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When the mania for all things Assyrian suddenly took hold in the United States in the 19th century, it opened a bizarre chapter in American cultural history. By 1865, no fewer than 55 giant reliefs from a fabled palace in Nimrud had landed in New England. Robert Ousterhout tells the story
When I visited the Hood Museum at Dartmouth College last fall, I was astonished to encounter six oversized alabaster reliefs representing the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (who reigned c883–59 BC), in a solemn ritual procession, accompanied by attendants and genies. Each panel is close to eight feet tall; they fill an entire wall. My host, Prof Susan Ackerman, couldn’t help but smile at my response. “I can talk your ear off about our Assyrian reliefs,” she insisted. She could, too. I was enthralled. It’s quite a story.
I was all the more surprised to learn that the Assyrian reliefs had arrived at their destination, a small Protestant college in rural New Hampshire, in 1856, long before the museum was created – indeed, long before most American museums were founded and decades before Americans began to engage in archaeology. Who, I wondered, in mid-19th-century America was interested in ancient Assyria?
Lots of folks, as it turned out. The surprises kept coming. In fact, these weren’t the first Assyrian reliefs to arrive in the United States. Williams College in Massachusetts had acquired two in 1851; Yale University’s collection of four arrived in 1854; Amherst College received their five in 1855; Middlebury College got a nice one at about the same time. There are others that entered American collections in the decade 1850–60: at Union College in Utica, NY; at the Virginia Theological Seminary; at Bowdoin College in Maine; at the New York Historical Society, and elsewhere. Curiously, most of the destinations were small Protestant colleges, not major museums.In all, there are at least 55 Assyrian reliefs that arrived in the United States before 1860. Today there are at least 83, divided between 36 institutions, all from the same point of origin: the Northwest Palace at Nimrud (Biblical Calah or Kalhu), built by Ashurnasirpal II and excavated by Austen Henry Layard, beginning in 1845. The palace had been constructed of plastered mud-brick, but the lower zones of its interior rooms were lined with orthostats – large blocks of gypsum alabaster, carved in low relief and brightly painted with scenes of rituals and ceremonies glorifying the king.
Layard (later Sir Austen Henry Layard) sent the lion’s share of his discoveries, large and small, to the British Museum, where they now fill several galleries. But problems quickly arose. Quite simply, there were too many of them; the orthostat blocks were bulky and heavy – roughly five tons each – and difficult to transport; Nimrud was in the middle of nowhere, in upper Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq, near Mosul), with no easy access.
What is more, the reliefs were repetitious. Ritual, in almost all contexts, involves repetition – the reiteration of ceremonies, incantations, hymns and acclamations to guarantee the order in a well-governed world – expressions of power and insurance of survival. Art in the service of ritual does the same – it repeats itself. While some of the reliefs were unique, even more were not. Many of the figures of apkallu or genies (lower-level deities), for example, were identical, or virtually identical. There were more than 200 of them alone. And the British Museum was running out of gallery space. Moreover, British aficionados of classical art were unimpressed – to their eyes, the Assyrian reliefs were crude and heavy-handed compared to the museum’s celebrated Parthenon reliefs – hardly worth the expense of transport. Poor Mr Layard and his team faced a dilemma: what to do with the leftovers, once the British Museum had said, in effect, “Enough already!” If they abandoned them on site, Layard feared, the precious artefacts would be looted or destroyed.
At this point in the story, the Protestant missionaries from New England make their entrance. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had already established a network of centres across the Ottoman Empire when, in 1850, they founded a new mission at Mosul. Its energetic first director, the Rev Dwight Marsh, was a graduate of Williams College and was keenly interested in the region’s deep history. He befriended Layard in 1851, in the latter’s last year of excavation at Nimrud. A deal was struck. Within the year, two panels were on their way to a small college in upstate Massachusetts; a third one followed. Layard’s successors at Nimrud, notably Sir Henry Rawlinson, continued the policy of orthostatic diplomacy with the Americans. Those at Dartmouth came as gifts from Rawlinson.
Clearly, Marsh was onto something. Assyromania quickly took hold, particularly in New England. He was also keen to recruit new missionaries. Other American colleges followed his lead, taking advantage of their missionary alumni, on site or close at hand. The Rev Henry Lobdell, the physician at the Mosul mission, quickly secured additional reliefs for his alma mater, Amherst College. Dartmouth subsequently dispatched one of its alumni, Austin Hazen Wright, then a missionary in Iran, to do the same. Another missionary, W Frederic Williams, took up the cause of his alma maters, Yale University and the Auburn Theological Seminary.
Why such interest? It’s a curious story – a convergence of two important movements of the 19th century, one scholarly, the other religious. The first, primarily British, was an antiquarian interest in the Ancient Near East, encouraged by the decipherment of cuneiform scripts between c1847 and 1853, and the discovery of ancient Sumerian and Akkadian literature: the Epic of Gilgamesh is now the most famous, but there are other legends, origin stories, even love poetry and erotica. In fact, Layard’s excavations were contemporary with the first reading of the texts.
