When you hear the word Iraq, what images spring to mind? Desert landscapes? Military trucks? The events of the 20th and 21st centuries, from the First Gulf War to the American Invasion in 2003, have coloured how many of us view this part of the world. Five thousands years ago, however, at a time when the first cities in human history were beginning to appear, this region was a very different place. This ancient place is Mesopotamia.
Mesopotamia is a term used to describe the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, roughly equivalent to modern day Iraq, south-east Turkey, and north-east Syria. The word Mesopotamia itself is Greek for “between the rivers”. These two rivers flow from north to south, almost meeting near modern day Baghdad, widening away from each other, and then finally meeting once again to flow into the Persian Gulf.
This region has a long history of human activity, from the first farming communities, to large and complex cities and empires such as those we will visit in this exhibition. As with any part of the world, Mesopotamia was heavily influenced by its environments. In the north the region is composed of hills and plains that receive enough rainfall to farm wheat and vegetables; in fact, this is probably the region where farming first began. By 8 500 years ago people here were already living in villages, farming, and raising animals. This would have been a relatively green environment, with rivers and streams flowing from the nearby mountains. The north was also rich in trees used for timber, as well as metals and stones from these mountains.
On the other hand, southern Mesopotamia was made up of a combination of marshy, wet areas rich in wildlife, and wide, dry, flat plains that received little rainfall. Farmers here watered their farms by digging canals to bring water from nearby rivers. Rivers in the south flooded annually, but these were unpredictable and destructive. It is in the south that the first cities of Sumer appeared, around 5500 years ago. These cities, such as Ur and Uruk, were powerful, however the lack of natural resources such as stone and wood in the region made trade with the surrounding areas necessary and limited the influence of their rulers.
This exhibition houses more that 170 priceless objects from the British Museum, with additional artifacts from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Detroit Institute of Art, and the ROM’s own collections. These artifacts highlight the incredible achievements made by the cultures of Mesopotamia over a 3000 year period, from the emergence of city-states in ancient Sumer in the south, to the empire-building of the Assyrians in the north, and finally, the dramatic rise and fall of the ancient city of Babylon.
While this region is small, at about half the size of Ontario, the cultures that thrived in Mesopotamia left a legacy of innovation that affects each and every one of us today. From the origins of farming to the invention of writing, the impact of this ancient world continues to grow and influence the lives of billions of people worldwide.
The Administration of Ancient Sumer
Writing developed in Mesopotamia as a means of keeping accurate records of everything from economic transactions, to taxes to be paid to the government. The complexity of the administration in these first city states meant that new and innovative methods of communicating needed to be developed. Cylinder seals, such as the one modeled here, are objects used to close or sign a document, and are among the most common artifacts associated with Mesopotamia.
These objects, roughly the size and shape of a Double A battery, were carried by government employees and used to sign documents. The cylinder seal would have been rolled across or around a piece of clay, and would leave a unique impression such as the one you can feel here beside the seal itself. They were first used to close jars that contained valuables. A piece of clay or mud was applied to the outside of the container to close it, and then the seal was rolled across. This made it impossible for someone without a seal to open and reclose the jar without anyone knowing.
Many of these seals are miniature works of art, with images of gods, priests and priestesses, and scenes of daily life appearing in the impressions. The large image on the wall here gives you a better idea of what these images looked like. The two scenes, one above the other, show stylized men at a banquet or festival. These impressions were exactly the same every time the seal was used, making it easy to identify the person responsible for the mark in the same way we would use a signature today.
The seal itself is made of stone, which is an important piece of evidence for reconstructing who the person was who would have used it. There is a lack of good stone in the river plains of ancient Sumer, in the southern region of Mesopotamia. This means that most hard stone, such as that used to make this object, had to be imported from great distances. Some of the hard stones used in Sumer came from as far away as the Indus Valley in modern Pakistan. The quality of the materials used to make these objects suggests that they were owned and used by high ranking members of the local government to administer the daily running of the city.
