Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins


[Image: Panel with Striding Lion, Babylon, Processional Way, Neo-Babylonian period, reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, 605–562 BC, Ceramic, glaze, 97.2 x  227.3 x 12 cm (38 1⁄4 x 89 1⁄2 x 4 3⁄4 in.), New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 31.13.1, Fletcher Fund, 1931]

This catalogue is for an exhibition of Mesopotamian artefacts planned for 18 March-27 July 2020 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, touring from the Louvre, Lens. The majority of the items in the selection are from the Louvre collection.

Within the territory of northern Iraq and Syria, between the Euphrates and Tigris, the great cities of Ur, Babylon and Nineveh were founded and the Uruk, Jemdet Nasr, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and Hellenistic periods (among others) succeeded one another between 3900 BC and 642 AD. The centres of population began close to the Persian Gulf and slowly moved northward, due to increasing salinity of the marshes. The Persian era ended with defeat by Alexander the Great and the burning of Persepolis. The Seleucid dynasty ruled before the rise of the Parthians then the Sassanians, who vied for control of the Near East with the Byzantine Empire. The fall of the Sassanian Empire to the Muslims ended many of the traditions that are characteristic of Mesopotamian civilisations.

Mesopotamian innovations (according to current knowledge) seem to include irrigation, weaving, moulded bricks, glassware and alcoholic beverages and – it is thought – writing and written laws. (Tablets are illustrated and translated, with one breaking down the mixture of cuneiform and pictogram script. Others are in pure cuneiform.) These were the first agrarian settled civilisations and cities, made possible by commerce and specialised trades. Foreign trade exchanged woollen textiles for perfumes, spices and metals. Bureaucracy developed to manage the construction of large structures and distribution of wages of food or silver. Fields such as astronomy, mathematics, geometry and music were honed in ways that had not been possible before.  History was recorded and the world’s first museum was Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon’s collection of inscriptions and objects, some up to a thousand years old in the first half of the sixth century BC. Inscribed histories, declarations and laws provided precedent and continuity.

The Western scrutiny and collection of Mesopotamian history began in earnest in the 1840s, somewhat later than the fieldwork in Egypt. The French took the lead, bringing back treasures to Paris. Excavations by European teams uncovered Persepolis in the 1930s. In recent decades, Saddam Hussein ordered excavated more and reconstructed the gate of Ishtar at Babylon at full scale to perpetuate the glory of Iraq. A chapter presents conceptions of Sumerian history, including art by John Martin, Degas, Delacroix, Bruegel, Rembrandt and D.W. Griffiths.

CAT108_DT861 (1)

[Image: Seated Statue of Gudea, Sumer, Tello (ancient Girsu), Neo-Sumerian period, Second Dynasty of Lagash, reign of Gudea, ca. 2120 BC, Diorite, 44 x 21.5 x 29.5 cm (17 3⁄8 x 8 1⁄2 x 11 5⁄8 in.), New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. 59.2,Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1959]

The 133 exhibits here include statuettes, cuneiform tablets, glazed bricks, seals, stelae, plaques, jewellery, large sculpture and paintings. Metal-plating was used on objects of wood and stone, inlays being used on statuettes. Line engraving, appliqué, repoussé, cloisonné, glazing and stamping were all used as forms of decoration. A rare silver vase used at a temple has a dedication inscription and engraved images of animals. Small stone cylindrical seals with intricate carvings of historical, royal and mythological scenes were rolled over strips of clay to make terracotta bas-reliefs.

While this art does not rise to the level of the masterpieces of Assyrian civilisation – although there are some artefacts from this era – the selection covers many aspects of Mesopotamian cultures, which permits us to consider Assyrian art that we are familiar as part of a continuum. One of the outstanding images of Assyria – the Lamassu, man-headed, winged bull – appears in a Neo-Sumerian period (c. 2150-2000 BC) chlorite statuette, dating from before the Assyrian era. The stylised patterned depictions of hair, fur, water and drapery is one of the most remarkable and effective devices of Assyrian art. Another aspect is the use of profile in murals. The utilisation of moulds allowed the mass production of glazed bricks which were used to make multiple roaring lions which lined walls.

The most striking art works are statues of Prince Gudea – in dark stone carved in the round, showing the prince in a turban or cap. The musculature of the larger standing piece (no. 107) (and to a lesser degree in the others) is well observed and hints at an appreciation of realistic anatomy in Akkadian art. The schematic and rounded statues of rulers of the Neo-Sumerian and Akkadian eras will recall for many viewers the art of Egypt, however, the breadth and ambition of both the Egyptians and Assyrians eclipse these pieces.

The Mesopotamian cultures were polytheistic, without central codification; set religious practices were apparently not enforced by the state. The chapter on religion exposes how different Mesopotamian approaches to religion were to the religions that replaced them. The gods were considered fallible, inconstant and even mortal; that is reflected in the iconography, which shows the gods as only differentiated from royalty by attributes. Royalty lived in palaces and gods lived in temples. Visages in busts are relatable and human. Nudity is common in the art of all stages of Mesopotamian civilisations; even sexual acts were depicted. Wall paintings rarely survived. The remaining pieces are crude in comparison to contemporary relief carving of the time.

The catalogue outlines the development of the societies, providing up to date information, some derived from technological discoveries. Computer visualisations present aerial-viewpoint reconstructions of cities. The catalogue includes an index and extensive bibliography. Expert commentaries give us an overview of the subject.

Ariane Thomas, Timothy Potts (eds.), Mesopotamia: Civilization Begins, J. Paul Getty Museum, April 2020, hardback, 236pp, fully illus., £50, ISBN 978 1 60606 649 2

(c) 2020 Alexander Adams

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