Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback. Nineveh, Assyria, 645–635 BC, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The BP exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria is the latest in an occasional series of British Museum exhibitions based on the lives of individual rulers (Hadrian, Moctezuma). Ashurbanipal is perhaps less well-known than some of the others, but then Assyrian history isn’t exactly at the forefront of most people’s historical furniture.

As someone with an interest in the ancient near east since [redacted age-revealing date], I think this is a pity. The historical importance of the Assyrians, both in their immediate impact and their role in defining ideas about imperial power in the region, is high. Their art, particularly the finely-drawn palace reliefs, but also their painting, most of which is sadly lost, is magnificent. As a result, I’ve been looking forward to this exhibition since it was announced, which must be something over a year.

Ivory plaque of a lioness mauling a man, ivory, gold, cornelian, lapis lazuli, Nimrud, 900BC – 700BC © The Trustees of the British Museum.

I’ll admit to a little trepidation, in that the vastness of the BM’s own Assyrian collection and the simple fact of the excavation history might make the exhibition little more than a rearrangement of the familiar Assyrian galleries. It is true that the vast majority of the more than 200 objects on display are drawn from the BM’s own resources, but that’s by no means the problem I thought it would be. Let me explain (and if you’re not a BM habitué, it can be recommended without further ado anyway).

Firstly, there are some fantastic loan items that, for me, justify the exhibition on their own, particularly the large-scale sculptures from Tell Halaf and Sam’al, which are simply stupendous. Despite having looked them over in the catalogue before coming, I wasn’t prepared for their size and impact. The BM has benefited from the generosity of, among others (note the full title of the exhibition), the Louvre, the Vatican collections and museums in Germany, Cyprus and Iran to create a rounded picture of Ashurbanipal’s reign and the powers he interacted with (it should be noted, this is definitely an exhibition about imperial power and its context, not about Assyrian daily life – one for the future?). Thirdly, it seemed to me that not all of the British Museum material was familiar, despite my years of wandering the relief galleries and spelunking into the Assyrian basements whenever they’re open. Either there’s a welcome addition of material from the reserve collections, or the nature of the exhibition was making me look at things I’d seen differently. No bad thing in either case.

A famous scene of a slain lion, as seen in the British Museum's permanent display, modified from an image by Matt Neale from UK [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

That brings us to the arrangement itself. Yes, a lot of the pieces are from the museum and I’ve seen them before (though not so many that the normal displays are denuded, as a quick recce of the galleries proved), but the selection of material from pretty much a single reign and particularly from one palace gives a different perspective, as does the addition of some superb material from Assyria’s neighbours. More important still, and all credit to the curators on this, the display is very well done. Some innovative and novel presentation really enhances the material on display, and will give you a much deeper insight into what you’re looking at than the normal gallery display. I’d love to see some of the devices used here carried over into normal usage; they use technology in just the right way – informative and not intrusive or gimmicky. I hope the opportunity will be taken to carry this over to the normal museum display when the exhibition ends, it’d be a vast and welcome improvement. It gives new life to objects I’ve seen a thousand times, and open my eyes to a better understanding of pieces I thought I knew intimately.

Extrapordinary detail: detail of the fishing scene that is part of the Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal, as seen in the British Museum's permanent display. Modified from original image by Johnbod [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

A lot of the credit is due to the display and lighting of the large sculptures, in particular. The gypsum reliefs from the Assyrian palaces are quite rightly renowned for the skill of their composition and the deftness of their lines, but even more so for the almost Canaletto-like level of detail within the composition – the strands of tassels, carefully delineated rosettes and other decorations on the ornate court dress of the kings, gods and eunuchs, the strong lines of the musculature on the raised arms of divine gate guardians, charging horses or outmatched lions in their death-throes. Assyrian reliefs aren’t that deeply carved, so proper lighting is key to showing them. This is done universally well. With the right raking light here, the shadow judiciously brings out the full degree of artistry involved; they look fantastic. Every biceps and beard is seen clearly, every lamassu and ugallu [types of Assyrian gods and demons] is rounded out in beautiful chiaroscuro.

