What is the significance of the genie if not to grant wishes?
Scholars suggest that in the Assyrian belief system the idea of the "genie" refers to winged protectors. They can be identified as supernatural beings by their horned helmets and/or wings. They are also thought to have acted as personal attendants to the king.
Very cool. What does the cuneiform writing across this work say?
It's known as the Standard Inscription and it glorifies the king by recounting his lineage and accomplishments including constructing the palace the panels come from. It begins like this: "The palace of Ashur-nasir-pal, chief-priest of Ashur, the chosen one of Enlil and Ninurta, the favorite of Anu and Dagan, the divine weapon of the Great Gods, the potent king, the king of the world, the king of Assyria, the son of Tukulti-Ninurta, the great king, the potent king, the king of the world, the king of Assyria"
What is the significance of the eagle as opposed to the male figures?
Most of the figures are genies - both the eagle headed and the human headed. The eagle-headed genie is believed to be especially concerned with the physical protection of the king and his land. The eagle-headed genies are thought to be more closely associated with protection and apotropaic qualities. Here, however, they are performing the same tasks as their human-headed counterparts. There is one relief of the king, Ashurnasirpal II. He is distinguished by a rectangular-shaped crown atop his head.
What language is on these reliefs? Is it lost to us or can people today understand it?
The writing system is called Cuneiform and the language itself is called Akkadian, language of diplomacy in the Near East for thousands of years. There are many scholars who can read Akkadian, but it is very difficult to learn. Would you like to see an translation?
Ok. Yes, I'd like to know the gist of what it says!
It glorifies the king, Ashurnasirpal II, and recounts his lineage and accomplishments including the construction of the palace that once housed these reliefs.
It begins like this: "The palace of Ashur-nasir-pal, chief-priest of Ashur, the chosen one of Enlil and Ninurta, the favorite of Anu and Dagan, the divine weapon of the Great Gods, the potent king, the king of the world, the king of Assyria, the son of Tukulti-Ninurta, the great king, the potent king, the king of the world, the king of Assyria"
What is cuneiform?
Cuneiform is a form of writing that was used in Mesopotamia starting around 3500 BCE and continued for thousands of years. The characters are formed from wedges and lines and stand for phonetic values and are actually highly stylized signs derived from pictograms that often vary from scribe to scribe.
The wall reliefs in the Kevorkian Gallery here demonstrate Cuneiform used to write the Akkadian language. Akkadian was developed in the 3rd millennium BCE and was used as the language of diplomacy in Mesopotamia and the Near East until the Persian period.
What is a cone and what does it do?
Scholars believe that is represents a type of pine- or fir-cone. In Assyrian art, the basket and cone almost always appear in the hands of supernatural creatures rather than humans, suggesting that these objects may have served a magical purpose. In the Akkadian language, the word for pinecone and purifier are almost the same so the cone is thought to have purifying properties as well as functioning to help pollinate the Sacred Tree with the material carried in the Sacred Pails. The nooks and crannies of the cone can be very useful in transferring pollen. They are dipping the cone into the bucket, which contains pollen or water, and sprinkling it onto the tree. Some recent scholarship makes the case that this ritual can be tied to the pollination of palm trees, which people continue to do artificially in order to keep the trees producing fruit.
What distinguishes this as a genie from other figures in these reliefs?
Genies can be distinguished by their wings and the horned helmets. If you look closely at what the figure has on his head, the part that points forward and sort of 'swoops up' are the helmet horns. "Genie" actually describes most of the figures in these reliefs. You can tell Ashurnasirpal II--the only human--because he has no wings and wears a different crown.
Could you tell us what he's holding please?
That is a sort of cone or pinecone like object, these objects almost always appear in the hands of supernatural creatures, and not humans, in Assyrian art. Scholars have suggested that these genies are using the cones to pollinate the sacred trees.
How do we know 69,574 people came to the festivities at king Ashurnasirpal in 879 BCE?
