only in the technologically sophisticated second half of the 2nd millennium (after 1500 BCE) that blue begins to stand up on its own, but even then, this colour had a likely value range from black through to blue. 

In 1st millennium stone lists zagin has a wide range of individual characteristics indicating pattern and hue, anywhere from ‘like a raven’s neck’, a ‘dove’s neck’ to ‘speckled with white’, ’speckled like a wild ass’, 'like wine', ‘patterned’, star-like and ‘green’.  Although 'green' is again problematic, as it covers SIG7, the 'yellow – tan – green – blue' range, so as a result, translations of this sign again vary dramatically.  In addition, the word read as ‘green’ is not always SIG7, sometimes it is DURU5, ‘wet’ which may be translated as ‘green’, but ‘translucent’ is likely more accurate. 

What this all emphasises is how fragile our one on one translations of ancient words are.  However, regardless of the colour spectrum and its subtle abstract values, the gemstone from the mountains, lapis lazuli, was the pinnacle of luxury and a visual metaphor for all things pure and sacred in Mesopotamia.  It simply wasn’t blue as we know it.


So, to end this rather brief discussion of colour perception and misperception in Mesopotamia, which hopefully reduces my rant factor on Sundays, but probably won’t...  There is nothing ‘missing’ from the ancient colour palette.  Ancient people were not colour blind or missing basic terms.  Forget separating core terms from derived terms, it simply doesn’t work.  With dark blue residing towards the black range it is technically possible to claim that the ancient Mesopotamians had no concept of ‘blue’, certainly not our idea of blue anyway.  However, it is also not entirely accurate to say they had two ‘blacks’, as one is a dull brown-black that was applied to the real world and the other is a highly reflective blue-black that applied to the divine and royal world.  They had a different colour spectrum and these words only overlap in our limited vocabulary. 

Basically, we are just looking at their colours wrong.

Andrea Sinclair, 2018

British Museum:

ETCSL: (sample)

Gilgamesh and Huwawa
Gilgamesh and Aga
Enmerkar and En-suḫgir-ana
Lugalbanda in the Mountain Cave
The Temple Hymns
A balbale to Suen
Nanna-Suen’s journey to Nibru
Enki’s journey to Nibru
Adab to Bau for Išme-Dagan
A praise poem of Šulgi (C D
A praise poem of Lipit-Eštar
A song of Inana and Dumuzi
Inana’s descent to the nether world
Cdli Mesopotamian Year Names: 
Cdli ED III texts with ZA.GIN3


URA 16: 52‒66.  1st millennium Neo-Assyrian/Neo-Babylonian/Hellenistic stone lists
Oracc signlist

Sources/further reading
Berlin, B. and P. Kay. 1999. Basic Colour Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, Linguistic  Connections to Colour Terminology (and Social Complexity).  California.
Borger, R. 2004. Mesopotamisches Zeichenlexikon (AOAT 305). Münster.
George, A.R. 1993. House most High: The Temples of Ancient Mesopotamia. Winona Lake. 
Horowitz, W. 1998. Mesopotamian Cosmic Geography. Eisenbrauns.
Kuehni, R.G. and A. Schwarz. 2008. Color Ordered: A Survey of Color Order Systems from Antiquity to the Present.  Oxford.
Labat, R. 1976. Manuel d’épigraphie Akkadienne.  Paris.
Landsberger, B. 1967. ‚Über Farben im Sumerisch–Akkadischen’.  JCS 21: 139–173.
Mollon, J.D. 2000. ‘Cherries among the Leaves, the Evolutionary Origins of Color Vision’. In
Color Perception: Philosophical, Psychological, Artistic and Computational Perspectives, editor S. Davis, 10–30. Oxford.
Rochberg, F. 2009. ‘‘The Stars in their Likenesses:’ Perspectives on the Relation between Celestial Bodies and Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia’.  In What Is a God?, editor B.N. Porter, 93–153. Winona Lake.
Shuster-Brandis, A. 2003. ‘Tupfen und Streifen: Erkenntnisse zur Identifikation von Steinnamen aus der Serie abnu šikinšu  ‚Der Stein, dessen Gestaltung ...’. Altorientalische Forschung 30: 256–268.
Sinclair, A. 2012.  ‘Colour Symbolism in Ancient Mesopotamia’. Ancient Planet 2, 18‒33.
Sinclair, A. 2012. ‘The International Style, Colour and Polychrome Faience’. Ancient Near Eastern Studies 49, 118‒149.
Winter, I.J. 1999. ‘The Aesthetic Value of Lapis Lazuli in Mesopotamia’.  In Cornaline et pierres précieuses: La méditerranée, de l’antiquité à l’Islam, editor A. Caubet, 43–58. Paris.
Winter, I.J. 2002. ‘Defining “Aesthetics” for Non Western Studies: the Case for Mesopotamia’.  In Art History, Aesthetics, Visual Studies, editors M.A. Holly and K. Morley, 3–28. New Haven and London.
Winter, I.J. 2003. ‘Surpassing Work: Mastery of Materials and the Value of Skilled Production in Ancient Sumer’.  In Culture through Objects: Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honour of P.R.S. Moorey, editors T. Potts, M. Roaf and D. Stein, 403–421. Oxford.

