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What If Britain Hadn’t Taken the “Lion Hunt Reliefs”?

The_Royal_lion_hunt_reliefs_from_the_Assyrian_palace_at_Nineveh,_the_king_is_hunting,_about_645-635_BC,_British_Museum_(12254914313)Hard as it is to believe, many people visit the British Museum and entirely miss the great seventh-century B.C. Assyrian lion hunt reliefs. I know, not only because some people have written that to me but also because I was one of them. On my first several visits to the BM, I didn’t know they were there. Once I discovered them, I was awestruck.

So when earlier this year the so-called Islamic State began destroying what remains at Nineveh, where the lion hunt reliefs came from, I proposed them as a “Masterpiece” for the column of that name in The Wall Street Journal. My piece, which tells their story, ran in Saturday’s paper under the headline An Enveloping Battle Between Kings.

To little surprise, my piece and other commentaries on the damage wrought by ISIS/ISIL is engendering comments like “Thank God the British rescued these artifacts and keep them for the world to see. If they hand been left in their homelands they would have been destroyed and the world would be a poorer place.” In another forum I read recently–can’t remember where–Getty Trust president James Cuno even advocated a return to the partage system, under which excavation partners split their finds, leaving some in the originating country and taking some home to American, British, French, German and Italian museums, among others.

I can’t see that happening. But we must figure out something to preserve the world’s important cultural sites. Some people think we should digitize everything or make 3D models of artifacts. That’s helpful, but obviously not the real thing and I wouldn’t want to see money diverted to such efforts as a substitute for preservation.

All ideas are welcome.




  1. We certainly want to preserve precious and rare art, but your article raises so many ironies. The British might have saved “The Lion Hunt,” but that pales in comparison to the great art and architecture the British destroyed in the carpet bombing of Germany, and other cities in Europe. Maybe we should send most European art to Brazil for safe keeping since historically it has had fewer incidents of mass cultural destruction than Europe. In fact, I suspect that historically Europe and America lead the world in the destruction of culture, both in terms of historical artifacts, and living cultures that are decimated through our economic and political philosophies.

    The USA played a large role in destabilizing Syria in the first place. Among countless books and articles on this topic, see: Dreyfuss, Robert (2006). Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. Holt.

    This could turn into a really effective system of appropriating art from people in “Third World” countries. First, destabilize them to the point of civil war, then snatch all their art for “safe-keeping.” Brilliant!

    I also think of the mass destruction and looting of art in Iraq that was a direct result of the US invasion, and which would not have happened if the US had not invaded. We even got to watch the mass destruction on TV.

    Another irony is the Elgin marbles, stolen by the British from the Parthenon, which they steadfastly refuse to return even though Greece even though it is a first world country, a member of the EU, and has built a state of the art museum that houses their historical treasures.

    It makes me think of the term “PIGS” that is often used in the British and American press . It refers to the economically stressed countries of Southern Europe and stands for Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain. It was coined by Barclay’s Bank and the Financial Times. Sometimes PIGS is replaced by “Garlic Belt.” The patina of racism is fairly obvious. Later Ireland was added, making the term PIIGS. Then as the British economy began to weaken and the government “overspend,” another G was added for Great Britain and the term became PIIGGS. Only then did the Financial Times decide the term was abusive and curb its use.

    So I wonder about the mentality of cultural appropriation that influences the thought of the more stable, “whiter skinned” countries of Northern Europe and America. It’s like asking the goats to protect the garden. Or maybe better, the wolves to protect those garlic-eating rabbits. Anyway, just a thought.

    • “The British might have saved “The Lion Hunt,” but that pales in comparison to the great art and architecture the British destroyed in the carpet bombing of Germany, and other cities in Europe. ”

      Are we just going to elide World War II from the discussion? That’s revisionism with a vengeance.

  2. Chris Crosman says

    Your readers migh be interested to know that several similar Assyrian reliefs are on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (Brunswick, Maine) for anyone planning a Maine summer vacation!

    • Without denigrating the Bowdoin College reliefs–they’re wonderful–the BM’s are far more extensive and, I would say, more important and more masterly.

      • Chris Crosman says

        My point is simply that the Bowdoin reliefs are a hell of a lot closer to North American for those without frequent flyer miles to cash in with British Air. Of course, the are not as extensive–though I would argue the “more masterful” bit–but they are authentic and a compelling argument for the preservation of such rare antiquities from cultures in the Middle East.

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