That's a good question. There is actually an inscribed sandstone block from the period that describes the festivities in detail, called the Banquet Stele of Ashurnasirpal II. It records the ninth century Neo-Assyrian king's renovation of the city of Kalhu (modern-day Nimrud), which he made his capital. It boasts of the lavish palace and gardens he built, the restoration of temples, and the resettlement and rejuvenation of surrounding towns. On the guests it says: "Altogether 69,574 (including) those summoned from all lands and the people of Kalhu–for ten days I gave them good, I gave them drink, I had them bathed, I had them anointed. (Thus) did I honor them (and) send them back to their lands in peace and joy."
Still odd that the number is so precise, isn't it? 69,574, not 70,000 or 69,575.
Numbers were important business in ancient Assyria! It is not surprising that an exact count of the banquet guests was deemed necessary for official record. It's even broken down as "16,000 people of Kalhu," "47,074 men and women from the whole of my land," the other 6,500 were made up of palace staff and foreign dignitaries from: Pattina, Carchemish, Tyre, Sidon, Gurgum, Meliddu, Kummuh, Hubushkia, Gilzanu, Musasir, Suhu, and Hindanu. It's thought that writing developed in the region to keep count of livestock and business transactions. Numbers could get very high, very easily as their math was base-60. A fragment of that remains today in the form of the hour! 60 minutes.
Could you please explain to me how these reliefs came to the United States?
The Northwest Palace of Nimrud (modern day Kalhu, Iraq) was discovered in 1840 by an English diplomat named Austen Henry Layard. The region was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. Layard began excavating in 1845 and the finds were so impressive that the British Museum, then engaged in a rivalry for Middle East antiquities with the Louvre, gave him two thousand pounds to send all the monumental sculptures and relief-decorated slabs he could. However, he sent so many that the museum could not house them all. Thus some went on sale. In 1855, Henry Stevens, an American living in London, purchased the twelve reliefs now in this gallery and sold them to the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. In 1937 the Society decided it could no longer house the slabs and lent them to The Brooklyn Museum, which eventually purchased them in 1955.
How did they make these carvings in the stone? Also, did they draw on the stone first before carving?
Producing these reliefs was a multi-step process that involved multiple individuals. First, a religious leader would draw the outlines of the figures and scenes. Then stone carvers created the relief you see today with chisels and abrasives. Next, a scribe would write the text that would later also be carved by stone carvers, who, themselves likely could not read. Finally, these reliefs would have been painted, but the pigment largely does not survive.
The calf muscle design seems to be a repeated motif on the panels. Was this a process to repeat this design on purpose? Did they have a "standard design" for these?
In general, the accentuated musculature in Mesopotamian depictions of rulers was a means of displaying qualities of ideal kingship. Assyrians wanted to be viewed as a warlike people accustomed to and adept at hard work and exercise so their art often exaggerates musculature, in this case the calf and that amazingly accentuated cutaneous vein below it. But these specific elements are definitely the most pronounced in these (and other) reliefs from King Ashur-nasir-pal II's Northwest Palace.
Why is the text only in the middle of the block?
The text band, which is the same inscription on each panel, was part of the decorative scheme. It was almost as if a giant cylinder seal, which was used in the region for a long time before and after, was rolled over the panels. At the time, reading wasn't very widespread and the writing system, cuneiform, is very complicated and takes years to learn.
On one level, it's more about the idea of writing and the importance of seeing the text. The same inscription is repeated multiple times. It traces the king's lineage and proclaims his victories, so the overall impression of those who saw the reliefs was supposed to be of Ashurnasirpal II's power as a king.
What are those buckets/bags?
They are buckets, or "sacred pails," that would most likely have held pollen. The figures are holding fir cones in their other hands, which they use to pollinate the nearby sacred trees.
Do you know if there is a significance to the two knives carried by the figures in the Assyrian reliefs?
Carrying two daggers was something that high-ranking Assyrian men did in real life, according to archaeology. The types of decoration you see in some of the handles even matches inlaid decorations on real daggers that have been excavated. Some figures also carry a third object, a whetstone for sharpening their blades.
