The Ancient Near East is a vast region reaching from Turkey and the Levant in the West to Iran in the East. The Ashmolean’s collections displayed in this gallery highlight stages in the region’s development from the earliest farming communities to the expansion of empires.
Around 5000 years ago the first cities emerged in Mesopotamia and writing was developed at this time, initially for bookkeeping and later to record history, myths and science. The King List Prism (c. 1800 BC), displayed in its own case, lists Sumerian and Akkadian rulers from southern Iraq merging the mythical past with actual leaders.
As cities and populations grew, so did the need for land, resources and political power and some kingdoms grew into vast empires that covered large parts of the region. Within this interconnected world, peoples of the Ancient Near East exchanged goods, technological skills and ideas. At times they came into conflict with each other. Although they shared many traditions, they also developed distinct cultural and religious identities. The people of the Ancient Near East played a major role in shaping history, traditions and technological achievements that can be felt down the centuries.
The development of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires is traced through wall cases on one side of the gallery, including a display of finely carved ivories from the ruined palace of Nimrud (900–600 BC). Many of these were found during excavations directed by Sir Max Mallowan (from 1949–57). His wife, the crime writer Agatha Christie, accompanied him and recalled using her face cream to clean these delicate finds. Marble relief fragments displayed on the end wall show vivid scenes of conflict and capture as these mighty empires expanded and colonised neighbouring lands.
Rituals and attitudes to death are also investigated. There is a reconstruction of a Kish grave (2450–2200 BC) with pottery goods for the afterlife. The neighbouring low glass case displays jewellery of gold, silver and lapis lazuli found in a royal cemetery of the same period in Mesopotamia, where excavation revealed the gruesome fact that 73 attendants, mainly young women, were sacrificed and buried alongside the dead ruler. The Jericho skull, displayed in the central cabinet (above the archaeological model of an ancient settlement mound), highlights early practices of ancestor worship. This human skull, with shells as eyes, is dated to around 7000 BC and originally would have been plastered and painted.