Assyrian Palace Sculptures

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Assyrian Palace Sculptures

By Paul Collins

With photographs by Lisa Baylis and Sandra Marshall

A beautiful photographic tour of some of the most magnificent artistic creations from ancient Iraq—the palace sculptures of Assyria.

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10 x 10.25 | 144 pp. | 140 color plates

ISBN: 978-0-292-72169-2

Between the ninth and seventh centuries BC, the small kingdom of Assyria in northern Iraq expanded to dominate the region from Egypt to Iran. The power of the Assyrian kings was reflected in a series of magnificent palaces in which the walls of principal rooms and courtyards were lined with huge panels of alabaster carved with images of the monarch as priest, victorious warrior, and hunter. These sculptures constitute some of the most impressive witnesses of the ancient Middle East, and this book serves as a superb visual introduction to what are undoubtedly some of the greatest carvings from the ancient world.

The book showcases a series of specially taken photographs of the British Museum's unrivaled collection of Assyrian sculptures. The images capture the majesty of the Assyrian king, as well as his magnificent court and its protecting divinities. An introduction sets the sculptures in their cultural and art historical context. A brief history of Assyria and the royal palaces is followed by an overview of the subject matter and meaning of the sculptures together with a discussion of their relationship with the artistic traditions of ancient Iraq and the wider region. There is also an exploration of the sculptures as the earliest examples of complex narrative art that developed from summary or symbolic scenes of royal achievements into images with multilayered meanings that occupied entire rooms and captured the raw emotion and energy of animals and humans with remarkable vitality.

  • Foreword
  • Introduction: Assyrian Palace Sculptures
  • The Art of Ashurnasirpal II
  • The Art of Tiglath-pileser III
  • The Art of Sargon II
  • The Art of Sennacherib
  • The Art of Ashurbanipal
  • Further Reading
  • Index

Nearly three thousand years after their creation, the Assyrian sculptures retain their power to astonish. They demand attention, and can even intimidate a viewer by their scale, authority, carefully observed treatment of animals and exquisite details of ornamentation, or the drama of a narrative that compels the eye to move from one image to the next. The emotional impact of the reliefs and the excellence of their design and carving easily qualifies them as great works of art. Even though their surfaces have been dulled by the passage of time, we can marvel at the artists' skill in creating a clear and vivid message: the Assyrian king, supported by the gods whose high priest he was, brings abundance to his land and defeats dangerous forces that disturb the divine order of the world.

It is perhaps the representations of the king as huntsman and warrior that are most disturbing for a modern audience; the pain of the hunted animals and the cruelty inflicted on those overwhelmed in battle has suggested to some that they are the product of a blood-thirsty people. Before reaching such a conclusion, however, we should pause to consider whether these scenes are any more barbaric in content than those portrayed in the countless representations that glorify wars and warriors decorating palaces, churches and government buildings around the world, as well as in more recent cinematic depictions. The reliefs certainly can serve to remind us of the brutality, cruelty and atrocities of war, and the pain inflicted on animals and humans across the globe, both in ancient and modern times. Indeed, what helps to make Assyrian imagery so compelling is that it presents a very believable world; conflict is not masked by treating it as set in mythological time and place as in the imagery of classical Greece. The violence of the Assyrians was considered a means to an end—it resulted in order. It is a concept that still resonates in the contemporary world, often with catastrophic consequences.

These magnificent sculptures were carved on huge panels of gypsum and limestone between about 875 and 620 BC. During this period the kingdom of Assyria, located in the fertile valley of the River Tigris in what is now northern Iraq, came to dominate a geographical area that stretched from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. As an expression of their piety and power, a number of Assyrian kings undertook vast building programmes at a series of royal centres. Although constructed of mud brick, palaces were made majestic by lining the walls of principal rooms with carved stone slabs which formed part of much wider schemes of decoration that included glazed bricks, wall paintings, textiles and furniture. The imagery embellishing the palaces was rooted in the artistic traditions of Syria and Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) but had developed from the late second millennium BC as a distinctive Assyrian visual language intended to glorify the king. The earliest scenes are summaries or symbols of royal achievements. By the seventh century BC, however, compositions, sometimes consisting of multiple narratives, might occupy entire rooms. This artistic tradition was brought to a violent end with the destruction of the Assyrian empire in 612 BC, when the palaces were abandoned and the sculptures were buried under decayed mud brick and debris for over two thousand years.

Recovery of the Assyrian Sculptures

The story of the recovery of the Assyrian sculptures begins in the early nineteenth century when most of the Middle East belonged to the Turkish Ottoman Empire. At this time most educated people in Europe were schooled in the Bible and classical authors, and they recognized that many of the sites in Iraq represented the remains of some of the oldest civilizations in the world; including Assyria. Indeed, European merchants, diplomats, and adventurers who had earlier journeyed through the region had returned with tales of the ancient ruins. However, opportunities for direct European exploration of these sites only became possible as a result of the widening interests of the British and French empires following Napoleon's expedition to Egypt and Palestine. Some of the earliest archaeological research was carried out by Claudius James Rich, British Resident in Baghdad from 1808 to 1820. The antiquities he gathered before his untimely death formed the basis for the Mesopotamian collections in the British Museum. It was, however, a Frenchman, Paul-Émile Botta who undertook the first major excavations in 1842. He started digging at Nineveh, but a lack of major discoveries led him to move to the site of Khorsabad where he started to uncover the palace of Sargon II (721–705 BC) and its superlative sculptured monuments.

