Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Miniature corbel in the shape of a hand

Period:
Neo-Assyrian
Date:
ca. 883–859 B.C.
Geography:
Mesopotamia, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu)
Culture:
Assyrian
Medium:
Ceramic, glaze
Dimensions:
3 7/8 × 8 3/4 × 2 5/16 in. (9.8 × 22.2 × 5.9 cm)
Classification:
Ceramics-Sculpture-Inscribed
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1954
Accession Number:
54.117.30
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 404
The interiors of Assyrian palaces were richly decorated, with reliefs on the stone slabs lining the thick mud brick walls, giant standing statues representing mythological figures as gatekeepers, and colored glazed tiles and painted decorative motifs running along the walls above the stone reliefs. Also found in the palace rooms were intriguing clay objects in the shape of hands.

Assyrian clay hands were first discovered in the mid-nineteenth century by British and French archaeologists in the remains of palaces and temples of major Assyrian cities in northern Iraq. These architectural devices were mainly employed in the Assyrian capitals of Ashur, Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Nineveh, but similar objects were also excavated also at Zincirli, capital of the Aramaean kingdom of Samal in north-western Syria.

This object represents a hand in the shape of a clenched fist, with five distinct fingers, and a section left rough that functioned as a shank to be inserted into the wall. The fingers are rendered identically, with no special indication of a thumb. The fingers and fist are glazed but only a few traces of the original blue color survive. On the three central fingers a cuneiform inscription is impressed:

Palace of Ashurnasirpal, king of the world, king of Assyria,
son of Tukulti-Ninurta, king of the world, king of Assyria,
son of Adad-Nirari, also king of the world, king of Assyria
[Frame 1991]

Clay hands were part of the rich decoration of Assyrian royal buildings, as they were inserted into the mortar of the mudbrick walls with the clenched fist protruding out of the wall surface. Although their exact function remains unresolved for modern scholars, they were likely employed as decorative architectural corbels, probably in connection with window ledges or timber roof beams. A few bronze exemplars similar to the clay ones have also been found in Nimrud and Nineveh. These probably covered an underlying wooden structure, such as the end of a roof beam. The shape of the hand may have been connected with an apotropaic meaning and served to protect the space of the palace from evil spirits, while also embodying the power of the king as the builder of the mighty royal palace.
1952, excavated by Max Mallowan, on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq; ceded in the division of finds to the British School of Archaeology in Iraq; acquired by the Museum in 1954, as a result of its financial contribution to the excavations.
Frame, Grant. 1991. "Assyrian Clay Hands." Baghdad Mitteilungen 22, p. 367, no. 55.
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