Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, almost everything that was known of ancient Assyria and Babylonia derived from textual descriptions in non-Mesopotamian sources, principally the Bible and ancient Greek histories and geographies. Arabic, Persian, and European historical traditions on ancient Mesopotamia all relied on these texts. From the eighteenth century on, however, the growth of European antiquarianism—studies of ancient objects and monuments as opposed to texts, that had begun with the still visible monuments of ancient Rome but spread quickly to northern Europe—led to a new interest in describing the physical remains of ancient cities in the Middle East. At the same time, expanding British and French political interests in the region led to a greater European presence in parts of the Ottoman empire. Some diplomats happened to have strong interests in the ancient world while others were appointed because of them, and regarded antiquarian study as part of their role as European agents in the region.
In Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, the ruins of ancient cities were often visible as high tells (artificial mounds) in the landscape. Their ancient names sometimes survived and traditions attached to them relating to their ancient histories. Claudius Rich (1787–1820), British East India Company Resident in Baghdad from 1808 to 1820, combined his diplomatic role with an antiquarian one, including publishing detailed descriptions of the sites of Nineveh and Babylon. Rich combined his observations on the site with his own knowledge of the Classical sources and consultation with scholars in Baghdad, notably on the etymology of modern names attaching to parts of the sites. He also collected a small number of antiquities in Mesopotamia that would ultimately enter the collections of the British Museum. The first major Assyrian excavations, however, would be conducted by a French Consul in Mosul, Paul-Émile Botta (1802–1870).
In 1842, Botta started digging at Nineveh then directly across the River Tigris from Mosul (the city has since greatly expanded, so that today the ancient site lies at its center), but an initial lack of major discoveries led him to shift his attention to the site of Khorsabad (ancient Dur-Sharrukin). Here he uncovered the palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II (r. 721–705 B.C.), built around 710 B.C. The mud-brick walls of the palace had been lined with slabs of gypsum alabaster finely carved in relief depicting the king, his courtiers, and Assyrian achievements (33.16.2). In addition, some of the palace gateways were guarded by massive supernatural protective figures in the form of stone colossi. In 1846, Botta shipped many of these enormous monuments to France.
In 1845, the Englishman Austen Henry Layard (1817–1894) began digging at the site of Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), where he discovered the remains of several palaces of the ninth and eighth centuries B.C. built by kings over the 150 years when Nimrud was the capital of Assyria. Between 1845 and 1847, Layard, with the help of an assistant, Hormuzd Rassam (1826–1910), and hundreds of workers, revealed the huge mud-brick palace of Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.), the first such structure decorated with stone wall reliefs (32.143.4). He also excavated other royal buildings and temples at Nimrud, while at Nineveh he revealed a large section of perhaps the greatest Assyrian palace, built by Sennacherib (r. 704–681 B.C.), where he discovered over two miles of sculptured slabs, many of which depicted Assyrian military campaigns in different parts of the empire (32.143.15). After a break in London, Layard resumed excavations in 1849, before leaving Mesopotamia and beginning a political career in 1851.
After Layard had left for London, Hormuzd Rassam continued work at Nineveh on behalf of the British Museum. His discoveries there in a palace built by Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 B.C.) included reliefs vividly depicting lion hunts that today are some of the best known Assyrian art. Born in Mosul and having initially been hired by Layard as secretary, accountant, and in practice local fixer, Rassam would become arguably the first modern Iraqi archaeologist. Rassam would later work at multiple sites in southern Iraq, including Babylon, as well as having a significant diplomatic career for Britain. French work at Khorsabad also continued, under Victor Place (1818–1875), until 1855.
The scale and speed of the digging reflects that these nineteenth century projects were not scientific archaeological excavations. Layard and Botta improvised their methods but typically tunnelled into mounds looking for walls lined with stone sculptures, then worked their way along those walls in order to reveal and often remove the slabs. They and artists working with them made accurate drawings of the reliefs they saw, but neither the methods nor the recording practices of modern excavation had yet been developed, and archaeologists approaching similar sites today would do so very differently.
The excavators received permissions form the Ottoman government to export large numbers of sculptures, the majority of which went to national collections in England and France. Typically, the sculptures were carried on rafts down the River Tigris to Baghdad and on to Basra, where they could be met by ships. To make the process easier the backs of relief slabs, many of which were inscribed, were often cut away to save weight. Again, neither this kind of export of excavated objects nor the damaging process of extracting and transporting the reliefs would be condoned today, and much of the work of modern students of ancient Assyria has consisted in trying to better understand these early excavations in order to recover as much information as possible.
The majority of Layard and Rassam's finds were sent to the British Museum, but reliefs also went to other institutions. Some were acquired by American missionaries working in Iraq, who saw the carved slabs as evidence for biblical history (84.11). Other sculptures entered private collections such as that of the industrialist J. P. Morgan (six of which are now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 17.190.2078). Layard himself sent some reliefs to the country home of his cousin and patron Lady Charlotte Guest at Canford Manor in southern England. There they were installed in the “Nineveh Porch,” which had cast-iron doors featuring human-headed bull colossi, stained-glass windows whose imagery was drawn from wall paintings found at Nimrud, and a ceiling painted with cuneiform texts. In 1919, eighteen of the sculptures were sold, and they eventually came into the collection of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who donated them to the Metropolitan Museum in 1932 (32.143.1).
Modern fieldwork has continued to reveal new aspects of the ancient Assyrian world. In the mid-twentieth century, The Met contributed to excavations that discovered large numbers of finely carved ivory furniture elements, some with imagery closely resembling the palace reliefs but many very different and suggesting non-Assyrian makers, raising the possibility that they came into the Assyrian palaces as booty or tribute (58.31.3). In 1988-89, in one of the most important discoveries of recent decades, Iraqi archaeologists excavated the tombs of three royal women at Nimrud. The burials contained luxury vessels and seals that offer some clues to their owners’ identities, as well as some of the most impressive and informative groups of jewelry to have survived from the ancient Near East.