Are the cracks in this work original?
I'm not sure exactly when in its almost 3000 year history this stone cracked, but it was certainly a long time ago. When these reliefs were originally installed in Ashurnasirpal II's palace they were undoubtedly un-cracked, smooth, and even painted. Since then, of course, the palace fell in to disrepair and was buried for thousands of years before being excavated in the late 19th century. Then the reliefs were transported from their original location in modern-day Iraq to London to New York. So, there was lots of opportunity for such damage to occur.
You can tell which cracks are the oldest by how worn they are. The lower right chunk of the block you sent a picture of was probably the first to break off, no doubt before the palace was rediscovered.
What countries comprise what we now know as Assyria?
The Assyrian heartland was in Iraq. At the time that Ashurnasirpal II built his palace, the Empire’s territory also included areas of Turkey and Syria. Later military conquests expanded their territory into: Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Cyprus.
Is there a reason why the calf muscle is carved like that? I'm not completely sure what my question is but I've never seen muscles carved like that.
It was done in that way to communicate strength. The Assyrians valued physical fitness and physical strength.
The calf provides a large venue to detail the muscles. If you look at some of the smaller carvings they are also less detailed than larger versions. Interestingly, images from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II (the king who commissioned these reliefs) demonstrate the most defined musculature in Assyrian art history.
Are these reliefs originals? Where do they come from?
They are! These reliefs (along with hundreds like them) were excavated from the Northwest Palace at a site called Nimrud which is in modern Iraq, near Mosul. Today, reliefs from this palace are in about 50 collections around the world.
The British Museum funded the excavation of the palace in the 19th century, but there was too many finds for them to all stay in London. An art dealer bought these twelve in London to sell in the US where they ended up in the collection of the New York Historical Society from where we acquired them!
I know that there are different forms of art such as painting and sculpture, but I don't know if I should call this a sculpture or a different name, please enlighten me.
This does fall into a loose definition of sculpture, but more specifically it's called relief. Originally, all of these reliefs would have been brightly painted as well, so they would have been a combination!
How many reliefs are part of this series?
Hundreds! The twelve reliefs we have on view from the Northwest Palace today are a fraction of the original number. Stone reliefs were placed on most of the palace's walls and the entire building covered 6 acres!
The Palace, which was built around 2,800 years ago, was excavated by a British diplomat in the mid-nineteenth century. These reliefs were among the many excavated at the time, which can be found in museums across the world today (as well as still at the Palace).
Why aren't these under glass?
The Assyrian reliefs are relatively stable and the museum is willing to take the risk of having them not under glass so that people can enjoy them without any obstruction!
What was the purpose of these reliefs?
These reliefs were meant to serve as a visual showing of the king's power, so a propaganda tool. The reliefs would have been placed into the walls of the palace, so anyone visiting would have seen them.
The inscription talks about how powerful the king was, the extent of his empire, his military victories, his ancestors, and the construction of this palace.
What are some similarities between ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art?
I think some similarities lie in the ways in which human figures are depicted, idealized and powerful in many cases. The art was meant to tell the viewer something specific.
There was also a lot of contact between the two cultures. They were two major powers in the region and were in contact for trade and diplomacy. About two hundred years after the Assyrian Reliefs we have here, the Assyrians even gained control of Egypt.
Do you know the timeline out of them both, were the Assyrian reliefs made earlier than the Akhenatan relief? Did they make the reliefs in a similar way?
The relief of Akhenaten is several centuries earlier, actually! It dates between the years 1352 and 1336 BCE. The Assyrian reliefs are from 883-859 BCE.
Relief carving hasn't changed greatly over time. One of the main differences between these two is that the Akhenaten relief is incised, which means they cut the relief into the stone, while the Assyrian relief was made by cutting away the stone around the figures.
Thank you! You have been great help!
Who made the Assyrian reliefs?
