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Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World.

Exploring over 3,000 years of the accomplishments of this ancient civilization to reveal the significance many still have on our lives today, the exhibition Mesopotamia, at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, features over 170 priceless objects from the esteemed holdings of the British Museum. These artifacts, most of which have never been seen in Canada, are augmented by iconic objects from the ROM's own renowned collections and the collections of other leading institutions.


Geographically, Mesopotamia (from the Greek "between the rivers") encompasses present-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey. Urban civilization originated in the area, with the establishment of the first cities and complex forms of social organization and economic activity. Significant developments during this period include the invention of writing, long-distance communication, trade networks, and the first empires. Sophisticated art and literature began and flourished concurrently with remarkable intellectual, spiritual, and scientific advances.

While Mesopotomia addresses numerous benchmarks of the society's social and technological developments, including the Agricultural Revolution and the development of village economies, its main focus is on the emergence of cities and states in ancient Sumer (4000-2000 BCE), the Assyrian World Empire (1000-600 BCE), and the rise and fall of Babylon (600-540 BCE).


During the third millennium BCE, southern Mesopotamia consisted of two main regions--Sumer, in the far south, and Akkad to the north. A common culture of shared beliefs and artistic traditions united southern Mesopotamia for much of the period between 3000 and 2000 BCE. One of the most significant advancements taking place in Mesopotamia was the emergence of the city. While large towns had evolved before 3500 BCE, there was a massive change in scale around this time. The largest city was Uruk, and by about 2600 BCE it displayed the elements of the period's important centres: administrative buildings, residential areas, streets, canals, and, the most visible feature, cultic high terraces with temples. True writing began in Mesopotamia, with the earliest script found on clay tablets excavated in the cities of Uruk and Susa dating to about 3300 BCE. These cuneiform tablets provided important administrative information, such as the tracking of quantities of malt and barley or oxen.

From 1922 to 1934, British archaeologist C. Leonard Woolley directed excavations at Ur on behalf of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum. This city was inhabited from about 6000 BCE until the fourth century BCE and was an important political, religious, and economic centre. For a time, Ur was the capital of a state that dominated most of Mesopotamia. Some of the most spectacular discoveries were found in the Royal Cemetery, dating to the Early Dynastic Period (2600-2300 BCE). Predating the Tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt by more than a thousand years, 16 graves were identified as "Royal Tombs" due to their construction, the abundance of grave goods, and the bodies of numerous soldiers, servants, and palace ladies who willingly (or, perhaps, unwillingly) followed their masters or mistresses into their afterlives. The jewelry and other objects worn by the women--including elaborate headdresses, necklaces, and bracelets made of lapis lazuli, gold, and carnelian--are among the exhibition's highlights.

Other notable artifacts displayed in this section, exclusively seen in the ROM's engagement, include two objects from the Royal Cemetery: the magnificent "Ram in the Thicket," a delicate figure comprised of silver, gold foil, lapis lazuli, and shell, and the massive "Great Lyre," featuring a gold-plated bull's head and inlays of precious materials.


Named for the ancient city of Ashur, Assyria was located in northern Mesopotamia on the Tigris River. For many centuries, Ashur was little more than a city-state. After 1350 BCE, however, Assyria emerged as a political and military power, becoming the dominant world power during the Neo-Assyrian period (1000-612 BCE). At its height (about 660 BCE), this empire controlled an area covering what is now Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and parts of Iran and Turkey. Several of its kings founded the new capitals at Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Nineveh. In his religious role, the king was the people's direct mediator to the great gods of Assyria, while politically he was head of the state and the military. One of the most famous Assyrian kings was Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE), represented in the exhibition by a statue made of magnesite. This figure is a rare surviving example of Assyrian sculpture in the round. Other kings represented include Tiglath-Pileser III (744-727 BCE), Sargon II (721-705 BCE), Sennacherib (704-681 BCE), and Ashurbanipal (669-627 BCE).

Assyrian cities were dominated by large palaces adorned with elaborately carved stone reliefs. Artifacts from Nimrud and Nineveh's most famed palaces dominate this section.

Some of the reliefs' scenes recount military achievements, deportations, and the punishment of rebels, while others show cultic performances involving the king. By highlighting the king's achievements, these scenes also convey strong ideological messages: submitting to Assyria's throne brings peace and prosperity, while rebellion results in defeat and annihilation.


Babylon was located on the Euphrates River in what is now central Iraq. First referenced in cuneiform texts in the third millennium BCE, the city rose to prominence after 2000 BCE and controlled most of Mesopotamia by 1755 BCE. The armies of King Hammurapi--Babylon's most famous ruler, who reigned from 1792-1750 BCE--united southern and central Mesopotamia under Babylonian rule. Hammurapi is best known for the collection of a set of laws named after him (Codex Hammurapi).


A look at the devastation wrought by years of nationwide looting during the war in Iraq, particularly the 2003 plunder of Baghdad's Iraq Museum and the catastrophic impact on Iraq's archaeological and cultural heritage, is included in the exhibition. For Dr Clemens Reichel, who coordinated the documentation of these losses in the Iraq Museum Database Project at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, this presentation evokes many poignant memories. He says, "Those were among the worst days of my life. Mesopotamia, our 'cradle of civilization,' had been trampled upon and, in some extreme cases, destroyed."

Since its discovery at Nineveh in the 1850s, this lion has been acclaimed as a masterpiece of ancient art. The scene was not intended to evoke pity--the killing of a lion was a cause for celebration and a reflection of the prowess of the king.
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Title Annotation:Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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