Ancient art

Ancient art refers to the many types of art produced by the advanced cultures of ancient societies with some form of writing, such as those of ancient China, India, Mesopotamia, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The art of pre-literate societies is normally referred to as Prehistoric art and is not covered here. Although some Pre-Columbian cultures developed writing during the centuries before the arrival of Europeans, on grounds of dating these are covered at Pre-Columbian art, and articles such as Maya art and Aztec art. Olmec art is mentioned below.

Middle East, Mediterranean, and India


Due to the highly religious nature of ancient Ancient Egyptian civilization, many of the great works of ancient Egypt depict gods, goddesses, and Pharaohs, who were also considered divine. Ancient Egyptian art is characterized by the idea of order. Clear and simple lines combined with simple shapes and flat areas of color helped to create a sense of order and balance in the art of ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptian artists used vertical and horizontal reference lines to maintain the correct proportions in their work. Political and religious, as well as artistic, order was also maintained in Egyptian art. To clearly define the social hierarchy of a situation, figures were drawn to sizes that were based not on their distance from the painter's perspective but on relative importance. For instance, the Pharaoh would be drawn as the largest figure in a painting no matter where he was situated, and a greater God would be drawn larger than a lesser god.

Symbolism also played an important role in establishing a sense of order. Symbolism, ranging from the Pharaoh's regalia (symbolizing his power to maintain order) to the individual symbols of Egyptian gods and goddesses, was omnipresent in Egyptian art. Animals were usually also highly symbolic figures in Egyptian art. Color, as well, had extended meaning—blue and green represented the Nile and life; yellow stood for the sun god; and red represented power and vitality. The colors in Egyptian artifacts have survived extremely well over the centuries because of Egypt's dry climate.

Despite the stilted form caused by a lack of perspective, ancient Egyptian art is often highly realistic. Ancient Egyptian artists often show a sophisticated knowledge of anatomy and a close attention to detail, especially in their renderings of animals. During the 18th Dynasty of Egypt a Pharaoh by the name of Akhenaton took the throne and abolished the traditional polytheism. He formed a monotheistic religion based on the worship of Aten, a sun god. Artistic change followed political upheaval. A new style of art was introduced that was more naturalistic than the stylized frieze favored in Egyptian art for the previous 1700 years. After Akhenaton's death, however, Egyptian artists reverted to their old styles.

Faience that was produced in ancient Egyptian antiquity as early as 3500 BC was in fact superior to the tin-glazed earthenware of the European 15th century.[1] Ancient Egyptian faience was not made of clay but instead actually of a ceramic composed primarily of quartz.


Mesopotamia (from the Greek Μεσοποταμία "[land] between the rivers", in Syriac called ܒܝܬ ܢܗܪܝܢ pronounced "Beth Nahrain", "Land of rivers", rendered in Arabic as بلاد الرافدين bilād al-rāfidayn) is a toponym for the area of the Tigris-Euphrates river system, largely corresponding to modern-day Iraq, as well as some parts of northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey, and southwestern Iran. Mesopotamia is often considered the "cradle of civilization." Within its boundaries, some of the most ancient civilizations known first developed writing and agriculture. Many civilizations flourished there, leaving behind a rich legacy of ancient art.

Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer and the Akkadian, Babylonian and Assyrian empires. In the Iron Age, it was ruled by the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires. The indigenous Sumerians and Akkadians (including Assyrians & Babylonians) dominated Mesopotamia from the beginning of written history (c. 3100 BC) to the fall of Babylon in 539 BC, when it was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire. It fell to Alexander the Great in 332 BC and after his death it became part of the Greek Seleucid Empire.

