The world’s first powerful kingdoms arose in ancient Mesopotamia in the third and second millennia BCE, centered on the cities of Ur, Akkad, and Babylon. Monumental architecture grew with the rulers’ ambitions, incorporating elaborate sculpted and painted decoration. Administrative needs increased with the size of the territory, resulting in complex systems of record-keeping and the thriving of a form of miniature art: personal seals with carved designs. Widely divergent in scale, architectural decoration and seals shared many of the same motifs: encounters with animals and monsters; scenes of courtly life, such as the banquet and the hunt; and the worship of deities. Timeless formulae recurred not only across media but also in different regions and periods.
This gallery presents objects from Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the west to Central Asia in the east, and dating from the Sumerian to the Sasanian periods, from the third millennium BCE to the first millennium CE, with a special focus on first-millennium BCE Iran. The Achaemenid Persian reliefs on the right — like the Neo-Assyrian example just outside this gallery — are prime examples of art in the service of kingship, carved by sculptors whose individual identity mattered little. Assyrian and Persian royal imagery had a lasting impact, for example in promoting the lion as a potent symbol of power. Ideas of kingship were also expressed in coinage, first in Anatolian Lydia and the Persian Empire, and later, after Alexander of Macedon’s (356–323 BCE) conquest of Asia, in the coins of his successors. Near Eastern inspiration extended to many other areas as well, from alphabetic writing and renderings of the human figure, to a menagerie of monsters. The mostly Iranian bronzes on display here show the importance of animal forms in ancient Near Eastern art, revealing the development of distinctive styles with varying degrees of abstraction.