Friday, April 18, 2003

More on Assyrian antiquities

The looting of antiquities in Iraq and efforts to recover them continue to receive extensive news coverage. Others already have pointed out that oil production facilities were carefully guarded but not the museums, even though there was ample advance warning, based on experience from the 1991 war, that looting would be a danger. I also wonder if troops on the ground might have been more aware of the importance of the museums if ancient history was taught more thoroughly in schools.

A few years ago I heard a fascinating lecture, illustrated with slides, about the history of Assyrian archaeology and its impact on society, as well as biblical studies, in Victorian England. The lecture, by Steven W. Holloway, is now published on the web by the Journal of Religion and Society, complete with wonderful illustrations: "Biblical Assyria and Other Anxieties in the British Empire."

Here's the introductory paragraph:
British imperialism in Western Asia exercised a staggering impact on biblical studies through, among other exploits, the excavation of Assyrian palaces and the unveiling of the results before the insular public via exhibits in the British Museum and published illustrations of the antiquities themselves. In terms of heritage, the Assyrian monuments attested to the veracity of the biblical tradition that was being challenged on several fronts. In terms of prestige, the ingathering of antiquities from the palaces of the very Assyrian kings railed against by the biblical prophets into the British Museum constituted a victory over the French, who had failed to procure these artifacts for their own glorification, and the despised Ottoman Empire, whose myopic disdain for its pre-Islamic past prompted it to discard its own cultural heritage. This study seeks to illuminate a fascinating moment in early Victorian social history through the exploration of British rapport with the world of ancient Assyria. As the Assyrian kings of the Old Testament appeared in the cuneiform records like scheduled stops along the railway line, they were hailed as epical testimonies to the integrity of the received biblical history. When one biblical king failed to board the train, however, both scholarly panic and denial were given free rein until the absentee monarch was recovered and rehabilitated. This is a story about the British race to conquer the biblical world by annexing both the physical remains of the Assyrian imperial past and its hermeneutical keys, the impact that appropriation had on English society, and the avid quest for missing King Pul that illustrates the essential fragility of the entire enterprise.
Paragraphs 7-9 describe the display (and marketing!) of the antiquities at the British Museum and their re-creation at the Crystal Palace.

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