By: Alex Joffe
William F. Romain writes:
While at the Cleveland Museum of Art I came across this sculpture purporting to be Shulgi, king of Ur. On loan by anonymous donor. No information as to where it was found or by who is on file at the museum. No Near East curator – position is currently vacant.
What do you think? Seen it before? Real deal?
Shulgi, the second king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, reigned for an extraordinary 48 years, from around 2029 -1982 BCE. This is not quite the 82 years of Sobhuze II of Swaziland (who ascended the throne when he was four months old) but still respectable for someone born in an era when total life expectancy was only 40 or 50 years to begin with.
Shulgi’s father, Ur-Nammu, created a territorial state that controlled most of southern Mesopotamia. The dynasty is best known for its ambitious construction projects, including the famous ziggurat at Ur, constant warfare, and a seemingly fanatical devotion to centralization and bureaucracy. The region’s city-states were reorganized into territories under governors to extract taxes in grain, livestock, and other products to finance state projects, such as irrigations works and, of course, wars.
Goods had to be moved continually through collection and distribution centers; an army of scribes kept track. Over 100,000 published cuneiform tablets document just about everything down to the number of shovels signed out to work gangs. Dates were carefully recorded using names of years derived from important political events, such as “Year in which Amar-Suen destroyed Urbilum,” facts that meant something to scribes, as well as to residents of Urbilum.
The crazy level of detail is wonderful for scholars since individuals and transactions can often be traced in amazing detail. The crazy levels of taxation and bureaucratic control the dynasty exerted over people’s lives probably wasn’t so great. Still, it is fascinating to learn, for example, that starting in Shulgi’s 43rd year, the prince Ur-Sin had two bear cubs delivered from mountains in the north to an entertainer in the south in the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and first months of every year.
Given this level of royal domination of seemingly everything, including bears, it figures that Ur-Nammu is credited with Mesopotamia’s first ‘law code,’ a forerunner of Hammurabi’s a few hundred years later. This is basically royal propaganda that declared how great Ur-Nammu was, how the gods gave him kingship, and oh, they’ve also put me in charge of justice, so don’t murder, steal or rape.
Speaking of royal propaganda, Ur-Nammu declared himself “king of Ur,” then “king of Sumer and Akkad.” Shulgi topped this with “king of the four quarters,” (aka the world), and then half way through his reign essentially has himself declared a god. Whether this is a sign of strength or weakness is a matter of debate. Since he may have been murdered, along with several queens and sons, including bear aficionado Ur-Sin, this is more than an academic question. At least it was for him.
The whole dynasty lasted about a hundred years; weakened by wars with mountain tribes, an attack by the Elamites knocked them out for good. But one advantage of such a long life span was that flunky-scribes wrote excellent poems about Shulgi:
When I sprang up, muscular as a young lion, galloping like a spirited ass at full gallop, the favour of An brought me joy; to my delight Enlil spoke favourably about me, and they gave me the sceptre because of my righteousness. I place my foot on the neck of the foreign lands; the fame of my weapons is established as far as the south, and my victory is established in the highlands.
Shyness was not one of Shulgi’s problems. As he put it, “Let me boast of what I have done. The fame of my power is spread far and wide. My wisdom is full of subtlety. Do not my achievements surpass all qualifications?”
Little did he realize that in the 21st century CE he would become the King of Cleveland.
This should be the title of a song, and if the poem praising him is any indication, he probably had a couple of songs written about him as well. But what about his head?
There happens to be a fair amount of representative art from the Ur III period; a few copper foundation pegs of Ur-Nammu and Shulgi, buried during the construction of temples, lots of cylinder seals, and of course, Ur-Nammu’s famous stele. A head of Shulgi would be an especially interesting and prized item.
Late third millennium Mesopotamian sculpture had many conventions. Eyes are usually almond shaped with thick upper and lower lids. Sculpted heads of Gudea, a ruler of Lagash about a century before Shulgi, for example, have eyebrows that converge above the nose, often with ‘feathering’ to represent hair. Badly in need of threading by today’s standards, eyebrows look like palm branches. Without painted in eyes, expressions are impassive, almost awestruck (apparently they’re in the presence of the deity). Beards are rare among Sumerians but common for Akkadians, who fancied the lumbersexual look. Sumerians dug hipster style woven caps or equally hip shaven heads (whether there really were ‘Sumerians’ we’ll leave for another time).
Frankly, Shulgi didn’t look quite right to me. The eyes are strange, with multiple eyebrow lines and faded ‘feathering’ on his outer left eyebrow only. The nose is large, and ears are both large and badly rendered. The bulbous shape of the skull reminded me of Old Kingdom Egyptian heads. And the stone is quartz. Good quality stone for sculpture was rare in ancient Mesopotamia; hard to carve crystalline quartz, rather than easily polished diorite or schist (for that shiny shaven head look) seemed odd. Overall, his expression is rather gormless, like someone who has confidently gotten off at the wrong bus stop and suddenly has no idea where he is.
To me, the Shulgi of Cleveland looks like the product of someone working from old black and white pictures. So I turned to retired Metropolitan Museum curator and ancient Near Eastern art expert, Oscar Muscarella.
It didn’t take long for him to get back to me, with a reference to an “Early Dynastic Sumerian” head, published in his book The Lie Became Great (page 164, No 33, photo on page 477): “It is not difficult to recognize as modern a large head once in the Chrysler Art Museum, Virginia, but subsequently passed back into the bazaar, where it is now circulating.” When I described my misgivings, he agreed with me.