These French discoveries had a profound impact on Austen Henry Layard, an Englishman who had trained as an attorney, but who had spent several years from 1839 exploring the Middle East including visiting some of its ancient sites and expressing a desire to see them excavated. By 1845, at the age of twenty-eight, he was attached to the staff of Sir Stratford Canning, the British ambassador at the Ottoman court in Constantinople. Writing in the Malta Times, which had been founded by Canning to foster British interests in the eastern Mediterranean, Layard revealed his passion for the newly discovered Assyrian sculptures. With the support of the British Resident in Baghdad, Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, whose own interests lay in the cuneiform writing system of ancient Iraq, Layard persuaded Canning to provide funds for two months of excavations at the site of Nimrud. Sir Stratford needed little encouragement. He had already acquired some fragments of Assyrian sculptures from Botta's excavations at Khorsabad and these had been forwarded to London as curiosities for Lord Lansdowne who owned a famous collection of Classical sculptures.

In November 1845 Layard began to excavate and, almost immediately, his workmen found inscribed stone panels. Within weeks, sculptured slabs were being uncovered in the ruins of the so-called Southwest Palace of Esarhaddon (680–669 BC). Rawlinson was unexcited by the carved scenes writing, 'I regard inscriptions as of greater value than sculptures'. Canning too doubted the works' aesthetic worth but nonetheless valued the finds because they allowed England to rival and even surpass the achievements of France. In this spirit of competitiveness, by 1846 arrangements were made for the British Government to take over responsibility for funding the excavations and Layard became the agent of the British Museum. The excavations now began to uncover outstanding reliefs in the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC). Agreements were made with the Ottoman government, which had little interest in antiquities at this time, to have the sculptures shipped to England. With the help of his assistant Hormuzd Rassam, Layard set to work copying inscriptions, drawing the reliefs, making casts, and having the slabs crated for transport or reburying any that could not be moved.

Layard closed the excavations at Nimrud in May 1847 and briefly turned his attention to Nineveh, where he located the greatest of the Assyrian palaces belonging to Sennacherib (704–681 BC). However, by now his funds were exhausted and Layard returned to England; the first reliefs arrived in London in June. They had been transported on carts to the Tigris, loaded onto barges which carried them to Basra, where they were transferred to a steamship and taken to Bombay. From India, they were sailed around Africa to Chatham before being transported to the British Museum. This great achievement was acknowledged in popular publications such as the Penny Magazine. Intended to serve the education of the British working classes, these periodicals eagerly endorsed Layard's positive descriptions of the reliefs. The rhetoric had great appeal and people could appreciate the finds from Layard's descriptions without recourse to a Classical education:

they are immensely superior to the stiff and ill-proportioned figures of the monuments of the Pharaohs. They discover a knowledge of the anatomy of the human frame, a remarkable perception of character, and wonderful spirit in the outlines and general execution.

Reception of the Assyrian Sculptures

The rapid discovery of so many reliefs took the British Museum by surprise. The Museum's Greek-revival building, designed by architect Robert Smirke, was reaching completion but no one had foreseen the need of space for the Assyrian sculptures. Many of the Museum's Trustees, staff and their advisors were less than enthusiastic about the aesthetic merit of the reliefs as they considered Greek art to be superior to all other. Nevertheless, viewed as historical documents for illuminating the world of the Bible, the Assyrian sculptures immediately went on show in temporary accommodation. Reliefs carved with narrative scenes from the throne room of the Northwest Palace as well as two slabs depicting protective spirits and a further fragment were placed in a room devoted to miscellaneous antiquities (the first room on the left on entering the front door) together with a range of sculptures including British antiquities.

The excitement generated by the discovery of the sculptures created a demand for public access to the Assyrian monuments that continued to arrive. In 1849, the Museum responded by opening the so-called 'Nimroud Room'. This was a basement space which one contemporary museum officer described as a 'dark vault where they [the sculptures] cannot be seen at all'. Entered by a temporary wooden staircase, in this small space visitors were unable to stand in front of the reliefs which were cordoned off.