Innovation and the Origins of Writing
The invention of writing is one of Mesopotamia’s greatest achievements, as well as being one of the most important innovations in human history. Writing went hand-in-hand with the “Urban Revolution”, the movement of large numbers of people into villages, towns, and eventually cities. As urban populations increased in size and complexity, the need for people and institutions to record important information grew. The earliest writing was merely a series of columns carved into clay that recorded quantities of materials, and the person or office in charge of them.
Writing in Mesopotamia was used in much the same way as we use it today. The tablet itself is from Sumer, in the southern of Mesopotamia. It is modeled at twice the size of the original, which is made of clay, and is displayed the case to your right. As a material that was easily available, as well as inexpensive, clay was commonly used for this purpose. The wedges that make up the writing were made by pressing the end of a plant, or reed, into the wet clay, making triangular or wedge-shaped indentations. It is from this shape that we get the name for the script of Mesopotamia, “cuneiform”, as cuneus is the Latin word for wedge. You can feel the marks made by the stylus in the clay, which are similar to triangles with long “tails”. The arrangement of these wedges form cuneiform signs which represent sounds, syllables, and ideas. These can then be combined to words. This script was used by many languages, such as Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hittite, just as the Latin alphabet is used by all Western European languages today. While many of the languages from Mesopotamia have no relationship to living languages, Akkadian is part of the Semitic language family, making it a relative of both Hebrew and Arabic.
This tablet was sealed inside a second layer of clay, to form an envelope which can be felt at the edges of the tablet on the left. Because clay does not easily stick together, the finished tablet and its envelope would have pulled apart as they dried, making it possible to seal and then open a private communication. Only the front of the envelope has been removed, and you can feel its rough edges around the tablet itself. Ancient versions of everything from school work, to fictional literature, to religious texts can be found on small clay tablets such as this one.
Kingship in Ancient Sumer
Ancient Sumer was made up of a series of city-states, each with their own rulers and administration. These cities competed with one another over access to trade routes and natural resources. We know little about the rulers of some of these cities, while others are widely recognized. Gudea, ruler of Lagash, is one of the most well-known of these kings.
Gudea, is depicted here with his characteristic circular headdress and hands folded in front of him. The headdress is perfectly round and feels bumpy, which might represent woven wool. Gudea was king of the state of Lagash in southern Mesopotamia around 4150 years ago. At this time, the Akkadian Empire had just broken apart, and individual rulers of powerful city-states were asserting their independence. Lagash was one of the more successful of these city-states, and as its ruler Gudea was able to ensure his own immortality by commissioning dozens of expensive hard, black stone statues of himself. Gudea is recognizable figure because all the statues that were made of him are very similar. Like all Gudea statues, this one is inscribed with dedications to one of the gods along the front of his legs, and depict the ruler barefooted, and wearing a robe wrapped around his left arm and shoulder, leaving his right arm free. His hands are folded in front of him in the traditional gesture of prayer. This example shows the ruler sitting, however standing versions were also made. A beautiful example of these standing statues is displayed here in the exhibition, in this case made of a translucent green stone called paragonite. The similarities between all of his statues, whether standing or sitting, suggest that Gudea’s image was carefully controlled, much the same as politicians today.
Gudea’s reign produced many other beautiful objects, including carved stone vases, and some of the longest and earliest examples of Sumerian writing known. Many of these texts boast about the deeds of the king, who as a charismatic ruler needed to gain the favour and support of his people. Inscribed objects from the city of Girsu describe how Gudea rebuilt 15 temples, including the Temple of Ningursu, the national god. Several inscribed bricks from temples in this exhibition are marked with the name Gudea of Lagash. The number of statues and texts from this ruler tells us that in Meopotamia, image was important.
Kings of Assyria
Assyria is named for the city of Ashur, located on the Tigris River in northern Iraq, and emerged as a major city state in Mesopotamia under the ruler Assur-uballit around 3350 years ago. Much of the written evidence from this period is extremely detailed and often refers to military campaigns and building projects.
