The Ancient Near East: A Conversation with Dr. Paul Collins, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Today I have a very special guest—Dr. Paul Collins, who is the Jaleh Hearn Curator of Ancient Near East in the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean, the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology, founded in 1683. He is also a Hugh Price Fellow at Jesus College, holds a supernumerary Fellowship at Wolfson College and serves as Chair of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. He has worked previously as a curator in the Middle East Department of the British Museum and the Ancient Near Eastern Art Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Dr. Collins received his PhD from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. His research interests centre on the archaeology and material culture of ancient Iraq and Iran with a specialism in the Uruk-Early Dynastic periods (4th–mid-3rd millennium BC) and the Neo-Assyrian period (approximately 900–600 BC). He works especially on visual representation in Mesopotamia, its relationship to the written record, and the transmission and adoption of artistic forms across the Near East. Other areas of interest include the role of museum displays in shaping disciplinary knowledge and the history of collecting.


Ashmolean Museum, Oxford


Here he shares some of his knowledge with us, discussing his favourite pieces of art from the cradle of civilisation, the history of excavations in the area, his responsibilities at the museum and upcoming projects.

Dr. Paul Collins

Hello Dr. Collins, thank you so much for your time! I’m very happy to have you here. Let me begin by telling you a bit about my interest in the Ancient Near East. Back in middle school, I did come across textbooks that asserted “History begins in Sumer”, but didn’t really get a good foundation in the humanities. When I was 19-20, I stumbled upon the Catholic Study Bible (Oxford University Press) and began reading up on the backdrop to the Old Testament. I learnt about myths and epics like “Enuma Elish” and “Gilgamesh”, the ways in which they were similar to and different from the opening legends of Genesis.

Later, when I was doing my MA at King’s, I happened to go through A World History of Art by Hugh Honour and John Fleming, and was introduced to the material culture of the region (the heads of Gudea and Sargon, ziggurats, the stele of Hammurabi, etc.). I continue to be drawn to this cradle of civilisation chiefly because of Gilgamesh. It’s a poignant and intoxicating tale (as Rainer Maria Rilke believed), with its themes of immortality, death, friendship, loss, disappointment. There’s something very universal and timeless about it. What made you choose the Ancient Near East as a lifelong academic/professional subject and why do you think we should study it?

I came to the Ancient Near East by way of Ancient Egypt, which had fascinated me from a very young age. Although not aware at the time, I had been attracted to these past societies through the lens of Orientalism; a Hollywood world of Sinbad the Sailor and Old Testament epics. Studying ancient history and archaeology at university provided me with more rigorous approaches to reconstruct the past but an opportunity to think about the significance of visual imagery in the Ancient Near East over some five years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was really transformative.

It is certainly true that the ancient Near East is worthy of study simply because of its extraordinary art and literature. Many of the stories preserved on inscribed clay tablets or told through art do indeed touch on universal concerns—and as they are among the most ancient to have survived this gives them an additional poignancy and power. For me, however, much of the excitement of studying this part of the world and period of time comes from trying to make sense of the surviving but very fragmentary evidence, and the challenge of understanding ideas which are very different from our own.

Any study of the ancient Near East (or Middle East or, actually more accurately, Western Asia) can seem daunting since we are dealing with a vast geographical area containing a mosaic of peoples speaking different languages with a multitude of cultural traditions. During the eighteenth century the region was increasingly understood by Western scholars as a unit—the Orient—that had been brought together in the past by the Persians (as a contrast to ‘democratic’ Athens) with a shared cuneiform—wedge-like—writing system. In modern political terms, this means we are exploring the ancient societies of Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Iraq and Iran. Here I’d like to focus my answers around Mesopotamia (essentially modern Iraq and eastern Syria) since much of my thinking has been focussed on this region.


Map of Mesopotamia by User “Goran tek-en”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons


A bit about your discipline. When did it roughly begin? Who carried out the very first excavations and discoveries?

Although nineteenth-century European explorers claimed to have discovered places like Nineveh and Babylon, the remains of these and many other ancient sites in Mesopotamia were well known to local populations since they retained their ancient names. Arabic and Persian accounts as early as the tenth century AD make mention of them. By the seventeenth century a few Europeans were also journeying to see the remains of these cities which were known to them through Classical and biblical accounts. European interest in the antiquities of the region grew as there was increasing political and economic involvement with the Turkish Ottoman Empire (that came to control Mesopotamia).

