Edge of Empire: Archaeology on the Assyrian Frontier

Lecture transcript

Dr Andrew Jamieson, 20 September 2012

Adrienne Leith:  Good evening, everybody, and welcome to this evening's lecture, co‑hosted by the University of Melbourne and Museum Victoria as part of "The Wonders of Ancient Mesopotamia" exhibition, which features over 170 exquisite ivories, jewellery, and other objects from the British Museum.

Tonight's lecture, called "On the Edge of Empire ‑ Archeology on the Assyrian Frontier," will be presented by someone you might have met before. That's Dr. Andrew Jamieson. Dr. Jamieson is a lecturer and the curator of classics and archeology at the University of Melbourne.

His extensive archaeological field experience includes works on sites in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Australia. His research interests include the archaeology of the Near East and Egypt. He specializes in the study of ancient ceramics and archaeological artifact collections. Please, join me in welcoming Dr. Andrew Jamieson to the stage.

Dr. Andrew Jamieson:  Ladies and gentlemen, good evening. Welcome back. Adrienne, thank you for that kind introduction. I am delighted to be here this evening giving this final lecture, in the series on ancient Mesopotamia. You probably know, the exhibition finishes on the seventh of October. If you haven't yet been to seen it, I encourage you to go. For over a decade, archaeologists from the University of Melbourne excavated an important Neo Assyrian site at Tell Ahmar, on the east bank of the Euphrates River in Northern Syria, close to the modern border with Turkey.

The Assyrian King Shalmaneser the Third, conquered Tell Ahmar in 856, and transformed it into an Assyrian royal city. Renaming it Kar‑Shalmaneser, the harbor or gate of Shalmaneser. Many of the features of this important outpost are dominated by Assyrian cultural traditions. Town planning, fortifications, defenses, palace architecture, sculpture and other luxury products reflect strong cultural influences from the Assyrian homeland.

Now this strategy of conquest was intended to legitimize Assyrian control of the conquered land. However, the pattern of cultural domination and assimilation, I suggest, should not be viewed as a one‑way process. In tonight's lecture, I will examine Tell Ahmar, a Neo Assyrian colony on the edge of the empire by looking at the archaeology of the Assyrian frontier. I hope to demonstrate, to show you that a more nuanced approach is required in understanding a serious relationship with its western periphery and the related processes of colonization, legitimization and acculturation.

During the Mesopotamian Iron Age, that is from about 1,000 to 600 B.C., the Assyrian Empire was the greatest power the world had yet known. For much of this period Assyria dominated the entire near east, from the Zagros Mountains in modern Iran to the eastern Mediterranean and from the Taurus ranges in southern Turkey to the Persian Gulf.

Assyria's historical importance lies in the fact that the Assyrian state represented an entirely new level of political development. The Assyrians were the first true empire builders. It was upon their legacy that later empires, such as those of the Persians, Greeks and Romans were modelled. The conditions that brought about the rise of Assyria and Assyria imperialism are far from clear.

The political crisis that marked the end of the second millennium, the late Bronze Age, paved the way for Assyria's rise to power. But the impetus behind Assyria's ascent must be seen as a very complex web of interrelated political, economic, and social factors. Between about 1200 and 900 B.C., a Dark Age descends and covers the Near East, including Egypt and the Nile Valley and parts of Mediterranean world. The region did not become deserted, but there was clearly a mass movement of people from a settled urban way of life to a more nomadic existence.

There can be little doubt that the Near East was in recession. It's been suggested that this decline was triggered by environmental factors - climate change. It's thought that drought, famine brought on by changes in the weather and natural calamities reduced the agricultural yields and produced the political instability encouraging the mass movement of these people.

It's also widely conceded that this movement of people, the sea peoples, as they are often referred to, contributed to the upheaval and caused severe disruptions in trade, especially the trade in metals. Shortages in things like copper and particularly tin made it impossible to produce bronze. Confronted with these shortages, the metalsmiths of the late second millennium needed to find an alternative source of metal, and they started using iron.

The events which coincide with the end of the Bronze Age stimulated a very, very significant technological development known to us archaeologists as the Iron Age. The demise of the Hittite kingdom in central Anatolia, the collapse of the 20th Dynasty in Egypt, left no strong power to dominate. Assyria, although weakened, survived these turbulent events at the end of the second millennium, more or less intact.

Why? The strategic location of Assyria. The Assyrian homeland in northern Mesopotamia. The conditions here are suitable for dry farming, unlike the irrigation practices needed in the south.

