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Q&A: Shining a Light on Starr

The Standard of Ur.

One of the things we try to do here at All Mesopotamia is shine a light on the not-sung-enough heroes doing great things for Mesopotamian history.

This time we’re shining a light on someone you might remember being mentioned in a few of our posts or tweets, or you might have his awesome website bookmarked. He is Mr. Jerald J. Starr, aka

Simply put, Starr is your (and our) go-to guy for anything Sumerian, like the Standard of Ur (pictured above). His passion for the rockers of the cradle of civilization is what drives him to not only gravitate toward what’s already known about them, but also to make his own fascinating discoveries of a people long gone, but whose all-encompassing legacy of civilization still reverberates thousands of years later.

Now, I asked Starr a few questions to find out what he is all about.  I was pleasantly surprised by all his answers, and think you will be too!

1. You’re kind of an enigma. I communicate with you regularly about the history I cover on the blog, but I hardly know anything about you. Who is this enigmatic expert I’m talking to and what is his background—what makes him the expert he is on everything Sumerian?

Your readers may be surprised to learn that I am not a “properly accredited” Sumerologist. I am just an amateur. I have no formal training in the field, neither do I have a college degree in the subject; although with the thousands of hours I’ve spent researching Sumerian history I could have easily earned a PhD, perhaps several.

“…my mind is 4,000 years away, in the land of ancient Sumer.”

If I am to be considered any kind of “expert” (your word, but thanks) it’s only because Sumerology is my obsession, my sole preoccupation. Often when my friends are talking to me, I barely hear what they are saying because my mind is 4,000 years away, in the land of ancient Sumer.

It also helps that there are very few other experts in the field. At last count, there were only about 400 Assyriologists in the entire world, of which only a few are dedicated to the Sumerians exclusively. One day it suddenly occurred to me that I am probably “the world’s foremost expert on the Standard of Ur.” Then I realized that I am probably the world’s only expert on the Standard of Ur!

2. Ever since I came across, it has been my go-to website for reliable information and great pictures. In fact, my only complaint about your website is that you only cover the Sumerian material. Having said that: what drew you to the Sumerian civilization in particular out of all the others that thrived in Mesopotamia, and do you ever delve into any other group of Mesopotamian peoples?

When I was in college, I read The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. It wasn’t part of a reading assignment for a class I was taking; I was reading it for my own pleasure. I remember how impressed I was that the Sumerians seemed to invent civilization entirely on their own, when the rest of the world was still living in the Stone Age. I didn’t pay much attention to the Sumerians after that; I had other interests to pursue.

Fast-forward several decades later to about five years ago. I was with a girlfriend, Loring. We were looking at a display of cuneiform tablets at the Frist Museum here in Nashville, Tennessee. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great to own one of these tablets? I’d love to own something so ancient, when writing and civilization were first invented.” Those were the exact words I used, “when writing and civilization were first invented.” I didn’t give the remark a second thought until two months later when Loring gave me a cuneiform “tablet” for my birthday. At first I didn’t know what it was. It was an odd cylindrical shape with writing down the sides. I later found out that it was actually a Gudean “foundation cone” from the temple of the god Ningirsu. I decided to write a thank-you note to Loring, in Sumerian, to show my appreciation for her sweet and thoughtful gift. Nothing fancy, just a few signs written on notebook paper. Little did I know what I was getting into.

The Gudea Foundation Cone was Starr’s inspiration.