By the 1840s, French and British adventurers, merchants and diplomats had begun to dig in Mesopotamia, followed soon after by Ottoman, German and American ‘expeditions’. Their discoveries began to fill museums in London, Paris, Constantinople (modern Istanbul), Berlin and Philadelphia. The Ashmolean’s Mesopotamia collection resulted largely from excavations undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s when Britain, having established the country of Iraq in the aftermath of the First World War and its defeat of the Ottomans, had enormous influence in the region. Only slowly did Iraqis take control of their heritage although foreign excavations would continue to play a significant role in uncovering the country’s ancient past.


Ur Excavations, Joint Expedition of the British Museum and of the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania to Mesopotamia, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)


The history of the area is quite confusing, with so many “early”, “middle”, “neo” kingdoms and empires—Uruk, Ur, Akkad, Assyria, Babylon. What are the major states/cultures that emerged and what were their main characteristics? This is a big question but if you could give a rough timeline and tell us briefly as to how and why one state/culture led to another, it would be great…

Sumerian cuneiform inscription in monumental archaic style, c. 26th century BC, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The first cities emerged across Mesopotamia during the fourth millennium BC at places like Tell Brak (in Syria) and at sites close to the head of the Persian Gulf. By around 3500 BC the largest settlement was Uruk with tens of thousands of inhabitants; it was here that complex forms of recording developed—which would develop into the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia. During the third millennium BC, city-states dominated the region, each ruled by a king and managed by scribal administrators. From around 2300 BC, a line of kings from the city of Agade imposed their control over much of Mesopotamia by force. They were succeeded by the rulers of Ur who relied on both military might and complex administration to hold their kingdom together. By 1800 BC, the city of Babylon had emerged as a significant centre and under King Hammurabi (about 1790-1750 BC) much of Mesopotamia was unified.

After 1500 BC, southern Mesopotamia can be understood as a unified country, Babylonia, ruled from Babylon by a line of Kassite kings. In the same period, the Assyrians in northern Mesopotamia expanded their control westward, although occasionally also marching their armies south into Babylonia. Assyrian expansion was revived in the early first millennium BC and between 900-600 BC the region from western Iran to Egypt was brought together in an empire ruled from the capitals of Nimrud, Khorsabad and Nineveh. Ultimately, the Assyrian empire fell to Babylonian and Iranian (Median) armies, but it had established a framework of control that would be built upon by subsequent powers: Persian, Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian empires.

What did the earliest cities look like? How were they organised geographically? And what was the Mesopotamian concept of time?

We know very little about what the earliest cities looked like (around 3500-3000 BC). Many sites of this date now lie buried under the remains of thousands of years of later occupation and only a few have been excavated. German archaeologists at Uruk, however, have revealed truly massive mudbrick buildings at the centre of this vast city that probably served ceremonial or ritual purposes (and could have accommodated hundreds of people).

Here were also found sculptures and reliefs of so-called priest-kings, likely standing for some of the most important offices in the city, as well as the earliest writing on clay tablets (all of which was produced for administration and control). But very little is known about ordinary people’s houses—or indeed their lives—at this early period. Much more evidence has been uncovered dating to the third millennium BC, when city-states divided much of Mesopotamia between them. From this period there is remarkable architecture—temples, palaces and ordinary houses—as well as art and written literature.


The site of Uruk in 2008, Wikipedia (Open Government License)


In southern Mesopotamia, the flat land was crossed by multiple branches of the Tigris and Euphrates and most settlements were located close to the rivers—it was easy to move between them by boat as well as bring water to feed date plantations and fields of barley. North of the alluvial plain (above modern Baghdad), cities were located at crossings of the Tigris or Euphrates, within well-watered fertile areas or at strategic points on overland routes.

The Mesopotamians used multiple methods for measuring the passage of time. A common system was dividing the 24-day up into 12 “double”-hours (bēru), these units of time were equivalent to 30° of the sun’s movement around the earth (360° divided by 12 is 30°). In one system the hours were all the same length (using, for example, a water clock), or a seasonal system was used, the length of an hour changing depending on the length of daylight. The administrators recorded activities around the agricultural seasons and religious events. Different systems were adopted to date the passage of time: a new year might be designated by a description (either an event or the name of an official, for example), or by the length in years of the ruling king’s reign.

