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Some days are like Christmas, except with new experiences rather than gifts. Friday was like that for me, as I spent most of it wandering the halls of Boston’s Museum of Fine Art (MFA). The museum is currently hosting Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum, and it was worth the trip for that alone.

Set of protective spirits

Assyrian, 645–640 B.C.
Gypsum
*The Trustees of the British Museum ME 118918
*© The Trustees of the British Museum 2008. All rights reserved.
*Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There is something special about standing inches from a massive wall panel from Sargon’s palace in Khorsabad, and wondering if Israelites taken captive in 722 BC may have been required to help saw the stone from the quarry, or drag it to the king’s new palace, or even to carve images that were designed not only to be decorative, but as royal propaganda. Did the powerful Ashurbanipal, perhaps Assyria’s greatest king, employ Hebrew artisans to carve the protective spirits that guarded every corner of his new palace in Nineveh, or massive murals such as the Battle of Til-Tuba, which commemorates his victory over the Elamites?

That particular relief, described in the exhibit catalog as “arguably the finest large-scale example in Assyrian art,” depicts a massive battlefield scene in which the Elamite king Teumann and his son Tammaritu appear in multiple stages of defeat: their chariot crashes, they try to hide but are surrounded by Assyrian soldiers, their heads are sliced from their bodies and then carried back in triumph to Ashurbanipal.
Other wall reliefs portray similar scenes of violence: siege engines, like ancient tanks, overwhelm the defenses of cities. Defeated enemies are impaled on poles for public display, frequently beheaded, trampled by horses. Rebels are forced to grind the bones of their ancestors into powder. It’s hard not to think of similar atrocities being committed in the same area today: the heart of Assyria was in the area surrounding Mosul in northern Iraq. Violence is no stranger to that part of the world. Or, for that matter, to any part of the world.

I had a chance to talk with curator Larry Berman, an Egyptologist by trade, and ask him what lessons contemporary folk might learn from the ancients. Looking around at the magnificent artistry of the Assyrians who lived nearly 3,000 years ago, he noted that one doesn’t need a lot of modern technology to do accomplish great things.
Mainly, though, he said we can learn from history. And one thing we learn is that “people are people” who want to express themselves through language and art and many other ways. When studying their works, their accomplishments and their art and their attitudes toward others, “you learn more about what makes you human,” he said.
I was reminded that humans are capable of both heartless violence and tender sentiment, of lavish lifestyles and spiritual searching. I was reminded that humans have choices — and of how important it is to choose wisely.
[Note: The MFA also has an impressive permanent collection of ancient art, including some magnificent holdings from the Ancient Near East (with art going back to the Sumerian period and beyond). For those who are unlikely to visit Boston in the near future, the museum’s website has an interactive page that features 10 of the most impressive pieces.

The museum is better known for its terrific collection of Egyptian artifacts, many of which were recovered in excavations sponsored by the MFA and Harvard University, and which also has an interactive page online.]
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