It’s not for nothing that Sumerian is known as the world’s most difficult language. Even the Sumerian scribes had difficulty writing it! I was immediately frustrated by the fact that it was difficult to learn even a few Sumerian words, much less learn enough grammar to write a complete sentence. I could have just strung some words together like beads, they didn’t have to be grammatically correct; but noooo, that wasn’t good enough. So then it became an intellectual challenge. As described in “Adventures in Cuneiform Writing,” it became an all-consuming passion, to the exclusion of everything else – like eating, sleeping, and bathing. Even at the time I would sometimes wonder, “Why am I so obsessed? Who cares about this stupid dead language?” Sometimes I seemed more “possessed” than merely obsessed. It was a lot like that scene in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Richard Dreyfuss feels compelled to create a huge clay mountain on his kitchen table, without knowing why. As it turns out, there was a predestined purpose for all of this. If I had not been so completely obsessed with writing Sumerian correctly, I never would have learned enough of the language to translate (“decode”) Tablet #36, the story of The Great Fatted Bull. This tablet would not give up its secrets to just anyone, to some sort of “dilettante.” It was Tablet #36, along with my reawakened interest in Sumerian history inspired by the Gudea cone, that led to all my other discoveries in Sumerology.

Starr cracked the code of the mysterious Tablet #36.

This leads me (finally!) to the second part of your question. I consider myself to be a Sumerologist, in particular, rather than an Assyriologist (someone who studies Mesopotamian history in general). As a matter of fact, I make a deliberate effort to sort out the Sumerians from the Akkadians and the Babylonians, who are routinely jumbled together in the history books. I usually write about the Akkadians and Babylonians only in reference to the Sumerians. I feel called upon to be an advocate for the Sumerians, to be their voice. So for the time being I will continue to dedicate my efforts solely on their behalf.

As for the rest of Mesopotamian history, we have All Mesopotamia for that.

Starr concluded that this otherwise anonymous statue bears the actual true face of Gudea. Read about Starr’s research here.

3. What does your research on the subjects you discuss on your website entail? Do you work alone, or are you a part of a team or organization?

I quickly exhausted the limited selection of books on Sumerian history at the local library. I mostly use the Internet for my research. I use the CDLI, ePSD, ETCSL, and for the language studies. Museum websites are also a good source of information. I enjoy seeing Sumerian artifacts in museums all around the world without leaving the comfort of my living room. One of my favorite research methods is image searches on the Internet, since I’m always trolling for good pictures to use on my website. This is how I found Tablet #36 in the Library of Congress, Ur-Namma in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gudea in the Barakat Gallery, and other original discoveries.

The man behind Sumerian Shakespeare. Starr told me this is where you will find him most of the time, sitting in front of his computer, researching and discovering everything Sumerian. (Photo courtesy of Jerald J. Starr)

The man behind Sumerian Shakespeare. Starr told me this is where you will find him most of the time, sitting in front of his computer, researching and discovering everything Sumerian. (Photo courtesy of Jerald J. Starr)

I work entirely alone. This is partly my preference. I am in contact with a few professional Sumerologists, but I am being boycotted by the other Sumerologists. I am the pariah of Sumerology. I have to admit, it’s my own fault. On December 6, 2008, I proudly posted my translation of Tablet #36, the story of The Great Fatted Bull. It was my first major discovery. The very next day, Bendt Alster, a world renowned Sumerologist, posted on his website that Tablet #36 wasn’t really about The Great Fatted Bull. He thought it was “A Dialogue between Two Women.” Mr. Alster was a pioneer in the field of Sumerology. If he said Tablet #36 wasn’t about The Great Fatted Bull, then who was going to listen to an amateur like me? So I might have over-reacted just a tad. I posted a new page on my website challenging him to a “Sumerian Showdown,” my translation against his. I am usually not so confrontational, but I was deliberately being provocative. I was hoping that someone would try to refute my translation, and failing that, would be forced to confirm it. I also thought I was being very clever and funny; satirical, like the scribe who wrote Tablet #36 (I was defending his work as well as my own). But I soon realized that I was just being a smart-aleck, to use the polite term. After all, Mr. Alster was merely expressing his academic opinion, which he stated in a polite and civilized manner (unlike me). Eventually I deleted the page from my website and sent a letter of apology to Mr. Alster. He made a gracious reply, so all was well between us. He was a really nice guy about it, which doubly made me feel like a heel. He passed away suddenly and unexpectedly a few years later, so I am grateful that I was able to make amends with him. But the damage had already been done. I had thoroughly alienated other Sumerologists. They still hold it against me and I can’t say that I blame them. In the meantime, the story of The Great Fatted Bull remains the only proven translation of Tablet #36.

