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Cone mosaics

Cone mosaics are the oldest known mosaics in the world

They were used in Southern Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) to decorate monumental raw mud-brick Palaces and Temples built between 3500 and 3000 BC.

Baked clay cones for tesserae,  plaster as thinset.

Cone mosaics were built with small cones made of baked clay. Sumerian builders pressed them pointed end first into a wall coated with a thick layer of wet plaster. The flat ends of the cones were painted black, red, and white. (always the same colors !)

 

Detail of a cone mosaics made of clay cones inserted in a thick plaster coating.

Cones inserted in plaster

Cones of different shapes

Most of the cones had circular bases (Circular clay cones are very easy to shape by hand). However, the Sumerians sometimes used different shapes with elongated or hollow base.
detail of cone mosaic showing different types of cones used to build it

Several types of cones, Berlin Museum

Clay cones, Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago,

Some of the most impressive examples of cone mosaics are found at Uruk but this technique of decoration has also been found in many other cities such as Ur and Eridu in lower Mesopotamia as well as sites like Habuba Kabira much higher on the Euphrates river in modern Syria.
Mesopotamia. Cone mosaics were found in Ur, Uruk,

Map of Mesopotamia

Geometric patterns

Although Sumerian art produced amazing realistic pieces, I do not know of any example of figurative designs realized in cone mosaics. Actually, regular geometric shapes are very easy to build from circles by methodical repetitions.

Basic shapes on a circle grid

After all, the Sumerians invented mathematics…

The decorative patterns were basic geometric shapes : lozenges, triangles, and straight and zigzag bands.
various designs of cone mosaics displayed at the Custom Link 640px-Vorderasiatisches_Museum_Berlin

Mosaic at the Near East museum in Berlin

cone mosaics from the Eanna Temple in lower Mesopotamia Uruk

Eanna Temple, Uruk

It has been suggested that such designs were possibly based on patterns found in wickerwork and textiles.

Geometric patterns in basketry

Protection against the weather

Very little stone was available to the Sumerians. But clay and dirt were available in vast amounts between the 2 rivers. Most of their buildings were built of raw mud bricks. Winters can be wet and windy in lower Mesopotamia. The cones made of hard baked clay were an excellent protection against erosion from wind, sand and water.

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