Stone tools made a million years ago. Colossal sculptures of ancient kings. A gold funerary mask and glove, sized for a young girl. These objects, recently excavated in Saudi Arabia, are rewriting the region’s history.
Beginning Friday you can see them at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in the exhibit “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Expect to catch a whiff of frankincense and myrrh. The show includes a smelling station and other interactive features designed to connect viewers with its trove of archaeological finds.
“It’s not just an exhibition,” says Kimberly Masteller, the museum’s curator of South and Southeast Asian Art. “It’s a diplomatic event.”
The opening festivities will be like nothing the Nelson has known before, she says. His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud will attend a private ribbon-cutting ceremony and dinner at the museum. The prince will be joined by Saudi dignitaries, Nelson supporters and exhibit sponsors, which include Exxon Mobil and Saudi Aramco. “There’s a lot of protocol involved,” said museum spokesperson Toni Wood. “We are working with the Saudi Arabian embassy to welcome not only the prince and dignitaries, but also Saudi press and Saudi students from area universities. We want them to be as comfortable as possible.”
The prince, a former Royal Saudi Air Force pilot who has also traveled in space, is the president and chairman of the board of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, which organized the “Roads of Arabia” exhibit in conjunction with the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.
“Roads of Arabia” is a show with a mission.
“Nobody brought up with European archaeology would have expected to find treasures in the desert,” Masteller said. “Given the harsh climate, early historians assumed this was a provincial region.”
But treasures there are, refuting the idea that Arabia was isolated from the other civilizations of the ancient world and offering a richer, fuller picture of a region Westerners have come to associate with oil, extremism and restrictions on women. The exhibit’s more than 200 recently excavated objects reveal that the ancient Arabians were engaged with their neighbors in a lively exchange of ideas and goods, most notably incense, which was as sought after as oil is today. Many of the objects were produced before the seventh century rise of Islam, when some religions worshipped female deities. “In the early seventh century A.D. and before, you have Judaism on the Arabian Peninsula, you have Christians, Nestorians and a heavy dose of paganism,” said Robert Cohon, the Nelson’s curator of the art of the ancient world.
Cohon has a theory about why frankincense and myrrh were so sought after by civilizations in the ancient world, when Arabia’s trading partners included the Egyptians, Syrians, Babylonians and the Greco-Romans.
Yes, they were used in religious rituals, but they also, he says, were used as perfume.
“Plumbing in the ancient world was expensive,” Cohon remarked. “I don’t think most people are going to have bathtubs. I can’t help but wonder to what extent did people smell bad. There was animal poo in the streets, so smelling good may have been particularly important in the ancient world.”
Ranging from Paleolithic times to the founding of the state of Saudi Arabia in 1933, the exhibit contains objects from many vanished civilizations and settlements.
Nelson exhibition designer John Jackson has been working for a year to create an engaging experience out of “material that is dense and foreign to most people.” “We’re really trying in the galleries with a lot of hands-on to unlock the complicated nature of this exhibit,” he said. “For coins or manuscripts or stamp seals, we will have magnifying glasses. There will be a station where people can re-assemble a broken piece of pottery and a bench where one can sit with an iPad and get recordings from scholars of the different languages being spoken.”
Setting up the exhibit
Lighting is a key part of Jackson’s design.
The exhibit opens with a darkened gallery displaying three spotlit funerary stelae (like sculptures) of human figures dating to the fourth millennium B.C. “These are among the most significant findings unearthed,” he said. “It was important to isolate them and give them their own moment.” Midway through the exhibit, viewers will find themselves bathed in sunshine as they contemplate three colossal statues of kings. Each weighs 2,500 pounds.
“Normally we have to lower the screens on that lens to moderate the light level,” Jackson said. “Most of the objects in this exhibit are unpainted stone, so light exposure doesn’t affect the coloration.”
The opportunity to present the statues in daylight “is really exciting and unique,” he said. “It’s like their original context. These three figures would have been in a covered portico out in the air.”
A photographic mural behind them shows their original location. Wall color was another important consideration for establishing mood and setting off the objects.
Jackson chose a deep emerald green to contrast with the reddish sandstone of the big statues, and a deep orange red for a gallery that features works in translucent white alabaster. “I’m particularly happy with the way that looks,” he said.
Early on in the show, viewers will see a film of a contemporary archaeologist demonstrating how you knap (cut and chip) stone to make a blade. It accompanies several cases of prehistoric tools, including Paleolithic scrapers and bifaces.
“They’re the oldest things we’ve ever exhibited.” Masteller said of the million-year-old tools. Perhaps the most compelling early object is a partial effigy of a horse, recently discovered by a farmer digging a well, and thought to date from the Neolithic period (about 10,000 to 2,000 B.C.).
It may be the oldest depiction of a domesticated horse or horse-like animal we yet know, Masteller says, judging from the carved band at its neck that indicates a yoke, and chipping around the muzzle that may point to a harness.
Moving from tools, to the domestication of animals, burial practices and the development of trade, “the show is like a textbook of unfolding human development,” Masteller said. One of the most striking aspects of these early works is the depiction of human figures, beginning with those 7,000-year old funerary stelae in the opening gallery and continuing in figurines, textiles and luxury objects, including a gold necklace with pearls, turquoise and ruby and a cameo human face.
With the rise of Islam and its rejection of human and animal forms in religious art, the vocabulary shifts to calligraphy and the distinctive arabesque design inspired by flowers and plants. The exhibit’s third section documents this shift with beautifully decorated objects, including illuminated manuscripts, inscribed tombstones, incense burners and copies of the Qur’an. A showpiece of this section is a set of gilded silver doors from the Ka’ba, Islam’s most sacred site, located within a mosque in Mecca.
Visible in an adjacent gallery through a translucent scrim is an extraordinary gathering of tombstones from the now-destroyed al-Ma’la cemetery. Striking calligraphic inscriptions relate the details and stories of the deceased, some high-born, others low, like the servant woman, described as “the mother of the child of Azhar,” her master. The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a relatively young country, officially founded in 1932, but set in motion when King Abdulaziz Al-Saud reconquered Riyadh from the Ottomans in 1902 and set about uniting the country. The exhibit’s final section explores the birth of the kingdom through objects such as the king’s robe, his gold sword and an early example of the national flag, emblazoned with the Muslim declaration of faith in Arabic and the image of a sword.
The flag is based on an early banner carried by Abdulaziz’s camel-mounted revolutionaries, Masteller said, as captured in a remarkable photograph taken in central Arabia in 1911.
Many viewers will experience a frisson of recognition on seeing an enlarged version of that photograph mounted on the wall — it looks like a scene from “Lawrence of Arabia.”
“Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” opens Friday at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. Hours: 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.; 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. The exhibit continues through July 6. Tickets cost $12 for adults, $10 for seniors over 55 and $6 for students with ID. Free to members and children under 12. For tickets, call 816-751-1278 or go to Nelson-Atkins.org.