Continuing from yesterday’s post let’s look at the art of the Assyrian culture.
As struggles continued in the area that was once Sumer the Assyrians rose to dominate northern Mesopotamia. In terms of art several interesting changes were happening. In the past most art revolved around the building and decorating of temples, celebrating religious and mythical stories. The shift has begun to an emphasis on palaces and celebrating human rulers. Large palace complexes were built and decorated to show the power and importance of the King. Art was used as propaganda to support the political power of the ruling classes. Reliefs and murals were used to decorate buildings and streets to declare the ruler strong, invincible, just, and empowered by the gods. A favorite image used in art was that of conquered dignitaries coming to pay tribute to the king, showing the vastness of his kingdom.
Assurnasirpal II established his capital in Nimrod on the bank of the Tigris. His architects surrounded the city with walls that were 5 miles long and 42 feet high. According to an inscription when the complex was completed Assurnasirpall gave a banquet for 69,574 people. Most of the walls were made of mud bricks and then decorated with limestone and alabaster. In the above relief the King is shown with his Queen in a garden. The tranquil scene includes the severed head hanging in a tree on the far left. It was common during this period to display the heads and corpses of enemies. They were considered a type of trophy and also served as psychological warfare, instilling fear in those who would challenge the King.
Guardian figures flanked the important doorways and gates, and panels covered the walls in low relief showing the king participating in a variety of activities. The above is one of the most famous guardian figures. It is a human-headed Winged lion and was the gateway support from the palace of Assurnasirpal. You will note that he has 5 legs, from the front it looks as if he is standing still and from the side he is mid-stride. It is only if you view the statue from an angle that you can see all 5 legs.
In this vivid lion-hunting scene Assurnasirpal stands in a chariot pulled by galloping horses and draws his bow against an attaking lion that already has several bows protruding from it’s body. This was probably a ceremonial hunt.
One of the most spectacular archaeological finds in the Near East was the discover in 1988 of mor than a thousand pieces of jewelry found in three royal Assyrian tombs. When a museum in Germany wanted to display the collection no insurance company was willing to insure it due to it’s incredible worth. During the recent invasion of Iraq the Museum in Baghdad was looted and much of this treasure was taken.
Fortunately, many of the missing pieces have been recovered. Matthew Bogdanos was a Marine reservist, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan and a student of the classics. He helped to organize the effort to recover the priceless artifacts that had been stolen. He has written a book called, the Thieves of Baghdad, where you can read about the adventure of recovering stolen art in the chaotic world of post-war Baghdad.
Here are the facts on just a few of the pieces recovered that we have studied. The Mask of Warka, believed to be the world’s oldest known natural sculpture of a human face was found buried in the backyard of a farmhouse. The Bassetki Statue, cast in pure copper dating from 2250 B.C. was found submerged in a cesspool. The Clay Pot from Tell Hassuna, made in 1500 years before the wheel was returned in a garbage bag.
The items were stolen to sell to fund terrorism and the insurgency in Iraq. The following has happened repeatedly…marines operating alongside Iraqi security forces arrested 5 terrorists in their underground bunkers. The bunkers were filled with automatic weapons, ammunition, ski masks, night vision goggles and more than 30 artifacts from the Iraq Museum. One of the many disturbing aspects of these crimes is that they could not occur without the complicity of museums and experts. In order to sell these pieces they must be authenticated and while the thieves and smugglers might be caught, they would not have a business without the dealers and collectors…and the experts used to authenticate pieces.