The kings of Assyria were more than just rulers of an empire, they were also high priests of the national god, Ashur, and military leaders. They ruled over a large government, and the empire was considered only as strong and healthy as the king. Because of this emphasis on strength and power, Assyrian rulers poured their resources into building magnificent palaces in order to glorify their kingship.
One of the most common images in Assyrian art is the lion. This model, two times the size of the original artifact in the ROM’s collection, was probably a decoration for the arm of a chair, or perhaps a table. The lion is carved from ivory, with his mouth open, tongue hanging down between bared teeth. Lions were traditional symbols of kingship in Mesopotamia, and represented both the power and majesty of the ruler himself. Their images were used to show the king’s power over the natural world. Images nearby, from the palaces of the Assyrian kings Ashurnasirpal and Ashurbanipal, depict gruesome lion-hunting scenes.
The decoration of these palaces generally consisted of large carvings that lined the throne room and interior spaces, many of which we have here in the exhibit. A relief is an image, or set of images, carved to be raised up away from the background. These were designed to glorify the king and empire, while at the same time intimidating and impressing visitors by showing the Assyrian army destroying enemy cities. The king is also often shown symbolically battling “evil”, which is represented by images of powerful animals such as this lion.
In the large relief of King Ashurbanipal, located just around the corner to the right of this model, the king is shown hunting a lion that has just been released from a cage. Based on these carvings, it is likely that Assyrian kings kept captive lions at their palaces for staged hunts. In this particular panel the king is shown using both arrows, and a hand-held mace to kill the animals.
The relief is made from a mineral called gypsum and is a solid, tan-colored panel that is divided into three horizontal registers, or scenes. The story being told here begins at the top right hand corner of the carving, and shows a lion being released for the king.
This carving has been animated above the original, to make it easier to understand the scene. The characters and objects sculpted here are often carved more than once in a register, to give the impression of movement. This type of carving is a little like an early form of animation.
If this image had been created today, with modern technology, this is what it might have looked like:
Three guards in white robes drive a horse-drawn chariot across the scene. As the chariot kicks up white dust the tan-coloured relief is transformed into a colorful picture. On the right, a boy sitting in his own protective cage pulls a lever to release the caged lion beneath him. To the left of the lion the King, wearing a long blue gown and headdress, holds a bow and arrow. Behind him his shield bearer wields a large red shield.
The king approaches the lion and as he taps his foot the lion claws the earth. Suddenly, the lion charges. The shield bearer rushes forward as the King draws his bow. As the first scene ends, the animation returns to its original colour.
As the second scene begins, horse drawn chariot gallops across the middle scene. The king, who is on the left now, has his bow slung over his shoulder, and he carries a gold mace. In front of him, on the right hand side of the scene, the lion is distracted by a servant riding a grey horse. The horse rears as the servant thrashes his red whip. The King grabs the lion’s tail and drags him to the left. And as the lion turns to attack the King, the King raises his mace.
The third and final scene shows several musicians playing a type of harp on the left of the image. In front of them is an altar where four dead lions lie on the ground. Two servants lead their horses on from the right but as the King marches past them they drain of color and transform back into the original gypsum of the ancient relief. The King, holding a golden cup in one hand and his bow in the other, leads a line of servants that fan him and carry his arrows. These servants also lose their animated quality as the King reaches the altar and raises his bowl above the lions. While the musicians continue to play, the king pours a red liquid over the dead animals.
Ashurbanipal wrote here on the walls that lions were common in Assyria at this time, and would have posed a real threat to the people of the region. Another nearby scene shows the results of another hunt by the king. Yet another scene in this room shows a lion squatting on its haunches after being mortally wounded by an arrow through its chest. The animal is shown with the arrow protruding from its shoulder, with blood gushing out of its mouth. These scenes, while disturbing to animal lovers today, reinforced the idea that the king was able and willing to destroy evil, here represented by a lion, for the sake of his people.
