This article originally appeared in print in Kill Your Darlings Issue 11, October 2012. For more great articles like this one subscribe today!

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Stela of Ashurbanipal Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

After reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, I became intrigued with the ‘Fertile Crescent’ region in what used to be called Mesopotamia (now Iraq). As a global nerve centre of agriculture, science and written technology – as well as the scene of the Tower of Babel, the Jewish Captivity and other Biblical events – Ancient Mesopotamia’s intellectual and cultural clout is deeply fascinating.

Given the small area’s massive influence, it is appropriate that the Melbourne Museum’s Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia, exhibiting until 7 October, dramatises the region in a seamless narrative of escalating technological and moral progress. Projected on one wall of the opening room is a video timeline featuring a series of ‘capsules’, each of which move back through time to reveal the Mesopotamian origins of a now-indispensable idea or invention. Writing, engineering, agriculture, and monumental architecture are included, as is science. While it is no longer fashionable to call Mesopotamia the ‘cradle of civilisation’, the curators nevertheless attempted to convey the region’s vast influence on many aspects of modern life.

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The term ‘Mesopotamian’ refers to the various peoples who inhabited the coveted piece of land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers over a period of several thousand years. The story begins with the ancient division of Mesopotamia into Akkad in the north and Sumeria in the south. While villages and domesticated animals were present in fertile Akkad by c.6500bc, canals had to be built to regulate and capture all the available water in comparatively parched Sumeria. In this classic case of the ‘paradox of plenty’, the Sumerians’ mechanical inventiveness may have been a necessary response to the environment’s unrelenting harshness.

The Sumerians’ most important legacy is cuneiform script, created by scratching symbols with a reed into soft clay. While the Sumerians were not the first people to write things down, they elevated writing into a central tool of administration.

Mesopotamia vividly charts the transformation of early Sumerian pictographs (similar to early Egyptian hieroglyphs) into highly efficient cuneiform, with the exhibition’s many marvellously preserved examples of cuneiform script providing a window into the minutiae of this distant society. Viewing these beautiful, crisply inscribed letters made me think about our modern disconnection from the act of writing. Our current system offers massive speed and storage advantages, but I still found myself lamenting the ‘MS Wordification’ of writing, which has permanently severed many modern people’s physical connection with the written word.

By juxtaposing disparate examples of cuneiform tablets, the curators provide a sense of writing’s growing importance in Sumerians’ everyday lives. A warehouse’s beer inventory is displayed next to another small tablet, neatly inscribed with several lines of poetry by a diligent schoolboy. Visiting students are asked the poignant question: ‘Will anyone be reading your homework in 5000 years?’ In our age, where data formats can become obsolete after a decade or so, the answer is surely no. Mesopotamia, then, subtly reminds us that we are in danger of being permanently silenced by the fragility of our electronic media. Looking at these pristine inscriptions, I wondered: Besides our cutlery, will there be anything left of us for future archaeologists to sift through?

In addition to their beauty, many of the Sumerian artworks reveal artisans’ sense of humour and fondness for their subjects. The dignified lines of the Copper Alloy Bull’s Head (c.2800bc), for example, hint at the artist’s reverence for the cattle on which Sumerian civilisation relied. The Limestone Votive Statue of a Woman (c.2500bc) sports a knowing, even mischievous smile. Reverence and solemnity may have set the dominant tone of early Sumerian art, but these rare glimpses of mirth and whimsy help to humanise the artists behind these artworks.

Many of Mesopotamia’s other Sumerian artefacts are marvels of ingenuity and detailed craftsmanship. The intricate cylindrical seals, often depicting sacred or erotic encounters between gods, animals and humans, have been carved to produce a continuous horizontal strip of images when rolled onto wet clay or hot wax. (Some of the Sumerian propaganda, though, has weathered less well: I doubt whether the Copper Alloy Foundation Figure (c.2097–2080bc), which depicts the king straining under a basket of building materials, would have convinced many subjects of the royal family’s love of honest toil.)

The exhibition’s stunning collection of Sumerian jewellery features bold visual motifs and bright palettes of reds and blues, which seem to have strongly influenced the Art Deco movement. The Sumerian Headdress with Carnelian and Lapis Lazuli Beads with Gold Leaves (c.2600–2500bc) could easily have graced the forehead of a 1920s flapper.

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After this gentle introduction to Sumerian taste, inventiveness and wisdom, the gradual encroachment of artefacts of violence and conquest comes as a bit of a shock. The Akkadian north took over the south around 2770bc, and the increased focus on violence after this point in the exhibition is palpable. While only represented photographically, the Standard of Ur (c.2600–2400bc) provides a revealing picture of this ancient city’s army, in which ‘Chariots, pulled by donkeys, trample naked enemies’. As the haunting, wide-open eyes of the dead captives suggest, Sumerians were no strangers to the horrors of war.

The Akkadian takeover also resulted in an increased emphasis on the royal family. For a textbook example of how to create an iconic image of patriarchal authority, look no further than the Bronze Head of Akkadian King Naram-Sin (c.2254–2218bc), whose full beard, impassive expression and erect posture exudes the distilled essence of power. Yet the statue’s battered state is also a stark reminder of the limits of individual authority – found with ‘the ears and beard cut, the nose battered and one eye gouged out’, the statue’s desecration suggests a symbolic act of revenge. Under the Akkadians, Ancient Sumeria wasn’t all sweetness and light.

