Director’s Pit

Views Of The Archaeological Landscape


by Kevin Fromings, Ba(hons) Ma


Appearing in the Times newspaper the other week (sandwiched between a pizza advert and an article on dognapping), was a little gem about ancient Sumerian warfare. I’m not sure if there is any significance in the positioning of the article, as the Times tends to loosely bunch things together in related subject matter. Therefore, before we start, may I just say that the ancient Sumerians – although I don’t know any personally – were not renowned for tempting dogs away from their owners with dodgy Babylonian pizzas.

Before I shoot off down the pizza rabbit hole (known as the Domino effect), let us return to the ancient Near East. In the British Museum there is a mosaic known as the ‘Standard of Ur’, which was discovered in the 1920’s in what is now Iraq. I will now scramble into the next burrow, and point out the dichotomy that the presence of this ancient artefact in the great London museum represents.

(C) Kornbluthphoto

At a time when many institutions are being accused of displaying past plunder, and debates rage (Ed: surely you mean range; Kev: No, I don’t) about whether things should have been removed from their original owners, I feel it must be pointed out that in this instance, if the mosaic was still in Iraq, it may well now be spread over a wider area, and in smaller pieces than its creator had planned.

But what was the Standard of Ur (I don’t hear you ask)? Well, Ur being the capital city of the empire, it probably had lots of standards. Obviously the ziggurat* was not standard, otherwise it would not be known as the great ziggurat. Some people thought the knowledge to build such a structure came from space aliens (ziggurat stardust and the spiders from Mars?), but then those types of people have probably spent too much time in the desert, listening to David Bowie albums on repeat…

*Look it up, if you don’t know. I’m not here to actually teach you things.

(C) Crystalinks

Some experts maintain that The Great Ziggurat (now it just sounds like a fairground magician), was also supposed to be the model for the biblical Tower of Babel. For those of you whose knowledge of the Old Testament is a little rusty; this was when mankind decided to build a tower to the heavens, and everyone ended up talking in a language that no one else understood (for a modern-day example see any public appearance Boris Johnson). That is possibly why it is the Ziggurat of Ur

The Standard of Ur depicts one of the earliest illustrations of a military expedition, and includes the first pictures of kunga. For those who, like me, do not know what a kunga is, it is apparently a very early hybrid creature, bred by man for the purpose of hauling battle wagons. These have four wheels – the wagons, not the kunga; that would make them a unique hybrid – so the wagons are not chariots.

(C) The British Museum Website
(C) Wikipedia – common media

The vehicles carried groups of troops into the fray. They could be considered to be the forerunners of the famous Marne taxis used by the French army to transport their troops to the Marne front in 1914. The British, not to be outdone, requisitioned a fleet of London buses to do the same job later in the war. The Germans just thought these methods were small beer – they had used trains right from the beginning.

Hang on, how did we get from Sumerian donkeys to German trains? Ah, did I not explain that the kunga animals were hybrid asses? And is it not a well known fact (Ed: No it is not) that on the Western Front mules, another hybrid ass, were sometimes used to pull rail cars loaded with equipment?

THE BRITISH ARMY ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1914-1918 (Q 1592) British soldier and mule Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205072850
(C) IWM.org

Anyhoo, we have strayed far from the deserts of the Middle East, and not in the search for water. As any osteologist will tell you, the remains of 25 of the creatures found at a burial complex in Umm el-Marra (Northern Syria) have proved to be ‘first generation hybrids’ based on DNA analysis, natch. These animals result from crossing a female domestic donkey and a male Asiatic wild ass… I would imagine that what you would get is a very stroppy ass.

The skeletons of several Kunga animals (C) NYtimes.com

This attitude (asstitude?) lifted the kunga up from being mere carriage haulers. The mosaic shows them trampling their enemies at the same time (who said donkeys couldn’t multi-task?), thus awarding them the status of having their own tombs. I can’t help thinking they would probably have preferred the non-fighting status of having their own field, with their own stable and feed bucket, but these boys (and girls) were bred for their fighting skills. Maybe they were so bad tempered that it was the only way they could be employed… Or perhaps they were so clever at avoiding tasks such as wood carrying and giving donkey rides to the kiddies up and down the ziggurat, that someone thought

“We’ll draft them into the army; that’ll wipe the smiles off their faces!”

(C) Alaturka.com modern day Kunga/Donkey hybrid

Either way, in 2400BC they became – for a brief while – heroes. Well, heroes at least to one mosaicist. And probably kingdom savers to Ashurbanipal the Indecisive, who won the battle. How did he earn that title? Well, you only have to look at the names of places to see his problem. Back in those days the king’s word was law, and a scribe would dutifully write everything down as the king said it. Woe betide anyone who attempted to suggest that the king may want to revise his judgement. Thus we have the following scenario:


The royal throne room; Ashurbanipal and his ministers are deciding on where to place his capital city.

“My liege, have you decided on the spot for your ziggurat?”

“I think so.”

“Where should we build? And what shall it be called to glorify your royal dynasty?”

“Er… over there.”

“And your royal kunga stables, where shall they be?”

“Um…. El-Marra.”

Luckily the little known Sumerian settlement of ‘WTF Really?’ has remained little known (as has Ashurbanipal the Indecisive).


And what were the humble kungas views of all this? Nothing was scribed regarding their opinions. But, that is not surprising, if they were clever/stupid enough to make them publicly known they may have fallen from favour.

After all, nobody likes a smart ass.

(C) CNN.com

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