Before Comics: The Standard of Ur

Originating around 2,500 BCE, the Standard of Ur is one of the earliest examples of sequential art that we have. While there is earlier art that is definitely narrative, it is not clearly sequential. The Standard of Ur, however, portrays the same characters in different situations and also depicts movement in successive images, and so is clearly sequential.

image from Wikipedia

The Standard of Ur was probably not carried into battle as a standard, though its function is unclear. What we do know is that it originated in the city-state of Ur in what is now modern day Iraq. So this is a piece of art from the Mesopotamian world, what is commonly thought of as the birthplace of human civilization. And it depicts some of the functioning of that early civilization, a culture that has long moved away from a hunter-gatherer existence and come out of subsistence agriculture to allow for the creation of other social roles and to begin the stratification of social classes.

“War” side – from Wikipedia

The Standard of Ur is a wooden box inlaid with figures composed of shell and red limestone on a beautifully rich lapis lazuli background. The two long sides of the box are often referred to as the “war” and “peace” sides. Looking at both sides, one figure stands out and seems obviously to be the same person. This figure is referred to as the “king.” As is common in a lot of early art, figures that represent people of more power in society are depicted larger and also higher in the pictorial frame. So the king is in the top panel of both sides and so big that his head sticks into both sides’ panel borders, while all the other figures fit neatly inside the lines. The hierarchy of size continues as seated figures around the king are larger than the “servants” who seem to be attending them.

In addition to size, social position is also shown with physical position. Both sides of the box have three long panels and this design stratification relates directly to social stratification. Rulers and important people are in the top panel. Those lower in society are in lower panels. This is especially obvious in the “peace” side, where people selling animals or making offerings are in the middle panel above the laborers who walk along the bottom panel. So social “height” relates directly to pictorial height. As is still true in the comics medium, position in the the pictorial space relates to meaning.

“Peace” side – image from Wikipedia

As Doctors Steven Zucker and Beth Harris point out, the four horses at the bottom of the “war” side depict four sequences of movement: stand, walk, trot, and gallop. The horses increase their action as you read them from left to right. So we have an early example of an artist trying to capture movement in a series of static images.

And we have early depictions of artists. While agricultural abundance seems to have brought social classes–rulers, warriors, and laborers–is also seems to have made a place for artists. We see someone playing a lyre and another person, often thought to be a singer, behind them.

Overall, what I find so exciting about The Standard of Ur, besides its beauty, is how many elements it employs that we find today in comics: panel borders, sequential movement, size and position as signifiers for intangible concepts, repetition as emphasis. And it even has a character transgressing the panel constraints, not as an accident, but to convey meaning. This last one is so fascinating because it shows a level of sophistication, a certain amount of thinking about the rules, panel borders in this case, and what meaning could be created by breaking them. Here is someone over 4,000 years ago thinking about the same kinds of stuff all those of us who create sequential art think about.

The British Museum
Khan Academy
Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, Smarthistory

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