Stone age

By GREG COOK  |  September 16, 2008
15_Escape-across-a-riverins.jpg
ESCAPE ACROSS A RIVER The highlights of “Art and Empire” are its heart-pounding, sometimes
gory battle scenes.

There were ubiquitous mud bricks with cuneiform inscriptions (which Europeans had just begun to decipher) proclaiming the glories of the kings: “Shalmaneser, the great king, strong king, king of the world, king of Assyria, son of Ashurnasirpal, the great king, strong king, king of the world, king of Assyria, son of Tikulti-Ninurta, king of the world, king of Assyria.” In the foundations, kings buried stone slabs trumpeting their achievements, promising prosperity and victory to future rulers who restored their buildings and cursing anyone who might erase their names. Layard dug up colossal stone gateway sentinels — often winged bulls or lions with the heads of men. And he found signs that the buildings had been torched.

Here at the MFA are decorated bronze door straps, ceramic jars and bottles, bits of furniture, carved ivory sculptures, and decorations for horses. Keep an eye out for five tiny clay dogs — of a sort buried for protection beneath homes — inscribed: “Expeller of evil,” “Catcher of the enemy,” “Don’t think, bite,” “Biter of his foe,” and “Loud is his bark.”

Most impressive are the stone reliefs that lined palace and temple halls proclaiming Assyrian royal power to visitors and gods and spirits — and now to us. Hunting scenes show kings killing lions and bulls. The highlights of the exhibit come about halfway through in a series of gory, heart-pounding battle scenes.

These carvings show Assyrians archers, behind tall shields, assaulting a citadel and scaling the walls on ladders. A wheeled siege engine with giant spears or battering rams climbs a hill to smash the fortress. In another relief, Assyrian archers chase three men into a tree-lined river. One man has been shot in the back. The other two cling to animal skins that they have inflated so they might float down the river toward the shelter of a castle.

The carvings are stylized and radiate a preternatural seriousness. The figures are mostly shown full-body, parading by in profile except for chests and eyes rendered as if observed from the front. Hills are patterns of stacked scales. Rivers are swirling lines with fish and crabs chiseled on top. People seem to be types rather than individuals. They move about landscapes like players on a gameboard rather than back into space. They vary in size depending on their importance rather than their location. And nearly the only women to be seen are among defeated enemies.

The masterpiece of the show is a relief from the 650s BC depicting the battle of Til-Tuba across three stone panels roughly 6.5 feet tall and 17.5 feet wide. Assyrians drive Elamites (from what is now southern Iran) down a hillside and into a river. They chase the Elamite king Teumman and his son after he crashes his chariot, shoot the king with arrows, surround them, bash them with clubs, behead them, and carry the heads off to Assyria for presentation to king Ashurbanipal. It is a scene of chaos littered with tumbling bodies. Vultures peck at corpses.

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