War, death and power are at the forefront of the British Museum's exhibition on Ashurbanipal - King of the Assyrian empire, writes Emily Bevan
Assyrian Empire map. A map showing the extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink). Map produced by Paul Goodhead.
I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, King of Assyria tells the story of, in the words of exhibition curator Gareth Brereton , ‘the greatest king you’ve never heard of’. The exhibition gathers together over 250 astonishing objects from all corners of Ashurbanipal’s far-reaching kingdom to create a narrative of how one of the greatest Assyrian monarchs stamped an indelible mark on history.
Ashurbanipal’s kingdom stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean to Western Iran; the centre of his Kingdom was the Palace in Nineveh, where many of the narrative relief friezes hail from. Visitors are immediately greeted to a huge relief, which tells the story of how Ashurbanipal came to be king; the imagery is brutally aggressive yet strangely beautiful. Throughout we see carvings ranging from Ashurbanipal cutting out enemies’ tongues and flaying them alive to images of Ashurbanipal hunting lions. Interestingly we are told the sad expression on the face of one lion is the artist's way of showing the lion was not upset about death, rather it was a representation of Ashurbanipal asserting his great power. Undeniably Ashurbanipal’s story is presented in this exhibition as one of brutality and power.
Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback. Nineveh, Assyria, 645–635 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Bronze Lion Furniture fitting topped by a recumbent lion, bronze, Toprakkale, 9thcentury BC © The Trustees of the British Museum.
The narrative of Ashurbanipal’s life is also seen through Ashurbanipal’s autobiography. The octagonal prism, inscribed in cuneiform, was buried beneath the palace as a record to the future. Its quotes decorate the exhibition. Significantly it must be remembered that this biography does not function in the same way a modern ‘history’ would. So, events described may not be entirely factual, and reconstructing a narrative from such a source must be done carefully. Yet the source gives us an invaluable insight into how Ashurbanipal or someone writing as Ashurbanipal created ‘Ashurbanipal: king of the world’.
There is a less aggressive side to the life of Ashurbanipal; this is seen through the wall of cuneiform tablets that stand in the middle of the exhibition. Many of these inscriptions are of letters, answers, omens, medicines, and spells. The presentation is extraordinary and a great success from the curator as it clearly attempts to mimic Ashurbanipal’s great library. On the left of the wall is a cuneiform tablet with the best-preserved version of the Epic of Gilgamesh – arguably the first piece of fiction with stories that permeate our culture, such as the flood story, best known from Genesis. This all adds another dimension to Ashurbanipal’s life, as someone who had a grip on the idea ‘knowledge is power’ and reiterated through representations of him with a stylus in his sheath rather than a sword.
Although this exhibition is about the ancients it is impossible to escape the present, something viewers are able to see towards the end. After reading about the destruction of Nineveh viewers see a video representing the burning of the city of 612BC. Turning the corner spectators are educated further with videos on the struggles of archaeology in modern Iraq and the sad fact that many archaeological artefacts were lost in the IS occupation of Mosul. The video of the destruction of Nineveh can equally be seen as the destruction of modern-day Mosul.
Iraq scheme Photograph of Iraqi archaeologists undertaking training as part of the British Museum’s Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Using a more critical eye this idea is evident throughout the main exhibition. It is not surprising that the way we view an ancient King hailing from Iraq is as a militant warrior. To this end, it is important to remember that the archaeological record is not simply an objective fact. Archaeology reveals ‘things’, through curators these ‘things’ are placed into a narrative, and as it is impossible to escape our own worldviews in the construction of historical narrative a level of subjectivity always creeps in, after all the past is what we make of it. Moreover, it is important to question why these items were created in the first place, the large narrative images of Ashurbanipal’s life or his biography are arguably propaganda, not a record actual historical events.
It is easy to see why war, death and power remain at the forefront of this exhibition, be it due to Ashurbanipal’s actual life and power or through our own modern conceptions of the Middle East. This does not detract from the exhibition, but a critical eye is necessary to fully appreciate the impressive narrative on offer.
The BP exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria runs from 8 November 2018 -24 February 2019 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum.
Emily Bevan writes for Spear's