4. The Sumerian civilization is where our modern world began to take shape. Writing, literature, the wheel, agriculture, and according to a very enthusiastic Discovery Channel documentary, earth-shattering beer…all these things and more. And yet it’s not nearly as popular as the Egyptian or Greek civilizations, which as great as they were with their own innovations and inventions, in my mind, they were mostly reinforcing and building upon foundations laid by Mesopotamians. Drawing from my frustrating experience, I must ask: why do you think my Western Civilization class in college detailed the Egyptian mummification process, but only briefly mentioned that writing was invented in Mesopotamia and very little else about the land between two rivers?

I know what you mean. When I try to talk to someone about the Sumerians, they get a blank look on their face and say, “Who?” I always want to reply, “The Sumerians; you know, the ones who invented civilization.” I don’t actually say this, of course; that would be rude. If people don’t know much about the Sumerians it’s probably because so little Sumerian history has survived to the present day. You can read all that remains of Sumerian history in a single afternoon. On the other hand, the Egyptian civilization continued for 2,000 years after the Sumerians had disappeared, so there is a lot more Egyptian history to cover. I think that’s why a class in Western Civilization gives a brief introduction to the Sumerians and then quickly skips over to the Egyptians. Surprisingly, very few Egyptian artifacts date back to the time of the Sumerians. If we only had Egyptian artifacts dated before 2000 B.C., we would know as little about the Egyptians as we do about the Sumerians. Only the Pyramids are as old as the Sumerians.

I agree that the Sumerians don’t get proper credit for their inventions. How many people today know that the Sumerians are the reason why we still divide a circle into 360 degrees? (The Sumerians used the sexagesimal number system, based on the number 60.) How many businessmen know that the Sumerians created formal bookkeeping methods? I think the problem is that people have been using these inventions for so long they’ve forgotten who invented them. For instance, I doubt that anyone using a handsaw would think, “This works great. I’m glad the Sumerians invented it.” I doubt that anyone sipping on a beer would say, “Thank you, Sumerians, for this wonderful gift.”

You are right in pointing out that the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians built upon the foundations of the Sumerian civilization. So even if we don’t always realize it, the Sumerians are still with us today, 4,000 years after they passed into history.

5. What are, or are there, challenges that you or any other Sumerologist face in this discipline, as opposed to an Egyptologist, for example?

The main challenge for a Sumerologist is that he/she doesn’t have a lot of material to work with. Very few Sumerian artifacts have survived the millennia — a few ruined temples, some pottery shards, a few statues, some jewelry. This is the opposite problem faced by Egyptologists. They cannot sink a spade in Egypt without hitting an artifact. A modern Egyptologist has tons of artifacts to work with (literally); more than can process in several lifetimes. Of course, a Sumerologist has access to countless cuneiform tablets, hundreds of thousands of them. The problem is that 97% of these tablets are “Administrative” (receipts, ledgers, inventories, etc.). Only 3% of the tablets are “Literature” (history, hymns, poems, proverbs, etc.) where the Sumerians actually tell us something about themselves. Imagine an archaeologist 4,000 years in the future trying to reconstruct 21st century America by using business accounting records.

Egyptology is a very old science; many ancient Greeks and Romans were “Egyptologists.” By comparison, Sumerology is relatively new. The modern world didn’t know about the Sumerians until the late 19th century. The world is still in the process of discovering the Sumerians. As a result, much of the information about the Sumerians is either contradictory or just plain wrong. Even the experts don’t always agree on it. You and I both know from personal experience the difficulty in finding reliable information on the subject. It’s hard to know who to trust when every major museum in the world includes some erroneous information about the Sumerians, even the Iraq Museum!

