Assyrian Collection of the British Museum

Excavation History

Long after the palaces, victories, and stamped tablets of the Assyrian Empire were buried beneath the sand, another empire began to collapse, the Ottoman Empire. As this Asian empire declined in the early 19th century, European interest in the east grew, both politically and culturally. Surpassing classical interest in ancient Roman and Greek cultures, the European designation of the Orient drew their curiosity east. Orientalism became a study of its own, to study the cultures of the East, from Egypt, Turkey, the Middle East, to the Atlantic Ocean and every culture in between. Defining the Orient helped to define European identity as the Occident.

With this interest followed extensive excavations to uncover the ancient cultures of the Middle East. By the mid-1800s, England had begun to uncover the vast remains of the Assyrian Empire. Palaces guarded by towering winged lamasi, libraries that had stored thousands of cuneiform tablets retelling the stories of Gilgamesh, Astronomical records, and trade with nearby cultures, such as Egypt were excavated and delivered to the museum for study.

The Siege

A major city within the Assyrian Empire, the ruler of Lachish (in modern northern Iraq) refused to pay the Assyrian king tribute. In retribution the king, Sennacherib, attacked the city in 701 BCE. After his victory, Sennacherib detailed the battle along the palace walls as a reminder to those that may rebel against the empire but to also fulfill the king’s divine duty to expand the land for the god Ashur and to protect his people.

The scenes depict the unfolding events of the siege from the beginnings of the campaign with the military force heading towards the city of Lachish. Once the army arrives, archers, stone slingers and spearmen line up for their assault. As the force advances on the city walls, Lachish is attacked by siege engines being lead up ramps while Lachish men pour water over the walls protecting them from torches. Included in this detailed and chaotic battle scene are men and women fleeing the city into exile. Once victory has been won by the Assyrian army, prisoners and booty are lead towards the king where he oversees the execution of the prisoners.

The Black Obelisk

Dated to the early beginnings of the Neo-Assyrian period, 825 BCE, this black limestone obelisk was a public monument celebrating the king’s achievements. Documenting thirty years of King Shalmaneser’s III reign, the obelisk recounts his military campaigns and tributes received from foreign neighbors. Among the tributes includes a range of exotic animals such as monkeys, elephants and a rhinoceros.

The top registers lists the five kingdoms the king received tribute from: Sua of Gilzany (in north-west Iran); Jehu of Bit Omri (ancient northern Israel); an unnamed ruler from Musri (possibly Egypt); Marduk-apil-usur of Suhi (middle Euphrates, Syria, and Iraq); and Qalparunda of Patin (Antakya region of Turkey).

The depiction of Jehu of Bit Omri is of significance for biblical history as being the earliest surviving figure of an Israelite.

Challenging Ideologies

In 612 BCE, the great capital of the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh, fell in the wake of the next empire, the Babylonians. As in the tradition of conqueror over conquered, many of the faces of the kings in Nineveh and monuments were destroyed, essentially an attempt to erase them from history. This act of destruction is not an isolated incident with the fall of Assyria, but a seemingly general practice throughout human history. It is a symbol of power when those that once evoked strength are destroyed themselves.

Today, we see similar acts of such destruction around the world and again with the destruction of these very same symbols of power. With such acts, it becomes ever more important to use the latest technologies to document our material history from detailed illustrations of the early 1800s, photography, to the harnessing of laser and light for 3D image capture. Without such documentations, our collective history is lost to the changing ideologies of shifting cultures.


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