Gilded perfume bottles, rare and intricate jewellery, exquisite flowing wine and meals eaten on masterfully crafted tableware: it turns out, the concept of luxury has not changed all that much since 900–300 B.C. Debuting at the Hong Kong Museum of History this summer is a unique exhibition, “An Age of Luxury: the Assyrians to Alexander,” featuring 210 precious objects on loan from the British Museum, tracing the history from the Assyrian empire to the time of Alexander the Great — and looking at all the objects that fell in and out of favour with the top echelons of society throughout.
An Age of Luxury is filled with “lavish, beautiful objects that were commissioned, made and cherished between 900 and 300 B.C.,” says show curator Dr. Alexandra Fletcher of the Middle East department at the British Museum. ”This was an exciting time in the Middle East — it was when luxury objects were made in a quality, a quantity and a diversity that was really unprecedented, and has never been seen again.”
The exhibition is divided into six, roughly chronological sections. They take you through a journey of the materials considered as luxuries during each time period, associated with each of the empires in turn: “Bronze for the Assyrians; Phoenicians and their incredible scale at carving ivory; the Babylonians and their desire for precious stones; the Achaemenides who loved gold, and Greek glass,” says Fletcher.
“With 600 years of history, what was the most desired thing tended to change through time, but the thing that was always the best of the best, was gold: It doesn’t tarnish, it looks like the sun, it’s rare, and can be made to look absolutely beautiful.”
Certainly, one of the most impressive exhibits within An Age of Luxury is the gilded fish-shaped flask for perfumed oil (above) from the legendary Oxus treasure, discovered in the banks of the River Oxus in the 19th century — the largest hoard of Achaemenid gold and silver ever found.
It starts from a dark era of the Middle Ages, when as the Assyrian Empire rose in power, they pillaged and sacked cities in their path to conquer land and establish rule — mainly after bronze cauldrons and expensive furniture. You’ll find in the show a number of cast handles often shaped in animal heads, silver tributes as a form of protection money from their conquered lands, and clay texts and palace reliefs telling of their won battles, with translations available in English and Cantonese with a quick QR code scan on your phone. There are also tablet screens for you to zoom into artefacts and look at more detailed renderings and animations of the pieces.
You’ll also find remnants of palace decor, from rosette carved flooring to furniture decorated with lion’s feet, or elaborate military ornamentation for guards and soldiers in everything from horse bridles to bows and arrow cases.
Next, the exhibition also looks at the Phoenician Empire in the several centuries before it fell in roughly 539 B.C. — they had their territory squeezed westward by oncoming Assyrian forces to the east, and hence spread their talent in making and trading luxury goods across the Mediterranean and North Africa. During this time of movement where Greek powers were also expanding upwards to the Black Sea and Europe, the Phoenicians were particularly skilled at making carved natural items such as decorated ostrich eggs — an excellent porous drinking vessel that cooled the liquid it contained; fluted seashell cosmetics containers for precious oils; and decorated ivories. Before glassblowing was even invented, this civilisation already created brightly coloured glass perfume bottles, often filled with prized frankincense and myrrh, traded through from Arabia.
These days, you might compare these to the hand-painted labels on Buly 1803 cosmetic bottles; the highly sought after scents by Tom Ford and Diptyque, shirts and ties from Hermès and more.
“I don’t think the definition of luxury changes; we still want something that’s pleasurable, looks amazing, makes you feel good, it’s expensive, is rare… but what you attach those values to has changed through time,” says Fletcher. “Everybody was mad for frankincense, now it’s the latest iPhone. The qualities have stretched right the way through time. There are many things in this show that are still definitely modern luxuries, especially cosmetics.”
“A lot of the material were owned by kings… upper classes, the people who had the ear of the king, and held high positions in the military,” Fletcher tells us, “but I wanted to include some of the more ordinary people in this show.” But what happened back then when you couldn’t afford to have the best of the best? Like people still do now, interestingly, you faked it. As Dr. Fletcher shared, during times of Assyrian control, even when states were at war, you made yourself look like an Assyrian to show wealth and status. Similarly, one of the most iconic markers of the rich in Phoenician society was if you could wear fabrics dyed in a luscious, ‘Tyrian purple’ — apparently only achieved with 12,000 of a specific breed of sea snail. You could fake this purple — there’s a clay tablet on show depicting a recipe to faking this special purple dye.
Another marker of wealth was if you kept a well-manicured garden. A sculptured relief from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal (668–631 B.C.) in what is northern Iraq today shows luxurious hills, artificial streams filled with fish, game for hunting, and a mix of coniferous and deciduous trees — expensive to maintain, of course.
Thanks to these carefully curated gardens, royals could also gain access to the freshest of produce. In a section dedicated to fine dining, other pottery and clay tablets feature kings feasting on grapes and fresh pomegranates being served, expensive incense being burned, surrounded by musicians and dancers. And for those wine lovers out there, there’s a slice of spotlight for you too: with Greek vessels portraying an Achaemenid ruler represented as the God Dionysus — the patron of wine, feasting and hedonism — who is said to have travelled to the East where the Achaemenides came from, and learned about wine, bringing the culture back to Greece. Achaemenides were notorious for their wine consumption, with animal-headed cups holding the equivalent of two bottles of wine in one, and a plethora of wine-drinking paraphernalia from silver lades and strainers to expensive silver vessels hammered from a single sheet.
The show rounds off with a section on Alexander the Great’s conquest: where his lands eventually stretched from the Mediterranean to India, thus spreading eastern ideas of religion westwards, while also bringing Greek culture and political rule over the whole Middle East. Merging and moulding the diversity of cultures to a predominantly Greek culture, it’s all reflected in the precious materials, jewellery styles, and stonework seen across the region during this era, in an early feat of globalisation.
With stories and artefacts describing how different civilisations appropriated from each other, and how precious items were painstakingly crafted with the advanced technology at the time, An Age of Luxury is certainly worth a long afternoon of browsing at the Museum. The exhibition runs through 3 September 2018.