Explore Ancient Assyrian Reliefs

Young Learners badgeOnce these panels were among two hundred that decorated the palace walls of King Ashurnasirpal II. When the king chose Kalhu as the royal and military capital of Assyria, it catapulted to fame and power.

Understanding the History

The great stone figures that today grace the Assyrian Gallery of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art were carved more than 2500 years ago for the palaces and temples of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.), ruler of the empire of Assyria, centered in what is now northern Iraq. Move through the timeline below to get a better sense of of the reliefs’ deep history and how they came to be housed in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

A Deeper Look

Close examination of the reliefs provide details about Assyrian history and culture. Use the viewing screen below to see if you can find the items mentioned in each description.

Two Winged, Eagle-Headed Spirits

These eagle-headed, winged figures are important protective spirits for the Assyrians and are dressed from the neck down as the human-headed Apkallu. Equipped with daggers and whetstones, both figures hold buckets in their lowered hands with cone-shaped “purifiers” held aloft.  The ‘Standard Inscription’ of Ashurnasirpal, common to many of his reliefs, runs across the upper half of the sculpture. It records the King’s titles, ancestry, and achievements.

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Winged Spirit of Apkallu

This winged figure is often connected to the Apkallu spirit mentioned in Assyrian texts as imbued with magical and protective powers.  The Apkallu’s horned crown announces his divinity, though his portrait bears an uncanny resemblance to Ashurnasirpal. Tucked into the folds of his tasseled kilt and embroidered robe are two daggers and a whetstone for sharpening the blades. Armlets and rosette-bracelets wrap around the figure’s arms and wrists. Remnants of color, red-brown, black and white, that once adorned the sculpture is visible on the Apkallu’s eye and the soles of his sandals

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Winged Spirit or Apkallu Anointing Ashurnasirpal II

This relief shows the king Ashurnasirpal with an Apkallu, a protective spirit, behind. The king wears the fez-and-tiara crown signaling his regal status. His long robe is tasseled with daggers tucked into the folds. The protective spirit wears a horned crown, short kilt, and sports wings that mark his divine status. He anoints the king with a “purifier,” which extends a fertile gift to the Assyrian king. The relief’s condition is significant: the bow, a symbol of Ashurnasirpal’s martial prowess, has been broken in the middle. The king’s right hand has been severed, with his eyes, nose, and ears removed.  On this defaced relief, a ghostly silhouette appears opposite the king. Crudely rendered and executed with obvious haste, the new figure approaches the king as conqueror. This disfigurement coincided with the sack of Kalhu (modern Nimrud) by the Medes and Babylonians at the end of the seventh century BCE. 

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Winged Spirit or Apkallu and Sacred Tree

The winged figure, Apkallu, is often mentioned in Assyrian texts. With magical and protective powers, he serves to guard the king and his realm. The horned crown announces his divinity, though his portrait bears an uncanny resemblance to Ashurnasirpal himself. He holds a bucket in his left hand, while in his right, he sprinkles a sacred tree using a “purifier,” resembling the spathes, or flower sheaths, from the date palm. The spirit wears a tasseled kilt and richly embroidered robe, and projects a powerful pose. Tucked into the folds of his robe are two daggers and a whetstone for sharpening the blades. Armlets and rosette-bracelets wrap around the figure’s arms and wrists.

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Paint a Relief

People today can appreciate the carved form and detail of Bowdoin’s Assyrian reliefs, but the ancient viewer was treated to a much more colorful display. Although little color remains , it seems likely that many of the reliefs were painted.  White paint remains around the pupil of the Apkallu figure and a reddish-brown pigment highlights the sole of his sandal. Can you imagine what the painted figures might have looked like?

artist pallete Try coloring this work yourself!
Relief with color
A photograph of colored light projected on the Apkallu
figure to create the illusion of a painted surface.

More Resources and Activities

Critical support for the Assyrian Collection at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is provided by the Yadgar Family Endowment