Perhaps more than any other factor that caused the public to flock to view the Assyrian sculptures at the British Museum was the publication in 1849 of Layard's best-selling Nineveh and its Remains which ultimately went through six different editions. Although the book gives only a limited account of the Assyrian excavations, it contains a story which combines adventure, romance, discovery, the exotic, and the ability of one man to overcome adversity. Above all, people's imaginations were captured by the ingenious ways in which Layard was able to ship home the massive sculptures, particularly the huge winged bulls and lions, the first of which arrived at the Museum in 1850. This was seized upon with enthusiasm by the popular press, especially the Illustrated London News. Indeed, the massive animals came to serve as visual emblems not only of Assyria but also the achievements of a heroic Victorian adventurer. The arrival of yet more sculptures, coupled with the public enthusiasm for Assyria, compelled the British Museum to provide them with more appropriate, permanent accommodation. Anew installation of the reliefs was created between 1852 and 1854. Two long, narrow rooms were designed from space squeezed in between the Egyptian and Greek sculpture galleries. Even though the then Keeper of Antiquities described these rooms as 'only an expedient and not a very good one', the sculptures remain today where they were first installed 150 years ago. In 1857–8 additional space was created with the construction of the 'Assyrian Basement Room' west of the Nimrud Gallery; a mezzanine floor was installed here in the 1960s to create the current arrangement of Assyrian galleries.

Appreciation of the Assyrian Sculptures

This juxtaposition of Assyrian and other ancient civilizations in the British Museum neatly reflected the understanding among many nineteenth-century connoisseurs of antiquity that Assyrian art represented a link in a developmental sequence which led from the achievements of Egyptian art to the idealised humanism of ancient Greece and the ultimate triumph of the Parthenon sculptures. Previously, universal histories of the ancient world had relied on Persian art as the link between Egypt and early Greece but now Assyrian art came to replace it. The Assyrian sculptures were generally perceived as an art of power, grandeur and violence in contrast to Egyptian calm and Greek beauty. Critics, such as John Ruskin, found the scale and simplicity of the design, particularly of the colossal winged animals, appealing. These opinions were popularly endorsed in reactions to the so-called 'Nineveh Court' at the Sydenham Crystal Palace exhibition which opened in June 1854. Here, in one of a series of spaces dedicated to the art and architecture of various historical periods, Assyria was presented using casts of the sculptures set within a structure designed to convey an 'idea' of Assyrian architecture that included several winged bulls, their bright colours based on the few fragments of paint found on the ancient reliefs, wall paintings and glazed bricks.

Layard, who wrote the guide to the 'Nineveh Court' at Sydenham, was now a national celebrity and he resumed excavations in 1849. However, even after Layard left archaeology for good in 1851 to pursue a career as a diplomat, public interest in Assyria remained closely tied to his achievements through the books he continued to write about the subject and his adventures. Indeed, the public enthusiasm for Assyria prompted the so-called Assyrianrevival style in the decorative arts, including jewellery. Machine-made brooches, ear-rings and bracelets were manufactured largely from simple gold plaques with replicas of the reliefs applied to them. The fashion for Assyrian-style objects also led W.T. Copeland & Sons Ltd to expand the range of their Parian Ware porcelain collectibles to include figurines of, among others, Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal. Though inspired by the reliefs they were modelled in the round in the fashion of contemporary portrait busts and marble sculptures. None the less, one commentator described them as 'faithful reproductions of Assyrian art'.

Among artists and critics, however, there was less interest in Assyrian art. Indeed, when reference was made to the sculptures, in particular the massive gate guardians, they were often evoked simply to emphasise the transience of empires such as in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem The Burden of Nineveh. Despite the fact that the discovery of the Assyrian reliefs coincided with the popularity in England and France of history painting, in which antique themes combine archaeological exactitude with scantily clad women, the sculptures rarely figure. Gustave Courbet merely capitalized on the acclaim of the Assyrian discoveries by making reference to his long pointed beard as the 'Assyrian beard' even though it bore no resemblance to those depicted in the reliefs.

Some muted attention from within the art community was, however, devoted to sculptures discovered in Assyia after Layard had left for London. Hormuzd Rassam continued to dig at Nineveh, as well as at many other sites throughout Iraq, and in 1853 he discovered the palace of Ashurbanipal (668–631 BC) including some of the famous reliefs depicting the Assyrian king hunting lions. Afurther series of hunting reliefs was discovered the following year by his successor, the English geologist and archaeologist William Kennet Loftus. On their arrival in London, the Times newspaper described the reliefs as 'the finest specimens of that art hitherto found'. Indeed, Delacroix remarked on the naturalism in the form of the animals, while the notebooks of Edgar Degas and Gustave Moreau contain sketched details but these never found their way into finished paintings. Only a few contemporary painters, such as Briton Riviere and Frederick Bridgman, were inspired to produce finished works, transforming events depicted in the reliefs into realistic scenes which sometimes included references to specific Assyrian sculptures. However, more generally, when such Assyrian imagery did figure, it merely served as an authenticating element for Biblical and Oriental scenes; often pastiches that might also included Renaissance, classical and contemporary Arab elements designed to evoke an exotic and mysterious East. The inclusion of Assyrian details to persuade viewers of a scene's historical authenticity also figured in the cinema from W.D. Griffiths' Intolerance of 1916 to more recent 'historical' epics.

