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The BM once again has a big shiny history exhibition on, so me and my history nerd friends went along to see what we could see. On this occasion, the exhibition focuses on Ashurbanipal, the last significant king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (r. 669-631 BC), whose various building and bibliophilic efforts are responsible for a large part of the BM’s Assyrian collection and our knowledge of the Assyrian world generally. So, cue lots of friezes of the main man trampling his enemies, crushing their cities and killing lions left, right and centre, as well as assorted humanoid guardian spirits. Some of which are distinctly leonine. Basically, one of the key characteristics of being an Assyrian king seems to have been both slaughtering as many lions as humanly possible, as they represented the chaos of nature that the king sought to overcome as the bringer of divine order. But, also being like a lion was a distinct advantage, as they were really good at killing their enemies. Something of a fundamental disconnect there. The other important attribute of an Assyrian king was to be ridiculously hirsute. The more hair on your head and face, the better. This isn’t just a cloud of hair – the beard and hair are all nicely curled and maintained – but you do want a lot of it. The only people in the friezes without facial hair are eunuchs or tricksy foreigners, and you wouldn’t want to be either of those, would you?
But, anyway, back to the exhibition. The friezes were very good – I’d forgotten how naturalistic the Assyrians were in their art. You could see all the muscles on the men and lions. There was also a good section on the other lesser-known kingdoms that surrounded Assyria – I, for one, hadn’t realised we had so much material from Urartu, one of the major neighbouring powers located in south-east Anatolia/north-west Iran that I’ve only ever read about as a fringe entity in various books – which did a good job putting Assyria in context as the dominant force in a region full of competing powers. And you got a good sense of the style of Assyrian kingship and of Ashurbanipal himself, which was a big tick. The length was also good – the exhibition stopped just at the point where you were starting to feel as if your brain were about to explode from information overload – and there was a useful pop-culture section at the end which put the growth of interest in Assyria in context over the last few centuries.
The presentation of many of the friezes was also very good – several had projectors rigged up in front of them to recreate them in their original colours and to highlight particularly notable events. Because, with the bigger ones, there is a lot going on, mainly revolving around foreigners being massacred, so having it pointed out who the kings are, what that guy’s actually doing as he’s screaming, etc., is quite useful. And the colours really are very striking.
The other thing there is a lot of is, unsurprisingly, cuneiform tablets. All of which seem to be written in size 6 font. Anyone who could read and write in Assyria was clearly incredibly myopic. Again, these don’t get too repetitive – it’s interesting to see the different shapes and sizes of all the tablets – and, again, each display makes a point, so it’s not just space filling.
But, really, as with the Scythians, the last BM ancient history exhibition, it’s all about the hats. These are really the key discriminator of people in the friezes and go to strengthen my theory that all of ancient history can be explained by hats. If you’ve got a pointy conical hat, you’re an Assyrian cavalryman; if you’ve got a fairly unremarkable hat, you’re just a normal Assyrian; if you’ve got a hat that looks like a city wall, you’re a woman, probably an Assyrian queen; if you’ve got a silly headband, you’re some sort of tricksy foreigner, such as an Elamite archer, and are probably getting brutally slain by someone with a hat; if you’ve got a weird, bulbous hat, you’re an Elamite king, and are probably equally being chopped up by a behatted adversary; if you’ve got a hat that looks like a fish tail, you’re a priest; and if you’ve got horns on your hat or tassels on your kilt, you’re a god. The Assyrian kings, themselves, are not, surprisingly, massively over-hatted, but are usually clearly delineated by being in a chariot and being twice as large as anyone else.
So yeah, hats. Make sure you wear the right one.
After the exhibition, we retired for lunch and came up with two totally brilliant historical theories:
- Dark energy caused the Dark Ages
- Failure of Celtic symbolic food leading to English hegemony
The first was the result of us trying to find something that we could all co-author a paper on and posits that the collapse of the Western Roman Empire that led to the so-called Dark Ages was the result of the expansion of spacetime at a rate greater than the empire could build roads or recruit additional troops to police its ever-expanding borders. It may also be true that the barbarian tribes were actually particles of dark matter, which was why they seemed to get through all the Roman border defences without any real issue, as they didn’t interact with normal matter. We feel this is a revolutionary multidisciplinary breakthrough, finally marrying the long-sundered subjects of Late Antique history and astrophysics. We await our Nobel prizes.
The second came from one of my friends saying they’d been to a talk on the miracles of minor Welsh saints where one of the miraculous occurrences was a saint going down to a river where some people were washing some butter. The saint wanted a drink, but was told there were no cups, so, entirely miraculously, he fashioned the butter into a cup and used it to drink. The miraculous butter is apparently miraculously preserved in a church in Wales. Except of course, it all melted in the famously hot summer of 1272, allowing Edward I to invade. Something similar happened in Scotland, where, when someone ate the Scoone of Stone, English hegemony was assured. In Ireland, complete English domination will begin when the Guinness factory shuts down. There are absolutely no problems with this theory whatsoever, and we likewise feel this is a persuasive new take on British history.
It was a very silly lunch. There was one further adventure: the trains back to Cambridge were all cancelled owing to a variety of problems, meaning we ended up stuck in Letchworth for about two hours. Fortunately, we’d brought appropriate hats for the cold.
The moral of this post is: always know where your hat is.
 Ashurbanipal was always very keen to stress his scholarly credentials and is usually depicted in friezes carrying a stylus or reed pen to symbolise his learning. He then went and put together the world’s first systematically collected and catalogued library, greatly expanding the collection of his father, Esarhaddon, and his grandfather, Sennacherib. Basically, he was a right nerd.
 The best bit about the staged lion hunts the king performed every so often is that the way the lions were released from their cage into the hunting arena was by having a child encased in a smaller cage on top lifting up the gate to the lion cage. It’s just a really odd detail on the friezes. Also, how traumatised was that child going to turn out to be?
 And there were a lot of friezes. One of the strong points of the exhibition was that, despite this, I didn’t feel that it got samey – each frieze was chosen to illustrate a particular point, rather than just there to fill some space.
 In one of the friezes, the Elamite king loses his hat midway through a battle, which is presented as almost as bad for him as the next scene, where he’s being decapitated. Though he had managed to retrieve his hat in the meantime. Hats mattered.
 It’s stories such as this that make you think there maybe wasn’t much going on in parts of medieval Wales, or that the Welsh were just so generally oppressed that anything vaguely inspiring that happened got a bit over-egged. Or, in this case, over-creamed, perhaps.