Alabaster vessels, such as this extremely fine example, were favoured in Ancient Mesopotamia since the Uruk period. The majority of Sumerian vessels usually appear finely decorated with zoomorphic designs in low relief, and were used as everyday items, possibly as kohl or cosmetic containers, but also placed in temples, shrines or graves as votive offerings. The religious implication of the piece is supported by the fine material the vessel has been carved from: alabaster containers were usually reserved to the elite class or produced as religious offerings dedicated to specific deities, worshipped by the Akkadians and Sumerians. The custom of dedicating cosmetic containers to deities might have driven from the god Enlil’s praise for the goddess Inanna’s beautifully painted eyes. The possible connection with Innana might also be an explanation for the decoration seen on the vessel. Bull’s iconographies were employed as decorative motifs in ancient Mesopotamian art, as a testimony of the great benevolence the animal held in Mesopotamian society and culture. Bovines were extremely important for everyday life, especially for farming and harvesting, but held also a primary role in Mesopotamian religion and mythology: in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the goddess Innana is seen sending the Bull of Heaven to attack the hero Gilgamesh.
To discover more about the ancient Sumerians, please visit our relevant blog post: Ancient Sumer and its Art.