When the Assyrian sculptures were considered as art in their own right, there was a tendency to regard the separate panels as individual works. Indeed, the British Museum had wanted only one example of each kind of relief and so Layard and Rawlinson had distributed others to individuals and institutions around the world. Some sculptures were even cut down in the nineteenth century to produce, for example, 'portrait' heads. The reliefs thus became divorced from their intended role as integral elements of much larger schemes of decoration within the Assyrian palaces.

Understanding the Assyrian Sculptures

The notion that realistic art was the highest form achievable began to be questioned in the new intellectual climates that emerged from the scientific and social revolutions of the nineteenth century and ultimately the social devastations wrought by the First World War. The traditional aesthetic values of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have proven durable, however, and even today it is often taken for granted that a work of art is intended as a record of visual reality.

During the second half of the twentieth century, many art historians and archaeologists devoted their energies to reintegrating in print the scattered Assyrian reliefs in order to reconstruct something of the original schemes of decoration in the palaces. It has thus become possible to answer more fully questions about the meaning of the imagery and what tasks it was designed to fulfil. Attempts have begun to be made to understand how the techniques, subject matter, narrative composition, space, scale and significance of the sculptures operated within an Assyrian world view. It is now clear that levels of realism in images are culturally constructed and that there is no universal struggle by artists towards ever greater realism in their work as was previously considered to be the case. In Assyrian culture, image makers were interested in representing the essential abstract form of their subject; imitating the precise external form was not important. What was created met certain standards of correctness as understood by the Assyrian audience. When the fitness of the image for its intended task was combined with skill in production, the result produced a response in the viewer described in the Assyrian texts with such words as 'radiance', 'wonder' and 'joy'. These words were similarly used to describe the experience of the sacred. They reveal the close association between the representations and the divine world that was thought of as the source for the correct order of the universe. Thus, for example, a relief depicting the Assyrian king was intended as a portrait of kingship rather than that of a specific man who possessed distinctive physical features. As high priest of Ashur, every king was the divinely appointed custodian of Assyria and through his relationship with the gods he ensured victory and abundance.

Each Assyrian king proclaimed his success in achieving this perfect image of kingship by recording his name and accomplishments in cuneiform inscriptions. In addition, narrative scenes, represented in either paint, metalwork or carved stone, could be historically specific and revealed a particular ruler's success in imposing the just rule of the god Ashur. This divine world order was considered to be unchanging, with the result that continuity was respected and the qualities of aesthetic value and experience remained relatively fixed. Hence, although stylistic and technical innovations occurred in Assyria, the message of the reliefs remained largely consistent throughout the 250 years of their creation—the glorification of the king as the embodiment of perfect kingship achieved through the benevolence of the gods. Some of the meaning of the carved imagery inevitably becomes easier to understand when it is possible to view sequences of the actual slabs in their original order. For this, the British Museum's collection of sculptures provides unparalleled opportunities. There is the added bonus that the encyclopaedic nature of the Museum makes it possible to investigate how Assyrian art both informed and was influenced by the art of other cultures. The unity of the Middle East established by Assyrian military expansion and diplomatic relations resulted in vast movements of goods and peoples, leading as never before to cultural exchanges and technological and social revolutions. With the growth of the empire it became necessary to adjust the imagery of the reliefs so that, as Irene Winter has persuasively argued, the ideological messages they incorporated could also be understood by a non-Assyrian audience. Thus by the seventh century BC, specific Assyrian cultic imagery had become less evident while scenes of battle, celebration and lines of deportees were the dominant themes. In addition, the re-working of the imagery produced an almost unique development in the history of ancient art, an expansion in the detailed portrayal of historical narratives.1 Despite these developments, the clarity of the central message of the reliefs was never lost, and its impact on the wider region, perhaps conveyed on portable objects as much as via the massive carvings, can even be recognised in the sculptures of Persia and Lycia long after the Assyrian palaces themselves had been abandoned.

The origins of Assyrian palace sculptures.

To appreciate fully the meaning of the palace sculptures it is necessary to understand the transformation of Assyria from a small trading centre into a mighty empire. The name Assyria derives from the city of Ashur, home of a god with the same name. Situated on an escarpment overlooking the Tigris, the settlement had developed since at least the mid-third millennium BC as a cultic and tribal centre. The basis of the Assyrian economy was agriculture; wheat and barley were grown across the surrounding rolling plains while sheep and goats were pastured on the less fertile areas and rough hills. Irrigated orchards also contributed to the agricultural production. The inhabitants of this rural world lived in small market towns and villages, their houses built from plastered sun-dried mud-brick and coarse stones.

It was the geographical position of Ashur that determined the growth of the state, at first commercially and then politically. To the north and east of Assyria lay heavily wooded mountain ranges which gave access to raw resources such as exotic stones and metals. To the southwest a progressively drier steppe reached towards the deserts of Arabia. Bounded by the mountains and desert, trade routes converged on Ashur which, by controlling a significant crossing of the Tigris, provided a passage for goods moving between southern Iraq and Iran and the West. The Assyrians, although sharing the language (Semitic Akkadian) and culture of Mesopotamia, drew upon a wide Middle Eastern heritage.

