Assyrian art, Assyrian antiquities, Clio Ancient Art

Assyrian Art and the “Repatriation” of Antiquities

In April of 2013 I published on this blog a photo essay highlighting some of the many Assyrian antiquities in The British Museum (here is the link: ). Little could anyone have known at the time that a gang of fanatics and thugs, referred to now under the English language acronyms ISIS or ISIL, would take control of swaths of Syria and Iraq that include the ancient Assyrian heartland. Reports are sketchy but it is clear that in addition to Christian and Yazidi monuments and art works and those of other Islamic sects ISIL finds objectionable, ancient Assyrian, Neo-Hittite, Roman and Byzantine monuments and antiquities have been destroyed. This has occurred both in-situ and in museums.

Those who call for blindly repatriating ancient works of art from western museums to their source countries in the name of some form of political or cultural correctness should consider the fate not only of ancient Assyrian art in Iraq and Syria but also ancient works in many other conflict zones around the world. Attacking collectors, auction houses and art dealers, the overwhelming majority of whom are ethical and do not traffic in looted material, is an absurd gesture that utterly fails to address the root causes of looting and destruction. In the long term, many legally acquired antiquities circulating on the market today will find their way into public museum collections. Great museums in stable nations provide a venue for visitors from all over the world to see these works, which are mankind’s cultural legacy, not just those of a single modern nation state with artificially drawn borders whose modern populations have, in many cases, little or nothing to do with those that created the ancient works they have inherited.

With so much ancient Assyrian art now at risk, I would like to expand upon that original blog post and share more images of the British Museum’s Assyrian collections (and one image from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) and more textual detail on the previously published images. All images should be credited to Clio Ancient Art and Antiquities. For those wishing to see Assyrian art at locations other than The British Museum, I recommend visiting The Louvre in Paris, The Vatican Museums in Rome, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. On the US west coast, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco also have some examples on view.

Assyrian art, Assyrian antiquities, Clio Ancient Art

Glazed terracotta tile. Nimrud. 875-850 BC. An Assyrian king, holding a cup in one hand and bow in the other, is accompanied by his bodyguard. This is a ceremonial image intended to show the king as both warrior and hunter.

Assyrian art, Assyrian antiquities, Clio Ancient Art

Assyrian winged male protective spirit from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud (modern Iraq), Room Z, Panel 8. 865-860 BC, reign of Ashurnasirpal II

Assyrian art, Assyrian antiquities, Clio Ancient Art

Eagle headed protective spirit from the Temple of Ninurta at Nimrud. 865-860 BC. He carried a pale of holy water and a pine cone with which to sprinkle the water in a gesture of purification, rather like holy water used in some modern Christian denominations.

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Arab prisoners brought before King Tiglath-pilesser III, relief from the Central Palace at Nimrud, about 728 BC

Assyrian art, Assyrian antiquities, Clio Ancient Art

Captured flocks of sheep and goats, taken during Tiglath-pilesser III’s campaign against the Arabs, are driven back to the Assyrian camp. From the Central Palace, Nimrud, about 728 BC.

Assyrian art, Assyrian antiquities, Clio Ancient Art

Stela of King Shamshi-Adad V, 824-811 BC. It depicts the king before symbols of his principal gods. He extends his right hand, with the forefinger outstretched, an Assyrian gesture of respect and supplication towards the gods. The gods could be worshipped in symbolic form and here are, from top to bottom, Ashur, Shamash, Sin, Adad and Ishtar. The king wears a large symbol resembling a Maltese cross on his chest, another symbol of the god Shamash.

Assyrian Art, Assyrian antiquities, Clio Ancient Art

Partial reconstruction of the Balawat Gates. Erected by King Shalmaneser III at his new palace at Balawat between 858 and 824 BC. The gates were constructed of wood with bronze reinforcing strips. Only the bronze strips have survived. They showed scenes of conquest and tribute with Cuneiform captions.

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Remarkable scene of the Assyrian assault on a fortified city. This relief, from Nimrud and dating to 865-860 BC, depicts a remarkable armored tank-like siege machine on wheels, using what appears to be a metal tipped wedge or ram to work loose the blocks in the city wall. Assyrian archers are shown in their characteristic formation of pairs, with one man using a shield to prove cover while another lets loose his arrow.


