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12 / Conflict and Resistance

Battle of Til-Tuba (Battle of the River Ulai) (detail)
Battle of Til-Tuba (Battle of the River Ulai) (detail)
Artist / Origin Unknown artist(s), Nineveh, Iraq
Region: West Asia
Date Neo-Assyrian, ca. 660–650 BCE
Material Limestone relief
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: approx. 6 ft. (1.82 m.)
Location The British Museum, London, UK
Credit Courtesy of Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Zainab BahraniProfessor of Ancient Near Eastern Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

Battle of Til-Tuba (Battle of the River Ulai) (detail)

» Unknown artist(s), Nineveh, Iraq

expert perspective

Zainab Bahrani Zainab Bahrani Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

There is one remarkable relief from the Neo-Assyrian period, so from the middle of the seventh century B.C. It is called the Battle of Til-Tuba relief and it depicts a chaotic and tumultuous scene of war, a battle between the Assyrians and the Elamites that takes place near a river called the river Ulai. And the main subject of that battle seems to be the defeat of the Elamite king, Teuman, and his son Tamaritu. And in one small area of this very chaotic scene of battle, you can see the king being beheaded, and the body of his son already killed and already beheaded, lying on top him. You see an Assyrian soldier severing the head of the Elamite king. The head is then taken and in another part of the scene you see the head being carried by an Assyrian soldier. And as you follow the relief from right to left you can follow along the scenes, and you see several Assyrian soldiers crossing across the relief, across the sculpture, carrying the severed head of the Assyrian king. Ashurbanipal is enthroned lying on his couch made of ivory and wood, and his queen, Ashur-sharrat is sitting in front of him and they are celebrating the victory by holding up their cups to have a drink. They are surrounded by musicians, and attendants of all kinds. Around them are trees, a grape arbor, and trees, birds, crickets surrounding this wonderful garden scene. But if you look to the left there is this gruesome display because off in the distance in front of the throne, the couch of the king, the head of the defeated enemy, the severed head of Teuman, is now hanging in the tree before the king and his queen as they celebrate the victory.

As far as I can determine, the head, which is repeated across this chaotic scene of battle and emerges again and again across the relief, becomes a sign of victory itself. So that the severed head, the brutal act of the severing of the head, becomes the focal point on which the victory is pinned. And then it is hung up into the tree in front of the king in order to celebrate the victory. And we wonder why such a representation, such as sculpture, would have been put into the palace. You can say, perhaps, that this is for propagandistic reasons—that the king and his courtiers want to impress and frighten the viewers of the relief. But very few people would have actually had access to the courts, the interior courts of the palace. So it perhaps makes more sense to think of such an image, such a sign of victory represented in this celebration of war, as for the viewing pleasure of the king himself—that he could look at this victory and perhaps gloat over the tortured bodies of the defeated enemies, gloat over the severed head of the enemy king, and perpetuate in some sense this victory into eternity because of the representation. And this we can conclude, based on everything that we know about how imagery worked in ancient Near Eastern tradition.” 

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