Video: Art and archaeology at the Museum of Fine Arts

g1a911d73b233fdab733bfe4a5828ab677bfb535af45d9c1.jpgBy Chris Bergeron
GateHouse News Service

BOSTON — Defending their desert home north of the Tigris River, bearded warriors attack invaders’ armored vehicles, beheading the alien king and slaughtering his troops with murderous ferocity.

The first “surge” of 635 B.C. launched by King Ashurbanipal? Outtakes from “Generation Kill”? A foreign policy conundrum for presidential candidates?

Journey 26 centuries back to ancient Assyria at the Museum of Fine Arts, where history repeats itself with gorgeous brutality.

A visually stunning new exhibit, “Art and Empire” sweeps visitors into magnificent palaces, royal hunts and bloody battlefields of fabled Mesopotamian kingdoms, warring once again in present-day Iraq.g1a916299ed640a1c82fcbcee194dc19afe8b1f739007421.jpg

Subtitled “Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum,” it brings to the MFA 250 rare objects from the largest collection of its kind outside of Iraq.

Most spectacular of all are 30 stone reliefs from palaces that glorify, through remarkable skill, the accomplishments of kings as builders, hunters and warriors.

This exhibit’s greatest strength is its ability to transport visitors into the glories of long-vanished kingdoms that live on only in the distant memories of their people.

Passing through the MFA’s high-ceilinged galleries, visitors might sense the ancient viewers’ awe upon first seeing a towering statue of their king, a leering stone demon or the sphinx’s enigmatic smile.

Try to imagine how a commoner felt gazing upon reliefs depicting in remarkable, if exaggerated, detail the achievements of Ashurnasirpal II, the “great king, mighty king, king of the universe.”

The exhibit’s undisputed masterwork is a monumental limestone relief that records the carnage of the battle of Til-tuba in which King Ashurbanipal’s army routed the invading Elamites.

Carved within decades of the battle of 635 B.C., it portrays acts of savagery, courage and grim humor.g17a190279b4cbde7837fe8830420faaf1a191f11c822de1.jpg

J.E. Curtis, Keeper of the Middle East Department of the British Museum who organized the exhibit, said he believed Assyrian viewers knew how to follow the reliefs’ non-linear narratives better than contemporary viewers who lose their way looking for sequential connections. In almost all cases, he said, the reliefs represent a kind of ancient “propaganda” only showing kings performing three emblematic tasks: building public works, killing a lion or bull, or leading his army to victory.

Like Mayan murals, these carvings present a distinctive picture of royal Assyrian life that is both cruel and magnificent. Sculpted with a comic book logic instead of a sequential narrative, reliefs are full of historical kings leading anonymous charioteers, spearmen and archers, enacting mortal dramas of vanity, courage and death.

Combining the grandiose with the mundane, “Art and Empire” brings alive a complex culture and, by implication, its contemporary counterpart that still bedevils the Western imagination.

It includes revealing objects of everyday life such as bronze door stops, lion-shaped weights for measuring grain and a 58-hole board game like cribbage.

However distant Assyrians might seen to contemporary viewers, there comes a moment of human recognition upon seeing a miniature ceramic guard dog found in a home inscribed with the command, “Don’t think, bite.”

MFA curator Lawrence M. Berman said the exhibit “Presents a total picture of Assyrian civilization that helps recapture its mystery and awe.”

“The reliefs from Nineveh and Nimrud are a visual encyclopedia of ancient Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of civilization,” he said.

Viewing artifacts from this remote place and time, visitors can sense the grandeur of kings and the fear of soldiers escaping enemy archers by swimming across a river using inflated animal skins.

There are bronze cups from which nobles drank wine before the Old Testament was written and a letter carved in clay by a court astronomer warning the king that a total eclipse of the moon, observed on what’s now known to be April 21, 667 B.C., should be treated as a bad omen.

This show carries visitors to cities of Nimrud, Babylon and Nineveh from between 934 B.C. and 631 B.C. where Biblical history and archaeology mingle in realms of mythology. It is organized thematically in several sections titled “King and his Court”; “Palaces and Temples”; “Assyria at War”; “Assyria Revealed”; “Administration and Culture”; “Magic and Religion”; and “The King in Recreation.”

While offering objects of scholarly importance, this show encourages visitors to follow their imaginations down palace corridors to glimpse life in the royal chambers of civilization’s cradle.

Opening the show, museum Director Malcolm Rogers said “Art and Empire” represents two significant first-time events. “It is the first major exhibit of near-Eastern art (at the museum) since 1865. It literally transports us back to that era. It is also our first major collaboration with the British Museum. We hope it leads to many more,” he said.

Rogers said the “spectacular collection also gives visitors the opportunity to explore the power, majesty and sophistication of an ancient civilization that was little understood until it was rediscovered by archaeologists less than two centuries ago.”

Whether by design or accident, this traveling exhibit casts a haunting light on the present quagmire in Iraq where leaders with grandiose ambitions send troops against one another.

The exhibit treads very lightly on this notion to the point of ignoring any parallels between the imperial grandiosity of ancient Assyria and the continuing clash of civilizations.

Leading an opening day tour, Berman stopped by the relief depicting the “pandemonium and confusion” of the battle of Til-tuba which he compared to a “modern IMAX screen.”

He spoke of the “interwoven narrative” carved by unknown artisans who depicted the death and decapitation of the king, the clubbing of his loyal son and a wounded enemy soldier pleading for a quick death.


“It’s like a real chaotic battle,” said Berman, “but there’s so many individual dramas going on.”

While reluctant to draw parallels between ancient and modern times, Berman said contemporary leaders could learn much about the human cost of war by viewing the exhibit.

“People in positions of power can influence history,” he said. “People can learn from the past.”


Admission to “Art and Empire,” which includes general admission and return to the MFA’s collection within 10 days, is by ticket only for a reserved date and time of entry at half-hour intervals. Although same-day tickets will be sold when available, advance reservations are recommended to ensure admission.g13b1900eac5dea8b54a6ee40e53a46be2cfda27ce838ce1.jpg

Tickets can be purchased at the MFA box office, on the Web at or by phone at 800-440-6975. Prices are: adults, $25; seniors and students, $23; children 7 to 17, $9.50; children under 7 are admitted free.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is open seven days a week. Hours: Saturday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. (Thursday and Friday after 5 p.m. only the West Wing is open).

General admission (which includes two visits in a 10-day period) is $17 for adults; $15 for seniors and students 18 and older. Admission for students who are university members is free as is admission for children under 17 during non-school hours.

A 224-page color book written by J.E. Curtis will accompany the exhibit. It is available in soft cover for $39.95 at the MFA bookstore.

The MFA is offering several courses, events and activities in conjunction with this exhibit. For information, call 800-440-6975.

The MFA is launching a new initiative, “The Quest,” a mobile scavenger hunt for families and explorers of all ages. By using text-messaging on a cell phone and a mobile Web browser or home computer, participants will discover ancient artifacts, magical beings, noble kings and wild animals. To join “The Quest,” text ASSYRIA to 839-863 on your mobile phone; go to on your mobile Web browser and enter your mobile number; or on your home computer go to and enter your mobile number.

For more information, call 617-267-9300 or visit