Wednesday 30 January 2019

Cabinet of Curiosities by Charlotte Wightwick – the Sargon Vase: an enduring story, a fragile vessel

Whenever I go to a museum or exhibition I play a game. What, if I could take one thing home with me that day, would I have? 

What I’ve realised over the years is that it is rarely the most obviously beautiful or valuable item (with some notable exceptions - hello, the Crown Jewels!) that I would choose. Instead I tend to be drawn to the ‘everyday life’ items – the things which produce that moment of sudden, blinding recognition: the people who made this, used this, really lived. Despite the differences of centuries and cultures, they were, in many ways, just like me.

That’s how I felt last week, attending the British Museum’s current blockbuster exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria. Following the political history of the Assyrian Empire – which at its largest covered the area from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the mountains of western Iran - it covers a huge geographical area and, by providing the background to Ashurbanipal’s rule, several centuries of history. 

Much of the exhibition focuses on the large narrative panels setting out important episodes from the king’s reign. These are beautiful, intricate carvings which do much to illuminate the sophistication of Assyrian courtly life. They show a deep appreciation for nature and beauty, as well as telling exciting stories – primarily Ashurbanipal demonstrating his prowess against the forces of chaos through lion-hunting or by defeating human foes. I was especially taken by poor King Teumman of Elam, who in a battle scene first loses his kingly hat, then manages to get it back, only for the victorious Assyrians to take his head instead. (The curators of the exhibition mixed modern technology and the original objects in a sympathetic and intelligent way to bring out this story.) 

Battle of Til-Tuba. detail. 660-650BC.
©The Trustees of the British Museum
The king’s library, preserved on clay tablets, is also impressive, if largely incomprehensible at first glance to a modern lay audience. There is the occasional more relatable item, such as the tablet which includes both text and a 3-D model of a lung, to act as a teaching aid to three-thousand-year-ago medical students, or the tiny tablet containing royal orders, contained with an equally tiny clay envelope. You can find out more about the Library here:

But it is the smaller, humbler objects which really caught my eye. The nearly three-thousand year old gaming board, with which courtiers may have whiled away their time. Were they simply bored of hanging around at court - waiting for the next lion hunt to start, say - or were they avid gamblers, whose fortunes were won and lost on the progress of the game? They may have played their game seated at tables with feet depicting beautifully realistic deer hooves or lion paws which still survive, long after the main article of furniture has vanished. What of the people who made and used the clam shells, intricately carved and turned into decorative cosmetic containers, the pride of a fashion-conscious beauty’s dressing table?
Decorated shell, probably 630/580 BC
©The Trustees of the British Museum

The final element of the exhibition was, however, the most moving: a section setting out how much of the archaeology of the region, both that in museums and in situ on sites has been destroyed in recent years by Isis/ Daesh. It’s a frightening reminder of how much that we see is but a tiny fraction of the stories that are there to be told, when so much destruction can take place in only a few short years. 

So, what would I take home with me, to take pride of place in my Cabinet of Curiosities? Obviously the answer is - "actually I wouldn’t" - but if I could have one thing, the exquisite Sargon Vase – a tiny glass vessel, made with care and skill in the eighth-century BC and still intact despite nearly three thousand years of warfare, abandonment and yet more destruction, seems a fitting symbol to me.

The Sargon Vase, 721-705BC
©The Trustees of the British Museum

1 comment:

Sue Bursztynski said...

What an interesting post! Lucky you, getting to that exhibition. Where I live, archaeology is not about finding ancient tombs or lost cities - we don’t have any. But a few years ago, there was a dig in the Melbourne CBD, in Little Lonsdale St, which I regret missing, as they were accepting volunteers(my full time day job got in the way). People used to live in that part of the city, which is now all shops and cafes, and the archaeologists found bits and pieces of ordinary people’s lives. Not 3000 years old - there are probably elderly people now whose great grandparents lived there - but fascinating all the same. That’s really what archaeology is about, isn’t it? Not just gold statues or pictures of kings hunting, but the lives of ordinary people and how they were lived.