The Zagros and Taurus mountain ranges formed a natural buffer protecting Assyria's eastern and northern frontiers. With Babylonia located in the south, it was only natural that the Assyrians would look to the west in the expansion towards the Mediterranean of their empire. The history of Assyria may be conveniently divided into three broad periods, the old, the middle, and the new.

In tonight's lecture, we're focusing on the historical developments of the Neo‑Assyrian period in the first millennium. It was during the Neo‑Assyrian period that the Assyrian empire expanded westward and reached its maximum extent. The texts from the Neo‑Assyrian period are extremely detailed, and from about 900 onwards, we have a series of records known as the Assyrian Royal Annals describing the relentless, annual campaigns of the successive Neo‑Assyrian kings.

Each new reign extended Assyrian influence far beyond the traditional homeland of Assyria. The seven most famous Neo‑Assyrian kings are of course Ashurnasirpal, who figures prominently next door in the exhibition, Shalmaneser III, or the third, a very important figure because of his relationship to Tell Ahmar we'll be talking about shortly, Tiglath‑Pileser, Sargon, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon and of course Ashurbanipal.

The copious inscriptions left by this dynasty of rulers record particularly their military successes over their neighbors. Not surprisingly, these accounts are one‑sided, and often historically unreliable. Only Assyrian victories are recorded, while Assyrian defeats are never mentioned or claimed as victories.

For example, "peoples of the four regions of divergent speech, living in mountains and in flat lands through the might of my scepter I unified their languages. I dispatched Assyrians to them as overseers and commanders, competent to teach them good behavior. I built a city with the labor of the peoples of the lands, which my hands had captured, and I called it Dur‑Sharrukin, Khorsabad, 'the fortress of Sargon'."

This text, it gives us an idea about the Assyrian mentality. The Assyrian, Neo‑Assyrian imperial attitude of conquest as an act of introducing civilizing behavior, the use of deported labor in the construction of the empire's capital cities. Of course, the key Assyrian sites are all located in a triangle close to the Tigris in northern Mesopotamia, Ashur, Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Nineveh.

These different consecutive capitals of the Neo‑Assyrian Empire were large urban centers supporting teeming populations. They are all characterized by very, very distinctive attributes in Assyrian town planning, the use of inner and outer cities, fortifications and of course the impressive gateways that mark the entrance into the royal court. Ashur, we can see a large complex surrounded by a city wall enclosing the royal complex made up of palaces and temples, strategically located on the Tigris river.

Nimrud, another capital, again inner and outer cities, palace complexes, large urban centers. Nineveh, the "palace without rival", you can see heavily fortified, and again strategically located, with these defensive walls and crenellations, and Khorsabad, the capital of Sargon. Marked by many gates, flanked by the winged bulls or the "Lamasoo," protecting the entrance into the royal court.

At the center of the Assyrian city was the vast royal palace. The Neo‑Assyrian kings constructed a series of magnificent palaces. Each new king built his own palace. First Ashur, then later examples at Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Nineveh. An innovation of the Assyrian palaces was that the walls of the palace courtyards and the throne rooms were decorated with massive, elaborately‑carved stone reliefs.

The themes of the reliefs showed the king in the traditional Assyrian roles of monarch, high priest, warrior and hunter. These carved panels, and we see examples in the exhibition, introduce the first full use of historical narrative in the history of Mesopotamian art. These are masterpieces of near eastern artistic production.

The majority of depictions feature, of course, the Assyrian king, the Assyrian army on campaign in foreign lands, laying siege to enemies, accumulating and deporting foreign prisoners and booty, receiving tributaries, and engaging in royal hunting expeditions. The scenes on the reliefs actively promoted the power, the invincibility of the king and the Assyrian army.

More broadly, it can be asserted that the Assyrian annals, and the palace reliefs, served as integrated representations of Assyrian state ideology, and of the ideals of the Assyrian Empire. Without doubt, some of the finest examples of Assyrian sculpture are Ashurbanipal's palace reliefs, which include the much celebrated lion hunts. These reliefs, perhaps more than any others, represent the artistic accomplishments of the Neo‑Assyrian Empire.

In the accompanying inscriptions, in cuneiform text, we read, "I, Ashurbanipal, king of the universe, king of the land of Ashur. In my royal game, they let a fierce lion of the plain out of his cage. I pierced him many times, but he did not die. At the command of Nergal, king of the plain, who had granted me strength and manhood, I then stabbed him with the iron dagger from my belt, and he died."

Of course, we see here in Melbourne depictions of these royal hunting scenes, the Assyrian king single handedly combating and defeating those wild forces of nature. Ideologically, the Assyrians portrayed the frontier of their empire as the boundary between the civilized world, and its chaotic periphery. Between the inner realm of Ashur, and the chaotic, undefined outer lands of barbarians. To the Assyrians, those outer lands represented places to be conquered and civilized, and regions to be plundered and exploited.

