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Lost City

Exhibition Review: Ancient Iraq, New Discoveries

14 May 22 words: George Dunbar

The British Museum touring exhibition, Ancient Iraq: New Discoveries, arrives in Nottingham at Djanogly Gallery. Unseen collections of Ancient Iraqi artefacts and treasures are finally on display. But, as the British Museum finds itself embroiled in accusations of appropriation and stolen collections, a huge question hangs over the exhibition: is this enough to repair the museum’s image? 

By the lakeside at the University of Nottingham, there is the aptly named Lakeside Arts Building, currently the home of Ancient Iraq: New Discoveries. The exhibition, which is being toured around various galleries in the UK, collects over eighty artefacts from some of the world’s earliest civilisations which existed in the region of southern Iraq between about 3500 and 2000 BC. It brings people in the East Midlands images of a hot, barren desert world with crumbling remains, giving the exhibition an intense and dramatic appearance. It shows the wear of time and the wear of war in a region often troubled by turmoil. It tells a story of lost civilisations and the fight to preserve their remains. 

The exhibition is a chance to learn more about the cultural significance of Iraq and the challenges around protecting the archaeological treasures in the region. In the several thousand years of history that the exhibition presents, many empires changed and fell in this region, and the resulting cultural changes can be visibly seen in the artefacts. These stories of war and cultural clash continue into the present day in Iraq. The exhibition deliberately draws this parallel to highlight the challenges of protecting Iraq's diverse cultural heritage following decades of conflict. 

Ancient Iraq, it appears, has a claim to the throne as the cradle of human civilisation

Upon entering the exhibition, one is confronted by a large statue from the remains of a Sumerian temple complex dating back to c.3000–2000 BC. Carved in dark stone and with curious patterns drawn into it, the wide eyes stare forward at the viewer. Alongside, there is a stunning collection of artefacts from the ‘Royal Tombs’ that were in the ancient city of Ur. The intricate and very beautiful gold necklaces and jewellery from these tombs show the cultural style and sophistication of the people, and the amazing lengths they would go to to honour their dead. Among the more amazing artefacts are a series of clay tablets with strange markings on them; these show the early writing system known as cuneiform. Cuneiform writing would be done by pressing small indents into clay tablets to create pictographic shapes that would symbolise the phonemes of words. On one of these tablets is a record of the ancient poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh. The age of these clay tablets is evidence that the ancient Iraqi people invented some of the earliest forms of writing. Along with writing, they also developed inventions such as the wheel and irrigation systems, and systems like schools and the division of time into units of 60. Ancient Iraq, it appears, has a claim to the throne as the cradle of human civilisation. 

The exhibition has an ultimately positive message, highlighting the incredible stories of the past and offering a hopeful narrative that the past and present can be looked after and enjoyed in the future. It shows how the British Museum and modern archaeology have improved through the years, with efforts being made to make amends for heritage that was stolen or mistreated under archaeological practices of the past. Where once archaeological sites were left exposed to the elements, now with new cultural heritage initiatives, efforts are being made to preserve and protect them for the future.

This is ultimately a highly thought-provoking and serious presentation of a 5,000-year-old story through a present day lens

This is ultimately a highly thought-provoking and serious presentation of a 5,000-year-old story through a present-day lens, with obvious parallels drawn between the conflict between empires such as the ancient Romans with modern day warring parties such as Islamic State. It is this presentation of the artefacts that shows how history lives with us in the present day and gives hope that the priceless history of the region can be preserved.

Ancient Iraq: New Discoveries is on view at Djanogly Gallery until Sunday 19 June
lakesidearts.org.uk

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