The deeply troubling damage caused to antiquities and ancient monuments in the Near and Middle East, particularly Egypt, Syria and Iraq, as a result of war, insurgency, neglect, looting and deliberate destruction at the hands of religious fanatics is a subject I have addressed in this Blog before. It is likely to remain very much alive for the foreseeable future, causing me to reflect upon one institution, in particular, that has safeguarded a vast collection of antiquities from the region for two centuries. This institution is, of course, The British Museum in London.
A great many public and university museums in North America, the UK, Europe and beyond do house collections of Near Eastern and related antiquities, often collected long ago when there were no national laws or international regulations governing their acquisition from source countries. Acquiring antiquities, sometimes using methods that would be considered shocking today, was a normal and perfectly legal practice for large museums, private collectors, dealers and even ordinary tourists on the Grand Tour. In many cases, the modern nation states from whose territories these items were removed are entirely artificial creations on a map, holdovers from colonial occupations by the Ottoman Empire and later by European powers, with little sense of a cohesive national identity; e.g., Iraq and Syria. Many antiquities removed from their place of origin might well have been destroyed had they not been collected in this way. Even in Greece, with a much clearer sense of national identity and respect for its past, it was common well into the early 20th Century for antiquities and ancient monuments to be broken up for building material or road fill, burnt to make lime mortar or defaced because they were considered anathema to local religious beliefs. The British Museum, an island of stability, has safely housed some of the most iconic pieces of ancient Near Eastern art; objects that are now recognized as groundbreaking in the history of human artistic expression.
In this brief entry I would like to share just a very few of these objects, excluding the British Museum’s marvelous collection of Assyrian art, as I have addressed this in another recent article: https://clioantiquities.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/assyrian-art-and-the-repatriation-of-antiquities/
The Standard of Ur, named by archaeologist Sir Leonard Wooley upon discovery, as it was thought by him to be a royal standard. It is actually a wood box decorated with shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli set in place with bitumen. It seems to depict tribute being brought to the ruling family of Ur (in today’s southern Iraq).
The Ram in a Thicket. One of a pair, also found by Wooley during his excavation of the royal graves at Ur in the 1920s and 30s. It is made from gold leaf, copper, lapis lazuli, shell and red limestone over a now decayed wood core and dates to about 2,600 BC. It seems to have been a cult object associated with the royalty of Ur.
The Queen of the Night. An ancient Mesopotamian goddess, possibly Ishtar, goddess of sexual love and war, or perhaps her sister and rival Ereshkigal, who ruled the underworld. This plaque of baked clay tempered with straw was originally painted, with the goddess in red. She holds the rod and ring of justice, with the entire scene atop a scaly pattern representing mountains. It was originally housed in a small shrine. Babylonian, 18th Century BC, possibly from the reign of Hammurabi.
Basalt reliefs from the 10th Century BC Aramaean palace at Tel Halaf (ancient Guzana) in northeastern Syria. Excavated between 1911 and 1921 by a German expedition under Max von Oppenheim. This section comes from the south wall of the palace, which was decorated with 187 relief segments in black basalt alternating with ochre colored limestone. The area of Tel Halaf is now disputed between ISIS and rival Jihadi militias and the fate of the site is unknown.
Winged male sphinx from Palace G at Persepolis, Iran, constructed by Artaxerxes III, 358-338 BC. This sphinx is quite late in date, having been put in place just a few years prior to Alexander the Great’s capture and destruction of the Persian capital of Persepolis. Stylistically it shares much with East Greek art of the Ionian coast.
To learn more about The British Museum’s collections of Near and Middle Eastern antiquities, visit their website, where visitors can explore their collections by place, by culture, by date, by name or by material: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore.aspx