6. What do you think most distinguishes from the other Sumerian websites?

First of all, it is the number of pictures I have on my website. The other websites have only a few, with the exception of All Mesopotamia. I realized that most people have no idea what the Sumerians looked like. We can easily imagine the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians because we’ve seen so many pictures of them, but most people have no “visual concept” of the Sumerians. By including a lot of pictures of the Sumerians, I hope to make them more familiar to the modern reader.

The face of Ur-Namma, one of Starr’s original discoveries.

Second, and more important, are my original discoveries. Many people think that I am merely parroting information I got from other sources, but most of my website is devoted to my own discoveries. Some of my major discoveries include Tablet #36, the portraits of Gudea and Ur-Namma, both Sargon victory steles, and everything about the Standard of Ur, among several others. I have also made a lot of minor discoveries, more than I can keep track of. I have to admit, I am very proud of these discoveries. They are the most noteworthy things I have ever done in a life that is otherwise devoid of accomplishments.

A detail from one of Sargon’s victory steles that Starr wrote about on his site, here.

7. What’s next?

More of the same, I guess. I’m hoping I can make some more discoveries. In any case, I will continue to write about the extraordinary civilization of the Sumerian people. It’s my new-found calling in life. This is what I was meant to do.


And we all agree that this is what you were meant to do, Mr. Starr.


Posted by on May 8, 2013 in Q & A, Sumerian


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Gudea, the man who loved Lagash.

A white alabaster statue that could either be a priest or the priest king, Gudea of Lagash. One Sumerologist believes it is the most life-like representation of the Sumerian king. (Source)

You are looking at what Jerald Starr, an American Sumerologist and friend of All Mesopotamia, believes is the first realistic, recognizable portrait of a man in all of history. Gudea, a Sumerian king who ruled the Sumerian city-state of Lagash between 2140 and 2120 BC, has been the subject of many statues, but the statue pictured above is unique.

“I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Gudea during my research in Sumerian history, so I know what he looks like,” Starr writes in an article on his website,, titled The True Face of Gudea. “I took one glance at the white alabaster face and the distinctive shepherd’s hat (the crown of a Sumerian king) and I said to myself, ‘That’s not just a priest, that’s Gudea.'”

You might be looking at the face in the picture and wondering what makes this particular statue so special. To sum it up, Starr explains what sets it apart:

“There are two things noticeably different about this statue compared to the other statues of Gudea. First, at 12.5 inches high, it is life-size. The seated statues of Gudea, which show his whole body, are less than 18 inches high (they’re called “Little Gudeas”). Second, and most importantly, this statue is a realistic portrait, unlike the other statues of Gudea which are rather formal and idealized, typical of royal portraiture in the ancient world.”

Consider these diorite statues we know are Gudea:

One of many stylized “Little Gudeas”, the type of which were mostly found at temples. (Source)

And another stylized little Gudea depicting the king, not the man. (Source)

Now scroll back up and look at the tilted white alabaster face, which should appear much more alive than the other two. As Starr puts it: “This is clearly the real face behind the other more idealized statues of Gudea.”

So, you’ve now seen the man who happened to be king. Let’s get to know the man, shall we?

There’s something about Gudea

To put it simply, Gudea of Lagash was a great, humble guy.

“He was the model of piety and virtue, working tirelessly for the gods and the welfare of his people,” Starr writes in an article on his website titled, Gudea.

Gudea’s reign brought with it some revolutionary social reform that even a modern eye would conclude made life easier for, and kinder to, the common man, woman and child living in ancient Sumer. He might not have written an extensive code of laws as famous as Hammurabi’s, but keep in mind that he also took the throne nearly 350 years before Hammurabi did. You’ve got yourself a pretty progressive guy here.

The Gudea Cylinders, housed at the Louvre in Paris. They celebrate Gudea of Lagash’s accomplishments. (Source)

“He was concerned about social justice, and not just the exercise of power,” Starr writes.