(Intermission: a slight gripe; the lighting of some of the smaller pieces is less perfect. Some are over-lit by small spotlamps that wash out the detail. This doesn’t impact overall, though)

King Ashurbanipal's gardens

#Ashurbanipal’s palaces were surrounded by lush gardens, orchards and game parks that featured plants and animals from across the empire. They were recorded in reliefs that were once brightly coloured – this one shows green parkland outside the city of Nineveh. The gardens were irrigated by skilfully engineered aqueducts, built over 500 years before the first Roman aqueducts. Journey through these gorgeous ancient gardens in our blog post: http://ow.ly/exTe30m6oxr

Gepostet von British Museum am Donnerstag, 4. Oktober 2018

The excellent lighting of the reliefs works hand in hand with some of those innovative techniques I mentioned. A highlight, selectively used is the use of projected lighting (see video above) to illustrate the original colours of some of the reliefs (this rarely survives clearly, but can occasionally be visible to the naked eye, as on one relief here, or better still through modern scanning techniques). The projection is particularly effective – and cycled through, so you can see the original appearance too. The colour appears almost magically, appearing and spreading like inkblots and, once complete, doesn’t look like a projection at all: the density of the tint is impressive, and looks like it was laid on with a brush. It’s worth hanging around for a few looks to see the waters flow anew through the aqueduct on the complex relief of parkland round Nineveh from the North Palace reliefs, see the greening of the trees germinate and fade like changing seasons, or watch the emergence and departure of a solid white colour on garments (how do they do that?). It’s a great way of making these reliefs easier to read, to separate out the various elements. More on this later. There are other nice touches to the same effect, like the large coloured hangings based on the reliefs, so you can see what the giant

Not a relief: Votive bronze decorated helmet offered to the god Haidi, by king Arguisti 1st, Copper-alloy, 786 BC – 764 BC. From the History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan.

floor slab carved like a carpet might have looked like in its original blaze of colour. Nice touch, BM. A masterclass in how to make technology serve the aim rather than become the focus.

Also excellent is the way the information panels lead you through the narrative of the reliefs stage by stage. I’d like to see these carried over to the permanent exhibits. I have made it sound as if the exhibition is all reliefs, but that’s not the case – there’s much more to it than that, but the sheer scale of the reliefs and their imposing quality does make them dominate.

So, the way the display is done (and I could add the restrained use of music) works well. What about the content? After a small scene-setting section, you pass through a space guarded, like an Assyrian palace gateway, by divine guardian figures – another deft touch – before entering the main sections. The bulk of the exhibition can probably be broken down into three areas – the palace life of Ashurbanipal, much of which revolves around material from the two main palaces he inhabited at Nineveh, the struggle of Assyria to maintain dominance under Ashurbanipal, and the recovery and afterlife of Assyria.

Stone stele depicting Ashurbanipal (right), shown with a ritual basket on his head with cuneiform inscription, South Iraq, Marduk temple (Babylon), 668BC – 665BC. His ill-fated brother Shamash-shumu-ukin (left) carved with cuneiform inscription, South Iraq, Temple of Nabu (Borsippa), 668BC – 655BC © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The first section covers the Assyrian royal image and palace life really well. We meet Ashurbanipal’s family, in rather more depth than is maybe normal in popular accounts of near eastern rulers. We glean something of the troubled reign (and personality) of his father, Esarhaddon; the rivalry with his elder brother, disastrously set up as king of Babylonia, Shamash-shumu-ukin (it ended with a fratricidal war and Shamash-shuma-ukin being consumed in the flames of besieged Babylon), and the women of the royal family (with an admonishing ‘you’re the lady of Ashurbanipal, act like it!’ letter being a particular highlight). We see a magnificent selection of lion-hunt reliefs and, a good inclusion, a related one of Ninevites rushing up a hill over the hunting ground to get a good view. There’s fine silver- and glassware from the royal table, and images of the royal pleasure gardens. Perhaps most outstandingly there’s a large selection of tablets from the library of which Ashurbanipal was so proud, not all displayed at eye level, but rising from it to the heights of the display space, towering over you and making the point eloquently. I know some specialists would like to have seen more cuneiform texts, but I think they have it about right (one that particularly brings you into contact with Ashurbanipal is a school text in his own 13-year-old hand).

A map showing the maximal extent of the Assyrian empire and subject kingdoms during Assurbanipal's reign (in pink), including Mesopotamia, the Levant, Cyprus and Egypt. Map produced by Paul Goodhead..