Around 150 BC, Mesopotamia was under the control of the Parthians. Mesopotamia became a battleground between the Romans and Parthians, with parts of Mesopotamia (particularly Assyria) coming under periodic Roman control. In 226 AD, it fell to the Sassanid Persians, and remained under Persian rule until the 7th-century Arab Islamic conquest of the Sassanid Empire. A number of primarily Christian native Mesopotamian states existed between the 1st century BC and 3rd century AD, including Adiabene, Oshroene and Hatra. Etymology: The regional toponym Mesopotamia (from the root words "meso" < μέσος = middle and "potamia" < ποταμός = river, literally "between rivers") was coined in the Hellenistic period to refer to a broad geographical area without definite boundaries, and was probably used by the Seleucids. The term biritum/birit narim corresponded to a similar geographical concept and was coined during the Aramaicization of the region, in the 10th century BC.

It is widely accepted, however, that early Mesopotamian societies simply referred to the entire alluvium by the Sumerian term kalam ("land"). More recently, terms like "Greater Mesopotamia" or "Syro-Mesopotamia" have been adopted to refer to wider geographies corresponding to the Near East or Middle East. These later euphemisms are Eurocentric terms attributed to the region in the midst of various 19th-century Western encroachments.


Archaeological evidence attests to their existence during the 5th millennium BC. The Sumerians decorated their pottery with cedar oil paints. The Sumerians also developed jewelry.

One of the most remarkable artifacts remaining from the Sumerian civilization is known as the Standard of Ur. Dated to approximately 2500 B.C., the Standard is a wooden box inlaid with shells and lapis lazuli. It depicts, on one side, soldiers presenting their king with prisoners and, on the other side, peasants presenting him with gifts—stunning evidence that attests to the vibrancy of art in this ancient culture. Sumer had made many great advances; for example, there is the wheel, which had made transportation easier for the Sumerians. The arch was the greatest architectural achievement of Sumer. The ziggurats were pyramid-shaped temples the Sumerian architects built. They believed that the gods lived at the tops of the temples. The kings would declare that the gods had sent them to rule, and the Sumerians would happily follow the king's laws. The king had many important jobs like leading the army and looking after irrigation, with which Sumerians could control rivers. The rulers would have battles over land, and life went on for the Sumerians.


The conquest of Sumer and Akkad by Babylon marks a turning point in the artistic as well as political history of the region.

The Babylonians took advantage of the abundance of clay in Mesopotamia to create bricks. The use of brick led to the early development of the pilaster and column, as well as of frescoes and enameled tiles. The walls were brilliantly coloured, and sometimes plated with bronze or gold as well as with tiles. Painted terra-cotta cones were also embedded in the plaster.

The sean were also great metal-workers, creating functional and beautiful tools with copper. It is possible that Babylonia was the original home of copper-working, which spread westward with the civilization to which it belonged. In addition, the want of stone in Babylonia made every pebble precious and led to a high perfection in the art of gem-cutting. The arts of Babylon also included tapestries, and Babylonian civilization was from an early date famous for its embroideries and rugs.


Like all other kingdoms, the Babylonian kingdom did not last forever. When Babylon fell into decline it was eventually conquered by Assyria, one of its former colonies, Assyria inherited its arts as well as its empire.

At first, Assyrian architects and artists copied Babylonian styles and materials, but as time went by, however, the later Assyrians began to shake themselves free of Babylonian influences. The walls of the Assyrian palaces were lined with slabs of stone instead of brick, and were colored instead of painted as in Chaldea. In place of the bas relief we have sculpted figures, the earliest examples being the statues from Girsu which are realistic but somewhat clumsy.

No remarkable specimens of metallurgic art from early Assyria have been found, but at a later epoch great excellence was attained in the manufacture of such jewellery as ear-rings and bracelets of gold. Copper was also worked with skill.

The forms of Assyrian pottery were graceful; the porcelain, like the glass discovered in the palaces of Nineveh, was derived from Egyptian originals. Transparent glass seems to have been first introduced in the reign of Sargon II. Stone as well as clay and glass were employed in the manufacture of vases. Vases of hard stone have been disinterred at Tello similar to those of the early dynastic period of Egypt.