A pair of winged human headed bulls from the NW Palace at Nimrud, 865-860 BC. These guarded what may have been the entrance to the King’s private apartments.


Detail of one of the winged human headed bulls described above.


Ashurnasirpal in his chariot, aiming an arrow at a lion while his attendants fend off a lion behind. This and the next image, the famed “Dying Lioness”, are part of a lengthy series of panels showing wild animal hunts from the North Palace at Ninevah, 668-627 BC. Lions were common in the Near and Middle East at this time and hunting them, and other animals considered fierce and powerful, was part of a long tradition in region to display the King’s prowess, bravery and skill.

Assyrian antiquities, Assyrian art, Clio Ancient Art

This poignant image has come to be known as “The Dying Lioness”. It is part of the animal hunt sequence from the North Palace at Ninevah, 668-627 BC. The lioness has been partly paralyzed by arrows in her hind quarters and drags herself forward to snarl at her attackers.

Assyrian art, Assyrian antiquities, Clio Ancient Art

In another scene from the Nineveh animal hunt panels, deer are trapped by herding them into a high net enclosure. As no weapons are depicted here, the animals may have been intended for a private zoo or park on the royal estates.

Assyrian art, Assyrian sculpture, Ashurnasirpal, Nimrud, Ashmolean Museum

Assyrian winged genius from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal (883-859 BC) at Nimrud. Acquired through excavation by A.H. Layard in the early 19th Century. Now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.


Use and Reuse: The Recycling of Antiquity

When traveling through the Mediterranean world one encounters many examples of cultures utilizing the ruins of earlier civilizations for their own purposes. This brief article focuses on a few examples of this practice from two of the most often visited destinations of antiquity and the modern world, Rome and Athens.
Possibly my favorite single spot in all of Rome is the Capitoline Hill, with its mix of ancient Roman sculpture, Renaissance architecture and planning, and symbolic power across three thousand years of history. One of three buildings surrounding Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio at the heart of the Capitoline Hill is the Palazzo Senatorio, used by the Roman Senate starting in the 13th century and now housing the Mayor’s office. While most visitors enter the Capitoline Museums on the north and south sides of the Piazza, few take time to examine the largely hidden north-east wall of the Palazzo. There one finds a curious jumble of relief sculpture from the late Republic, the Roman Imperial age and even Egyptian-inspired reliefs of the Roman period. The Palazzo stands atop the very spot where the ancient Tabularium or City archive of Rome once stood. Many blocks from this structure were reused in the Palazzo’s construction. In 1453 Pope Nicholas V built a tower on the north-eastern corner of the building. Fragments of ancient reliefs amidst Baroque-era Papal inscriptions were placed on the wall of the tower during reconstruction work in 1655, forming a monument to Scipio.
Palazzo Senatorio, Capitoiline Hill, Rome, Clio Ancient Art Antiquities

Jumble of ancient Roman and Renaissance Sculpture set in the north-east wall of the Palazzo Senatorio, Capitoline Hill, Rome

Piazza della Bocca della Verita is named for the famous “Mouth of Truth” located inside the portico of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, which has foundations going back to the 6th Century. According to a many centuries old tradition, visitors inserting their hand in the mouth would lose the hand by the mouth snapping shut if the visitor had told lies. The Mouth was made all the more famous by a scene in the 1953 film ‘Roman Holiday” with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. In fact, this huge white marble disc with the face of a river god may simply have been a large drain cover during the Roman imperial period. Set into the wall of the Church during the middle ages, it was simply a large and unusual piece of construction material that took on a life of its own.
ClioAncientArtBocca della Verita, Portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Roma, Roman antiquities, antiquities dealers, Clio Ancient Art

Bocca della Verita, Portico of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.