We do not know the names of the people who produced these works. They were created by a series of Assyrian artisans who first drew the designs on the stone, second carved the scenes. Another group wrote the inscriptions, and then someone else carved them. Finally, the reliefs were painted, but the paint did not survive.
Would the Winged Genie with Horned Helmet's be considered well preserved?
This particular relief is in pretty good condition compared to the others. This is the full size of the original block that would have been installed into a mud-brick wall.
Can you tell me about the clothing in the Assyrian reliefs?
The clothing you see was typical in ancient Assyria. It would have been made of wool and the fringe was an important fashionable feature. These thick garments protected the wearers against the extreme climate of Mesopotamia.
What is going on in Winged Genie with Horned Helmet? What is the narrative?
To understand the narrative, you have to think about the whole palace of reliefs. Although the panels are broken up today, they were once all part of the same building with many other panels. All together, they serve to glorify the King and serve as a symbol for the continued fertility and success of his lands.
In the panel you have chosen, the genie is performing a ritual that scholars are still trying to figure out for sure. The current prevailing theory is that he is manually pollinating the tree in front of him.
What you see to the right of the genie can be interpreted as a sacred tree. Scholars realized that people have manually pollinated date palms in order to keep them producing fruit which could serve as a symbol for continued fertility in general.
Is he using the fruit in his hand to pollinate the tree so that it can produce more fruit?
That is certainly one interpretation of the image. The object in his hand is actually more like a pinecone. With all of its nooks and crannies, it would be a useful object to move pollen around.
It is also interesting to note that the word in Akkadian (the language that Assyrians spoke) for pinecone is almost the same as the word for purify which makes the connection to purification too.
Is what's on the left of the Winged Genie another sacred tree? There are trees on both sides of him.
You're right! Even though it doesn't quite look like a "tree" the palmette at the end of each "branch" is a common symbol for the sacred tree.
Is the Genie wearing a watch on one of his wrists?
They look like watches but are in fact bracelets. What looks like a watch face is actually a flower or rosette. This symbol may indicate a connection to the King or the goddess Ishtar.
What period and culture would these be considered a part of?
The culture is Assyrian, the Assyrians are from Mesopotamia or modern day Iraq. They originated in the city of Asshur and their empire expanded from there; these reliefs come from the city of Nimrud when the king Ashurnasirpal II made it his capital.
As far as period goes: this dates to the Neo-Assyrian period in Assyrian history. This would also be considered the Iron Age in Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean.
¿Este mural se que cuenta una historia sobre los dioses de la Mesopotamia? ¿Qué idioma es?
El texto es una historia que habla del rey de Asiria en el tiempo, Ashur-nasir-pal II. La idioma es el Akkadian. Se escribe con el sistema de escritura cuneiforme.
Las imagenes son una metáfora para la reproducción y fertilidad usando la imagen del corno de abeto. Este mural estaba dentro del palacio del rey.
¿Cómo se lee, del borde superior?
Se lee desde la derecha hacia la izquierda, como la mayoría de las lenguas semíticas.
I was curious what type of stone this is made out of?
are carved from alabaster. The Northwest Palace was actually located very near a source of gypsum alabaster, which was used in these reliefs. They have weathered over time, leaving the grayish appearance we see today. Originally they would have been painted.
Oh very interesting, thanks! Would have been fascinating to see them painted.
Could the pine cone held in his hand symbolize the pineal gland?
Scholars believe that that shape represents an actual fir or pine cone. The pineal gland is named for its resemblance to a pine cone, but this is a relatively modern medical designation.
New research suggests that this and the other genie figures are performing a kind of pollination ritual. The ritual depicted would have involved manual pollination of the date palm tree which was necessary for them to bear fruit. Symbolically, the whole scene represents the concept of fertility in general. The palm tree specifically has often been linked iconographically with the sacred tree, an ancient symbol associated with divine power to give life.
Is this Sanskrit?
The writing system is cuneiform! It's one of the oldest in the world.