The griffin bracelet of prince Psar

This is a good example of why I trust no-one,
particularly old textbooks from the dawn of archaeology 

The colour image below is a reconstruction of a bracelet that was purchased by the Louvre
in the good ol days of European diplomats ravenously collecting antiquities from whomever
was selling in Egypt. (Plus a spot of digging themselves because swashbuckling was very
 'in'.)  The image is from E. Prisse d'Avennes 1878, Monuments Egyptiens, Atlas II, V20. 

Pretty isn't it?  Rather a pity it is mostly fiction.  These are not the original paste colours
and some of the content is downright wrong.

Below is the same bracelet, but in Goodyear 1891, Grammar of the Lotus (plate 31).
The book where he basically argued that every floral motif from antiquity was based
on the lotus (no really, he did). He wasn't interested in the animals and it looks
suspiciously like the artist just copied the d'Avennes drawing.

Still plenty of fiction here.

Gaston Maspero from the 1914 Manual of Egyptian Archaeology, and finally more
accurate, but the artist has still embellished minor details.  Clearly this artist visited
the Louvre.

On the upside now the 'griffins' look okay and are facing correctly.

Heading into the mid. Twentieth century with a drawing from Leibovitch 1946-7
'Le Griffon II', fig 12.  Which is quite clumsy and schematic, and this time one
animal has been given a hawk-like head.

Wishful thinking.  Plus it is a bit like they all desperately wanted the crest to be curls.

Finally, my own drawing of the iconography from the bracelet, using photographs of
 the original (but don't trust me either.)

To quote significant other " you do realise dogs can't fly, don't you?"

The birdlike features are not clear now, rather it looks like a dog and the collar reinforces
 that impression. This is a fairly stereotypical Seth 'griffin' that occurs in Egyptian art
from the late Second Intermediate Period into the 18th Dynasty.

The 'curls' that they determinedly kept adding to the head were copied from 'griffins' that were also drawn in the 1800s, from the tomb of Ramesses III and a plaque in the Louvre.  However, those
Ramesside griffin crests always face in the other direction.

There is also a pair to this one in the Louvre that has a lion and similar volute plants.

 Louvre N1957/N1958 gold and glass paste cloisonne bracelets,
ca. 14th to 13th century, New Kingdom, Egypt.

The Psar referred to in early texts is Paser, the 19th Dynasty nobleman,
but this connection is likely to be erroneus.

So the lesson from this is:

do not trust old drawings and always go to the original object first.

by Andrea Sinclair, March 2018

Sitchin’s rocket in the tomb of Amenhotep-Huy

Painting of the west wall in the tomb of Huy by Charles K. Wilkinson (1920s), Image © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. If yo...