Sometimes 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.