The lion lunges forward, its muscular body captured in the massive stone relief, its claws and canines bared with menacing realism. The great king, his bow drawn tight, stands poised to release his arrow at the fearsome beast, while beside him a guard directs his spear at the lion’s heart, ready to ensure no actual harm befalls his ruler.
This is a ritual after all, in which the “hunt” involves releasing a caged animal for the king to dispatch in a tightly control tableau. That the ancient Assyrians had no qualms about depicting this cruel fakery shows there’s a deeper message in the carving that may elude our 21st-century sensibilities. This is not just about a monarch trying to impress us with his manliness. This is the king of a great city vanquishing the king of the wild. This is order over chaos. This is the story of civilization.
“When I open my lectures about Mesopotamia, I like to talk about the Garden in Eden,” says Clemens Reichel, an archaeologist at the University of Toronto and associate curator of the Ancient Near East at the Royal Ontario Museum.
Dr. Reichel is careful to say “in” not “of” because that’s how the Bible meant it. Eden is a Sumerian word that means flatland. The Bible was talking about a real paradise on Earth when it mentions the garden – a divine equivalent to the riverine landscapes of southern Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq. The land is lush, bountiful and, thanks to irrigation technology, entirely manufactured.
Like the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meandering over the arid lowlands of the Middle East, the notion that reality is a human-directed phenomenon, both technologically and socially, is the common thread that weaves its way through Mesopotamia: Inventing our World, a travelling exhibition that makes its North American debut this weekend at the ROM.
The exhibition includes 170 artifacts, mainly from the British Museum augmented by objects borrowed from the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the ROM’s own collection. The pieces are diverse, spanning some 3,000 years of cultural development in the region that is thought to be where organized urban living first arose and where the invention of written language, called cuneiform, in the fourth millennium BC, ushered humanity out from the mute shadows of prehistory.
“Mesopotamia really is a place of firsts,” says Lisa Cooper, associate professor of Near Eastern Art and Archaeology at the University of British Columbia, who lists achievements in literature, mathematics, astronomy, engineering and architecture among the areas where elements of ancient Mesopotamia persist into the present day, coming to us mostly via its influence on ancient Greece and Rome.
Some of these innovations are as plain as the face of a clock, which is divided into 60 minutes precisely because people living in Mesopotamia early on realized how convenient the number 60 is for separating things – bushels of grain, heads of cattle or hours of the day – into halves, thirds, quarters, fifths, etc.
Exactly why that place at that time became the foundation for social organization on the scale of tens of thousands of people or more is a question that archeologists are still trying to answer, but one way or another it comes back to the water.
Although agriculture was invented further north in the hill country that feeds the great rivers, it eventually migrated toward the southern plains. Here the rainfall was sparse and seasonal flooding, unlike that which occurred along Egypt’s Nile valley, came at the wrong time of year for planting. It took irrigation on a massive scale to make an agricultural community work, but once mastered it provided enormous yields and massive surpluses.
This is big data, Sumerian style. And, like the irrigation systems, large quantities of food or other resources in common storage facilities required dedicated management. Traces of this can be found in the clay seals that once adorned storehouse doors, Dr. Reichel notes. While a box or bag of goods might be sealed by the head of a household, he says, “it takes a bureaucrat to seal a room.”
Through modern eyes, the scope of the achievement is easy to miss. While the inhabitants of Mesopotamia had plenty of clay for bricks and cuneiform tablets, they lack much of the other materials that would seem to be essential for an ancient civilization, including wood, stone and metal. These were obtained through trade, and in this way the early cities with their hyper-organization extended their reach, rolling out a blueprint for empire-building and geopolitical influence that still holds today.
“Such success would have been empowering,” Dr. Cooper says. “This agricultural prosperity after all, wasn’t just the work of benevolent gods; it was the product of human effort and human ingenuity.”
Even so, the gods were present in a very real way, as the psychological glue atop a rigid hierarchy that included the king, priests, and all others down to the workers in the fields and pastures. That is why one of the underlying themes that spans the exhibition is belief, says Sarah Collins, curator of early Mesopotamia at the British Museum.
“What we would today call religion but nobody then would recognize the word,” Dr. Collins says. “Because no one was an unbeliever.”
It’s not just the arrow that kills the lion or the king that draws the bow. Ultimately it is the belief that in organization lies destiny, a drive that still pushes us forward through the tumult of history, from the river’s edge to whatever lies beyond.
(4000 - 2000 BC)
Not a single state but a land of cities and temples rising alongside great waterworks and united by a common language. Sumer is where the first written language appeared and is the setting for the great epic of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk.
(1000 - 600 BC)
Named after the ancient city of Ashur, this northern empire become the dominant world power at its height, controlling a vast trading region that encompassed Egypt, Turkey and Iran. Unlike the old cities of the south, Assyrian cities were dominated by great palaces rather than temples, with powerful rulers who were the intermediaries between their subjects and the gods.
(600 - 540 BC)
A major city that came to dominate central Mesopotamia in the second millennium BC but later became the dominant power across the region after the fall of Assyria in 612 BC. Babylon looms over the Bible in stories like the tower of Babel, and in the writings of ancient Greece where its fabled Hanging Gardens were numbered among the seven wonders of the world.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct an attribution error.