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Assyria vs Elam: The battle of Til Tuba

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Hello I'm exhibition curator Gareth Brereton and this week we'll be discussing this masterpiece of Assyrian art. This is a curved wall panel carved from limestone and this once decorated a room in the southwest palace at Niniveh Ashurbanipal's first residence. And it is an important document of a war between the Assyrian army and the Elamites of Southwest Iran. So first I'm going to give you a little bit of a backstory about how this battle happened why war broke out between the two kingdoms. So the Kingdom of Elam was located in southwest Iran and that was at Assyria's southern border. When the king of Elam died, his anti-Assyrian brother took the throne by force. The true heir to the throne fled to Assyria to get Ashurbanipal's protection he was a political refugee at Ashurbanipal's court in Nineveh. The anti-Assyrian king the usurper called Teumman wanted his return but Ashurbanipal denied him. It was obviously useful for Ashurbanipal to have a pro-Assyrian royal family in his care in Nineveh So Ashurbanipal sent his army to meet the Elamites on the bank of the river Ulai and this is the depiction of the battle taking place. So on the left-hand side the Assyrian army has broken through the Elamite battle lines. The Elamites are in panic they're fleeing down a hill they're tugging at their beards they're throwing their weapons in the air it's a real chaotic scene and the Assyrians who wear better armour; have better weapons are pushing the Elamites towards the river. And the river Ulai cuts across the scene and the Elamites gradually get pushed and pushed and pushed and they fall into the river and drown with their horses and their carts and their weapons. So this is a real chaotic depiction of a pitched battle between two armies at the time. But there's also a really interesting subplot a story within the chaos that we can pick out about the capture and execution of the Elamite king. It starts here the Elamite king and his son Teumman and Tammaritu fall from their chariot - which has collapsed. Teumman loses his royal hat It cuts to the next scene: they both get up, Teumman's got his hat back but he's been wounded by an arrow which has hit him in the back and so they try and flee toward a forest but to no avail they're soon surrounded by Assyrian soldiers. So the wounded Teumman is kneeling down and he's telling his son to pick up the bow and resist. The son gets hit over the head with a mace an Assyrian soldier cuts Teumman's head off. The heads are carried back - so that's King Teumman's head being carried back by an Assyrian soldier - and they bring their heads back up to the Assyrian camp where they're doing a headcount and there's some pro-Assyrian Elamites in the tent inspecting the heads to identify the king and his son and they're whisked off back to Assyria in a cart to Ashurbanipal. As you may have noticed the scenes jump around and the figures are repeated in time and space. So how can we tell what's going on? Well the Assyrians luckily for us left these sort of captions inscriptions - much like a cartoon strip explaining the story as it unfolds. So here we have an Elamite noble on the floor wounded with arrows. An Assyrian soldier stands over him and there's an accompanying caption and he's basically saying: "Come and make a good name for yourself. Cut off my head and bring it to your lord." The battle scene is very much a propaganda statement as well. We don't see any Assyrian soldiers wounded or dying. They are the victors. The Elamites on the other hand are wounded they're sprawled across the battlefield some are beheaded vultures and carrion birds pick at their remains. Okay so what happened next? Luckily, we have these reliefs that tell us the aftermath of the battle. Here we have a scene that takes place in Elam and then a separate scene at the top takes place back in Assyria. So in the bottom scene victorious Assyrians lead the puppet ruler that sought sanctuary in Assyria to the Elamites to install him as king. An Assyrian eunuch, who's shown without a beard holds the puppet king by the wrists and leads him towards the Elamites who come out of the city and bow down before him. And if he notice the face the image of the puppet ruler has been hacked away and when Nineveh finally fell and was sacked the invading armies sought out images such as these and defaced them to remove their power. At the bottom of the scene we have the river Ulai which continues from the earlier relief with the dead Elamites soldiers floating downstream. Back in Assyria a triumph takes place. Ashurbanipal is shown in his chariot. Again his image has been chipped away when the city was sacked and he's got two visiting ambassadors from the nearby kingdom of Urartu who come to greet him. Ashurbanipal parades two Elamites holding writing tablets and these contain rude messages from king Tuemman the Elamite usurper king to Ashurbanipal. So he's showing them off to the Urartians as justification to why he attacked Elam. Here again we see the same two ambassadors and this time they're witnessing the humiliation of two captives. These two figures supported the Elamite king. And Ashurbanipal's army went and captured the ruler and his family and brought them back to Assyria in chains. Here we see the Assyrians placing the heads of Tuemman and another nobleman over their necks and they're made to walk around the city where they're humiliated slapped and spat upon. The Ambassadors from Urartu appear a third time and this occasion they're witnessing a grisly spectacle where two more captives are having their tongues removed before being staked to the floor and flayed alive. And that was the punishment for treason for opposing Ashurbanipal and the ambassadors would have witnessed this spectacle as a statement of power from Ashurbanipal to say "Look! This is what happens when you mess with me." If you want to find out more about Ashurbanipal do come along to the exhibition and if you click on the links you can find some more information all about Ashurbanipal