In The Building of Ningirsu’s Temple, a Sumerian myth inscribed on what is known as the Gudea cylinders, Gudea’s many accomplishments are celebrated, but what catches my attention the most are those of the social justice variety. Gudea worked to help improve the way servants and slaves were treated by their masters, and aimed to protect anyone who needed to be protected:

“He provided protection for the orphan against the rich, and provided protection for the widow against the powerful. He had the daughter become the heir in the families without a son.” – Translation of Gudea Cylinders A and B (Source)

And this raises the issue of motive…

Why was Gudea so darned nice?

Gudea was a great king, because he did what great and noteworthy kings do; he built walls to successfully protect his city and its people from clear and present danger(s), he also built temples, and helped things like art and social justice thrive under his rule. That’s pretty great and nice of him, but that’s what any ruler or leader is supposed to do, if not in ancient times, then definitely in modern times. There’s nothing too fascinating about that.

What’s fascinating about Gudea was that he went against the grain of typical royalty, even when he didn’t need to. Royalty wasn’t really concerned with the common people back then, and there was no one who could make them, and yet Gudea made social reforms that benefited people who’d never even been given a thought by royalty before.

Consider that up until he took the throne, Gudea lived in a time and place where kings were not only anointed by the gods, but were also granted divine status themselves. We need only look at Gilgamesh–he was a great Sumerian god king, and an epic was written about him that seems as much myth as it is a testament to the status a king holds in the eyes of his subjects, for better or worse.

Now, add to this that Gudea was not of royal blood. In fact, very little is known about his origins, save for having been fortunate enough to marry the right woman at the right time. Her name was Ninalla, and she was royalty, the daughter of King Ur-Bau (Ur-Baba). Lack of an attached dumu (son of) to his signature further obscures Gudea’s origins. “This would suggest that his father was only a minor nobleman and not a ranking member of the high nobility,” Starr says.

So, here we have this non-royal marrying into royalty, and suddenly he is in the king pool, and there’s absolutely no resistance to his ascension to the throne. I mean, come on, not only did Ur-Bau let his daughter marry this non-royal man, but he let that non-royal man ascend the throne without hiring a hit man to stop that from happening. That’s pretty amazing.

Another amazing thing that accompanied Gudea’s ascent to the throne of Lagash is that he was now king and he could be a god king, just like all the Sumerian kings who came before him, because that was pretty much part of the package at this point: become king and get one divine status free!

But he didn’t use that card.

“Gudea did not represent himself to be a god, but only as a man who was divinely favored, so it’s significant that Gudea is shown bareheaded, without his crown, and with his hands raised in the ‘reverence position’, as was required of a mortal man when in the presence of a god,” Starr writes about the Seal of Gudea. (See below)

The Seal of Gudea shows him with his head bared, being led and followed by deities to stand before Enlil, the chief Sumerian god. Gudea is the only figure without horns, which are a symbol of divine status. (Source)

Gudea’s humility also extends to him choosing to only refer to himself in inscriptions as ensi, ruler, rather than lugal, king.

Gudea wearing his crown, a typical stylized shepherd’s hat styled for him with curled lambswool. Well played, True Shepherd. Well played.(Source)

Gudea also worked hard to keep things peaceful and he did a good job, despite ruling during a difficult and dangerous time for Sumerian city-states. Akkadian rule had just been weakened by tribesmen from the north, known as Gutians. The Gutians constantly raided Sumerian city-states, but Gudea mostly only built walls and repaired them when needed for protection, appearing rather pacifist.

Unlike Gudea’s origins, his reign was very well-documented, and we know that he led only one major military campaign. Even the goods brought to Lagash from faraway lands were not the spoils of war, but rather those of commerce and trade, handed to him out of brotherly love, even from what are otherwise enemy lands.

