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Video transcript

on the back of a u.s. dollar bill there's an emblem of an eagle in its talons you have arrows of course a symbol of war but on the other side you have an olive branch a symbol of peace that's not so different than this object that we're looking at that's nearly 4,500 years old an object known as the standard of or which comes from the city-state of war which is now in present-day Iraq in Mesopotamia really the birthplace of civilization and or is one of the great early cities the word standard is a little misleading and because the standard is really a flag that's often brought into battle and the original excavator of this hypothesized that perhaps this was on a pole originally and was brought into battle but in truth we have no idea so often when we're in the museum and we're talking about ancient objects we're talking about objects that had been buried but buried just because of the passage of time and here we're looking at objects that were intentionally buried they were part of what seems to have been my laboratory I'll reach all these were excavated in the 20s in the early 30s by a man named Leonard Woolley who discovered about 16 tombs that he called royal tombs again we really don't know but what we do know is we see fabulously expensive objects and one of those valuable objects was the object recall today the standard of war which is small but quite beautiful and elaborately decorated historians have thought that perhaps this is a sound box for a musical instrument others have thought it might have contained something important perhaps even the currency that was used to pay for warfare we simply don't know so that's one of the wonderful things about this object is that it tells us so much and at the same time it tells us so little so let's start off with just a simple description so we have this object that is small enough so that it could easily be carried one long side seems to represent the scene of peace and prosperity it's divided into three registers and it's framed with beautiful pieces of shell now this is important because it really does show us the long distance trade that this culture was involved with you've got blue lapis lazuli that came from mines in Afghanistan you have a red stone that would have come from India and you've got the shells which would have come from the Gulf just to the south of what is now Iraq and it reminds us that these first great cities were possible because agriculture had been successful in the river valley between the Tigris and the Euphrates it was possible to grow a surplus of food that allowed for an organization of society where not everybody had to be in the fields all the time once there was enough food some people could devote their lives to being rulers and some to becoming artists or artisans and some two priests right you had a whole organization of society with different people performing different roles that was suddenly possible and you can see that organization represented in the three registers here the most important wealthiest most powerful figures or towards the top and then we have the common laborers down at the bottom and it's really typical in ancient Near Eastern Arctic for us to see scenes divided into registers so let's start down at the bottom and move up I see a human figure bearing a heavy bag and that's really what we have along the entire bottom register figures who seem to be bringing things to a destination we see animals figures carrying things across their shoulders or on their backs just above a you can see a number of people leading more clearly identifiable animals you can see somebody hurting along what looks like a sheep or a ram you see a bull in front of that being led by two people and then perhaps goats perhaps sheep ahead of that and another bull these are people that might be bringing these animals to sacrifice they might be bringing them as a kind of Taxation we really don't know but people have hypothesized that this is showing a kind of collection perhaps for the King for the city the register at the top clearly shows one figure that's more important than the rest the king is larger in fact so large that his head breaks into the pictorial frame and he also wears different clothing that helps to identify him he's seated on a chair that is interesting because it's got three straight legs and one leg it seems to be the leg of an animal some of the objects that we see here are objects that were also found in the burials but I don't think they found the chair that resembles that that would be fun to see one of the objects that has been found however are the cups that so many of the figures here are holding and so clearly these figures are joining the king in some libation they're drinking perhaps beer perhaps wine we're not sure there's some kind of celebration going on some festivity or perhaps a religious ceremony it's worth noting that even the secondary figures here that is the figures who are seated but are not the king are larger than the servants that surround them that are standing and so even within the register you have a hierarchy that shows the relative importance of three levels of society and then we have two figures at the far end who seem to be entertaining the seated figures who are drinking one is playing a harp and another figure on the far right perhaps singing let's go to the other side it's a very different story so again we have a scene divided into three registers but here we see terrible scenes of violence we see a rendering of what is pretty clearly warfare there are four chariots that are pulled by what seems to be four male donkeys on the back of each chariot seem to be a driver as well as a warrior the figure towards the rear you'll notice is holding either a spear or an axe and then being trampled by the horses perhaps felled by those weapons are the enemy if you look closely you can see some extraordinary detail look at one of the men that has been felled under the horse you can see his wounds you can see blood flowing and if you look closely you can notice the mechanism of the actual wheels of the chariot there's a kind of specific engineering that's being rendered here one of the most interesting things about the bottom panel is a kind of naturalism in the battle that seems to be taking place you seem to move from a walk to a kind of canter to a full gallop on the other hand some elements are really symbolic like the felled enemies that you were talking about before I don't think we're meant to assume that they were actually just four people who died in this battle that's the number we see but clearly that's symbolic of many more the middle register shows a line of soldiers readied for battle they are in full garb they're wearing helmets and these helmets have again been found in the so called royal tombs what's wonderful about these soldiers is their regular placement that gives you a real sense of an army that's sort of marching along well you get a sense of order you get a sense of structure you get a sense of real discipline but towards the middle of that register you see the actual battle taking place and you see these soldiers victorious slaying their enemies on the right side of that medal register you see soldiers that are perhaps being captured and are I in the top register goes immediately to the large figure at the center which is obviously once again the king his head again breaks the decorative border along the top on the left a chariot and soldiers and on the right other soldiers are attendants bringing to the king prisoners of war and we can tell that these are prisoners of war because they're naked they've been stripped and they're wounded and bleeding so there's the sense of their humiliation their enslavement and the great victory of the King it's interesting to look closely at the stylistic conventions of the rendering of the figures just about everybody is seen in perfect profile we see one eye and that one eye is not so much looking forward as looking out great it's sort of frontal on the side of the face that's right in a way that is familiar from Egyptian art we see the shoulder squared with the picture plane and we see feet pushing in one direction rather than being seen in perspective so we can use our visual detective work but there's still so much it's a mystery of what it does we'll tell us though is that the way that we tell a story the way that we tell one over time the way that we organize our society even now in the 21st century has a lot in common with the 3rd millennium BCE
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