Art Through Time: A Global View
Portraits Art: Royal Portrait Head (“Head of Sargon the Great”)
In the earliest Mesopotamian city-states, local gods were considered the kings of individual regions with human rulers functioning on their behalf in a system of theocratic socialism.
Sargon of Akkad, who came into power around 2340 BCE, was the first Mesopotamian ruler to unite Sumer and other Mesopotamian territories under one regime and proclaim himself king in his own right. Along with this political shift came a shift in artistic representation. Earlier works often focused on depictions of divine beings. In the Akkadian period, the rise of human sovereigns led to the creation of royal portraits that glorified earthly rulers. This bronze portrait head, believed to represent Sargon, is one of the first of these royal likenesses. Through its precise, detailed craftsmanship and realistic features, not seen in earlier works, the head simultaneously conveys a sense of its subject’s grandeur and humanity.
In the ancient Near East, the concept of “representation” involved a complex relationship between the image and the entity it represented. The image of a person was more than a symbol standing for that person. Rather, it embodied some of the real presence of the individual and could, therefore, act as substitute for him or her. By inscribing the individual’s name on the figure, furthermore, that presence could be enhanced. Following this line of thinking, the head of Sargon, originally a full-bodied sculpture, would have been not just a statement of the king’s power, but also a perpetual embodiment of it. Likewise, to damage the sculpture would have been to harm the king himself.
The head of Sargon plainly has been mutilated. In addition to the severing of the head from its lost body, the image bears various marks of violence—the left eye socket has been gouged out, the nose has been flattened at the tip, the ears have been cut off, and the ends of the beard have been broken. Although it has been suggested that the eye socket was damaged by someone attempting to remove an inset of precious material, there is no evidence that the hole ever contained anything at all and, in any case, the other damage still demands explanation. The desecration of the royal portrait was almost certainly intentional and most likely an act of political iconoclasm, possibly carried out at the time of Nineveh’s fall to the Medes and Babylonians in the early seventh century BCE. The selective disfiguration of the head suggests that the goal was not to wipe away all presence of the royal figure, but rather to leave it in a state of defeat and humiliation.
Zainab Bahrani, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University
“In the Western tradition we tend to think of representation and reality as entirely different realms. In the ancient Near East that doesn’t seem to have been the case. The imagery that they had very often kind of crossed between, hovered between these two realms of reality and representation. An image could become a thing in itself, could have agency, could actually make things happen in the real, could participate in reality in ways that would be to us completely illogical, but to the ancients made a great deal of sense. So they considered, for example, to harm an image of a king would be a way to harm the king himself, even if that king had long been dead. If you destroyed his image or erased his name this would be a way of destroying his memory.”
Bahrani, Zainab. The Graven Image: Representation in Babylonia and Assyria.Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Frankfort, Henri. The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.
Nylander, Carl. “Earless in Nineveh: Who Mutilated ‘Sargon’s’ Head?”American Journal of Archaeology 84.3 (July 1980): 329–333.
Van de Mieroop, Marc. A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000–323 BC, 2nd ed. Malden. MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.