Enter the Assyrians (c.2000–631bc), who stride onto the Sumerian stage like a bunch of axe-wielding madmen (which indeed they were). Famed for literally putting the sword to comforting illusions of progress, the Assyrians – or their leaders, at least – portrayed themselves as blood-hungry psychopaths who relished killing, maiming and torturing. It’s easy to believe this. Sentimental Sumerian pretentions to education and enlightenment seem to have had no place in the Assyrian mindset, which instead held violence and mayhem in esteem.

Hammurabi (c.1792–1750bc), author of the famous legal code which contains the precursor of the Old Testament’s ‘eye for an eye’, seems at first to provide a welcome contrast to the slew of appalling kings that follow him. (A marvellous full-size replica of the code of Hammurabi (c.1772bc), shaped like a gigantic upward-pointing index finger, was on display.) Yet the same Hammurabi who oversaw the creation of the period’s most advanced written legal system is described on one of his own statues as ‘the King, the mighty warrior, the exterminator of foes, the flood of battles, the demolisher of the enemy’s land’.

Despite all the high-minded words about justice, things went on pretty much as usual. In this respect, the emotional distance between us and the ancient Mesopotamians seems comforting: today’s governments might commit crimes, but their actions must be couched in benign rhetoric if they are to be made acceptable to a sceptical populace. By depicting the unapologetic brutality of civilisations without such qualms, Mesopotamia may provide us with a more hopeful view of our own times.

But to grasp the full extent of Assyrian psychopathy, it is essential to grapple with the massive, artistically brilliant and graphic Assyrian friezes. Although they were obviously designed to bathe each royal victory in the most flattering light, they contain scenes of unsurpassable brutality. These must be seen with your own eyes, as photographs completely efface these works’ aesthetic greatness. They are brought to terrifying life here, beautifully lit in stark chiaroscuro.

The massive limestone frieze of the Battle of Til-Tuba (c.660–550bc) is the exhibition’s disturbing centrepiece. The bloody rout of the Elamites is expressed in a sickening montage of broken and twisted bodies, which are trampled by rampaging Assyrian warriors. The writhing, chaotic mass of victims is delicately contrasted with the long diagonal shafts of Assyrian swords and arrows. The Assyrian army’s unremitting brutality is obviously a source of pride – to one side we learn of how ‘a wounded Elamite begs an Assyrian soldier to cut off his head’. No detail of the carnage is withheld, and the Elamite King Teumann’s farcical attempts to escape are rendered with savage relish – and perhaps some sick humour. Coen Brothers, take note.

The frieze King Ashurbanipal Reposing with His Queen (c.669–626bc) forms a kind of grim companion piece to the gargantuan Battle of Til-Tuba. At first glance, the couple’s smiling faces suggest a chat over toast and marmalade – but it’s easy to overlook a small detail: ‘The head of Teumnan, King of Elam, is hanging in the tree on the far left behind the Queen.’ Don’t trifle with a man who uses his oldest enemy’s severed head as a garden ornament.

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Mesopotamia’s accompanying animations, which unfold in an unusually jerky stop-motion style, bring the actions depicted on several friezes vividly to life. One of these depicts a group of soldiers crossing a river on inflated animal skins to assault a fort (c.860bc). The animations could have looked tacky in the wrong hands, but the soldiers’ stilted, lumbering movements perfectly convey this scene’s utter strangeness.

The Assyrians were not completely immune to compassion, which they extended most evidently towards animals. Most famously, the Dying Lion (c.645–640bc) depicts this majestic beast’s death with searing accuracy. (In Assyrian times, lions were initially prevalent enough to threaten agricultural output.) As the caption points out, this artwork provides a ‘faithful representation of the lion’s pain and suffering’.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire (c.626–539bc) will be familiar to many from the Old Testament, where Babylon served as a symbol of decadence and hubris. Nebuchadnezzar II (c.634–562bc) took the Jews into captivity, and the Tower of Babel described in Genesis has been identified as the Great Ziggurat of Mesopotamia. Yet despite early Judaism’s loathing of the city for its alleged depravity, Mesopotamia also takes pains to illustrate this final Babylonian Empire’s artistic brilliance. The distinctive glazed blue brick style used on the city’s monumental Ishtar Gate, for example, is still widely used in ceramics and pottery. Modern perceptions of late Babylon have been deeply coloured by Biblical accounts, making it difficult to see the city on its own terms. Mesopotamia dramatises the city’s highlights during its final efflorescence before the Persian conquest.

After these rich displays of Sumerian inventiveness, Assyrian might and Babylonian beauty, the exhibition ends on a pensive note. Just before the exit stands Mesopotamia’s most enduring legacy – a small stone inscribed with a student’s 60 times tables, representing the base-60 numbering system on which our modern hour is based.

In its willingness to engage with the complexity of ancient cultures, The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia raises deep questions about the tangled roots of modern life.

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