Copy of the Warka Vase in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany by User “Einsamer Schütze”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia

What are your 5 most favourite pieces of art from the Ancient Near East and why? 

This is difficult as there is so many extraordinary things to choose from. I will spread my choices across time:

1. The Warka Vase (from Uruk, around 3100 BC, Iraq Museum, Baghdad)

This remarkable alabaster vase, just over one metre tall, is carved in shallow relief with a series of encircling registers. The imagery can be understood as a representation of cosmic order which, from bottom to top, ascends from water that sustains cultivated plants and domesticated animals, through a procession of naked (and thus pure or subservient) men carrying vessels loaded with produce, and culminating in the uppermost register where the priest-king makes a presentation, with the help of an intermediary, to a female. She stands, raising her clenched fist, before poles with loop and streamers. These poles are symbols associated with Inana, the patron goddess of Uruk. This is thus one of the earliest narrative images intended to show an unending presentation from humans to the gods.

2. The Standard of Ur (from the Royal Graves of Ur, about 2500 BC, British Museum, London)

Reconstructed as a rather oddly shaped box following its discovery in one of the so-called Royal Graves at Ur, the two large panels depict imagery associated with early kingship in the city-states of Mesopotamia. These are often described as ‘war’ and ‘peace’. The former shows a victorious army consisting of chariots pulled by donkeys and infantry soldiers marching captured enemies towards the upper register where the king oversees their execution. The ‘peace’ panel depicts a banquet in which the king, dressed in distinctive fleece robes, faces his officials while, in the lower registers, the produce of the land is gathered. The ‘Standard’ is made from shell, limestone and, imported from mines in Afghanistan, blue lapiz lazuli.


Standard of Ur, 26th century BC, “War” panel, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)


Standard of Ur, 26th century BC, “Peace” panel, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)


3. The Stele of Naram-Sin (found at Susa, Iran, about 2200 BC, Louvre Museum, Paris)

This is one of the most magnificent works from antiquity. The limestone stele (surviving to a height of around two metres) was originally erected in the city of Sippar, cult centre of the Mesopotamian sun god, and depicts a campaign in the central Zagros mountains that divide the lowlands of Mesopotamia from the plateaux of Iran. Dominating the scene is King Naram-Sin who controlled an empire that had unified much of Mesopotamia. He is shown much taller that the other figures, and wears a horned helmet which expresses his status as a god. The traditional Mesopotamian approach of dividing imagery into a number of clearly defined registers dissolves here to create a unified composition. The soldiers and their enemies all gaze upwards to Naram-Sin who strides across the steep, wooded terrain with apparent ease. The enemy are presented as being defeated simply by the presence of the king, who holds the power of life and death as he reaches the highest peak above which stars indicate the great gods.


Victory Stele of Naram-Sin by User “Rama”, CC BY-SA 3.0 fr, Wikimedia Commons


4. The Stele of Hammurabi (found at Susa, Iran, about 1750 BC, Louvre Museum, Paris)

Like the Stele of Naram-Sin, the famous Law Code of Hammurabi was erected at Sippar, the city of Shamash, god of the sun and justice. The god is shown in relief at the top of the stele seated on a throne, itself resting on mountains behind which the sun rose. He is passing the rod and ring, symbols of kingship, to King Hammurabi of Babylon. The royal judgements inscribed on the stele were considered worthy of copying within Babylonian scribal schools for centuries. Because of its scholarly, religious and royal prestige, the stele (as well as the Stele of Naram-Sin and other monuments) was carried to Susa by an invading army in southwest Iran during the twelfth century BC.


The Stele of Hammurabi by User “Mbzt”, CC BY 3.0“, Wikimedia Commons


5. The Battle of Til-Tuba reliefs (from Nineveh, about 650 BC, British Museum, London)

The Assyrian defeat of the Elamites of southwest Iran in the mid-seventh century BC is shown in extraordinary detail in a series of stone reliefs that lined the wall of the royal palace at Nineveh. The death of the Elamite king is portrayed as a continuous narrative: he and his son fall from their chariot and flee into the woods but are captured, killed and beheaded. The king is depicted with distinct facial characteristics – perhaps a caricature rather than a realistic portrait, but nevertheless an extremely unusual occurrence; imitating the precise external form was not important in Assyrian art. Thus, for example, a relief depicting the Assyrian king was intended as a portrait of kingship rather than that of a specific man. In contrast, showing a ‘real’ enemy king, the sculptors ensured that the actual individual suffered and die.