The Assyrian empire was created by conquest in the most violent sense of the word. Much of what is known about warfare in the Assyrian world comes from large carvings that were mounted on palace walls, often called reliefs. One such nearby relief is from the reign of Tiglath Pilesar III, and shows the capture of a walled town. Soldiers fire arrows from the right of the image as others try to demolish the walls. The soldiers themselves are protected by tall shields set before them, while at the top centre of the relief three impaled bodies of the town’s defenders display the brutality of the Assyrian conquest. Impalement was a common Assyrian form of punishment, with a sharpened stick being forced through the body of a prisoner. In this scene two more defenders tumble from the town walls, and at the bottom of the image an Assyrian soldier cuts off an enemy’s head so that they could count the number of dead. Another relief, not on display here, shows the king Ashurbanipal and his wife sitting in a garden after the Battle of Til-Tuba, the last battle in a ten year conflict between Assyria and the neighbouring Elamites. Here the decapitated head of the Elamite king hangs from a tree just behind the queen.
While Assyrian kings chose to display the more gruesome aspects of their imperial activities on the palace walls, the results of this activity can be seen in the many artifacts that blend both Mesopotamian and foreign elements. Assyrian kings marched beyond the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and conquered regions including the Levantine coast of the Mediterranean (modern-day Israel, Lebanon, and Syria), as well as Egypt. The artifact modeled here, at more than twice its original size, shows an Egyptian style winged man holding onto the branch of a sacred tree. It was found at the Assyrian city of Nimrud, and was probably part of a larger panel. Winged figures are common in Assyrian art, however this figure’s shoulder-length hairstyle is typically Egyptian. The flower shapes behind the man’s back are red and blue plants that represent papyrus, a common reed found in Egypt. The original in the case nearby, is from the ROM’s collection. It is made of ivory, inlaid with bright blue and red coloured faience, an ancient glass-like material that is also Egyptian in origin.
Assyrian reliefs tend to focus on the most violent and gruesome aspects of warfare and conquest. Objects like this, though, remind us that the Assyrian empire united most of what we term the Near, or Middle, East for the first time under a single government. The result of this was the exchange of ideas between cultures, and the ability for people to travel and trade throughout a much larger area than ever before. For many people not directly involved in the conquest of towns and cities, this would have been a welcome change from the constant tension between city states that existed before.
Writing in the Ancient World
This tablet, reproduced at 1.5 times its original size, is one of many round clay exercise tablets found by archaeologists studying Mesopotamia. The original can be found in the ROM’s collections. The horizontal lines that can be felt across the tablet are there to guide the writer, just like using lined paper today. The symbols on the left hand side of each line are identical. They represent the same word, with the student filling in the rest of the sentence on the right.
It is worth noting that while very few modern scholars can read these languages, the literacy rates in Mesopotamia would have also been very low. Students were almost certainly boys, and would have been from the most privileged classes. They would have spent considerable time learning how to both make tablets like this one, and to use a reed stylus, or pen, to make the correct impressions in the wet clay. After learning the basic cuneiform signs the student would be required to learn the thousands of different signs that formed any of the Mesopotamian languages. Often this would be accomplished by trying to reproduce lines written by the teacher on the reverse of the tablet, much like students copy off of a powerpoint presentation or a blackboard today. School tablets like these are invaluable to scholars trying to read and understand the languages of Mesopotamia. Students would copy lists of identical terms in more than one language, making it easier for modern scholars to decipher the complicated cuneiform script. Only after extensive training could a student call themselves a scribe, and become a member of a distinguished profession.
Texts are among the most sought after artifacts from anywhere in the ancient world, but in Mesopotamia they are found in abundance. In this section of the exhibition there is a series of cuneiform tablets from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, which includes everything from astronomical observations and medical texts to great works of literature. One such work is the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of a king of the Sumerian city of Uruk who becomes a legendary hero through battles with great gods and monsters, the second part of which can be found written here in Ashurbanipal’s library.
Texts like these help to bring to life not only the historic events of the past, but also give us insight into what the people of ancient Mesopotamia thought and believed.
