With my summer study at Oxford completed, I spent my final day in England exploring the wonders of The British Museum. Put on some comfortable shoes if you dare to walk London’s most formidable museum with exhibits spanning some 14,000 years of human civilization!
When standing at the foot of intimidating colossal stone structures such as the winged human-headed lions, shown in the picture to the left that, with its twin, once flanked the entrance to the royal palace of King Ashumasirpal II (883-859 BC) at Nimrud in ancient Assyria (modern northern Iraq), one is easily overcome with an uncomfortable sense of insignificance. If I were to stand in front of the them, I would just come up to the top of the creature’s legs (I am 5’4).
It’s not difficult to imagine the terror no doubt felt by people of that period making their way past these towering guardian sculptures that were thought to ward off demonic forces.
After posting about the meaning of art in ancient Egypt and Greece, I feel compelled to write this entry about The British Museum, paying special tribute to the sculptures and reliefs of the empires of ancient Mesopotamia, often referred to as the ‘cradle of Western civilization.’
Do you see the detail of the horses mouths carved into this sculpted relief depicting the siege of Lachish in 701 BC? Lachish was one of the chief cities of the kingdom of Judah, and its capture is mentioned in the Pentateuch of the Old Testament. The victorious Assyrian king, Sennacherib (704-681 BC), was thought to be merely Hebraic mythology until archaeologists unearthed the impressive stone panels that once lined his palace, along with written text proving Sennacherib’s existence.
What Archaeologists are Discovering
Archaeologists and scientists are bringing history to life and shedding light on what is true and what is myth with their findings. For instance, until recently it was thought that the city of Ur, birthplace of Abram (later Abraham) in Genesis was a made-up place – until it was discovered in southern Iraq.
In the ruins were found a large body of cuneiform documents (wedge-shaped script on tablets made of clay, or stone for monuments) dating from the 3rd millennium that serve to verify the city’s importance as a centralized bureaucracy.
At The British Museum there is a room dedicated to the treasures of Ur. The item above is from one of the largest graves in the Royal Cemetery at Ur. The blue background is made of lapis lazuli and the figures are a mosaic of other stones. It is quite beautiful to see in person.
There is also a room dedicated to the Hittites, another society of prominence in the Pentateuch thought to have been myth until very recently.
The Cradle of Civilization Still Rocks
In contrast to the artifacts from ancient Egypt and Greece that I only expect to see the likes of in museums, the magnificent sculptures and reliefs of ancient Mesopotamia, which now encompasses Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, I can truly imagine still standing in place, in all their glory, in today’s post-modern age.
The land that birthed the Cradle of Civilization still rocks with warring tribes chanting death threats, and wielding knives and casting stones (so to speak). In very few places in the world do you hear the word tribe attributed to a political group or military troop! For all their rich and culturally significant history, the entire region seems stuck in some kind of tragic time warp.
Their bloody history still runs thick in their veins, which is why you have to visit places such as The British Museum in London or the Louvre in Paris to witness their great contributions to the Western world. Of course, this is vey sad.
Visiting The British Museum
The British Museum does a very good job in organizing it’s vast collection so that a visitor can start on the top floor and work down to the ground floor, walking through history room by room.
The information panels contain a wealth of information regarding significant historical events, people, culture and society. In writing this post, I referred to the museum’s website, which I found to be the best so far of any museum’s websites. There are pictures, articles, audio recordings and videos enough to keep you entertained for a long time.
The gift shop has a ton of great books to browse. Make sure you reserve time and energy to flip through a few. I suggest you go on a day other than Saturday. That’s when I was there and I often had to wait as seemingly busloads of people would walk into a room, or have their picture taken in front of everything.
The Rosetta Stone
The most popular item in the museum is hands down, the Rosetta Stone. I thought maybe Angelina Jolie had walked in, but when I finally pushed through the crowd, it was in fact the tablet of black rock that was drawing all the attention. The Rosetta stone is very important because it enabled scientists to decode ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic script that had not been in use since the fourth century AD.
The Stone has three bands of writing: The top band contains 14 lines of hieroglyphs (symbols such as an eye, a bird, a reed, or a basket). The middle band has 32 lines of demotic script, the everyday language used in ancient Egypt. The lower band has over 50 lines of Greek writing. All three bands of writing tell the story of 13-year old Ptolemy V on the first anniversary of his coronation.
Art + History = Meaning
When gazing upon colossal sculpture and reliefs of the ancient world, it is helpful when I try to imagine people of that time living and breathing, walking and gazing upon the same structures, but in the time for which the art was intended. Just as their eyes read the words and translated the pictures, my eyes now do the very same.
At The British Museum, ancient Mesopotamia comes across as mostly violent and cruel, although there are plenty of examples of a more peaceful mind at work. I thought about the poet, Homer, who is said to have lived in the 8th Century in Greece – roughly 100 years before the Assyrian war depicted at the start of this post. The works attributed to him, The Iliad and the Odyssey, are the oldest epics of Western literature. He essentially kicked off the Greek great awakening of philosophy and the arts.
I leave you with a few Homeric sayings:
“Words empty as the wind are best left unsaid.”
“In youth and beauty, wisdom is but rare!”
“The difficulty is not so great to die for a friend, as to find a friend worth dying for.”