Til-Tuba Assyrian Relief (Photo: Dr. Paul Collins)


Ashmolean has a superlative collection. What are your responsibilities at the museum?

I’m responsible for approximately 40,000 objects, ranging in date from around 10,000 BC and world’s first farming communities to around AD 640 and the conquest of the Sasanian Empire by Arab armies. I spend some of my time preparing objects in our study room for researchers who visit from around the globe. As the Ashmolean is a department of the University of Oxford, we also use our collections for teaching and I provide classes and supervision for undergraduate and graduate students—certainly among the most rewarding aspects of my work. In addition, we have a busy public engagement programme and I answer enquiries about the collections as well as support many of the Museum’s other activities, including developing exhibitions and helping to arrange loans to other institutions.

Hybrid beings are recurring motifs in Mesopotamian art. There is the lamassu (the deity with a human head, body of a bull or lion, and bird wings) and the genie (bearded winged figure in tunic with helmet). What do they stand for?

Hybridity has a very long history in Mesopotamian art. It was a method for distinguishing the ‘civilizsd’ world of cities with their domesticated animals from the mysterious and potentially dangerous world beyond. In the late fourth millennium BC, for example, images of fabulous beasts—so-called serpopards and griffins—were used on seals to mark products exported over long distances. Some of these would reach as far as Egypt where kings adopted the imagery into their own iconography. The Anzu bird—a lion-headed eagle—was popular during the third millennium BC to represent the storm clouds associated with the eastern Zagros Mountains (themselves symbolised in art as human-faced bison). The Assyrian genies and lamassu are late examples of such supernatural beings, which occupy a place between humans and the great gods (who are generally shown in human form or represented by their sacred symbols).


Lamassu from Dur-Sharrukin, University of Chicago Oriental Institute, Neo-Assyrian Period, c. 721–705 BC by User “Trjames”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia


Winged genie, c. 870 BC, with inscription running across his midriff by User “Rufus46”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia


“Steles” also are pretty prominent, those of Hammurabi, of Naram-Sin, of the Vultures. They seem like a compact and effective medium of storytelling. Where were they usually placed and whom were they directed at?

Who the audiences of Mesopotamian art were is a difficult question to answer. Much of what has survived, or at least uncovered by archaeologists, originates from temples and palaces where access may have been restricted to priests and/or members of the royal court. However, it is very likely that both the stele of Hammurabi and that of Naram-Sin were to some extent ‘public’. The text inscribed on the Law Code invites people to read the judgements made by Hammurabi suggesting that, even if theoretically, everybody had access to justice. The stele of Naram-Sin had a significant impact on the way in which kings were portrayed in later periods; even versions of the twisted tree that is shown growing on the mountain side that the king is climbing reappears in later images, suggesting a level of fame in its own day. The fact that both monuments were carried to Susa by an invading army in the twelfth century BC shows that they were well known and highly regarded.

Quite a lot of art is about military might. The Assyrian relief “The Lion Hunt of Ashurbanipal” (c. 645–635 BC) from Nineveh, at the British Museum, is absolutely stunning. It unfolds just like a cartoon strip or dramatic movie. The lion is released from the cage, the king kills him, the lion is wounded, is shown dying, then dead. What kind of political context is this coming from?

The lion hunt reliefs are remarkable for the detail and naturalism of the animals. They come from the so-called North Palace at Nineveh where the reliefs lined the walls of important rooms and courtyards suggesting that they were intended to be viewed largely for the king and his court—as well as the gods. The lion hunt reliefs appear to be closely connected to rituals of kingship.

Some hunts take place in an artificial arena to which lions have been brought in cages but others are situated in the open countryside or perhaps parkland—they are full of energy, excitement and danger which the king effortlessly faces and overcomes. Such scenes, that were intended to show the defeat of the dangerous forces of chaos as represented by the lions, contrast with other reliefs from the North Palace that show lions and lionesses gently pacing with human musicians through luxuriant gardens. These peaceful images seem to express an idea that abundance and order is brought to the world—even to wild animals—through the power of the king.


