Ashurbanipal at The British Museum

In early December, Years 7 & 8 celebrated the end of their exams with an all-day enrichment trip to London. We took in two special exhibitions, one at The British Library and the other at The British Museum. In the morning we visited the British Museum’s I am Ashurbanipal exhibition, which illustrates with a truly stunning range of exhibits the passions and world of this mid-7th century BC leader who claimed to be not only king of Assyria but of the whole world.

Ashurbanipal prided himself not only on being a fearsome hunter but also a scholar, an accomplishment he showed off on his friezes by having himself portrayed with a stilus tucked into his belt as he killed his lions! Indeed Ashurbanipal was one of the only kings at the time who could read and write and he was very proud that he had mastered the fiendishly difficult cuneiform script. They even had in the exhibition a rather crudely formed letter he had written to his father as a thirteen-year-old! A floor-to-ceiling case of cuneiform clay tablets referenced the fact that at Nineveh Ashurbanipal gathered a library of over 10,000 clay tablets, covering magic, epic, medicine, history and much more. In addition the exhibition contains some stunningly intricate ivories and other treasures from Phoenicia which the Assyrians had acquired through their empire that stretched from Egypt to Iran.

A highlight was the tremendous frieze of the Battle of Til-Tuba (653BC) which in symphonic manner shows both the great sweep of this pitched battle whilst at the same time picking out the individual story of the Elamite king Teumann and his son Tamaritu. The Assyrians rush down a hill and engage in infantry and cavalry action which culminates in their Elamite enemies being driven into the swirling waters of the River Ulai. In the midst of these chaotic scenes we see the ill-fated Teumann’s chariot wrecked, his son defending him in vain before they are both brutally decapitated. On a later frieze we see Ashurbanipal and his wife enjoying a banquet in a beautiful garden with Teumann’s head hanging off a near by tree like a Christmas decoration!

The last part of the exhibition deals with a double destruction of Assyrian culture, first at the hands of the Babylonians and Medes (Nineveh fell in 612 BC) and more recently at the hands of Daesh in cities such as Nimrud (Mosul), as well as the efforts of the British Museum together with Iraqi partners to preserve what is left of this remarkable civilisation.

We finished our morning with a brief tour of the Parthenon sculptures, drawing links with what students had studied in Year 7 history of the Persian Wars and Athenian Democracy, and reflecting that the Athenians, at least in their portrayal of their power, appeared more humane than the Assyrians.

In the afternoon we were privileged to have British Library staff lead us around the wonderful Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibitions. To quote their own website:

Treasures from the British Library’s own collection, including the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, sit alongside stunning finds from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard. The world-famous Domesday Book offers its unrivalled depiction of the landscape of late Anglo-Saxon England while Codex Amiatinus, a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716, returns to England for the first time in 1300 years.

This was a truly stunning exhibition with a veritable argosy of priceless manuscripts and objects of breath-taking beauty. The exhibition both gives helpful historical context for the exhibits whilst at the same time allowing the objects themselves to brilliantly illumine a period traditionally thought of as Dark Ages. Alongside the history is the equally fascinating development language from the mysterious runic script, the crystal clear Latin scripts of the Anglo-Saxon bibles and the first documents written in English.

This was a deeply enriching day for both pupils and staff.  Both exhibitions remain on through the Christmas period and beyond. I have already booked to go back to see more. I heartily recommend you book to go as a family and let your son or daughter show you round!

Jonathan Burden  (Teacher of Latin & Greek, Head of Seniors)