Can you read it? I would love to know what it says on this particular piece. Also, what are the other oldest written languages?
I can't personally read cuneiform but there are scholars who can. Each panel has the same inscription, which has been translated. The text is quite long and talks about the king's ancestry, his military prowess, and the construction of the palace. Part of the translation reads, "I am Ashur-nasir-pal the obedient prince, the worshiper of the Great Gods, the fierce dragon, the conqueror of all cities and mountains to their full extent, the king of rulers who tames the dangerous enemies, the [one] crowned with glory, the [one] unafraid of battle, the relentless lion, who shakes resistance, the king of praise, the shepherd, protection of the world, the king whose command blots out mountains and seas..." Some other old languages include Egyptian, which you can find examples of here today, Chinese, and the script used in the Indus Valley civilization, which has yet to be really translated.
Why is there writing across the central portion on each piece?
The writing served as one method of showing the king's power and importance to visitors to the palace. To me, it looks as if the inscription was rolled across the reliefs like a cylinder seal, a type of seal device common in ancient Mesopotamia.
Very cool. Thank you!
Would visitors to the palace be able to read the inscriptions on these reliefs? Were they literate?
Very few visitors would have been literate. This particular language, Akkadian written with the cuneiform script, was the language of diplomacy throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, so visiting diplomats and envoys from other courts would have had some knowledge of it. For example, we know that documents in Egypt used Akkadian when sending missives! It's hard to know exactly how many people were literate, especially those who weren't part of the societal elite and the courts. On that level, sometimes the presence of that much text can have an impact, too!
That's very cool. What is a missive?
Missives are official letters, sent, for instance, from one king to another. The ancient world was a very connected place, as trade was a key aspect to life!
Do you know where I can find a full copy of the text? Perhaps in a book or on a website?
A full translation can be found in a book the museum published in 1976 by Samuel Paley. It is titled "King of the World: Ashur-nasir-pal II of Assyria 883-859 BC." The book can be found in libraries including the New York Public Library.
Awesome. Thank you!
How much do each of these things weigh?
The twelve we have here range in weight from 1900 to 4500 pounds! The reliefs are carved from slabs of gypsum alabaster. The site of the palace, at Nimrud, was actually located near the site where they quarried the stone, so they didn’t have far to travel.
Wow thanks. They look crazy heavy!
How did this survive 3000 years?
The dry conditions of the desert and the fact that this was likely buried under layers of sand, protecting it from the elements, allowed this relief to survive for 3000 years! This combination of conditions is actually how many of the objects we have from the Near East have been preserved. The inscriptions in the center are actually in the Akkadian language, written with symbols called cuneiform. These panels were all part of the king's palace.
Es original esta tesela y las demás piezas que hay en la sala?
Si son originales. La clima del desierto y la falta de luz, los preservaron pero ha habido algun deterioro. Por ejemplo, originalmente, habrian sido pintados los estelas.
How many people who come here ask about all the pine cone imagery?
Lots! Some recent research has shed a little more light on what these genies might be doing with the pine cones.
Taking into consideration that real date palms need to be manually pollinated in order to keep producing fruit, a new theory is that this is a pollination ritual. The theory is backed up by the idea that the symbolic "sacred tree" is made up of palmettes here which are often associated with palms.
Okay wow, this is completely different than the theory I know of. I thought that they had something to do with the pineal gland and the power it holds.
A few visitors have brought that up, but actually the "pineal gland" is named for its physical resemblance to a pinecone and is a relatively recent medical designation.
Why do the genies have wings?
It was the way genies were typically depicted in the ancient Near East during this time. As supernatural beings, it was one of their physical characteristics. The wings also help them to be separated from human figures in the composition.
The only figure without wings on these reliefs is the King whose palace these reliefs adorned, Ashurnasirpal II.
Another fun fact is that these genies should be understood to have four wings, with another pair on the side of the body we can't see from this vantage pint.
Is this Zoroastrian?