One of the most remarkable achievements of ancient Roman engineering was the transport of dozens of complete Egyptian obelisks across the Mediterranean by sea from Egypt, to be re-erected in the Eternal City. A modest but tasteful example of this is the obelisk in Piazza della Rotunda, just across the square from the Pantheon. Originally erected in Heliopolis, Egypt by Ramses II in the 13th Century BC, it was brought to Rome and re-erected for the public benefit in the 1st or 2nd Century AD. Much later, as the ancient Roman city was re-emerging during the periods of Renaissance and Baroque construction, it was moved by Pope Clement XI, taking its present position as the center of a fountain, in 1711. Its peak is decorated with the Clement’s papal arms.
Egyptian Obelisk in Baroque fountain, Piazza della Rotunda, Rome, Roman antiquities, antiquities dealers, Clio Ancient Art

Egyptian Obelisk in Baroque fountain, Piazza della Rotunda, Roma

While many buildings from Roman antiquity have been reused wholesale, converted to churches during the Middle Ages, for example, close observation of many structures built after the collapse of the western Roman Empire show clear evidence of the salvage and reuse of elements from now vanished or ruined ancient buildings. In the photo detail below, the porch of the 12th Century Church of San Clemente incorporates columns and column capitals that do not constitute a matching set. These were salvaged from older structures, possibly including the original 4th Century church on the same site and probably other ancient Roman buildings, as well. In fact, a 1st Century AD Roman temple to the god Mithras is preserved under the current building.
Church of San Clemente, Temple of Mithras, Rome, Roman antiquities, Clio Ancient Art

Porch, Basilica of San Clemente, Rome, showing recycled ancient columns

In many of Rome’s later Medieval churches, one finds floors, tomb monuments, pulpits, fonts and other elements decorated with detailed bands of colored marbles in a mosaic technique. Very different from the figural mosaics of antiquity with their small tessarae, these works were the product of the Cosmati family, craftsmen active in Rome during the 12th and 13th centuries. Utilizing the abundance of abandoned exotic marble columns and other architectural elements that littered large tracts of Rome and its surroundings during the middle ages, the Cosmati created a dazzling and rich new style that even gained popularity in other parts of Italy. Ancient columns in exotic stones could be sliced, carved, ground down and otherwise manipulated to create designs that suited tastes of that era, thus creating what became known as the Cosmatesque style.
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Cosmatesque style floor, Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome

Much like the Capitoline Hill in Rome, the Acropolis of Athens offers many often overlooked examples of antiquity being recycled for new uses in new ages. During the early Byzantine period, Athens was reduced to the status of modest provincial town. The Parthenon, Erechtheion and the Hephaisteion were converted into churches. Beginning in the late 19th century, restoration, reconstruction and excavation on the Acropolis hill cleared away many substantial remains of the Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Turkish periods, leaving us with the impression that the classical Greek monuments seen by today’s visitor are all that has ever stood atop the hill.
To dispel this impression I offer two images: one is a very large marble block from classical antiquity today resting about three-quarters of the way up the slope of the Acropolis Hill, carved with crosses and acanthus leaves in the style of late antiquity. The other is an even large marble block from classical antiquity also resting on the slopes of the Acropolis Hill that was re-carved with a lengthy Turkish inscription dating to the 16th or 17th century.
Acropolis Hill, Marble, Late Antiquity, Clio Ancient Art Antiquities

Marble block from classical antiquity on the slope of the Acropolis Hill, carved with crosses and acanthus leaves in the style of late antiquity. Athens

Athens, Acropolis Hill, Marble, Clio Ancient Art Antiquities

Marble block from classical antiquity on the slope of the Acropolis Hill, re-carved with Turkish inscription, 16th or 17th century. Athens.

I hope this article will inspire the archaeological tourist to view the monuments of antiquity not so much as timeless icons of single cultures but as parts of a greater flow of history, often re-used, sometimes abused but always useful to those who found new ways of utilizing their materials, contexts or images.

This article is an expanded version of a brief “Travelogue” entry on the Clio website, For many more travelogue entries visit:

NEWS ITEM: Romano-British Goddess Sculpture Uncovered During Dig at Roman Fort

During a dig at Arbeia Roman Fort, in the north of England, not far from Hadrian’s Wall, a small but well preserved stone head of a Romano-British goddess was uncovered by a volunteer. Here’s the link to the local newspaper, including a photo gallery –