By 2000 BC trade was playing a major role in Ashur's relations with the wider world. The city's merchants had come to monopolise trading relations with states across the Anatolian plateau (modern Turkey) where small colonies of Assyrians exchanged textiles and tin for silver and gold. Although these mercantile families had considerable authority in Ashur, of central importance for the community was the Assyrian king, who held the significant role of high priest of the state god. An image of the god Ashur represents one of the earliest surviving Assyrian stone reliefs; it dates to the first half of the second millennium BC when groups speaking Amorite and Hurrian languages were expanding their authority across the plains of Syria and Iraq. The large limestone block, which was found in the god's temple at Ashur, is carved in relief with the figure of a bearded man shown frontally almost two-thirds life-size. His lower body and headdress are covered in a scale pattern, the traditional Mesopotamian method of depicting hills and mountains. Ashur is thus envisaged as embodying the very hill on which his city was built. Flanked by smaller figures representing rivers and streams, the god holds branches ending in fir cones, two of which are being eaten by goats, his sacred animal.

Around the year 1400 BC, Ashur lost its independence to the Hurrian kingdom of Mitanni centred in eastern Syria. The city now shared the types of painted pottery and faience cylinder seals, carved in a crowded busy style, found along the east - west trade routes. However, after half a century, Mitanni's power began to decline and the Assyrian king Ashur-uballit I (1363–1328 BC) took advantage of this to annex the important grain-growing regions to the north and east of the capital Ashur, which included the towns of Nineveh, Arbela and Arrapha (Kirkuk). The ideology of Assyrian kingship was transformed over the following years as Ashur-uballit and his successors led their forces west and north to acquire labourers, metals and horses, and to keep in check mobile pastoralist groups. With no natural boundaries to define the state, Assyria was increasingly driven to campaign as each conquest brought its borders to those of other potentially hostile states and peoples. This reality was translated into a religious doctrine with the Assyrian king swearing a coronation oath to extend the lands of the god Ashur. By the early thirteenth century Assyrian forces had pushed south against the border with Babylonia while, to the west, the remnants of the heartland of Mitanni were absorbed.

As Assyrian power grew there emerged a new and original local artistic style. The densely packed imagery of the Mitannian cylinder seals gave way to well-balanced compositions finely cut in stones such as chalcedony. Awinged griffin-demon, often grasping its prey by their hind legs, is a popular figure on these seals. There was also a revival of more traditional Mesopotamian themes such as the contest scene which was given an Assyrian flavour with a single hero or a mythological creature grasping an animal.

The Assyrian king was now interacting at a diplomatic level with the powerful Egyptian, Hittite and Babylonian rulers who all called each other 'brother' in their mutual correspondence. An international style of art had emerged, through which the owners of small luxurious objects could express their shared relationship across and between these great kingdoms. Such images included animals grazing among exotic, stylized vegetation. Assyria's entry into this exclusive family of 'brothers' came relatively late, with the result that its relationship with the international style was to some extent muted. Nevertheless, a favoured design for Assyrian cylinder seals, which reflects influence from the west, was an animal such as a goat, gazelle or deer, sedately pacing towards a tree.

During the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC the central tenets of Assyrian kingship began to be expressed in ever longer royal inscriptions on clay and stone objects. In an ancient Mesopotamian tradition, these texts were often incorporated into the foundations of temples and were designed to be read by the gods as well as future rulers who might discover them when restoring the building. As a declaration of their piety, Assyrian kings recorded their name, ancestry and achievements. Such texts announced their success in maintaining the order demanded by the gods and would often conclude with a command that, if the inscription were uncovered, the inscribed royal name should not be destroyed but be honoured. Over time the narrative sections of many of these inscriptions, detailing military campaigns and the collection of plunder and tribute, became longer and more complex. The developing importance of narrative within these expressions of kingship would eventually manifest itself in Assyrian visual art as it too was transformed to reflect the expansion of Assyrian power.

Not all Assyrian royal inscriptions were hidden from view. For example, a series of freestanding monuments (stelae) were erected at Ashur. Each ruler had his own stela inscribed with his name, and, perhaps every year, another was set up recording the name of a senior official. This had the practical value of creating a monumental calendar and king-list which could be consulted. Most of the surviving inscriptions on the stelae begin with the word salam which may be translated as 'symbol of' or 'image of'. Such monuments therefore stood for the named individual even though there was no visual imagery accompanying the inscription. The same Assyrian word for 'image' is also used in their texts to describe a statue, metal engraving, relief, painting or drawing. Text and visual image thus existed as parallel forms of representation. When the two were combined on monuments the text did not necessarily relate directly to the image but nonetheless acted to create a more complete statement of authority.