Babylon is one of the most famous cities in Mesopotamia. One of the most famous of its rulers was Hammurapi (ca. 1760 BCE), who began as king of the city and ended his rule as ruler of the entire region of Mesopotamia. Hammurapi is most famous for his legal system, which clearly defined crimes and their punishments for the citizens of the empire. The most famous evidence of this comes from a large stone pillar, or stela, which was discovered at the ancient city of Susa in modern day Iran. A copy of this stela can be found at the entrance to the Babylon section of the exhibition. The king himself is shown with the sun god Shamash, and then goes on to document in writing a series of legal scenarios. This pillar is significant not just because it represents the world’s first written laws, but also because it shows that Hammurapi presumably had the power as a ruler to enforce these laws in the regions he controlled throughout Babylon.
Babylon was one of many city-states to fall to the might of the Assyrian empire, and this conquest is documented on Assyrian artifacts. The Assyrian king Sennacherib campaigned against Babylon several times, and in 689 BCE he boasted in writing on his palace walls that he devastated Babylon more completely than a flood. The damage done to the city was so severe that it took the lifetimes of several Assyrian kings to restore Babylon to the vibrant city it had been before.
This brick, modeled at full size, is marked with the name of Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon between 604 and 562 BCE, after the Assyrian restoration. A similar brick can be found in the case to your right. The wedge shaped symbols that can be felt in the centre of the brick represent cuneiform characters, similar to what can be found elsewhere in the exhibition. Nebuchadnezzar is known for his military victories, including the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jewish population to Babylon described in the Biblical Book of Daniel. This king is also commonly credited with great public works throughout Mesopotamia, and for creating the most beautiful city in the region, including the construction of the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, shown nearby. The gate itself was decorated with figures of bull and dragons, symbols of the gods Adad and Marduk. North of the gate the roadway was lined with glazed figures of striding lions on vivid blue backgrounds such as the one in the exhibit. These animals were associated with Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, and served to protect the street.
Building materials such as this clay brick were often marked with the date of their manufacture and the name of the king at the time. In this case there are also details of events in Nebuchadnezzar’s reign between years 1 and 11, including the capture of Jerusalem in 597 BCE. Bricks such as these allowed the king to ensure that his name would be remembered forever; he had thousands of these bricks manufactured. Good quality stone for building is not commonly found in southern Mesopotamia, and as a result this kind of clay block makes up most of the building material in Babylon. This artifact is one of the most common and ordinary objects found at ancient Mesopotamian cities. This ordinary block represents some of the greatest architectural achievements in the ancient world- made of nothing but mud.
Statue of Lamassu
In front of you is a fibreglass model of a statue of Lamassu, which would originally have been carved out of gypsum. Lamassu were protective gods, or deities that are shown as either a lion or bull with wings, with a man’s head on top of the body. This one here is a winged bull. This bull’s wings are made of intricately carved feathers that arch above his back. His back is decorated with many spiraling circles to represent long hairs that have been gathered and curled. When viewed from the front, the bull’s two front legs are locked, making it appear as though the Lamassu is standing still in a strong defensive stance. When viewed from the side, the bull has a fifth leg that makes it look as though he were moving forward to attack evil spirits or threats. His long beard is curled tightly, just like the hair on the rest of his body and he has a curly mustache. His pointed ears are decorated with earrings and he wears a headdress crowned with horns that show he is divine, or god-like. Pairs of these creatures, displayed here at full size, would have guarded the entryway into any Assyrian palace.
The artifacts found in this exhibition represent some of the greatest achievements from ancient Mesopotamia. The legacies of Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon are part of a history that all people around the world share. Without the development of the cuneiform script, and the administrative systems of southern Mesopotamia, there would be no books, websites, or online banking today. Even the clocks we use are based on Mesopotamian ideas, since the system of 60 seconds to a minute and 60 minutes to an hour are from this region of the world. This exhibition gives us the opportunity to share some of the most beautiful works of art in the ancient world. It also reminds us how much modern society owes to the ancient world.