Ashurbanipal at the British Museum

“I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria” proclaims the subject of the British Museum’s current major exhibition, whom the stunningly-lit first object in the display shows in the middle of a lion hunt:

2019-01-12 15.46.27 copy.jpg
Stone relief showing Ashurbanipal hunting lions

The way Assyrian kings in general, and Ashurbanipal (reigned 669–c. 631 BCE) in particular, portrayed themselves in reliefs like this is a major theme of the exhibition, which juxtaposes objects with quotations from texts composed by Ashurbanipal describing his many virtues (sample, detailing his scholarly accomplishments: “I can resolve complex mathematical divisions and multiplications that do not have an easy solution. I have read cunningly written texts in obscure Sumerian and Akkadian that are difficult to interpret.” I can’t help but be reminded of the Modern Major General). The many stone reliefs are all beautifully lit and the curators have obviously put a lot of thought into making them easier to interpret – there are signs illustrating what’s depicted in each section (even if these were often hard to see since there were too many people trying to look at the reliefs) and some of the more complicated battle scenes have light projections picking out the successive episodes in the narrative. These projections are also used to great effect on a couple of reliefs to reconstruct what may have been the original colours, since, like Greek and Roman marble statues (which I’ve written about before, here and here), at least some of these reliefs would originally have been painted:

In general I thought the exhibition did a really good job of displaying these reliefs and other objects, mostly from the BM’s own collections and originating from Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh. I also really liked the section demonstrating the extent and diversity of the areas the Assyrians controlled or were in contact/traded with, from the Persian Gulf to Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean – the series of small cases managed to very effectively convey the diversity of different cultures and the interactions between them. Two particular favourites: these clay statues from Cyprus and a Luwian Hieroglyphic inscription:


Also, to keep the epigraphers happy, there was a WHOLE WALL of cuneiform tablets (as well as plenty more at eye-level!):

2019-01-12 16.08.24.jpg

I’d highly recommend this exhibition – lots of wonderful and well-displayed artefacts, though you’ll need to be prepared to queue a little to get a proper view of a lot of them (this exhibition was much better in this respect than previous ones I’ve been to in the BM’s [relatively] new exhibition space, though). ‘Ashurbanipal’ is on till February 24th, so Assyrian fans shouldn’t miss out!

NB: tickets for this exhibition are pricey (full price £17) but there are various discounts available, plus some pretty good special offers: on Fridays you can get 2-for-1 student tickets (i.e. £7 each), and on Monday afternoons you can get £1 tickets for unemployed people and £8.50 tickets for seniors (details here).


Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s