The Assyrian relief sculptures in this exhibition are some of the most extraordinary pieces in the Bowdoin collection. Carved at the behest of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II in the ninth century B.C.E., these stone panels once decorated the walls of the royal palace in the king’s new capital at ancient Kalhu, located along the upper reaches of the Tigris River, in present-day northern Iraq. The carved reliefs were finished with an overlay of cuneiform writing listing the king’s accomplishments. Together sculpture and text offer a visual narrative of Ashurnasirpal’s deeds supported by figures both mortal and divine. His extensive and innovative use of stone décor represented a departure from the styles of his predecessors and set a standard for subsequent Assyrian monarchs.
Preserved despite the sack of the palace in late seventh century B.C.E., the Bowdoin reliefs remained buried until their rediscovery in the 1840s during the excavations carried out by Sir Austen Henry Layard. At the conclusion of his work in 1861 Layard shipped many of the reliefs to Britain and allowed others to be purchased by American missionaries. Dr. Henri Byron Haskell, Bowdoin Medical School Class of 1855, selected the five large reliefs in this exhibition and sent them to Brunswick, where they arrived in 1860.
The works in this exhibition are witnesses to an important era in the history of the ancient Near East and hold a special place in the lore of Bowdoin College.