One of the very first visual representations pertaining to warfare that we have is the Stele of Vultures from the early Sumerian era (Nigro). The actual stele is in seven fragments, which currently reside in the Louvre Museum of France. Six of the fragments were found at the site of Ancient Girsu, a small town in the city-state of Lagash (Winter). The Stele of Vultures was written by Lagash as war propaganda, so when interpreting the Stele, it is important to note that it is one-sided and inherently biased. Scenes are carved on both sides of the stele, with inscriptions filling in the negative space. These inscriptions are what guide us in interpreting and understanding what the depictions mean.
The object of one of the pictures on the Stele is a large male. In one hand, he is holding a mace, and in the other hand, he holds a net full of naked males. Atop the net is an eagle spreading its wings. This insignia can be identified using mythological texts. It represents the “Zu-bird”, which is identified with the god Ningirsu (May). Since the Zu-bird is atop the net which the large figure is holding, it is often assumed that the large male is the god Ningirsu. Ningirsu was the patron deity of Girsu. This is pleasing to our intuition because in early iconography, gods and important leaders are often depicted as being larger than everyone else around them. This depiction may then suggest that going to war was a way to appease the gods. The naked males inside of the net would then be soldiers from the enemy army. It seems as though these men are offerings or sacrifices to Ningirsu. Therefore, we can conclude that the Sumerians would justify going to war by believing that this was a way to keep their gods happy. This shows that warfare was intertwined with their religion.
The issue that arises when interpreting an artifact such as the Stele of Vultures is when a single assumption is removed, the interpretation is forced to be changed dramatically. If we now assume the large male holding the net is not a god, that would make him a man. We would then have to assume this man is a giant or the picture itself is a symbolic representation. If the picture were symbolic, the large man would likely be the king, seizing control of Umma through death. This interpretation now drastically changes the meaning of the picture: the picture now means the Sumerians are fighting because their king is a warmonger rather than the Sumerians are fighting because they believe they are appeasing the gods. Both of these interpretations are reasonable (one has a stronger basis for argument), but only one (or neither) can be the artists original idea.
On the reverse side of the stele, the top of the relief is littered with vultures, giving the stele its modern name. The vultures carry the severed heads of several enemy soldiers. Beneath that panel are armed soldiers who are all similarly equipped and arranged in a complex formation. They are trampling over fallen enemy soldiers while being led by a slightly larger figure, presumably a commander or the king. Underneath that scene are more soldiers, who are not equipped with shields but rather a long spear in one hand and a socket ax in the other. Leading them is a figure in a chariot; this is most often interpreted as the king. In the third panel, there is a large figure, however we can only see the foot and part of his garment. It is also likely that this is the king.
This side of the stele has a much darker and “warlike” tone about it. What is stressed in every scene is the fact that the enemy, Umma, is defeated. Vultures are carrying severed heads, Lagash soldiers are trampling over dead enemies, and many more dead bodies lay before the king. This highlights how the Ummites were basically slaughtered by the Lagashite armies. Depicting the defeat this way shows everyone in Sumer how strong and ferocious Lagash is. It sends a message that Lagash is a force to be reckoned with. Again, this is where caution is necessary in interpreting this relief. Because the Stele of Vultures was written to celebrate victory over Umma, the artists would not feel it necessary to mention their own side’s casualties, making the war seem like a once-sided bloodbath.
The Stele of Vultures is an excellent source of information which give us an insight into the Ancient Sumerian world that would be impossible if it never existed. What information the stele is providing is a bit ambiguous, however. The text gives some insight into what the pictures are depicting, but the text is not explicit enough to allow us to make a single definitive theory of what the pictures mean. The monument was created right after the battle, so it should be an accurate source of information, but we do not know how similar or different a monument would be if it were made by an artist from Umma after this war. The stele is also not whole; only a few fragments of the entire stele have been found. Some of the pictures and pieces of text are missing. As long as caution is exercised when interpreting the Stele of Vultures and external sources are used to verify interpretations, this artifact is invaluable in our quest to gain a deeper understanding of the role of warfare in Ancient Mesopotamia.
Stele of the Vultures picture:
Lewandowski, Hervé. Victory Stele of Eannatum, King of Lagash, Called the “Vulture Stele” early dynastic period, c. 2450 bc. Louvre, Tello (ancient Girsu).
May, Herbert Gordon. “Pattern and Myth in the Old Testament.” The Journal of Religion (1941): 285-299.
Nigro, Lorenzo. “The two steles of Sargon: Iconology and visual propaganda at the beginning of royal Akkadian relief.” Iraq 60 (1998): 85-102.
Winter, Irene J. “After the Battle Is Over: The” Stele of the Vultures” and the Beginning of Historical Narrative in the Art of the Ancient Near East.” Studies in the History of Art (1985): 11-32.
Yoffee, Norman. “The collapse of ancient Mesopotamian states and civilization.” The collapse of ancient states and civilizations (1988): 44-68.