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Assyrian Reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II: A Cultural Biography

Assyrian Reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II: A Cultural Biography

Edited by Ada Cohen and Steven E. Kangas. Pp. xx + 268, b&w figs. 43, color figs. 68, b&w pls. 4, color pls. 22, plans 4, map 1. The Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, N.H. 2010. $40. ISBN 978-1-58465-817-7 (paper).

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This volume does exactly what it purports to do: it provides us with an engaging, well-thought-out and in-depth consideration of the Assyrian reliefs of Ashurnasirpal II in the possession of the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of their acquisition. It not only presents, in its nine chapters, interpretations of various motifs found in the reliefs, such as the sacred tree, but also provides a fascinating description of the life of these sculptures after they were removed from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud and made the arduous and improbable journey to New England by camel, ship, and rail.

The history of 19th-century exploration of Mesopotamia, and keen interest of American missionaries in the newly discovered reliefs, has been researched, explained, and recounted in an eminently readable and absorbing chapter (“Our Nineveh Enterprise”) by the editors. Details concerning the journey of the Dartmouth reliefs, such as the death by typhoid at age 28 of the medical missionary involved in their removal, remind us of the difficult conditions for excavators and explorers at that time and the profound symbolism these objects held in 19th-century academic, ecclesiastical, and popular thought. The competition among New England and other North American universities to obtain these “relics” reveals not only an antiquarian impulse but also a search for prestige, biblical confirmation, and Wunderkammer acquisitiveness. The sad history of the death of missionaries and subsequent dusty decline of the sculptures in the neglected halls of Dartmouth and other New England colleges contrasts with more recent “commoditization” of the reliefs (40, 229 n. 122). Assyrian art has commanded astounding prices lately, and this certainly served to push the reliefs to front and center, where they now proudly reside in the new Hood Museum.

The sculptures played a profound role in academic, religious, and social life at Dartmouth, and the authors narrate this history in detail. While acquired and used to reinforce theology at a time when secularization and Darwinian ideas were taking hold (The Origin of Species was published in 1859), they were at first considered “sermons in stone” (24) but later seen primarily as historical documents and art, albeit somewhat inferior to the classical. They were taught in the Dartmouth classics curriculum by John Stearns, whose student Donald Hansen (Dartmouth 1953) became prominent in the field of ancient Near Eastern art, and this volume is dedicated to Hansen.

The editors and authors provide both the general public and the scholarly audience with plenty of food for thought. The early chapters will appeal to an educated audience with keen curiosity about Assyrian art, Dartmouth, or the archaeological exploration of Assyria. The Dartmouth reliefs are lavishly photographed, highlighting details that are often overlooked, such as motifs shallowly incised on the hems of garments. The authors discuss the import of these oft-neglected images and ornamentation and put them into context through references to other media such as textiles, seals, and metalwork.

Half of the volume consists of essays derived from the 150th-anniversary symposium on the reliefs, held at the Hood Museum. Although the scholars represented here sometimes conflict in terms of their interpretations of the figures, the sacred tree, and other motifs, the quality of thought and writing is excellent. Reade’s delightfully illustrated essay on the early exploration of Assyria brings to life the excitement of discovery and the astonishing removal of immense sculptures from Assyria to Europe and beyond. Goode takes this history of archaeology into the present, vividly recounting how the political landscape in Iraq had to be negotiated in order for scientists, art historians, and archaeologists to accomplish anything in the years up to and including the regime of Saddam Hussein, covering as well the use of archaeology for political legitimacy and nationalistic purposes. Ackerman’s concise history of Assyria in the Bible covers both actual illustrated history (such as the Battle of Lachish) and its interpretation by pious 19th-century missionaries and later the less pious Dartmouth students and faculty. She also considers how Assyria figures in biblical theology in general.

Essays by Porter and Ataç consider in more depth the function of the reliefs and iconography of the apkallu, or genies, and sacred trees and their relationship to the Assyrian king and myth. Whereas Porter sees the Ashurnasirpal reliefs as visual propaganda establishing the king as the dominant protective force in a world in which he establishes order and serves as the conduit of abundance, Ataç interprets them somewhat differently and more metaphysically. To him, the series of king, apkallu, winged disk, and sacred tree embodies notions of sacral time (162–63). He uses extensive textual evidence and comparisons and connections to ancient Egyptian theology to demonstrate that the king is visually linking himself to the primordial phase of the cosmos, a revolving solar cycle, and linear (earthly) time, as well as renewal itself. This is quite absorbing and thought provoking but not completely persuasive, one reason being that the context of the Egyptian comparisons seems to be almost always funerary, whereas that of the palace reliefs is not.

Collins perceives these religious reliefs differently from Ataç. He sees the apotropaic functions, as well as the role of the king as representative of the gods and military leader repelling dangerous forces, as paramount. This interpretation corresponds well to the accompanying Standard Inscription. The purification and sprinkling function of the bucket and cone is well explained (albeit differently from other authors here), and the role of the royal attendants is elucidated as “highly significant” in the ideology of kingship (197). Thomason focuses on smaller and often vanished items in other media and reconstructs them for us: Assyrian textiles, wooden furniture, ivories, and metal. Their apotropaic functions and other motifs are discussed, along with the function of Ashurnasirpal’s zoo of exotic animals. Thomason concludes by interpreting objects in the light of their cultic and mythic meanings.

The volume concludes with an essay by the late Paley (“The Northwest Palace in the Digital Age”), and this virtual reality project of theoretical reconstructions is well articulated for even the technologically impaired. The level of research and detail required for such a project, which includes not just walls but also furnishings and chariots, is astonishing; one only hopes that coming generations of students will understand the monumentality of that effort.

As for errors, the reader seeking sources will find that a number of the end-of-chapter citations do not correspond, in terms of publication dates, to the same author’s works in the bibliography.

On the whole, this volume will reward the careful reader with a lively ongoing debate about the significance and meaning of the figures and motifs featured in these more “static” Assyrian reliefs. The New England reliefs, and the repeated sacred figures in general, have heretofore been neglected in favor of those illustrating active narratives such as hunts and warfare, and this volume helps to remedy this omission. The general reader will be rewarded with an interesting and up-to-date account of how Assyrian motifs have figured in the visual, historical, and religious life of the United States, from New England all the way to Los Angeles malls.

Diana Krumholz McDonald
Department of Fine Arts
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 02467

Book Review of Assyrian Reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II: A Cultural Biography, edited by Ada Cohen and Steven E. Kangas

Reviewed by Diana Krumholz McDonald

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 1 (January 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1161.McDonald

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