Ackerman is speaking of Dartmouth's famous Assyrian reliefs-among the most significant works of Assyrian art in the United States. The seven larger-than-life figures on six stone slabs are magnificently carved in splendid detail. They depict winged Assyrian deities, attendants and an impressive, bearded figure of a king.
Part of the College since 1856, the reliefs have been the centerpiece of the Hood Museum of Art since it opened in 1985. This year, just short of the 150th anniversary of their arrival in Hanover, the Hood has taken a fresh look at them.
"We're celebrating the 20th anniversary of the museum," says Katherine Hart, Barbara C. and Harvey P. Hood 1918 Curator of Academic Programming and Interim Director of the Hood, "with a focus on the collections. So we asked Kamyar Abdi, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and an archaeologist who works in southern Iran, Steve Kangas, Lecturer in Art History and Susan Ackerman each to write something about the reliefs."
The three essays are now part of a new brochure about the famous stone carvings, their history and importance. Other updates to the Hood's Kim Gallery, which houses the reliefs, include fresh paint, new information panels and new objects installed in the cases nearby.
The history of the reliefs goes back to 860 B.C.E. In that year, the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II completed the Northwest Palace at his freshly rebuilt capital city, Nimrud (known in ancient times as Calah or Kalhu). The panels, originally painted in brilliant colors, were installed in spaces near the king's throne room.
"All of the images in the palace were deliberately conceived and arranged to express the power of Assyria and to help insure its survival," writes Kangas in the Hood brochure. "The reliefs...served as a powerful form of propaganda, overwhelming the visitor to the palace with images of the indomitable might of the king, which was likely reassuring for some but frightening for others."
Among those who would have probably found the images unsettling were the inhabitants of biblical lands, later crushed by Assyrian invaders. Many centuries later, the biblical connection brought the reliefs to New England.
In 1845, as recounted in Abdi's brochure essay, British explorer Austin Henry Layard began excavations at Nimrud. Layard's excavations, an early step in the history of Near Eastern archaeology, brought many Assyrian reliefs to the British Museum where they generated enormous interest. Archaeology was a favorite topic in Victorian England. The artifacts, having been discovered by the British, were a source of imperial pride.
American missionaries in the Middle East, however, were interested for another reason -for the historical connections to Hebrew Bible narratives.
"This was really the beginning of bibilical archaeology," explains Ackerman, "and the Assyrian excavations served as a vivid, tangible, linking of the Bible to the real world-as proof of historicity of the biblical account. To the missionaries, the winged genies in the reliefs appeared exotic, even demonic and they concluded that they were evidence of the moral superiority of the biblical account-multiple, winged deities in contrast to the single, unimaged God of the Bible."
Missionary-inspired efforts brought many Assyrian reliefs to New England colleges, including Williams, Amherst, Yale, and Bowdoin. Dartmouth's reliefs, acquired through the efforts of Dartmouth Librarian Oliver Hubbard (1851-1865) and alumnus Austin Wright, Class of 1830, were among the best, and the only set to include a depiction of an Assyrian king.
Over their long history at Dartmouth, the reliefs have resided in a number of locations, including Reed Hall, Wilson Hall, Carpenter Hall and the short-lived Butterfield Museum of Paleontology, Archaeology, Ethnology and Kindred Sciences. Impressively reinstalled in the Hood, the reliefs are subjects of study in the survey course Introduction to the History of Art, as well as in more specialized courses in Anthropology and Art History Departments and the Jewish Studies Program.
"These reliefs date to the biblical period when the Assyrian Empire conquered the Israelites," explains Ackerman. "The biblical authors talk about the Assyrians as agents of God's punishment. God uses the Assyrians to punish the Israelites for straying from his commandments."
"When we do that period of biblical history in class, reading how the biblical authors describe those conquests and that domination, we spend one class period in the museum, talking about, thinking about what the reliefs indicated in the 9th century B.C.E."
"I tell the students how incredibly lucky they are to have these things just five minutes away from their classroom," continued Ackerman. "Although there are reliefs scattered all over New England, we definitely have the best, and I make sure the students know that.
"The installation is quite brilliant in the Hood, in the degree to which the reliefs dominate your vision from the moment you walk in the door. The students are awed by their size, artistic beauty and sophistication and by the cultural heights to which the Assyrian Empire had risen."
All of which, of course, is exactly what King Ashurnasirpal intended, nearly 3,000 years ago.
By PETER WALSH
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Last Updated: 12/17/08