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Fit for the King

"They are a wonderful teaching tool,"  says Susan Ackerman, Professor of Religion and  Women's and Gender Studies. "The students are  always awed by them."

These Assyrian (Iraq, 883-859 B.C.E., gypsum) panels have resided in Hanover for almost 150 years.  They originated at the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud and total six stone slabs depicting seven detailed figures of  winged Assyrian deities, attendants and a king.  The Hood Museum of Art is celebrating the reliefs in a new brochure and a renovated gallery space. (image courtesy of Hood Museum of Art)

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.


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Last Updated: 12/17/08