This is made apparent in one of the earliest surviving royal images from Ashur. Carved in relief on one side of a rectilinear stone pedestal is a representation of two bearded figures in profile, facing towards an altar that has the same form as the one that bears the scene. The pedestal is in fact a support for a divine symbol and is inscribed on its stepped base with a text of the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I (1244–1208 BC). The fringed robes and mace identify both men in the scene as the king, his right hand raised with pointed figure in a distinctive Assyrian gesture of prayer. We thus see Tukulti-Ninurta approaching and kneeling before the altar at the same time. A symbol on top of the altar may represent a clay tablet, and the tapering rod dividing it, a writing stylus. The accompanying inscription states that the unceasing prayers of the king, perhaps imagined as being written on the tablet, were repeated daily by Nusku, the god of light, in the presence of the gods Ashur and Enlil. The relief is thus a representation—literally a re-presentation—of the actual act of worship by the king. The scene is a continuous narrative, that is, the action takes place within the same space rather than in separate episodes as in a modern comic strip. Through this very sophisticated use of space, the artist emphasises the unceasing nature of the king's worship as stated in the inscription—there is nothing visually to disrupt his movement.

Although the king's role as high priest remained paramount, it was the military successes of Tukulti-Ninurta I that considerably enhanced the image of Assyrian kingship. Assyrian authority was extended west into Hittite territory and, most spectacularly, south into Babylonia. The plundering of the great city of Babylon was celebrated not only in royal inscriptions but also in a lengthy poem that was copied in Assyria for centuries, underlining the scale of the achievement. The heightened historical consciousness apparent in the literary works is reflected in the contemporary visual arts. For example, the carved imagery on a fragment of a small black stone lid from the area of Tukulti-Ninurta's palace at Ashur was probably inspired by the Babylonian campaign. A sufficient amount of the lid survives to show that it was divided into two equal halves by a straight line in relief. The top half has a scene of battle in which a largely missing figure adopts a stance known from Babylonian sculptures and rock reliefs of the later third millennium BC in which a triumphant king presses his foot on a defeated enemy. On the lid, the warrior raises his sword ready to strike a naked man he grasps by the hair (the pointed blade is visible above the hole for the peg on which the lid would have pivoted). This action parallels scenes found on contemporary Assyrian cylinder seals where a hero in a tasselled skirt brandishes a weapon against an animal he grasps by the leg. Thus on the lid an Assyrian hero appropriates a Babylonian stance of royal triumph. With the exception of the hero, all the figures in the battle scene are naked, a standard Mesopotamian method of indicating that they are dead or about to die. The men are shown almost frontally but all the heads are rendered in profile which conveys action and the involvement of the actors in a space of their own. Despite the care with which the figures have been carved, there is no indication of landscape to indicate place. This is an iconic image of a victorious king which stands outside space and time.

In the lower half of the lid, on the far right, the conical hat of a man crosses the central dividing line, suggesting a connection between the two scenes. He may have originally been shown standing in a chariot drawn by the two horses whose heads survive. Further left, a man facing left with a short beard and wearing a conical hat raises a bowl in his hand. In representations of later date, this is a ritual gesture made by the Assyrian king to celebrate his and, by association, the gods' achievements. Since the man with the bowl is shown directly beneath the warrior in the upper register, it is probable that these two figures are intended as representations of the king. Although both registers contain separate iconic images of kingship, that is conquest and celebration, there is a relationship established between them. The artist had used the circular form of the lid and the direction of the figures to create a continuous reading of the message. At the top, action moves to the right, while at the bottom peace is celebrated by a return to the left and a simple narrative is achieved. The style of the carvings on the pedestal and lid was possibly inspired by wall paintings, the usual form of decoration within royal buildings; the two-dimensional approaches of the paintings were basically transferred to stone. Examples of such paintings have been found at the site of Kar-Tukulti Ninurta, a royal city established by Tukulti-Ninurta I across the river from Ashur. Here the walls were painted with stylised palm trees, sometimes flanked by animals such as goats, chains of palmettes and rosettes, and bird-headed griffin men. There was an interest in the clarity of the design where symmetry is an important element. Similar balanced compositions are found in cylinder seal designs of the same period. Combative themes are developed with scenes of fights between animals, often protecting their young against lions or griffins in a triangular arrangement. The horse and the fallow deer are frequently represented as well as winged bulls and horses.

Images of conflict between animals and between humans perhaps reflect the militancy of the period. By the middle of the twelfth century BC the political and social structure of the eastern Mediterranean world had began to unravel with the collapse of the Hittite and Egyptian empires. In addition, climatic changes pushed populations of Syria into more nomadic lifestyles which disrupted communications. The result was that under Tiglath-pileser I (1114–1076 BC), Assyria struggled to maintain its authority in the west. Around 1100 BC, however, the king undertook a triumphal march through Syria to the Mediterranean and received gifts and tribute en route. It is possible that Tiglath-pileser was influenced by the decorative traditions he encountered, since he records that a new building he had constructed at Ashur was embellished with limestone and basalt slabs just as is known much earlier at Syrian sites such as Ebla. In addition, one of his palaces at Ashur had its lower courses covered in slabs of alabaster. There is no indication that these stone panels were carved. However, the king informs us in his royal inscriptions that at the gates of a second palace he had erected guardian figures of basalt, such as were regularly used in western Syria. By the time of his son Ashur-bel-kala (1073–1056 BC), additional gate guardians had been added so that the palace was eventually protected by two nahiru, an animal identified as coming from the Mediterranean, and six burhish (two of which were of limestone) from Iran or Anatolia; the sculpted animals were intended to reflect the extent of Assyria's influence from west to east. In addition there were four lions of basalt and two alabaster lamassus (probably human-headed winged bulls).

