Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia

John Curtis + Nigel Tallis (editors)

University of California Press 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2006
The core of Forgotten Empire is the catalogue of a 2005/2006 British Museum exhibition. This consists of 160 pages of colour photographs covering 473 numbered items, divided into eight sections: "The Palace", "The Royal Table", "Jewellery and Personal Ornaments", "Religion and Burial Customs", "Administration", "Transport and Warfare", "Persia and Greece", and "The Legacy of Ancient Persia". The photographs are accompanied by catalogue information and descriptions, and there are short introductions to some groups of items.

The catalogue photographs are augmented with 100 pages of essays. Each section of the catalogue is preceded by an introduction and there are four additional essays: a history of the Persian empire which attempts to undo some of the bias imposed by Greek perspectives; a survey of inscriptions and languages which conveys something of the vast linguistic diversity of the Achaemenid empire; an account of the decipherment of Achaemenid cuneiform; and an overview of the archaeology of the period. These essays include additional photos of landscapes, sites, and architectural features not represented in the exhibition.

A common problem with exhibition catalogues is that the limited range of a museum's holdings can make them lop-sided. In this case, however, the British Museum's own collection has been augmented by items from the Louvre, the National Museum of Iran, and the Persepolis Museum, resulting in a near-comprehensive coverage. A wide variety of items are included: statuary, architecture, inscriptions, vessels, coins, seals, jewellery, weapons, and more. And the essays use literary and other sources to fill in the holes of the archaeological record.

The British Museum has a few low resolution images from the exhibition online, but they are no replacement for this catalogue. Combining excellent photographs with readable and sometimes provoking text, Forgotten Empire will be an essential volume for anyone with a serious interest in Achaemenid Persia.

April 2006

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%T Forgotten Empire
%S The World of Ancient Persia
%E Curtis, John
%E Tallis, Nigel
%I University of California Press
%D 2005
%O hardcover, photographs, references, index
%G ISBN 0520247310
%P 272pp