The Uruk Vase: Sequential Narrative
Art is the very germ of civilization, as it is its crowning flower.
— BENJAMIN PARKE AVERY1
THE TWO PRECEDING chapters made the case that coinciding with the invention of writing, two ancient Near Eastern art forms, pottery paintings and glyptic, adopted linear compositions to become narrative. The scenes depicted in these two media are often limited to a single register featuring the climax of an event. When two superimposed lines or successive panels of images are featured, it is usually impossible to ascertain how the scenes are related. They seem entirely disconnected. But after carved stone vases became popular in Mesopotamia, in the proto-literate period, one vessel from Uruk depicts a long, coherent narrative extending logically over five parallel registers. I propose that this remarkable proto-literate art composition broke new ground in articulating several parts of an event by borrowing the structure of the impressed accounting tablets.
The precise date of the Uruk vase is unknown, because it was not found in situ but was part of the so-called “temple treasury hoard” in the Eanna precinct, level III, ca. 3000 B.C.2 The relation of the Uruk vase to the archaic impressed texts is particularly close, because 67 of the 250 impressed tablets were excavated in Uruk, and 40 of these came from Eanna, the precinct of the goddess Inanna, where the vase originated. Impressed tablets appear as early as level VI, ca. 3500 B.C., and were in use at Uruk for several centuries.3 They were still part of the level IVa assemblage at the Red Temple of Eanna and at the Anu Ziggurat, ca. 3100–3000 B.C.4 It is therefore not surprising that the system of organizing notations that proved efficient to communicate economic data was eventually adapted to the Uruk vase to create a visual narrative.