Within the complex of Neo‑Assyrian political and imperialistic ideology, one of the themes that has the greatest importance is the representation of the non‑Assyrian, who is viewed as an alien, as an enemy, and of another reality. The Assyrians deliberately employed techniques to distinguish ethic identity. Scale, always smaller, physical characteristics, always exaggerated or deformed. Dress, or more importantly undress, always semi or, if not completely naked, and context, always seen in foreign, inhospitable lands.

It's not difficult to detect the non‑Assyrians in the Assyrian reliefs. Many are shown meeting dreadful fates, ranging from capture to horrific mutilation, beheading and flailing. The iconography, gesture, and composition that these images communicate are one of Assyrian supremacy.

The numerous wars of conquest beyond the immediate frontiers of the empire enriched the Assyrian state enormously. The confiscated items were amassed in great quantities and kept in specially designed storehouses, back at the Assyrian capitals. The annals record that furniture was particularly prized by the Assyrian court.

The wooden chairs, tables and footrests of the palace of Assyria have all perished and it is mostly from the sculpted reliefs that give us any idea of these items. Often, all that remain of the furniture are the ivory inlays which originally decorated the wooden furnishings. The Assyrian annals describe in great detail how ivory was acquired by the Assyrian kings.

Many of the cities along the Eastern Mediterranean had their own schools of ivory carving. Examples of the different styles can be easily detected. They range from those closely related to the art of Egypt, known as Phoenician ivories, to powerful images like those carved on the stone monuments in the Aramaean and neo‑Hittite kingdoms, called Syrian ivories, as well as a distinctive Assyrian style.

One of the most abundant commodities from Assyria is pottery. By far, the finest pottery is the so‑called palace wares, consisting of eggshell thin‑walled bowls and beakers. Below the Assyrian palaces were vaulted tombs, family crypts like those examples discovered beneath the Northwest Palace at Nimrud. Whilst all the kings of Assyria were buried at Assur, the traditional capital, it seems as if the royal women, the wives, were buried here at Nimrud, Nineveh, and Khorsabad.

These tombs contained grave goods, including gold jewellery, and vessels of outstanding quality and workmanship. Wow. From this brief survey of the neo‑Assyrian period, it is possible to form a picture of the distinctive hallmarks of Assyrian culture. The annals and texts, palaces and palace reliefs, furniture, carved ivories, luxury goods, pottery, all reflect the distinctive material culture associated with the Neo‑Assyrian capitals.

For the most part, research on the Assyrian empire has concentrated on the Assyrian homeland. That is, the Assyrian capital cities. Until recently, few archaeological excavations have focused on the peripheral regions, the areas that were colonized by these Neo‑Assyrian kings. Tell Ahmar, indicated on this map, was excavated by the University of Melbourne, and is one such important Assyrian colony, located on the East bank of the Euphrates River in North Syria, strategically situated on the western frontier of the Assyrian empire.

In 856, Shalmaneser III set off from Assyria and captured Tell Ahmar. He turned it into an Assyrian province, renaming it the town Kar‑Shalmaneser, "harbor" or "gate" of Shalmaneser. From this time on, Tell Ahmar became a very important outpost of the Neo‑Assyrian Empire.

For 10 years, archaeologists from the University of Melbourne undertook salvage excavations at Tell Ahmar. The excavations were necessitated by the construction of one of several hydro‑electric dams that, in Syria and Turkey, have flooded vast plains on either side of the Euphrates River. Tell Ahmar is a large semi‑circular site, and consists of three main parts, at the center, the "Tell" or the acropolis, the middle city terrace, and a large, semi‑circular lower city.

To the East, Tell Ahmar overlooks the Euphrates. It was this strategic point on the river. Prior to the University of Melbourne resuming excavations, Tell Ahmar had been dug by a team of French archaeologists who had worked at the site from 1929 to 1931, led by a famous Assyriologist, François Thureau‑Dangin. They were sponsored by the Louvre.

The French were there specifically looking for texts, tablets, inscriptions, cuneiform. They didn't find any, which is probably why they gave up and left. What they did find was the original city gate, in the lower city, marked by two basalt lions, and on the Tell, which was the focus of their excavations, an Assyrian palace. Let's take a look, here's one of the two lions, now at the University of Aleppo in Syria, that mark the entrance into this royal city.