The second section looks at Assyria’s empire and its neighbours, arranged around a nice animated map that shows the ever-shifting frontiers of the empire. The display is broken down into the various cultures the Assyrians warred with or dominated – Elamites, Urartians, Iranians, Neo-Hittites, Cypriots and Aramaeans. There’s some really interesting material here; we don’t often get to see Elamite material in Britain so that was particularly welcome, along with the amazing pieces from Tell Halaf and Sam’al the Syrian/Iraq Jezireh which I’ve already mentioned. It’s almost unfair to try and pick out other impressive pieces; I was glad to see Urartian bronzes, some familiar, some not, and some superb Phoenician ivories. The bronze figure and chariot furniture from the startlingly rich burials at Salamis in Cyprus were also worth the price of admission alone. We’re also given a sense of how Assyrian material demands on the Phoenicians helped drive their expansion into the Mediterranean, so important in knitting that world together, and given shape by their exports found as far as Italy. Among the most impressive of these are the pieces from the Regolini-Galassi tomb (which we normally encounter on the Exploring Rome tour), but even the cauldron from this is dwarfed by the huge Salaminian one. Magnificent!).

Assyrian warriors and the heads of slain enemies on a relief similar to the ones described here, found in the Palace at Nineveh, British Museum. Image by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

The centrepiece of this section (for me, of the whole exhibition) are the epic reliefs depicting the battle of Til-Tuba against the Elamite king Teumman. I’ve admired these for years (even mentioned them in an undergraduate essay: it’s THAT long), with their confused narrative of charging Assyrians, a tumbling downhill-to-the-river battle, the moving attempt of King Teumman, arrow in his back, to escape with his son, and his beheading by an Assyrian soldier. I say confusing – it is difficult to understand just by looking. But this exhibition does a superlative job in explaining it; I felt I understood it far, far better, and all because of another ingenious use of technology. Once again, the projectors come into play, outlining figures in sharp white. Next to them, clear projected descriptions tell you what’s going on (a bit like the ancient cuneiform inscriptions themselves!), enlivened by noises related to the events, and a dramatic martial theme tune that you will definitely find yourself humming all day. It’s captivating and I know I’m saying this a lot, but I really want to see more of it. The reliefs, with their brilliant evocation of the melee, the impossibility of resistance (the mighty Elamite and Egyptian fortresses with the corpses of defenders raining down from towers like autumn leaves is a powerful image) and the cruel savagery dealt out to the defeated (graphically shown by prisoners being flayed, rulers wearing their allies’ severed heads round their necks) will certainly leave visitors with a solid grounding in the nature of the Assyrian monarchy and Assyrian imperialism.

Striding sphinx. ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq 900 -700 BC, © the Trustees of the British Museum.

Of course, all this brutality had a price. The ancient section ends with Ashurbanipal in triumph in his garden, dining with his wife, the head of unfortunate Teumman incongruously lashed to the branches of an idyllic tree nearby. But it didn’t last. We don’t know what happened to Ashurbanipal – his inscriptions run out in 638 BC, and his reign ended some time and somehow between 631 and 627 – maybe we’ll found out how in our lifetimes – but by 612 the last vestiges of the empire were gone, and Nineveh burnt, as dramatically shown here. The triumphal, bombastic reliefs attesting the indefeasible might of Assyria play Ozymandias for us with their traces of burning or faces smashed out by enraged, victorious enemies looting their oppressor’s citadel.

Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880), Nimrud, mid-19th century, watercolour on paper, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The final section is interesting (but a little less so, to me, I’ll admit) – there’s material on later imaginings of Assyria, the early excavations (giving due credit to the Rassams as well as Layard, the discoverers of the British Museum’s collection) and Victoriana inspired by an Assyrianising fad. Finally, there’s an important coda on the archaeological situation in northern Iraq and the good work the BM is doing working with Iraqis to protect and record their heritage.

I am Ashurbanipal is definitely worth a visit and fulfils its brief imaginatively. My son came on my second visit and certainly came away interested and well-informed, so it’s gained a small victory over teenagerhood. From my people watching, the reaction was enthusiastic more generally, too. Given that much of the material had to originate in the Museum itself, it’s been repackaged well, and the additions are well chosen, and some of them absolutely outstanding.

There is a book to go with the exhibition. It’s not really an old-style catalogue, with all the objects described (I’m a little sad at this, since there’s a slight oddity in that some items in the exhibition are not illustrated, whereas some that aren’t there are, if you follow me. Not a problem for most people, though I’d have liked more of a complete record. But I guess that’s not what most people are after, and I’m the weirdo here). It’s in the now-familiar BM style of a hefty coffee-table type of affair, with a series of essays on Ashurbanipal, Assyria and its neighbours. These are mostly very well-written, some of them are excellent, though I might have reordered the chapters and removed a bit of overlap. It’s a handsome work, though, beautifully illustrated and, like the exhibition, a great introduction to Ashurbanipal’s world. You’ve got until the 24th of February to see it.

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