The wall relief you sent if Assyrian in origin. The Assyrians originate in Iraq and predate Zoroastrianism. The Persians, who practiced Zoroastrianism, did adopt many of their artists motifs from the surrounding cultures, mostly Elam, but also Assyria.
If you look closely at some of the reliefs, you'll notice the same kind of winged sun-disk which came to represent Ahuramazda, but it is originally a much older symbol.
What is the Neo-Assyrian period? Why is it found in the ancient Egypt section of the museum?
The Neo-Assyrian period refers to the third time the Kings of Assur created an empire out of their neighbors, the first two are referred as the Old and Middle Assyrian periods, respectively. The Assyrian people originated in the city of Assur which would be in modern day Iraq and, during this period, expanded their territory beyond Mesopotamia to include the Levant, Anatolia, and even Egypt.
The gallery that you are in right now is actually called The Hagop Kevorkian Gallery for Near Eastern art, which is why pieces from several different Near Eastern cultures appear.
The term “Near East” refers to the vast expanse of land extending from the eastern Mediterranean coast to central Asia so it's actually right next Egypt in reality as well.
Why are there so many images of the same thing? What is the intended effect?
Great question! Repeated plan imagery emphasizes the fertility concept. In the Egyptian galleries you may also see (albeit rendered very differently) plant imagery on funerary objects where plants also related to fertility and rebirth.
In these wall reliefs, Ashurnasirpal II intended to emphasize his role and a legitimate, powerful, and rightful ruler. Part of this included relating himself to the continued fertility of his lands.
These are so elaborate! Where did they come from?
These reliefs once decorated the palace of the King of Assyria, Ashurnasirpal II, which was in Nimrud, near Mosul, in Iraq. They are carved into gypsum alabaster that would have been brightly painted.
Most of the figures, the ones with wings, are genii. You can find the depiction of Ashurnasirpal II by looking for the only figure without wings.
Do you see the engraved markings that run across the center of each relief? That is in Akkadian using the cuneiform writing system. Most say the same thing, known as the Standard Inscription, which describes the king's lineage and recounts his accomplishments
The plant that each of the figures is attending to is a stylized version of the sacred tree, a symbol of fertility. This was a concept essential to the continued success of the king, his kingdom, and people.
How hard is alabaster to carve to produce such fine lines and patterns? In other words is there a particular reason why it was chosen vs another material?
Alabaster is a finely grained stone that is actually known for being delicate and fragile. It is soft so carving fine lines isn't particularly difficult.
As for why these reliefs were carved in alabaster, the material was popular and common in the ancient Near East. It was one of only a few locally available resources, in fact! Nimrud, the location of this palace, was close to several sources of the material.
Do these reliefs have the same provenance as the ones at the Met—through Layard and the British Museum?
The reliefs are from the same palace, yes, the Northwest Palace at Kalhu constructed under King Ashurnasirpal II. Both were excavated by Layard, but the middleman was different.
The Brooklyn museum purchased them from James Lenox of the New York Historical Society, while the Metropolitan Museum's group changed hands several time and was eventually gifted by J.D. Rockefeller.
These people are as tall as me: 6"6. Was this their real life size or were the images created larger to appear more God like?
I think you are absolutely correct, that their large size was intended to convey their divine nature. People, on average, were shorter in ancient Mesopotamia than they are now.
These reliefs decorated the palace of king Ashurnasirpal II and essentially served as propaganda for the crown. The large size emphasizes the king's power!
Thanks for the extra story!
Does this pattern on the reliefs mean anything?
Yes it does! It is the Akkadian language written in the cuneiform script. Most panels show, basically, the same inscription, called the Standard Inscription. The text describes the Assyrian king, Ashurnasipal II's lineage and recounts his accomplishments.
These reliefs decorated his palace and the text and the images combined would have served to reinforce his legitimacy as king and status as a divine leader.
I noticed some of these have big cracks in them, how are they held together after all these years?
We have a conservation team here at the Museum who, among MANY other things, make custom designed mounts especially for antiquities like this. I believe there is also some mild adhesive in the cracks to help keep the slabs steady.
