Seated Gudea holding temple plan

Shown with an architectural plan in his lap, this prince constructed temples to the gods and likenesses of himself.

Seated Gudea holding Temple Plan, known as “Architect with Plan,” c. 2100 B.C.E. (Neo-Sumerian/Ur III period), from Girsu (modern Telloh, Iraq), diorite, 93 x 41 x 61 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re standing in a remarkable room in the Louvre, filled with diorite sculptures of Gudea, ruler of Lagash. These sculptures are 4,000 years old.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:17] Some of them are life-size. Some are standing. Some are seated. One of the most remarkable is a seated figure that unfortunately has lost its head, and part of its knee, and one of its thumbs. But he is exceptional because he holds on his lap a tablet that has inscribed in it the plan of a temple.

Dr. Harris: [0:38] Now, Gudea was the prince or governor of Lagash. This is a city-state in the area of southern Mesopotamia, in an area we call Sumer. This period is known as the Third Dynasty of Ur, or the Neo-Sumerian period.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] This comes after the earlier period of Ur, when the Sumerians had been in control of southern Mesopotamia.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] Known as the Sumerian Dynastic period.

Dr. Zucker: [1:02] That was interrupted when the Akkadians, a militaristic culture, took control. The Akkadians were destabilized when they were attacked by a people from the mountains, which allowed for the Sumerians to reassert themselves. That’s the period we’re looking at here.

Dr. Harris: [1:16] Gudea built or rebuilt many temples, clearly concerned about demonstrating his piety.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] We know that from inscriptions, including the inscriptions on this particular sculpture. You can see cuneiform on his skirt, on the chair, and all the way across his back.

Dr. Harris: [1:31] The inscription tells us that it was important to Gudea that this statue be erected of diorite, this incredibly hard stone.

Dr. Zucker: [1:40] Most stone is not available in the floodplain between the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia. Stone had to be imported.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] Diorite being such a hard stone to carve but one that’s incredibly durable. Gudea tells us in the inscription for this statue, nobody was to use silver or lapis lazuli. Neither should copper, or tin, or bronze be a working material. It is exclusively of diorite.

[2:05] He’s comparing this to materials that are very colorful, that are shining, clearly preferring this very dark stone perhaps as a sign of his humility.

Dr. Zucker: [2:15] Well, his hands are clasped in all of these images. His feet are together. There is a real sense of quiet dignity.

Dr. Harris: [2:22] These sculptures were erected in temples and, in a way, took the place of Gudea before the gods, continually offering prayer.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] We have this man, Gudea. He’s known for building a series of temples, including a Temple to Ningirsu, in the city of Girsu, in Lagash.

Dr. Harris: [2:40] Ningirsu is a primary deity of the Sumerians. The building of this temple was apparently very important to Gudea and is perhaps one reason why he’s represented with this plan on his lap.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] The plan shows, we think, the walls that would have surrounded the inner shrine within the larger temple complex, walls with fortifications, with towers, with entrances. We can even make out small buildings on the outside of the walls in between the buttresses.

[3:08] In addition to the plan, we see two other objects on his lap. There’s a stylus, which would have been used to inscribe the plan that we’re seeing. There’s also a tool that’s in not very good condition. We can still make out that it’s a tool for measurement. We can see inscribed on it regular graduations.

Dr. Harris: [3:25] Everything about this sculpture is designed to last for eternity. There are no projecting parts. The arms are close to the body. There’s stone between the arms and the torso. There’s no openings or gaps around the chair that he sits on or between his feet and the base.

Dr. Zucker: [3:44] In that way, at least, it may remind us of the sculpture that’s being produced in ancient Egypt at this time.

Dr. Harris: [3:50] Gudea is always shown barefoot. We do have heads here in the gallery where he’s shown typically wearing a hat that may be made out of wool or fur. It’s very different from the kinds of crowns worn by the earlier Akkadian rulers.

Dr. Zucker: [4:06] The face is clean-shaven in contrast to the elaborate beards of the Akkadians.

Dr. Harris: [4:11] These are not really portraits of Gudea. This is an idealized image of Gudea.

Dr. Zucker: [4:17] We see that not only in the beauty of the shape of the face, but also in the emphasis on the musculature. This is usually understood as an expression of the favor of the gods.

Dr. Harris: [4:26] There’s a smaller sculpture here made out of a lighter color of diorite where the figure is much more intact. He’s interestingly holding a jar from which water spouts in streams in two directions.

Dr. Zucker: [4:39] Even fish play in those streams.

Dr. Harris: [4:41] This is an indication of the bounty of Gudea’s reign for his people. That’s assured by his piety toward the gods.

Dr. Zucker: [4:49] In all of these sculptures, the face is wide-eyed. The eyes are framed by these wonderful arcing eyebrows. Everything about this speaks to a kind of piety, a kind of simplicity, a kind of reverence.

[5:00] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Seated Gudea holding temple plan," in Smarthistory, October 26, 2017, accessed June 25, 2024,