The second movement was religious. What caught everyone’s interest – particularly the Americans – were the remarkable parallels emerging between the newly discovered Mesopotamian literature and the Old Testament, including toponyms and personal names – even a story of a great flood. As religious beliefs began to be questioned with the rise of science, it was thought, perhaps science (in the form of archaeology) could come to the rescue of religion. As Lobdell put it hopefully, “The language of prophecy has now become simple history.”
Many took the reliefs of Assyria’s “false gods” as explicit proof of Biblical truths, perhaps even a visual manifestation of the prophecies of Isaiah. “Would that every active imagination would hear the stones cry out, ‘Asia has claims upon New England,’” wrote Marsh in a letter from Mosul to the Rev Mark Hopkins, the President of Williams College, in 1855. Testaments of God’s handiwork, he believed the strange images should stir the youth of America in the true faith and encourage them to ministerial or missionary vocations. As he explained in his letter to Hopkins:
My great desire is that students who look upon the relics of the past may think wisely of time and be led to take a deeper interest in the efforts made to rescue the degraded from the beastliness of their present life…
When the young American beholds in your cabinet ‘the glory of the incorruptible God changed into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts and creeping things,’ may their hearts be stirred within them as Paul’s was at Athens. May they remember that God is older than the ages – that the glorious future of America is not eternity.
Most of the reliefs were clearly religious, although definitely not Christian. They depict participants in a ceremony involving a sacred tree. Attendants – the genies – many winged, some with eagle heads – carry small buckets (of holy water?) and hold aloft cone-like objects (possibly aspergilla for sprinkling holy water, or censers?), their actions interpreted as purifying or fertilising a stylised sacred date palm. These ceremonies were meant to guarantee the strength of the ruler andthe fecundity of his lands. This was the central theme of the Northwest Palace reliefs. Others show foreigners offering tribute, or the king engaged in hunting and battle.
All might be read as ritual activities, as well as propaganda to glorify the king. Kingship, it was thought, was divinely ordained; the rulers were chosen by the gods. As my host Susan Ackerman explains it, “These kings had important responsibilities to the gods as well, in particular ensuring the gods’ wellbeing by making regular food and drink offerings to them and by overseeing the upkeep of their temples.” In return, the gods would see to the land’s fecundity, the kingdom’s prosperity and its military success. All was expressed visually in the palace reliefs.
If the imagery were not clear enough in its own right, the reliefs were embellished with a band of cuneiform script that lays out the message in no uncertain terms. The translation by Susan Ackerman begins:
The palace of Ashurnasirpal, priest of Assur, favorite of Enlil and Ninurta, beloved of Anu and Dagan, the weapon of the great gods, the mighty king, the king of the world, the king of Assyria, the son of Adan-Nirari, the valiant man who acts with the support of Assur, his lord, who has no equal among princes of the four corners of the world. The wonderful shepherd who is not afraid of battle, the great flood which none can oppose, the king who makes those not his subject to him submissive, who has subjugated all mankind, the mighty warrior, who treads on the rock of his enemies, tramples down all his foes and shatters the forces of the proud; the king who acts with the support of the great gods, and whose hand has conquered all lands, who has subjugated all the mountains and received their tribute, taking hostages and establishing his power over all their lands.
This “standard inscription” of Ashurnasirpal II goes on and on and repeats itself. Even for those who could not read, the magical potency of writing added to the message of the images – at least to the ancient Assyrians. Nineteenth-century Christians saw everything a bit differently – through the eyes of a very different religion. Nevertheless, the great reliefs fascinated them.
But how to get them to New England? The process of removing and transporting the enormous stone blocks proved to be complicated. The orthostats each measured around eight feet square and were at least a foot thick – too large and too heavy to be transported whole. Accordingly, the stone was thinned to a few inches, and the reliefs cut into smaller pieces – usually single figures, sliced horizontally into three registers. The smaller blocks were packed in layers of thick felt, secured with rope, and crated for shipment. They were carried to Mosul by camels and mules, then by caravan, 450 miles across the Syrian Desert to Beirut and the Mediterranean, from which they were shipped to Boston. The reliefs that went to Williams had been a personal gift from Layard; the college paid $100 to transport them – a bargain, even in its day.
The British preferred to transport their share of the antiquities down the Tigris to the Persian Gulf and thence by sea. This allowed for larger blocks to be shipped, with less cutting, but this route was longer and more expensive, and not without its perils. Of the America-bound shipments, only the five reliefs destined for Bowdoin College travelled by way of the Tigris, and subsequently around the Cape of Good Hope, at a total expense of $728. Yale University, by contrast, received their shipment of four reliefs at a total cost of $212, including purchase, transport and bribes. And well under the $250 they had budgeted; when offered additional reliefs, they said no – four were enough.