Basically, they carefully installed and supported so that they can be viewed in their full glory!
Which is the older system of writing: hieroglyphics or cuneiform?
Although they developed around the same time, cuneiform is often considered to be the older of the two. But this is just based on what we know from the archaeological record and dating surviving inscriptions from the time.
Tell me more.
Most of the figures seen here–all of the ones with wings–are genies, called "apkallu" in the Akkadian language. A genie (in this context) is something of a supernatural attendant.
This figure and his fellow genii are assisting their king. He is using his pail and fir cone to pollinate the sacred tree in front of him so that it continues to produce fruit, a metaphor for the fertility of the Assyrian lands.
The writing across all the panels is cuneiform and the language of the text is Akkadian, the language of diplomacy in the ancient Near East.
Would these genies, later on, inspire the mythology of the Jinn?
It's actually kind of the opposite, our English word "genie" comes from the Arabic jinn. The Assyrians (who spoke the Akkadian language) would have called these creatures apkallu. Western scholars saw parallels between the supernatural nature of both of these creatures.
I am seeing that the jinn are often malevolent spirits which contrasts the apkallu who were thought to be supernatural attendants and generally positive forces.
Interesting! In the stories, people entrap jinn for favors. So they didn’t grant wishes because they were necessarily good natured.
How may of these reliefs existed and how many of the survive today?
A great deal of the reliefs from Ashurnasripal II's palace at Nimrud survived into the 21st century. Examples can be seen in over 50 collections around the world. Many panels were also left on site, but some of these have fallen victim to the destructive campaigns of the Islamic State.
I would guess that the original palace something over 500 decorated panels. Between 300 and 400 of them are known to scholars.
How did people find this?
That's a good question! The palace of Asurnasirpal II was rediscovered in 1840 by Austen Henry Layard, an English Diplomat. He discovered the site accidentally while traveling the Tigris river, he first noticed a mound near the riverbank and discovered it to be rich in antiquities. He returned five years later with the British Museum and local scholars including Hormuzd Rassam to excavate to site.
This is cuneiform right?
That's right! The writing is cuneiform and the language of the text is Akkadian, the language of diplomacy in the ancient Near East.
The text, known as the Standard Inscription, begins by tracing Ashur-nasir-pal II’s lineage back three generations. It recounts his military victories, defines the boundaries of his empire, tells how he founded the region and built the palace.
Do they all of the reliefs from Ashurnasirpal II's palace contain the same text, or is each one different and specific to the depictions on the relief?
They all contain the same texts although their might be slight variations between each one. It is called the Standard Inscription and describes Ashurnasirpal II's lineage and recounts his accomplishments, reinforcing his legitimacy as king.
Tell me more about genies.
The genies that you see here (the human and eagle-headed figures with wings) are beings from ancient Assyrian mythology who would have been known as apkallu.
They were believed to be attendants especially charged with helping the king. These panels from the palace built under king Ashurnasirpal II, show genies pollinating the sacred tree in order to ensure fertility in the empire.
¿Este mural se descubrió en la vieja Mesopotamia, donde ahora es Irak?
Sí, se descubrió en Irak.
Does cuneiform also read right to left?
Akkadian cuneiform like you see on our relief panels actually reads left to right. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs can be written in either direction.
And would these have been at eye level?
I'm not sure exactly how high they would have been, but I don't think much higher than they are shown here.
Most people in ancient Assyria would not have been able to read so the text here is more symbolic than informative.
Does the tree theme appear anywhere else?
Yes, it does! The tree of life was a concept central to numerous Near Eastern belief systems.
They were associated with fertility and vitality of both humans and nature!
Is there evidence of an actual tree or is just a symbolic representation?
The concept of the sacred tree is certainly symbolic. The form itself is based on that of the palm tree, although in the reliefs it is heavily stylized.
What kind of paints were used to color these reliefs?