It was inscribed with a cuneiform inscription, which actually mentions the ancient name of Tell Ahmar, Til Barsip. On the Tell, the French found the Assyrian palace. Inside, frescoes, no reliefs, remember, we're in the frontier. This is a province, but in the style of the Assyrian capitals, the focus of course being the Assyrian king. Regrettably, no tablets, no inscriptions.

In 1988, the University of Melbourne went back to Tell Ahmar, threatened with destruction from flood waters, and recommenced excavations but because the French had worked at the city gate, and on the acropolis, we focused our attention in the middle and lower city, in an area known as Area C. Let's take a look.

Just below the surface, as soon as we sunk the trough. Wow! We hit pay dirt, in archaeological terms. There, a couple of inches, were the well‑preserved Neo Assyrian remains, constructed on virgin soil. This was incredibly exciting.

Houses, this is the Toorak of Tell Ahmar, if you like, a very elite area. As this aerial image, taken with kite photography demonstrates, you can see those regular square lines, which mark the archaeological trenches, and below that, the foundations, the footings of these houses. In fact, these houses were well preserved, even though made of mud brick. In some cases, preserved up to a height of two meters.

Archaeologically, this is unusual. This was incredibly exciting. The design, the layout, the floor plan, of these houses conforms to very well known Neo Assyrian house types. It was startling. Features included these wonderful black and white pebble checkerboard mosaics that were found in the internal courtyards of several of the Area C structures.

Nearby, subterranean tombs made of baked brick, with vaulted roofs. Very similar to those royal tombs discovered at Nimrud. Damn Plundered! Robbers hall, looted in antiquity. Those Persians beat us to it. Empty tomb, empty sarcophagus. Not even a bone fragment left inside. Nevertheless, the plan strongly imitates the Neo Assyrian design.

Nearby the tomb, what first looked like a random group of dark, grey‑coloured stones, turned out to be an Assyrian statue. This was unusual. A sculpture in the round normally only ever appears at the Assyrian capitals. The gesture, the costume of this figure suggests it's the Neo‑Assyrian governor of Tell Ahmar.

But notice his face has been erased, there's a hole stabbed in his heart, he has been vandalized. We know from the Assyrian reliefs that this was a near‑eastern practice. When a city was conquered, often the remains, the palaces were burned, the sculptures were destroyed.

One of the most important discoveries made by the University of Melbourne was an archive of cuneiform tablets. The French, they left too soon. They should have looked in Area C. This is what they'd come for, these inscriptions.

Again unusual, these are in the style of the Neo‑Assyrian tradition. One of them, this one here, T13, translated by Stephanie Daley, an Assyriologist from the University of Cambridge, identifies a figure called "Hani." He's possibly the owner of the house, the owner of the archive of tablets, a wealthy individual, a borrower of silver, the buyer of slaves, this tablet talks about the acquisition of a young slave girl.

An ivory, a significant corpus of carved, worked ivory also turned up in these houses in Area C. Again in that Phoenician or Egyptian style that we see in other fragments of floral and vegetable parmats that were used to inlay that wooden furniture. Perhaps the best example is this plaque that was found at Tell Ahmar that depicts a series of figures on their way to a banquet.

At the beginning we see a musician with a double flute and followed by other figures carrying pomegranates and fish. It's very similar to ivory that was found back in the Assyrian heartland at places like Nimrood, again, reinforcing this connection. From my point of view, what was terribly exciting was the quantity of pottery in situ, on the floors of these houses in Area C.

We were literally drowning in shards, so much that could be reconstructed. In fact, a wonderful corpus of many types, and whilst some of these could be locally made, others, such as the decorated example or fragment in the center, clearly comes from Cyprus. Trade up and down the Euphrates, towards the Eastern Mediterranean, was clearly flourishing during the Neo Assyrian Period and Tell Ahmar, on the edge of the empire, was playing a strategic role in the transmission and distribution of some of these goods.

We can see at Tell Ahmar, at the first glance, the picture that emerges based on the archaeological evidence is that it appears to represent a colony on the frontier of the Assyrian Empire, which was directly transplanted from the homeland. The town planning, palatial architecture, interior decoration, statues, tombs, carved ivories, ceramics, all find their closet parallels, if not exact comparisons with the Assyrian center. This suggests a strong process of acculturation, if not one of Assyrian cultural domination.

But, and this is the point, on closer examination it's apparent that some of these cultural forms may in fact have had their origin in the West and derive from Cyro‑Anatolian cultural traditions, which emerged in that region in the late Second Millennium and early First Millennium BC. Let's take a look. Assyrian interest in Tell Ahmar, on the east bank of the Euphrates, was a strategic one.