Why indentify this uninscribed object as Shulgi, rather than Gudea? I sent the photo to Mesopotamian art expert (and scholar of fakes and forgeries) Claudia Suter, who noted “The overall shape looks modern to me, the upper part is too high and too naturalistic; the chin, if Gudea, is not pronounced enough; the lips too round; and the eyebrows definitely unlike the excavated heads of Gudea’s time. Heads are, of course, sought after objects for collectors and there is a history of fakes around the Gudea sculptures.”
A third expert was similarly suspicious, but a fourth and fifth were more cautious. Of course, none of this conclusively proved the head is a forgery, but it raised some doubts. That the piece came from the antiquities market makes it more suspicious still. Alas, the Chrysler Museum couldn’t provide more information; their files only go back to 1990.
Like many collectors Walter Chrysler, Jr. (son of the car manufacturer) was more eager than discerning. One early misjudgment was when, as a fourteen year old at boarding school, he bought and displayed a nude by Renoir, which was promptly confiscated and destroyed by the administration.
A sometime film and theatrical producer, friend of Nelson Rockefeller and neighbor of Louis Tiffany, Chrysler seemed destined to collect and display art. In 1958 he bought a disused church in Provincetown, Massachusetts and created a museum, but in 1962, close to 100 of his paintings were accused of being fakes. By the time he opened his museum again in Norfolk in 1971, the fakes were gone. There didn’t appear to be any information available about where Chrysler bought Shulgi, nor any published images of whoever he was back then. But at some point it appears that after being suspected as a forgery, Shulgi was quietly removed from view and sold off. Unlike boarding school administrators, museums are loath to destroy any art – good, bad, or fake – and law enforcement officials don’t have the resources. Pieces also have a way of reappearing years later on the market with new stories for new buyers.
An entry in the Federal Register gave a hint: on August 10, 2015, the Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Office of the Legal Adviser of the Department of State recognized Shulgi as being of “cultural significance” and permitted him into the country, to be exhibited until March 2017. It is unclear what sort of background check Shulgi underwent before his visit was deemed as being “in the national interest.” Nor did it say where he was visiting from.
The Cleveland museum curator did not respond to my query, but one Friday night, the ‘art advisor’ to the current owner did. Without indicating who the owner is he simply said, “I can refer you to the review of the sculpture by the distinguished scientific panel who included the same in their exhibition: “ANTES DEL DILUVIO/ BEFORE THE FLOOD”: MESOPOTAMIA 3500-2100, Poligrafia 2012. FUNDACION “LA CAIXA”, BARCELONA. King Shulgi is illustrated in the catalog.”
“Review” implied that ‘King Shulgi,’ who was lent to the Madrid show by the ‘Colecciones Burzaco,’ had been examined or even authenticated. The problem is the scholars listed in the show’s press release as the “distinguished scientific panel” were simply distinguished museum curators who lent objects for this 2012-2013 show. Three of them informed me that they did not “review” or offer any opinion about Shulgi. More emails were sent. The ‘art advisor’ stood by his statement and had nothing further to add.
But even later the next night I got an email from the curator of the Madrid exhibition, Pedro Azara. And at this point in what has become a soft-boiled detective story, I have to express special thanks, for it was he, writing from Iran, who began to clear up the story.
According to Azara, Shulgi entered the US early in the 20th century but hadn’t been exhibited since 1956. By 2011, however, he was owned by a Mexican banker, M. Burzaco Malo, with residences in Spain and London, and was being exhibited at the Palace Hotel in Madrid and had been viewed, but not purchased, by the wife of the ruler of Qatar.
Azara included the piece in his exhibition “because it would disappeared from the public eye and we considered that it should be studied by historians due to its so strange appearance… to my surprise, there were not many reactions. It did not attract any interest, or at least no one told me anything. I did not know whether the head was genuine or not. I was surprised by it. I thought it could be a fake but I was not sure. I was expecting so the opinion of specialists. I am happy that after four almost five years there might be a solution to the problem caused by the head.”
In other words, the head was exhibited precisely because it was suspicious. Indeed, in the exhibition catalog, Oscar Muscarella’s book, and doubts, are cited! But who was he, really, this ‘King Shulgi’? Azara notes, as did the catalog, that the head had previously been identified as Gudea but that the late Iraq archaeologist Donny George had revised this to Shulgi. But since George died in 2011, we are unlikely to know his reasoning.
As Paul Simon once put it, “misinformation followed us like a plague,” something inherent with objects from the marketplace. And mysteries indeed remain, like the full story of Gudea/Shulgi’s sojourn in the US, and a ‘positive analysis’ of his patina by the University of Georgia’s Geology Department. This was mentioned in a short, scathing review of The Lie Became Great (kindly brought to my attention by another member of the “distinguished scientific panel”) in which an eminent and deceased Assyriologist – who was also noted for his work authenticating antiquities for the marketplace – essentially vouches for the object.
More could be done. Microscopic examination might determine whether or not Shulgi was carved with Bronze Age tools. His quartz might be chemically analyzed to determine its source, and three-dimensional scans could compare him mathematically with excavated sculpture (let’s call it ‘high resolution digital forensic phrenology’ or HRDFP for short). If established as a fake, a molecular tag could track him, like a con’s ankle monitor. Most likely he’ll just skip the country.
The lesson? Due diligence is always required. Before you buy the steak, be suspicious of the sizzle.
Alex Joffe is the editor of the Ancient Near East Today. Have a question you would like a Near East professional to answer? Send your question to Alex Joffe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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