Of Art and War: Ancient Treasures of Urartu
Content Developer, Emma Middleton, explores the story behind an ornate 8th century BCE bronze helmet from one of the lesser known great civilisations of the ancient world, the Kingdom of Urartu.
On approaching the land at Minni, the populations I carried away, the cities I burnt; their plunder for a spoil I acquired; the men and women, the boys and girls I carried off. I slew and took prisoner thousands of men. I carried off horses, camels, oxen, sheep…
At the request of King Argishti I of Urartu, this chilling inscription was carved into what is known as ‘Sarduri’s Rock’ at Van in the 8th century BCE. The words tell of 14 military campaigns carried out by the King. Argishti’s bold words are vividly communicated across 3000 years and his message is clear: the Urartians are coming. No person, animal or object will be spared.
King Argishti I ruled the Kingdom of Urartu 785 – 753 BCE. It is widely accepted that his thirty-two year reign was the height of Urartian power and influence. He was a fierce and ambitious military leader and carefully crafted cuneiform inscriptions, such as the one quoted above, tell us of his ruthless campaigns.
Located within the territories of modern Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia, Urartu, or the Kingdom of Van, was an ancient kingdom of the 9th – 6th centuries BCE and an important precursor of the nation that is today known as Armenia. Argishti was one of 15 kings that ruled Urartu throughout 300 years of power. Throughout this time the Urartians formed a highly developed civilisation in which a sophisticated state apparatus, flourishing towns and citadels, thriving art and crafts and a burgeoning cuneiform literary culture emerged.
Religion, war, art and slavery were the cornerstones of the empire. The Urartian people were guided by a pantheon of deities, led by the male god of gods, Khaldi, and his wife, Arubani, the supreme female goddess. The kingdom was characterised by strategic imperial expansion and the Urartian military followed a relentless cycle of invasion, abduction and exploitation of captured peoples for the purpose of slavery. These slaves strengthened the empire and stimulated economic growth as their captive labour was channelled into the development of a solid state infrastructure of citadels, fortresses, canals and roads.
In 1939, excavations at Karmir Blur, a Urartian city built in the 7th century BCE, began under the leadership of Boris Piotrovsky, archaeologist, orientalist, and former director of the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. At the site, located in modern day Yerevan, Piotrovsky and his team discovered the remains of an incredible city, palace and citadel – and lots of art; from intricate jewellery, colourful ceramics and vibrant frescoes to the highly skilled metalwork of ornate hunting and military equipment, inscribed bronze belts and 20 exceptional bronze helmets, one of which is pictured above.
This pointed bronze helmet is about the size of a large top hat and seen in the flesh, it is both startlingly beautiful and strikingly powerful. This helmet would have been worn by one of thousands of soldiers who carried out military campaigns under the command of King Argishti I. The helmet is decorated with three engraved bands and is bursting with symbolism. There are images of eleven trees surrounded by various deities who carry buckets in their left hands and fruit in their right. Snakes with the threatening heads of lions act as magical protectors for the owner of the helmet, warding off the evil they may meet while away at war. On the back and sides of the helmet there are images of warriors and horse-drawn chariots – indeed things become delightfully metaphysical as the warriors appear to be wearing helmets identical to the one on which they are depicted. Dominating the edge of the helmet is a description dedicating the headpiece to both the god of gods, Khaldi, and the King, Argishti - “to the god Khaldi, [his] lord, Argishti, the son of Minua, dedicated” - in turn dedicating the life of its wearer to the empire.
The bronze helmet is a fitting symbol of Urartian civilisation, epitomising two key facets of the period. On the one hand, it is an incredible work of art– brimming with symbolism, intricate patterns and fine engravings it is an excellent example of Urartian craftsmanship and creativity. On the other, it is a pragmatic object of war which represents the military might and aggression which allowed the great kingdom of Urartu to expand and endure for almost three centuries.
The exhibition Armenia: Legend and Reality is available for hire 2016 – 2020. The exhibition is produced by Nomad Exhibitions in partnership with ICOM Armenia and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Armenia. To view the full exhibition book please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bibliography and Further Reading
Andre-Salvini, Beatrice and Salvino, Mirjo, ‘The Myth of Ararat and the Fortresses of Urartu’ in Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age, eds. J. Aruz, S. B. Graff and Y. Rakic (New York, 2014).
Ayvazian, Alina, ‘The Urartian Empire’, in A Companion to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, ed. D. T. Potts (Malden, 2012).
Azarpay, Guitty, Urartian Art and Artifacts: A Chronological Study (Berkley, 1968).
Chahin, M., The Kingdom of Armenia: A History (London and New York: 1987).
Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art. "Urartu". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/urar/hd_urar.htm [Accessed: 4th May 2015].
Payaslian, Simon, The History of Armenia (New York and Hampshire: 2007).
Piotrovsky, Boris, The Ancient Civilisation of Urartu (California: 1969).
Piotrovsky, Boris, Urartu: The Kingdom of Van and Its Art (London: 1967).
Walker, Christopher J., Armenia: The Survival of a Nation (Kent: 1980).