The Assyrians were motivated by Tell Ahmar's close proximity to the site of Carchemish, there on the border, the modern border of Syria and Turkey. Carchemish was a very important capital city of the Neo Hittite Empire. In one Assyrian text, from the time of Ashunarsipal, we find details of the tribute coming from Carchemish. "I crossed the Euphrates which was in flood in rafts made of inflated goat skins, and approached the land of Carchemish. I received tribute from Sangara, King of the land of Hatti.

20 talents of silver, a gold ring, a gold bracelet, gold daggers, 100 talents of bronze, 250 talents of iron, bronze cauldrons, beds of boxwood, thrones of boxwood, dishes of boxwood decorated with ivory, 200 adolescent girls. What do you do with 200 adolescent girls? Linen garments, purple wool, elephant tusks, a chariot of polished gold, a gold couch with inlay, objects befitting my royalty."

Such tribute lists boasting of the acquisition of raw material as well as valuable worked products are frequent in the campaign inscriptions of late Assyrian kings. Carchemish clearly was important but wealthy city. Carchemish, as many of you probably know, was excavated by the BM (the British Museum), between 1911 and 1914. Hogarth from the Ashmolean museum, Thompson and Woolley together with T.E. Lawrence, that is, Lawrence of Arabia, were there excavating at Carchemish.

Were they there watching the German engineers constructing the bridge across the Euphrates, building the Berlin to Baghdad railway? We could have another lecture about that, Andrew don't distracted. What the BM excavations uncovered were the substantial remains including the town defenses, the temples, palaces, and numerous basalt statues and reliefs with Hittite inscriptions. The chariot slabs found by Woolley and Lawrence at Carchemish provide a good comparison with the Assyrian representations for they have very many elements in common.

However, there are also some important differences. In the Hittite reliefs, there is no integration of the slabs to build a narrative like that that develops in the Neo Assyrian palace reliefs. This is a key point, that those reliefs in the exhibition next door figure prominently a narrative. Have you seen the animations? You can follow the story even if you can't read the cuneiform inscription. But, in these Hittite examples, that storytelling is not developed to such an extent.

The fact that Carchemish might have provided the stimulus for Neo Assyrian artistic activity is not surprising. As I've said, the wealth, the location, the power of this Neo Hittite state. Now whilst the mechanisms of transmission in the Carchemish iconography and compositions are complex to reconstruct, the origins of the physical form are more readily identifiable. Of course at Carchemish we find, like at Tell Ahmar lions and lion reliefs.

Initially, the Neo Hittite city of Carchemish, was a dependency of the Hittite kingdom and its culture derived from the Anatolian central Hittite capital Hattusa. The examples from Carchemish reflect influences from the traditional Hittite capital there in central Anatolia. In fact, the lion sculptures represent the clearest link between the Hittite and the Cyro‑Anatolian examples.

The lion sculptures of Carchemish with their rounded massive ears, gaping jaws, hanging tongues, and wrinkled noses are faithful copies of the lion gates at Hattusa. They show the same iconographic and stylistic details as the carvings from the Assyrian capital. The tradition of monumental stone sculpture and relief associated with the Neo Assyrian palaces therefore appears to have originated from a tradition associated with the Hittite empire on the Anatolian plateau.

The lion gate at Hattusa is certainly the ultimate model for the monumental guardian figures at the entrances to the Assyrian royal buildings and the relief slabs decorating their walls. Those Assyrian lamassu that we associate so strongly, so immediately with Assyria where an idea that originated from outside. The intermediary between them seems to have been the reliefs and the figures associated with those states such as Carchemish and Tell Ahmar.

It's clear that the Neo Assyrian kings were very consciously incorporating into their own building projects elements which evoked architectural forms from the west, from the frontier, from Syria and southeast Anatolia. To conclude, it's often assumed that a political and administrative center will also be the center of artistic influence and production, and thus the source of all stimuli where the similarities occur in the art of its neighbors. The upper Euphrates of north Syria and southeast Anatolia contributes much to the artistic life of Assyria in a complex process of mutual interaction.

It is never a question of imposition, in either direction, Assyria retains its own identity and the development of historical narrative in relief, as I've mentioned for example, was very much an Assyrian innovation. But, based on the archaeological evidence it emerges that the Assyrians drew heavily, heavily from the west, from the frontier. In the course of this process the Assyrians selected elements or forms from their western neighbors, states which at the time had already forged their own language of public display.

Significantly, what this implies is that the major political centers do not only influence the periphery, but they also absorb from it. Ladies and gentleman thank you very much.

Adrienne:  Wow, if we were all so passionate about our work and then presented it like that, that would be fantastic. Thank you very much, Andrew.

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