Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays


The site of Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), near Mosul in what is today northern Iraq, has a long history—the earliest known settlement there dates to the sixth millennium B.C.—but it is most famous as the ninth- and eighth-century B.C. capital of the Assyrian empire. In this period, Nimrud was home to multiple Assyrian palaces and temples, all of which have yielded important discoveries, but the site is best known for sculptures excavated from its Northwest Palace. The reliefs and gateway statues found here constitute some of the first modern discoveries of ancient Mesopotamian art and architecture: previously Assyria had been remembered only through biblical and classical texts. 

The Northwest Palace was built by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.). Its walls were lined with enormous stone bas-reliefs, depicting the king (32.143.4), divine protective imagery (32.143.7), royal hunts, and warfare. This form of decoration, first known under Ashurnasirpal, became a defining feature of the Neo-Assyrian palaces. Ashurnasirpal’s inscriptions describe discovering that a local gypsum, now colloquially known as “Mosul marble,” had properties that made it especially suitable for relief carving. Hundreds of heavy panels of the stone were cut and maneuvered into position in the palace, then carved with both imagery and a text—the so-called Standard Inscription, which enumerated the king’s titles and achievements, and which repeated across the center of reliefs throughout the palace. Many visitors to the palace would have been unable to read the cuneiform inscription, but all would have been conscious of the writing and its magical potency.

Rooms throughout the palace were filled with reliefs depicting magical protective figures (32.143.3). Like the Standard Inscription, these are repeated many times, though with countless small variations in their dress and other attributes: no two sculptures are truly identical. It is probable that their repetition itself contributed to their magical potency, and both images and text served to protect the king and the palace. So, too, did the great winged, human-headed bulls and lions that stood at important entrances, facing out to confront visitors (32.143.1; 32.143.2). The reliefs were originally brightly painted, and in some places traces of pigment still survive (31.72.1). Other fragments of sculpture, glazed bricks, and clay plaques that were set into walls preserve traces of the bold geometric and floral designs that must originally have appeared throughout the palace (57.27.24a,b), along with other lost colorful features—most importantly textiles. Incised details on some reliefs show designs that were embroidered on clothing (1982.1188.4).

As well as monumental sculptures, Nimrud has been the site of some of the most important discoveries of ivories and metalwork in the Near East. The Nimrud ivories, most of which were discovered during excavations co-sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum in the 1950s, consist of intricately carved furniture inlays (62.269.3; 60.145.11), small containers (54.117.11a–c), equestrian fittings (54.117.1), and other items (54.117.7). Originally many were painted, gilded, and/or inlaid with semi-precious stones, though traces of this decoration have survived only in rare cases (61.197.10). Some were burned in antiquity, in some cases apparently as buildings were destroyed (52.23.2) but in others perhaps deliberately in order to emulate the color and tone of ebony. The Nimrud bowls, a collection of more than 100 bronze vessels found stacked together in one room of the Northwest Palace by Austen Henry Layard in the mid-nineteenth century, are now held in the British Museum. Both the ivories and the bowls reflect multiple artistic traditions: none of the bowls and only a small proportion of the ivories appear to be Assyrian (54.117.11a–c). Most are Phoenician or Syrian in style (their exact groupings remain the subject of debate), and may have reached the palaces of Nimrud as booty or tribute. Another major discovery at the site, the tombs of several royal women of the eighth century B.C., revealed non-Assyrian names, and Assyrian-made jewelry that referenced the artistic traditions of the western parts of the empire.

Although the Assyrian capital moved again in the eighth century B.C., first to Khorsabad (ancient Dur-Sharrukin), and finally to Nineveh, Nimrud’s palaces continued in use, and the city remained an important Assyrian center. Like Nineveh, Nimrud was sacked when the Assyrian empire fell to a coalition led by Babylonia and Media at the end of the seventh century B.C. After the fall of the empire, it appears that some of the local population returned to the city at least briefly, living essentially among the imperial capital’s ruins. There is also limited evidence for small settlements on and around the site in the Achaemenid period, and more definite remains of very small villages in the succeeding Seleucid and Parthian periods, down to the middle of the second century B.C., though these have little connection to the Assyrian city. Modern excavators discovered Hellenistic burials across the site, including directly above some of the buried Assyrian palace ruins. Greek historical accounts suggest that by the time the area was visited by Xenophon (in ca. 401 B.C.) and Alexander (in 331 B.C.—the Battle of Gaugamela was fought nearby), the name of Kalhu had already been forgotten.

The rediscovery of Nimrud and its sculptures was one of the great archaeological events of the nineteenth century, and since that time the site has been recognized as one of the most important in Iraq. Recently the site of Nimrud has been subject to considerable deliberate destruction, including the use of explosives and heavy earth-moving equipment to destroy parts of the Northwest Palace, the bulldozing of the city’s ziggurat, and substantial damage to other parts of the site.