Launching: Object(s) of desire – A history of power explored through a series of objects

“Transport of Cedar Wood” (8th century BCE)
Low Relief, King Sargon II’s palace at Dur Sharrukin, now Khorsabad in Iraq, Louvre, Paris

Let’s kick off our treasure hunt through history by exploring how image has been used since time immemorial to portray and thereby enhance power – in this case, almost 3000 years before government departments, international organisations, non-state actors, firms and individuals engaged in public diplomacy, information warfare or PR.

The object we are looking at comes from an area very much in the news these days – from northern Iraq, near the city of Mosul. It is housed today by the Louvre’s Department of Near Eastern Antiquities in Paris.

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North wall of the main court, Dur Sharrukin (five carved slabs of gypseous alabaster, H. 3.03 m; W. 2.16 m H. 3.08 m; W. 4.09 m H. 3.08 m; W. 2.41 m H. 3.08 m; W. 2.41 m), Louvre, Paris

The low-relief (of which a part is pictured above) was placed right at the heart of kingly power, at a facade of the ceremonial courtyard leading to the throne room. Together with scenes of battles and of nations conquered in its vicinity, it conveyed a message that would have been immediately understood by the then onlooker: Submission was the only sensible conduct to adopt.

Why was such a prestigious emplacement chosen for carved stone slabs ostensibly only representing the cutting and transporting of wood by the sea and its transport via land?

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Sargon II, king of Assyria (on the right) reigned over northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey from 722 to 705 BCE. In 713, he set out to build a new capital, Dur Sharrukin, “Sargon’s House”, entirely devoted to representing his glory. Relief at the Louvre, Paris

Assyria was largely devoid of trees suitable for construction, and anything wooden, such as furniture, was priceless and a status symbol. The building of a huge city and of a sumptuous palace required a gigantic amount of wood, and an almost inconceivable investment in treasure. The trees, cedar trees, came most likely from the Lebanese mountains. In order to reach Dur Sharrukin, the timber had to sail along the Phoenician coast to the mouth of the river Orontes. From there, it travelled by river or by road to its final destination.

What does this low-relief tell us about power, then and perhaps now?

  • Control over resources and people – only a centralised state, in this case englobing large parts of the then known world had the organisational resources to carry off such a feat.
  • Affluence – only an empire exceedingly rich and powerful could embark on such a costly and risky endeavour purchasing and transporting expensive material from far away.
  • Technological superiority – only a state mastering the logistics of communication, of planning and of administration, of long-distance transport and of construction could assemble such a prestigious city.
  • Commercial ties – Only an empire with a vast sphere of influence and connections to the outside world could rise to such prominence.

Control over resources and people, affluence, technological superiority, commercial ties…This sounds all very familiar.

What also seems familiar is the necessity to reflect or demonstrate one’s power to an audience via images. Then and now, an image carries a message meant to influence, both representing power and acting as its tool.

It is as if power only existed when seen, and thereby acknowledged. A message perfectly understood by those posting videos of beheadings in present-day Assyria, and by those watching them.

Johanna M

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