Ashurbanipal on his horse thrusting a spear at a lion’s head by User “Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg)”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikipedia


An attendant releases a lion from its cage by User “Carole Raddato”, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikipedia


Wounded lion by User “Carole Raddato”, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikipedia


Dead lion by User “Carole Raddato”, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikipedia


Moving to Babylon—the Ishtar Gate, constructed in 575 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar II, excavated and reconstructed in the early 20th century and now displayed at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum…it is quite a rare structure, with its bright blue glazed bricks. I read that it was one of the original Seven Wonders of the World. What rituals and festivities was it used for?

The walls of Babylon were certainly considered by some Greek authors as one of the Wonders of the World. The Ishtar Gate would have been one of the most significant entrances into the inner city. The reconstructed gate in Berlin is in fact smaller than the original would have stood and indeed some of the structure remains at Babylon—though not the glazed bricks. The animals depicted in bright colours on the Gate are bulls and so-called mushhushshu dragons. These are the symbolic animals of Adad, the storm god, and Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, and may have been intended to magically protect the gateway. A wide roadway, the walls of which were lined with glazed bricks depicting striding lions—symbol of the goddess Ishtar—led from the Gate towards the temple of Marduk at the heart of the city. This was a route taken during the important Near Year Festival when the statue of Marduk travelled from his temple to a building outside the city through the Ishtar Gate.


The reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin by User “Rictor Norton”, CC BY 2.0, Wikipedia


What was the relationship between the Ancient Near East and Ancient Egypt? How did they influence and affect each other?

Unsurprisingly, relations between Egypt and the Ancient Near East were strongest within the lands along the eastern Mediterranean coast and this becomes especially apparent from around 1500 BC when Egypt expanded its control over the region. From then onwards aspects of Egyptian art spread across the wider Near East e.g. the winged disk was adopted by the Hittites in Anatolia (Turkey) which in turn was incorporated by the Assyrians and Persians to depict some of their gods. By the seventh century BC an Egyptian military presence in the eastern Mediterranean was threatening Assyrian authority and Assyrian armies were despatched to deal with the threat. One result was that the Assyrian king was depicted as slightly larger – like the Pharaoh in Egyptian art – in reliefs of Ashurbanipal from Nineveh.

Over the past few years, professionals associated with history, art and archaeology have expressed deep concern over the activities of ISIS in Iraq. How much of heritage has been destroyed? And what needs to be urgently protected?

The destruction of Mesopotamian heritage has occurred over many decades as a result of invasion (the First and Second Gulf Wars led to the looting of museums and sites alongside the damage from bombs etc), occupation, sanctions and internal conflict. All has caused immense suffering to the people of Iraq and Syria. Cultural heritage has, however, been deliberately targeted by ISIS, probably for a range of reasons: religious, political and financial. There has been tremendous loss—much of the heritage of Mosul (ancient and Islamic) has been destroyed. Time and resources are needed for the local people to recover from the trauma and then be allowed to make decisions about what they want to restore and preserve.

What are your current topics that you are researching and what would you like to explore in the near future?

My main focus at the moment is the Nahrein Network, a research project funded by the UK government through the Arts and Humanities Research Council and directed by my colleague Professor Eleanor Robson at UCL. The aim is to support interdisciplinary research to enable universities, museums, and community groups to better serve local, post-conflict needs in Iraq and its neighbours.

I’m also planning a refurbishment of the Ashmolean’s Ancient Near East gallery, with a focus on the ways in which objects can be presented to better help us understand the societies of the region as well as their significance for the modern world.

What books would you like to recommend to the general reader who wants to understand the Ancient Near East better—both its visual and literary culture?

A beautifully illustrated book with the most up-to-date, accessible information is: Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture (2017, Thames and Hudson) by Zainab Bahrani. Without wanting to be guilty of self-promotion, I have provided an overview of Mesopotamian art and history together with that of Iran: Mountains and Lowlands: Ancient Iran and Mesopotamia (2016, Ashmolean Museum). For the most reliable translation, which captures as close as is possible the ancient rhythms and meaning of the poetry, nothing beats this translation of the Gilgamesh Epic: The Epic of Gilgamesh (2003, Penguin Classics) by Andrew George.


Possible representation of Gilgamesh as Master of Animals, grasping a lion in his left arm and snake in his right hand, in an Assyrian palace relief, from Dur-Sharrukin, now held in the Louvre. Image by User “Jastrow”, Wikipedia (Public Domain)