The Museum’s current major exhibition explores the life of Assyria’s last great king, Ashurbanipal. Hugely powerful, Ashurbanipal ruled what was at the time the largest empire on earth but, within a few decades of his death, his empire had collapsed and his capital city burnt to the ground.
Since classical times, writers have speculated about the fall of Assyria. Greek and Roman sources talk of the extravagant suicide of its last king Sardanapalus (believed by some to be Ashurbanipal), surrounded by his gold and his concubines. The Old Testament recounts the city’s annihilation by divine wrath and, from the Middle Ages, interest in biblical evidence motivated travellers and geographers to try and locate the city.
But it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the location of Nineveh – near Mosul in northern Iraq – was confirmed.
At this time, the region of Mosul was part of the Ottoman Empire. France and Britain both had a consulate in Mosul and the imperial rivalry between both countries, as well as their political interest in the region, fuelled pioneering archaeological excavations.
Excavations began in 1842 when the French consul, Paul Émile Botta, commissioned by the Louvre museum, began digging at the site of Khorsabad, where he discovered a city built by the Assyrian king Sargon II. The excavation findings were published under the title Monuments of Nineveh, as Botta wrongly believed that he had found the famed ancient city.
These discoveries captured the attention of Austen Henry Layard, a young British explorer who worked as assistant to the British ambassador in Constantinople. Layard persuaded the ambassador to personally fund excavations at the site of Nimrud. From 1845 Layard, with the invaluable help of Hormuzd Rassam, an archaeologist from Mosul, and his team began excavations at Nimrud. They soon unearthed monumental winged bulls and lions that used to flank the gates of an Assyrian palace.
Excited by these finds, the British government, through the British Museum, took over as sponsor and in 1847 Layard moved to the mound of Kuyunjik, across the river Tigris in front of Mosul. It was there that he finally unearthed the fabled city of Nineveh.
Rassam continued to dig at Nineveh on behalf of the British Museum and in 1853 discovered the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, with its brilliantly carved sculptures.
The British Ambassador in Constantinople was keen to see Assyrian sculptures displayed in Britain and he obtained authorisation from the Ottoman government to export some of the finds to London, while other finds remained in situ in Iraq. The sculptures that arrived in Britain gave the British Museum a collection to rival that of the Louvre in France.
The rivalry between the two imperial nations was even played out at a royal level. Queen Victoria ordered jewellery pieces inspired by the Assyrian reliefs for a state visit to the 1855 Exposition Universelle in Paris. A ‘turquoise and brilliant Nineveh brooch’ was made for the occasion and was probably offered to the French Empress Eugenie to highlight Britain’s part in Assyria’s ‘rediscovery’.
The Assyrian sensation in England
Austen Henry Layard published his excavations in the two-volume book Nineveh and its Remains in 1849. By carefully highlighting the link between Nineveh and the Bible, and by setting the narrative within tales of adventure and exploration in the Middle East, the book was a best-seller in Victorian England. 20,000 copies were sold in the first four years. A shorter and cheaper version of the book was later produced for wider distribution.
The success of Layard’s book persuaded the British government to allocate funds for the shipment of the winged bulls and winged lions to London, which had been sitting in crates at the port of Basra, in southern Iraq. Their arrival and initial display in the entrance hall of the British Museum was widely publicised in the popular press, such as the Illustrated London News.
The excavation of these Assyrian cities revealed a completely new civilisation to 19th century audiences, and back in England, Layard and his associates gave popular public lectures on the Assyrian sculptures.
When the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham Hill in 1854, it now included a Nineveh Court. It was composed of brightly painted casts of reliefs from Khorsabad, Nineveh and Nimrud. Although the directors of the Crystal Palace were not too enthusiastic about displaying Assyrian art, the Nineveh Court was met with awe by the general public.
Artistic popularity: Assyrian revival
The researches of Mr Layard have not only rendered Assyria an object of interest to professed antiquaries, but have actually brought it into fashion… Everyone knows the form of an Assyrian monarch’s umbrella, and the fashion of the Royal crown of Nineveh is as familiar as the pattern of the last new Parisian bonnet.
The Times, 14 June 1853
The discoveries had a major impact on the arts in Britain. Artists and designers started to copy details from the Assyrian sculptures in search of inspiration and historical accuracy. Lord Byron’s poem Sardanapalus, King of Assyria, written before the discoveries, was staged by Charles Kean in 1853. The sets and costumes were conscientiously taken from illustrations in Layard’s publications.
Seen as tangible evidence for the Old Testament, Assyrian motifs were also used to illustrate Biblical narratives. Arthur Murch, an artist who was living just across the road from the British Museum produced illustrations for a Bible, and was directly inspired by the displays at the Museum.
Assyrian sculptures also made their way to France in the Louvre, but it was only in England that the Assyrian style met great popularity. At the time, the British Museum was selling casts of the sculptures displayed in their galleries but they were restricted to Greco-Roman examples. Private companies quickly responded to the public demand for Assyrian memorabilia.
Jewellers produced pieces decorated with scenes and motifs taken from the Assyrian sculptures. Winged bulls and lions, lion hunts and winged genies proved the most popular.
In 1872 George Smith’s translation of the ‘Flood tablet’ (a tablet from the Library of Ashurbanipal, which told a story similar to the great flood story from the Bible) produced a new surge in Assyrian style productions. Jewellery in particular was popular and many beautifully enamelled gold pieces were produced.
Ancient Assyrian designs were even used at the grandest Victorian parties. Fancy dress balls were fashionable in Victorian aristocratic circles. One of the most notorious ones was the Devonshire House ball in 1897 where the guests were expected to dress as historical portraits. Lady de Trafford proudly displayed a dress decorated with Assyrian motifs of blossoms and flower buds while embodying the Assyrian legendary queen Semiramis. Very little was known of Assyrian royal women dresses at the time and a character such as Semiramis was the opportunity to make the most of the costume maker’s imagination.
Excavations continued in Mesopotamia from the 19th century onwards, however, this widespread interest for Assyrian motifs in the arts only lasted for about a generation in Britain. At the beginning of the 20th century, Assyrian revival began to wane, probably partly eclipsed by the widely reported, sensational discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by the English archaeologist Howard Carter.
Find out more about perceptions of Assyria in art, culture and politics from the 19th century to the present day in a special symposium on Saturday 9 February.
There are just a few weeks left of the BP exhibition I am Ashurbanipal: king of the world, king of Assyria, which closes on 24 February – book your tickets and explore this lost empire today.