As more reliefs made their way to the United States, the duplication of images became a concern: ritual repetition was one thing; artistic originality something else entirely. Of those Marsh received from Layard, he noted: “… the only drawback being their close likeness to a pair already in the British Museum”. There were too many genies, not enough kings – the latter in great demand. Williams turned down two “duplicates”, sending them instead to the Mercantile Library in St Louis (now in the Nelson-Atkins Gallery in Kansas City) and the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford. In turn, Dartmouth successfully insisted they must have at least one king among the reliefs they acquired; in all, they received one king, one attendant and five genies. At one point representatives from Amherst, Yale and Union College found themselves in Mosul, competing to select the best reliefs. Those deemed repetitious were sent to lesser institutions.
Of course, times and tastes change. As Assyromania waxed and waned, the great orthostats could become white elephants. Some even arrived as unwanted gifts. In 1853 the missionary Rev W Frederic Williams sent a relief to his good friend George Whitney in Philadelphia. Although Whitney was a patron of the arts, more importantly he was a captain of industry. His family manufactured patented cast-iron wheels for railroad cars. The crates from Nimrud went unpacked and were all but forgotten in a warehouse until after Whitney’s death in 1885, when they were acquired by the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia. In 1891, or shortly thereafter, they passed to the Babylonian section of the University of Pennsylvania’s new museum – just as the university was undertaking America’s first Mesopotamian excavation at Nippur.
Before the end of the 19th century few colleges had museums or galleries to house or display their Nimrud reliefs safely. Many of the panels subsequently went into storage or were forgotten. Some just disappeared, perhaps into private collections. Williams College, which had launched the mania in the first place, gradually lost interest. By 1908 their three panels had been put into storage, where they remained until 2001. In 1941 they sold one of the reliefs to the Minneapolis Institute of Art for around $8,000. In 1959 they attempted unsuccessfully to offload a second one. Latecomers to the movement benefited, of course, as the economy also waxed and waned. The Metropolitan Museum acquired reliefs from Union College in 1931. Another from Union College was sold to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1956. The relief at the Andover-Newton Theological School had been received courtesy of W Frederic Williams in 1860; it was sold to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1935 for $10,000. The Cleveland Museum of Art was able to purchase a relief from Amherst in 1943.
Private British collections also migrated westward. Most notably, the Brooklyn Museum of Art was able to buy 12 reliefs in 1955. These had actually been purchased in London a century earlier by Henry Stevens, who shipped them to Boston, where they were immediately acquired by James Lenox for the New York Historical Society, which in 1937 loaned them to the Brooklyn Museum; they were subsequently purchased. In 1910 the Fogg Museum at Harvard University was able to buy a relief from the family of Sir John and Lady Charlotte Guest, British patrons of Layard, who had given it to them as a gift. Facing inheritance taxes, the Guest heirs had been forced to sell. Other reliefs the family put up for auction at that time were purchased by John D Rockefeller and ended up in the Metropolitan Museum. The Detroit Institute of Arts similarly was able to acquire a relief of an eagle-headed genie in 1947 from the private collection of the Seymour family of Wiltshire. The panels of genies and sacred trees at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art had been excavated at Nimrud in 1855 but were purchased in 1966 from the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne.
With the subsequent flourishing of the art market and the trade in illegal antiquities in the latter 20th century, however, the value of the reliefs soared to record heights. After all, they had a secure provenance and had entered Britain or the United States before modern antiquities laws came into being.
Often described as “Christie’s strangest sale”, one relief had been a gift from Layard to his patrons, the Guests of Canford Manor in Dorset. In 1922 the manor was sold and converted into a boys’ school. The only remaining relief ended up in the back of a tuck shop, next to the dartboard, hidden behind a layer of vinyl paint. Rediscovered only in 1992, it was cleaned up and sold at auction to a Japanese buyer for a record £7.7 million. Included in the endowment were chocolate bars for all the students.
Museums now exhibit the Assyrian reliefs proudly – at least, those that can afford to house and protect them. Not all can afford to. The Virginia Theological Seminary, for example, had received three panels in 1859, but in 2018 they felt compelled to sell one at auction – the insurance alone was more than they could justify. It went to an anonymous buyer for $31 million. While they argued that the sale was a fiscal necessity at the time, the transaction coincided uncomfortably with the war in Iraq and the looting and destruction of museums and archaeological sites. In fact, three years before the sale, the forces of ISIS had bulldozed the site of Nimrud, destroying all the remaining artwork, levelling its ziggurat, and laying the ground with landmines. Layard’s greatest nightmare had come to pass – although perhaps not as he could have envisaged, even in his worst dreams.
Today it is hard to imagine the British Museum, or any other institution, telling Mr Layard they’d had enough.
● The title of this article is from the Rev Dwight Marsh’s 1855 letter to Williams College. It is repeated in ‘Asia Has Claims upon New England: Assyrian Reliefs at Yale’, by Sam Harrelson (Yale University Art Gallery, 2006): download at artgallery.yale.edu ● For more on the reliefs’ adventures, Ada Cohen and Steven E Kangas, eds, ‘Assyrian Reliefs from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II: A Cultural Biography’ (UPNE, 2010)
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