Ancient Near Eastern artists used mostly mineral-based pigments for painting on stone. Some common examples include hematite red and Egyptian blue--a synthetic pigment that derives its color from copper. The pigments could have been mixed with a variety of media including, water, wax, and egg.
You're welcome. When these works were excavated, there were still traces of white and black paint on them, including whites to some of the genie's eyes!
These pigments have unfortunately since faded.
Which room are these from in the palace?
These reliefs come from a variety of rooms and we don't know what the function of most of them were, but we do know that "Human-Headed Genie with Armlets" comes from a corridor that surrounded an audience hall, and "Relief with Two Registers," unique among this group of panels, comes from a room full of similar decoration that has been speculated to be a bathroom; the floors of that room included drains suggesting heavy use of water.
I was wondering why all of the figures in the slabs have the same body position? Is it significant?
All of the figures in this position are performing the same action! They are helping to pollinate the sacred tree in front of them.
This pose is also a great way to show the majority of the body, something important to many ancient artists. We can see both arms, both legs, and the face in profile, the best way to depict a face in a relief.
Okay, thanks so much!
How would you read the cuneiforms on the Assyrian reliefs?
Cuneiform was a syllabic writing system used to write the Akkadian language. Each sign stands for a syllable and these syllables make up words. The signs are read left to right.
Akkadian, a Semitic language, was the language of diplomacy in the ancient Near East and modern scholars have deciphered it by comparing identical texts written in cunieform and other known scripts and working backwards.
Why is Sumerian considered a language isolate rather than a Semetic language like Akkadian?
"Semitic," in this case, refers to a language family in which all of the languages, including Akkadian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic to name a few, share structures of vocabulary and grammar.
Sumerian simply does not share these traits and is therefore not part of the same family.
Scholars don't know of any other language (ancient or modern) that has any significant similarity to the Sumerian language in terms of its structure.
Thank you. Could you provide me some examples how Sumerian syntax and vocabulary differ from the Semitic languages?
You're welcome! I haven't studied the Sumerian language and haven't studied any Semitic languages in depth so I really can't provide any examples myself, but give me a moment to find some good resources on the subject.
I am seeing from a University of Pennsylvania source that Sumerian is described as agglutinative meaning that words are built from roots that grammatical elements are tacked on to the beginning or end of in order to create complex grammatical forms. Akkadian, like on these reliefs, on the other hand, has a much simpler structure in which grammar is built out of separate words.
Do you know how one became a sculptor? Was there a caste system, were you chosen, was an apprenticeship involved?
New sculptors were likely trained in established workshops. In nearby Egypt, I know that trades like this were passed down in families. Different tasks in the creation of these reliefs were completed by different workshops. The masons would install the panels, images would be drawn, then sculptors would carve them. Next, someone literate like a scribe or a priest would write the text which was then carved by very likely a different sculptor. Finally, a workshop of painters would have painted them.
The wrist bands on the genies from the Assyrian palace seem to be less carefully detailed that other parts of the reliefs. I am seeings examples 8, 9, 10, and 11 petals. Is there a significance to these different numbers?
The variation in number of petals may actually indicate that the number is not significant. Scholars aren't certain what exactly the rosettes on the wrists mean, but think that they all share the same meaning and may be tied to either service to the king or service to the fertility goddess, Ishtar.
One possible explanation could be simply that different panels were drawn by different artists. It would have been a team of multiple artists who work on these panels. Different teams were even responsible for different steps like drawing, carving, writing, and painting.
Who would have seen these images?
The entire palace was decorated in a similar way. There were, of course, many private spaces where only the king and his closest family and advisors were allowed. There are also public spaces where government officials, diplomatic visitors, and military leaders had access. This type of image, a genie tending to a sacred tree would have adorned a private space like the royal apartments.
Upon the completion of the palace Ashurnasirpal II hosted a massive banquet that 69,574 people were said to have attended. These revelers included citizens from around the Assyrian Empire as well as foreign dignitaries.
Thank you this has been so interesting!
You're so welcome!