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Gudea of Lagash Ends Long Journey, Suzanne F. Singer, BAR 9:03, May-Jun 1983.

Statue from Iraq acquired by Detroit Institute of Arts

GudeaSometimes an archaeological discovery permits us to glimpse the soul of an ancient man—to “see” one person who loved, hated, inspired fear or respect. When the discovery is a work of art, fashioned by a gifted pair of unknown hands thousands of years ago, it is a precious legacy, one that no quantity of pottery sherds, or carefully drawn balks, or sophisticated pollen analyses can match for its human message.

Such a piece of art was acquired recently by the Detroit Institute of Arts. It is a full-length standing figure, 16 1/8 inches high, of Gudea of Lagash, who ruled his city-state in the region of Sumer in Mesopotamia from 2141 to 2122 B.C. This masterpiece is depicted with hands clasped in an attitude of worship characteristic of Mesopotamian art. The statue is carved from glistening paragonite, a semi-translucent gray-green stone. Gudea wears a wool cap and a draped shawl-like garment. Inscribed on his bare right shoulder and back are cuneiform characters declaring his good works. The powerfully muscled torso and arms suggest Gudea’s physical authority; the serene facial expression exhibits the confidence of a true and lawful leader confronting his gods.

Gudea followed the ancient Sumerian practice of placing his image in temples, as an eternal reminder to the gods of his constancy and devotion. He commissioned at least 30 statues representing himself as a devout worshipper. From inscriptions on these statues and on seals and building foundation deposits from his reign, we know some facts about Gudea himself, although little about the events of his reign.

Gudea ruled the city-state of Lagash in Mesopotamia for over 20 years. Lagash was located in the swampland of Sumer, at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Here, in this village containing rich soil washed down by the two great rivers, civilization may have begun. By 4000 B.C., the Sumerians were established in southeastern Mesopotamia. When Gudea became Ensis, or ruler, in about 2141 B.C., peace and prosperity came to the region of Lagash. Inscriptions present Gudea as a pious leader and a strong administrator in times of peace. Unlike the inscriptions of other Near Eastern rulers, Gudea’s inscriptions do not describe his military campaigns. In fact, we do not know if he ever led his armies into battle. We have many details about his great building programs. Inscriptions record that the gods gradually revealed to Gudea in his dreams methods for purification of the city, for the preparation of the religious sites and for the construction of temples. They also tell how materials for the temples were garnered from other, distant sites—sure evidence of the power and wealth of Lagash.

On the Detroit Gudea, the pious acts of the ruler are inscribed in a cartouchea and across the statue’s right shoulder and back. In translation, these cuneiform inscriptions read-


Gudea, city ruler of Lagash,

the man who built the temple

of Ningiszida and the temple of


Main Inscription, on the Back

Gudea, city ruler of Lagash,

built to Gestinanna,

the queen a-izi-mu-a,

the beloved wife of Ningiszida,

his queen,

her temple in Girsu.

He created her statue.

“She granted the prayer,”

he gave it a name for her

and brought it into her temple.

By citing a temple and statue that he built and dedicated to the goddess Gestinanna, the consort of his personal god Ningiszida, Gudea sets his deeds before the gods. Little is known about Gestinanna except that she was a goddess of wine and winemaking. Gestinanna is called a-izi-mu-a on the Detroit museum’s Gudea. The meaning of this is not clear, but it probably can be understood literally as “the queen who lets water and fire grow.” Carved in the glowing green stone, Gudea’s words served as perpetual pleas to the gods to grant prosperity and long life to him and his people.

The exquisite statue of Gudea, now proudly displayed in the Detroit museum, is an example of a persistent problem in archaeology. The problem is that we will never know exactly where this statue was found because Gudea was illegally and unscientifically removed from its resting place. No scholar will ever be able to study the archaeological context of the statue. No one can know which other artifacts lay close to it or which stratum of a particular building it came from. All we know today is that Gudea first came to light at the time of early 20th-century digs in mounds near modern-day Telloh in southern Iraq. These mounds were the site of the Mesopotamian city of Girsu, part of Gudea’s city-state kingdom of Lagash. In the 1920s, the statue reached the European antiquities market where it was acquired by a Belgian collector, Adolphe Stoclet, in 1925. It remained in the Stoclet family until recently when it was bought by a New York dealer, E. Safani. The Robert Hudson Tannahill Foundation bought the statue from Safani for $700,000 as a gift for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Perhaps the greatest power of the statue, however, is not what it tells us of Gudea’s reign, or the time or civilization in which he lived, but rather its message of human strength and serenity—so movingly conveyed by an unknown sculptor of extraordinary talent who made this work of art over 4,000 years ago. This statue speaks to us quite apart from time and space. Somehow it connects us with mankind from ages past and yet to come. Its art is humanity aspiring; it tells us what we can be.

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