Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sumerian DBA in 28mm

I am fascinated by the rise of cultures and their collapse. Lessons can be learned, as they can with all history, but none more so than in the ways in which humans find a civilising place in their environment, and the many ways in which they can screw it up.

The later Roman Empire always held this fascination, less for any sudden collapse, but more for the way in which it slowly meandered off to the side, to be replaced by yet another group of humans looking for their place in the world.

The Sumerian city-states didn't seem to have the time to meander anywhere. Their collapses and defeats were quick and decisive, and seemed to follow the Dynastic Rule of Three: the first lugal (lugal = big man, king) established a city (like Ur or Lagash) and its control over the surrounding area, the next lugal (usually a son) held and expanded the territory (at the expense of other cities), and finally a last lugal (again a descendant of the first man) lost the lot.

This continual rise and fall was the product of an agrarian civilisation: agriculture led to surplus, which led to taxes to establish urban growth and organisation, which required a defensive system to protect this way of life from other aggressive city-states, under the control of the lugal, the priest-king, men with names like Gilgamesh, Lugalbanda the shepherd, Dumuzi the fisherman, and Lugalkidul.

This protection was made up of close-formation infantry, skirmishers and battle wagons. It was a system that would last for nearly four thousand years.

Unknown lugal from the Ur stelae

Artist's representation of Ur

Lagash - a romanticised view
The best quick read for the history of the period is Susan Wise Bauer's History of the Ancient World, a no-nonsense coverage of the known information based on up-to-date research and historiography, with the bonus of not having to wade through tons of historical speculation. It simply tells it as it appears to be. It also covers available histories concerning areas usually avoided by western scholars, like China and the East. By no means exhaustive or particularly deep, but the sort of history I wish I had in high school to set things into perspective.

Back to the Sumerians.

Infantry made up the bulk of the armed forces taking part in this never-ending round of rises and falls. Long leather, bronze or copper studded cloaks, sheepskin or leather kilts and bronze or copper helmets were worn by the massed spears of these armies. The troops were armed with a long spear that appeared to be carried in two hands, indicating some length.

Spearmen - Ur stelae

These spears probably marched in formation, using bulk and weight of massed bodies to force an enemy to break, with the long spears adding killing power from the ranks. Later addition of shields may have shortened the spear to one-handed length, or a shield bearer may have been employed.

Later shielded spearmen
Other troops included loose formation infantry, either axe or spear armed, with apparently no armour.

And a special troop formation was the four onager battle cart, a cumbersome, probably bone-rattling four-wheeled platform, possibly used less as a killing machine than as a means of transport to the battlefield, or a high point for observing the fight. Even with four onagers dragging it across the rocky Sumerian landscape, it would have been relatively slow compared to later cavalry or chariotry, and the turning circle would have been a nightmare.

Sumerian lugal's helmet
Battle cart - Ur stelae
Assembled forces of Sumerian lugal - by the great Angus McBride

The Sumerian military system finally collapsed when it was confronted by stronger and more innovative attackers. The Akkadians, under Sargon I, and subsequent kings would eventually bring the Sumerian kingdoms under their control, only to lose them again with the rise of Third Dynasty of Ur, the kings of which used Akkadian mercenaries to bolster their forces. Sumer, however, would lose to the Babylonians, and would never again return to its former power.

17th Fires Brigade, US Army, ziggurat of Ur, May 18th 2010
Other feet now tread upon the remains of Uruk, Lagash, Kish and Ur.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".
- Percy Bysshe Shelley

A cautionary tale.

Hope you enjoyed


  1. That was neat, and the troops look great!

  2. Simply outstanding PC

    I am really liking the look of this

    Along with the background information

  3. great work Peter, especially like the chariot/cart.


  4. A cautionary tale??? Does that mean we should 'ur' on the side if caution????

  5. Sorry for being a pain in the onager. Cheers, Mark