The Assyrian Relief of Ashurnasirpal

The Babylonian Collections of the University Museum

By: Leon Legrain

Originally Published in 1944

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This is the Assyrian monument (Figure 1) sent in 1853 from Mosul dy the Rev. W. Frederic Williams, American missionary, to his good friend George Whitney in Philadelphia. How the relief reached Philadelphia and finally the Museum, is a story with a local flavour worth telling again. We borrow it from the Report of the Proceedings of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia for the year 1885. Mr. George Whitney had died in 1884, and part of his estate passed to James S. Whitney, his brother. In the report of the learned Society, on the seventh of May, 1885, we read that: “Mr. Outerbridge exhibited a stone tablet from Nimrod and gave the following account of its transportation to this city and its discovery here: About 35 years ago an American missionary, Mr. W. Frederic Williams, went to Syria. Taking a great interest in the explorations made by Sir Henry Layard, just previous to his visit, he secured the stones exhibited on the ground, and wrote to his friend Mr. Whitney in Philadelphia that he was sending them to him. They were packed in wooden boxes and given in charge of a caravan going to Alexandretta. The stones were not received by Mr. Whitney when they were expected and, time passing, their shipment was forgotten. They were subsequently received in Mr. Whitney’s absence and placed in a warehouse, where other packages were piled upon them, and there they remained until found by Mr. Outerbridge last Saturday a week ago.

Relief of a winged genie, facing left, wears a knee-length tunic that is covered by an ankle length fringed shawl, in his hands he holds a bucket and cone
Figure 1. Relief on a limestone slab from the palace of Ashurnasirpal, King of Assyria, 884-860 B.C., at Calah (Nimrud)
Museum Object Number: 29-21-1
Image Number: 7881

“Mr. Talcott Williams-the son of the Rev. Mr. Williams referred to – was here presented to the Society and made the following remarks: The tablet was one of a number found by Prof. Rawlinson at Nineveh. Prof. Rawlinson uncovered more sculptures than he cared to remove and presented this one to the missionaries. His father, the Rev. Mr. Williams, sent it to Mr. Whitney by a caravan in charge of an Arab named Abdul Hussein. The cavalier reported that the caravan was robbed in the desert and the stones thrown in the sand, but they were afterwards recovered and again forwarded. In describing the appearance of Abdul Hussein, Mr. Williams spoke of the length and flexibility of his toes, a peculiarity of an Arab of pure blood. This characteristic was also noticeable on the toes of the figure on the sculptured tablet. The large tablet was composed of three slabs, it having been sawn in three pieces for convenience in transportation, enclosed in wooden boxes. Its material was soft gypsum. Upon it was carved in bas-relief a winged figure of heroic size holding a fir cone in one outstretched hand and a little bucket in the other. An inscription in the cuneiform character was cut across the lower part of the figure.

“The Rev. Dr. Peters read a translation he had made of this inscription, which told the titles and achievements of Ashurnasirpal, king of Assyria, who reigned from 860 to 845 B.C. Dr. Peters stated that the tablet had formed one of the decorations of some hall in the palace at Nimrod and described the architectural methods of the Assyrians, giving an account of the brick platform upon which the temple and the palace were built.

“A discussion ensued upon the symbolism of the ornaments displayed upon the sculptured figure, Dr. Peters stating that he regarded the fir cone and basket as phallic emblems.”

The wingéd and hornéd genius is in reality the guardian of the sacred tree. The slab is only a panel of a larger scene, where the tree is represented protected on either side by two such guardians. The scene was repeated many times and formed an impressive decoration along the walls of one hall of the palace. The fir cone is probably the fruit of the cedar tree and has little to do with the artificial fertilization of the palm tree, as was first suggested. The relief is a good example of the Assyrian art of the eighth century: formal hair and beard, exaggerated muscles, minutely detailed dress and ornaments, blending grace with strength. Nimrod on the Tigris, twenty miles south of Nineveh, is the old city of Calah mentioned in the Bible (Genesis X:2).

What disposition of the slab was made after its discovery and its presentation to the Numismatic Society is not known, but ten years later it was a part of the Babylonian Section of the University Museum. The Museum was then located in the Library building of the University. In 1894 Mr. Stewart Culin, in a short notice on “The Museums of Archaeology of the University of Pennsylvania,” gives it an official recognition: “At the head of the stairway to the second floor … may be seen one of the superb alabaster bas-reliefs from the palace of King Ashurnasirpal at Calah, obtained through the efforts of Mr. Talcott Williams, another devoted friend of this department.”

A similar, but not so well-preserved slab is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, purchased from G. L. Feuardent in Paris in 1881.

Cite This Article

Legrain, Leon. "The Assyrian Relief of Ashurnasirpal." Museum Bulletin X, no. 3-4 (June, 1944): 9-10. Accessed July 15, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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