The Ancient Near East gallery explores some of the most fundamental developments in human history. By 9000 BC early farming communities had settled at sites like Jericho where buildings were constructed from some of the first mud bricks.
Here you can come face to face with what may be the oldest portrait (around 7000 BC), a human skull from Jericho with plastered features and eyes inlaid with shells. Remembering the dead in this way may have helped bind the community together.
Over 5000 years ago some towns in Syria and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) began to grow into the world’s first cities. Writing on clay tablets was developed for bookkeeping but was later adapted to record history, myth and science. The famous Sumerian King List (about 1800 BC), displayed in its own case, names the cities of Mesopotamia and their rulers as if in an unbroken sequence from before ‘the Flood’ to the time of its composition.
Some kingdoms became powerful through trade and conquest. According to myth, kingship itself was lowered by the gods from heaven to the Mesopotamian city of Kish. The site was excavated between 1923-1933 by the University of Oxford and the Field Museum, Chicago. The gallery contains extraordinary objects recovered there, including inlay decoration from Mesopotamia’s earliest royal palace. Rich finds from graves at Kish are displayed with examples of jewellery from the Royal Graves of Ur.
While long distance exchange between Mesopotamia, Iran and the Indus Valley (modern Pakistan) is revealed by finds from Kish, a truly international age emerged in the period 2000-1000 BC. Elaborate wall paintings from the site of Alalakh in modern Turkey reveal the close connections between the civilizations of the Mediterranean world and those of Syria and Mesopotamia.
The Near East was increasingly unified politically from around 900 BC with the expansion of the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires. Finely sculpted stone reliefs of supernatural spirits and scenes of conquest from the Assyrian capitals of Nimrud and Nineveh are displayed at one end of the gallery. Wall cases contain objects excavated from these sites, including masterpieces of ivory carving, as well as from cities like Jerusalem that fell under the authority of these powerful states.