Although Tiglath-pileser undertook extensive building projects at Ashur, the city was increasingly occupying a marginal position as Assyria had expanded northwards. The result was that the ancient site of Nineveh became more important. Here the king had a palace decorated with glazed bricks, some of which represented palms, perhaps symbolizing divine abundance. Of particular significance, however, was the wall decoration utilized by Tiglathpileser in a second palace at Nineveh. According to the written annals of his achievements he, 'portrayed therein the victory and might which the gods… had granted me'. These images have not survived but presumably represented scenes of battle, perhaps as narrative, in either sculpture, or glazed bricks, or paint. The inclusion of references to these depictions in the royal inscriptions indicates the significant role that visual imagery now played in Assyrian royal ideology. Indeed, there is good evidence for the production of Assyrian monumental stone carvings in an image of Tiglath-pileser sculpted in low relief on a cliff face in eastern Turkey at what was considered to be a source of the River Tigris. The king is represented in profile, standing with his hand raised in prayer.

Public images of the ruler were also presented on free-standing stone monuments such as stelae and obelisks. Ashur-bel-kala is depicted on the so-called Broken Obelisk from Nineveh, facing two pairs of tributaries or bound prisoners with the symbols of the gods above them. The king is shown considerably larger than the other figures, indicating his importance. His face is placed in line with the divine symbols, one of which, that of the sun god Shamash, hands the king a bow to indicate the source of his victory.

Of slightly later date, perhaps from the reign of Ashurnasirpal I (1049–1031 BC), is the so-called White Obelisk from Nineveh. The limestone pillar is carved in low relief with eight horizontal registers. The carvings show military campaigns, the bringing of tribute, victory banquets, religious and hunting scenes; they are therefore among the earliest representations of what would become the main themes of the Assyrian palace sculptures. The organization of the images is, however, unexpected. There is an expansion in the length of individual scenes within each register moving from a single image on each of the four sides at the top and bottom of the monument towards the two middle registers, where single scenes wrap around the entire pillar. In fact, the top and bottom halves of the monument are essentially mirror reflections of each other in both structure and subject matter. This has led Holly Pittman to make the inspired suggestion that the carvings on the obelisk are a reduced copy of imagery, perhaps wall paintings, which originally lined the long walls of a rectilinear throne room. In her reconstruction, the paintings decorated opposing walls: at one end of the room there were scenes of siege directly across from scenes of the hunt moving in the opposite direction. Further along the room there were opposing images on the walls of ceremony and celebration and, finally, longer scenes of tribute-bearers. Thus the sculptor of the White Obelisk copied the imagery from the length of one wall and, dividing the themes of the paintings into four registers, carved them from the top to the middle of the obelisk. Then, taking the images from the second wall but starting with the longer tribute scene, the registers were carved from the middle to the bottom of the obelisk.

An alternative reconstruction could have the hypothetical wall paintings arranged in two parallel registers along one wall of the throne room. The sculptor simply divided them between the upper and lower halves of the obelisk, carving the first images of the upper register at the top of the obelisk and the first images of the lower register at the bottom, winding each towards the middle. The source of the obelisk's imagery in this arrangement would thereby find a close parallel in the earliest surviving stone wall reliefs—those from the throne room of the ninth-century Northwest Palace at Nimrud discussed below—where both siege and hunts move in the same direction.

Creating and displaying the reliefs

The design and construction of the enormous Assyrian royal palaces during the ninth to seventh centuries BC inevitably involved many specialists. The most important people responsible for the decorative scheme were likely to have been the scribal scholars who were experts in magic, religion and the ideology of kingship. Only they would have been able to determine the correct form and location of the images so that the protective spirits and the cultic messages could be effective. Similarly, the scribes who composed and edited the royal inscriptions would have probably devised the narrative messages of the painted or carved images; the visual tradition was probably transmitted and preserved in the way that texts were transmitted and preserved within scribal schools. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the Assyrian artists were heavily influenced by traditional forms of representation in stoneworking, wall painting and metal and ivory engraving. It is likely that the king's approval was sought for at least the most important aspects of the design. This is reflected in contemporary documents, such as a seventh-century BC cuneiform letter from Nineveh in which a scholarpriest informs the king that he has sketched a royal image and sent it to him for his comments.