Ashurbanipal had promoted art and culture and had a vast library of cuneiform tablets at Nineveh.

The Minoan Civilization

The greatest civilization of the Bronze Age was that of the Minoans, a mercantilist people who built a trading empire from their homeland of Crete and from other Aegean islands. Minoan civilization was known for its beautiful ceramics, but also for its frescos, landscapes, and stone carvings. In the early Minoan period, ceramics were characterized by spirals, triangles, curved lines, crosses, and fishbone motifs. In the middle Minoan period, naturalistic designs such as fish, squid, birds, and lilies were common. In the late Minoan period, flowers and animals were still the most characteristic, but variability had increased. The 'palace style' of the region around Knossos is characterized by strong geometric simplification of naturalistic shapes and by monochromatic painting. The Palace at Knossos was decorated with frescoes that showed aspects of daily life, including court ritual and entertainment such as bull-leaping and boxing. The Minoans were also skilled goldsmiths who created beautiful pendants and masks.

The Mycenaean Civilization

Mycenaean art is close to the Minoan and includes many splendid finds from the royal graves, most famously the Mask of Agamemnon, a gold funeral mask. As may be seen from this item, the Mycenaeans specialized in gold-working. Their artworks are known for a plethora of decorative motifs employed. At some point in their cultural history, the Mycenaeans adopted the Minoan goddesses and associated these goddesses with their sky-god; scholars believe that the Greek pantheon of deities does not reflect Mycenaean religion except for the goddesses and Zeus. These goddesses, however, are Minoan in origin.

Greek art

Ancient Greek art includes much pottery, sculpture as well as architecture. Greek sculpture is known for the contrapposto standing of the figures. The art of Ancient Greece is usually divided stylistically into three periods: the Archaic, the Classical and the Hellenistic. The history of Ancient Greek pottery is divided stylistically into periods: the Protogeometric, the Geometric, the Late Geometric or Archaic, the Black Figure and the Red Figure. Ancient Greek art has survived most successfully in the forms of sculpture and architecture, as well as in such minor arts as coin design, pottery and gem engraving.

The most prestigious form of Ancient Greek painting was panel painting, now known only from literary descriptions; they perished rapidly after the 4th century AD, when they were no longer actively protected. Today not much survives of Greek painting, except for late mummy paintings and a few paintings on the walls of tombs, mostly in Macedonia and Italy. Painting on pottery, of which a great deal survives, gives some sense of the aesthetics of Greek painting. The techniques involved, however, were very different from those used in large-format painting. It was mainly in black and gold and was painted using different paints than the ones used on walls or wood, because it was a different surface.


The first sculptures in India date back to the Indus Valley civilization some 5,000 years ago, where small stone carvings and bronze castings have been discovered. Later, as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism developed further, India produced some of the most intricate bronzes in the world, as well as unrivaled temple carvings, some in huge shrines, such as the one at Ellora.

The Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India are rock-cut cave monuments dating back to the second century BCE and containing paintings and sculpture considered to be masterpieces of both Buddhist religious art and universal pictorial art.[2]

Persia (Iran)

Iran succeeded to the Hittite Empire and initially took much of its artistic styles from them. Huge palaces in rural settings, often worked on by craftsmen drawn from other nations, subject or not, were distinctive features. After the Empire was decisively overthrown by Alexander the Great a new Sassanian culture emerged, notable for palaces and metalwork. The capitals Susa, Persepolis, Ecbatana and Estakhr have revealed much rich Persian art.


It is commonly said that Roman art was derivative from Greek and Etruscan art. Indeed, the villas of the wealthy Romans unearthed in Pompeii and Herculaneum show a strong predilection for all things Greek. Many of the most significant Greek artworks survive by virtue of their Roman interpretation and imitation. Roman artists sought to commemorate great events in the life of their state and to glorify their emperors as well as record the inner life of people, and express ideas of beauty and nobility. Their busts, and especially the images of individuals on gravestones, are very expressive and lifelike, finished with skill and panache.