“Unlike other ancient kings, Gudea did not routinely boast of his military prowess,” Starr writes. “He was not the kind of king…who would portray himself marching to victory over the bodies of his enemies.”

Charles Gates writes in his book, Ancient Cities: “For Gudea, a king best serves his city not as a warrior, but as a devoted servant of the gods.”

The Priest King

Another seemingly curious thing about Gudea’s wish and determination to be known as a peaceful ruler was his dedication to serving Ningirsu, the Sumerian god of war and the main god of Lagash. One of Gudea’s most notable accomplishments, in fact, was that he rebuilt a temple dedicated to Ningirsu, among others. Gudea was nothing if not religious, so that was one reason for his devotion.

Of what made the pious part of Gudea build the temple of Ningirsu, Gates writes: “The god Ningirsu ordered Gudea, in a dream, to rebuild his temple; the pious king duly carried out the order, and had the statue made, with an explanatory text carved on it, to commemorate the deed.”

But of what made the strategist part of Gudea build the temple of Ningirsu, Starr says Gudea was also a “tough-minded realist”, who knew where Lagash was on the map in relation to the Gutians, and that the city-state was not strong or big enough yet to fight them. He also knew he needed to build more than just a tough army.

So, temple rebuilding served two purposes, one pious, one strategic.

The rebuilding of the Ningirsu temple eventually helped Lagash and Sumer regain strength and power, because it renewed a feeling of nationalism for Sumerians that proved quite beneficial. It was a brilliant strategy that worked from inside out, and brought with it a fresh new attitude of reclaimed pride and nationalism, and an eventual Neo-Sumerian Revival that united and strengthened all the Sumerian city-states that eventually beat the Gutians and gained complete independence from the Akkadians.

“For Gudea,” Starr writes, “building and restoring the temple of the war god symbolized the re-emerging hopes of Sumerian independence, after two centuries of Akkadian domination and during the ever present danger of attack by the Gutian barbarians.”

Gudea meanwhile was able to build and strengthen his military in a peaceful climate. He produced maces, spears and axes, all in the name of Ningirsu.  (Source)

Gudea’s pride

The proud, yet humble priest king. (Source)

As I bring this post to a close, still unsure if I’ve done Gudea the man the justice he deserves, I go back to something I read on the Louvre’s website about one of the typical diorite statues of Gudea, which I think is very telling about the man:

“This stone [diorite] already had a kingly connotation in earlier periods, and it is known through a text that Gudea, anxious to ensure the durability of the work, imposed its use, importing it at great cost from the Gulf region.” – Gudea Prince of Lagash at the Louvre

Such insistence on using a type of stone with kingly connotation and lasting power might be testament to Gudea’s ego, but I don’t see it that way, not only because of all the clear humility he exercised, but especially when I remember something Starr wrote in his The True Face of Gudea article:

“It [the alabaster statue] is obviously modeled from life, with Gudea himself sitting for the portrait.” – Face of Gudea at sumerian shakespeare

The way I see the alabaster statue is that it is of a man who loved his city and his people. He never took what Lagash and its people gave him of good fortune and admiration and support for granted. He wanted future generations to know what he, a non-royal, common man, looked like, and he took the time to perhaps sit for the portrait himself like Starr suggests, so that they would know that anyone can benefit from the greatness of Lagash and Sumer.

What I see in the alabaster statue is that Gudea wasn’t proud of himself. Gudea was proud of his land that made him what he became…

The true face of Gudea. (Source)

Gudea of Lagash became a great man whose greatness will always be known.

Now that you’ve seen his true face, do you think you could recognize Gudea if you ran into him on the street? Let us know in the comments! (I personally think Phil Collins could be his living doppelganger. What do you think?)

Sources and further reading:

Gudea Cylinders

Picture of Gudea Cylinders

Gudea entry at Wikipedia

Ancient Cities

Gudea of Lagash at the Louvre


Posted by on February 10, 2013 in Kings, Sumerian, Uncategorized


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