Statements of kingship as well as the content of narratives were carefully crafted and information selected to highlight the central message; in scenes of battles, for example, only enemy soldiers are killed or injured. The carved figures were formed from basic lines to achieve clarity. Humans are usually shown with a twisted perspective so that the body appears almost frontally but the heads are rendered in profile; no individual in the reliefs ever looks out at the viewer, they exist in a self-contained world in which the action unfolds. The power structure of the Assyrian world is clearly defined, with the most important individuals empowered by the clothing and equipment that marks their office. It is an almost entirely male world of war and sport in which women appear only as prisoners or to celebrate the king's achievements. The Assyrian king himself can always be easily recognized because he wears the royal crown, a conical headdress with a small cone on top and a diadem with long streamers at the back.

The agreed design would have determined to some extent the size of the stone slabs to be carved. The stone used for the sculptures, with a few limestone exceptions, is gypsum, the finest grained examples of which can be termed alabaster (in Iraq it is sometimes called Mosul Marble). Blocks were quarried from outcrops in the Assyrian countryside on both sides of the River Tigris. Some details of the quarrying of the stone can be learnt from a series of magnificent reliefs from the palace of King Sennacherib (704–681 BC) at Nineveh. The hard work was largely undertaken by prisoners of war. Metal picks were used to extract the stone and it was then cut into blocks with long iron saws. For larger sculptures, like the gateway figures, the shape was roughed out in the quarries to reduce weight. The slabs were then dragged using levers and rollers through the countryside to the city. If the quarries were on the other side of the river, the stone was loaded onto rafts and floated across; the heaviest pieces would have to wait for the spring floods. The slabs destined for panelling the walls averaged between two and three metres high and thirty centimetres thick. Individual slabs can weigh several tons, with the blocks for the largest gateway figures at Nineveh weighing as much as forty tons.

Often scribes would incise or paint royal titles in cuneiform on one side of a wall slab which was then chiselled by a stoneworker. This side of the panel was destined to be set against the mud brick wall of a room; the invisible inscription was intended for the gods and posterity. The design of the relief was then drawn onto the other side. The gypsum, a very soft stone, was incised easily with a metal point, in the same way that the scribes drew images with a sharpened stick on clay tablets. This may have been undertaken in workshops where the slabs were laid out in rows, which would have been especially useful where the designs crossed successive panels. Some of the heavy work of removing the background may have also been accomplished here although it is possible that the majority of work was done once the slabs had been set into place against the walls. Indeed, there is generally consistency of design within rooms and differences between them suggest the allocation of rooms to certain individual draftsmen and teams of sculptors.

The panels were arranged along the mud brick walls of the palaces, sunk a few centimetres into the ground onto a bed of bitumen which allowed fine adjustments to be made in positioning them alongside other slabs. They thus formed immensely expensive stone dados. Metal dowels and clamps held the panels together and they were probably bracketed to the wall. The major carving was undertaken with metal points, used to chip away large areas of the surface, and metal chisels for smoothing. It would have been hard work and the tools would have needed constant sharpening. Points were again used for the fine incised details and it is possible that abrasives such as sand were used for the final finish.

The Assyrian sculptors cut the stone away around figures only enough to produce sufficient shadows to reveal their outlines. Clearly, a crucial factor in the visibility of the reliefs was the amount of light entering the different spaces in which they were displayed. In the courtyards, sunlight would have produced sharper shadows than in the interior rooms which were illuminated only by the light from open gateways, torches and braziers and perhaps clerestory windows. The fact that, when freshly cut, the alabaster ranges from white to grey in colour means that, even in the most dimly lit of rooms, it would have reflected some light. The white/grey surface also provided a canvas, just like the plastered wall above the reliefs, for the application of paint. Although little paint survives today, some figures may have been completely coloured or, possibly more generally, paint was used for special effect. Four principal colours were used: red, blue, black, and white (some traces of green, yellow and violet survive, but these may be decayed blues and reds). They represent the same palette as used in Assyrian wall-paintings; glazed bricks and fragments of paintings suggest the ground may have also been occasionally coloured though no traces of background paint have been preserved on the reliefs. Mineralization of paint or varnish may have contributed to the brownish surface colour of many of the reliefs today although this was largely the result of their exposure to the elements and contact with the mud brick of collapsing walls which buried them following the abandonment of the palaces.

In their heyday, however, the palaces would have been magnificent statements of the king's power and achievements colourfully emblazoned on the walls in stone, plaster and perhaps as textile hangings, as well as in metal overlay and ivory carving on objects and furniture. The clarity of the visual message was such that it was possible for any viewer to understand it without being able to read the inscriptions that accompanied the scenes; this was important in a largely non-literate society. However, the writing on the walls not only reinforced and enriched the messages of kingship displayed in the imagery, naming the man responsible for them, it also reflected the king's control of the scribal bureaucracy that helped order his realm. Ultimately, however, the message of both text and image, as stated unambiguously in the royal inscriptions, was intended for the gods, and to astonish kings, governors, and the people of Assyria.

By Paul Collins

Paul Collins is curator of Later Mesopotamian antiquities at the British Museum in London. For five years, he was Assistant Curator in the Department of Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He is the author of numerous publications on ancient Mesopotamia.