In Greece and Rome, wall painting was not considered as high art. The most prestigious form of art besides sculpture was panel painting, i.e. tempera or encaustic painting on wooden panels. Unfortunately, since wood is a perishable material, only a very few examples of such paintings have survived, namely the Severan Tondo from circa 200 AD, a very routine official portrait from some provincial government office, and the well-known Fayum mummy portraits, all from Roman Egypt, and almost certainly not of the highest contemporary quality. The portraits were attached to burial mummies at the face, from which almost all have now been detached. They usually depict a single person, showing the head, or head and upper chest, viewed frontally. The background is always monochrome, sometimes with decorative elements. In terms of artistic tradition, the images clearly derive more from Greco-Roman traditions than Egyptian ones. They are remarkably realistic, though variable in artistic quality, and may indicate the similar art which was widespread elsewhere but did not survive. A few portraits painted on glass and medals from the later empire have survived, as have coin portraits, some of which are considered very realistic as well. Pliny the Younger complained of the declining state of Roman portrait art, "The painting of portraits which used to transmit through the ages the accurate likenesses of people, has entirely gone out…Indolence has destroyed the arts."

East Asia


The eras of Japanese art correspond to the locations of various governments. The earliest known Japanese artifacts are attributable to the Aniu tribe, who influenced the Jōmon people, and these eras came to be known as the Jōmon and Yayoi time periods. Before the Yayoi invaded Japan, Jimmu in 660 B.C. was the crowned emperor. Later came the Haniwa of the Kofun era, then the Asuka when Buddhism reached Japan from China. The religion influenced Japanese art significantly for centuries thereafter.[3]


Prehistoric artwork such as painted pottery in Neolithic China can be traced back to the Yangshao culture and Longshan culture of the Yellow River valley. During China's Bronze Age, Chinese of the ancient Shang Dynasty and Zhou Dynasty produced multitudes of artistic bronzeware vessels for practical purposes, but also for religious ritual and geomancy. The earliest (surviving) Chinese paintings date to the Warring States period, and they were on silk as well as lacquerwares.

One of ancient China's most famous artistic relics remains the Terracotta warriors, an assembly of 8,099 individual and life-size terracotta figures (such as infantry, horses with chariots and cavalry, archers, and military officers), buried in the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the First Qin Emperor, in 210 BC. This tradition was carried into the subsequent Han Dynasty, although their tombs contained miniature versions of the soldiers in addition to domestic servants to serve rulers and nobility in the afterlife. Chinese art arguably shows more continuity between ancient and modern periods than that of any other civilization, as even when foreign dynasties took the Imperial throne they did not impose new cultural or religious habits and were relatively quickly assimilated.


Olmec art

The ancient Olmec "Bird Vessel" and bowl, both ceramic and dating to circa 1000 BC as well as other ceramics are produced in kilns capable of exceeding approximately 900 °C. The only other prehistoric culture known to have achieved such high temperatures is that of Ancient Egypt.[1]

Much Olmec art is highly stylized and uses an iconography reflective of the religious meaning of the artworks. Some Olmec art, however, is surprisingly naturalistic, displaying an accuracy of depiction of human anatomy perhaps equaled in the pre-Columbian New World only by the best Maya Classic era art. Olmec art-forms emphasize monumental statuary and small jade carvings. A common theme is to be found in representations of a divine jaguar. Olmec figurines were also found abundantly through their period.

See also


  1. Friedman, Florence Dunn (September 1998). "Ancient Egyptian faience". Archived from the original on 2004-10-20. Retrieved 2008-12-22.
  2. "Ajanta Caves". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Archived from the original on 18 December 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-22.


  • Bailey, Douglass. (2005). Prehistoric Figurines: Representation and Corporeality in the Neolithic. Routledge Publishers. ISBN 0-415-33152-8

Further reading

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