Date: ca. 883–859 B.C.
Geography: Mesopotamia, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu)
Medium: Gypsum alabaster
Dimensions: 64 5/8 x 50 1/2 x 3 in. (164.1 x 128.3 x 7.6 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917
Accession Number: 17.190.2077
This panel from the Northwest Palace at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) depicts a winged supernatural figure. Such figures appear throughout the palace, sometimes flanking either the figure of the Assyrian king or a stylized "sacred tree." The reliefs were painted, but today almost none of the original pigment survives. However, the reliefs themselves retain incredible detail, including intricate incised designs on many of the figures’ clothing.
The protective figure on this panel originally stood back to back with another on one side of a doorway, with parallel figures on the other side, so that one pair of figures faced out toward a courtyard and the other into the room. The Museum collection includes fragments of all four figures. The figure is human-headed and faces left, holding in his left hand a bucket and in his right hand a cone whose exact nature is unclear. One suggestion has been that the gesture, sometimes performed by figures flanking a sacred tree, is symbolic of fertilization: the "cone" resembles the male date spathe used by Mesopotamian farmers, with water, to artificially fertilize female date-palm trees. It does seem likely that the cone was supposed to hold and dispense water from the bucket in this way, but it is described in Akkadian as a "purifier," and the fact that figures performing this gesture are also shown flanking the king suggests that some purifying or protective meaning is present. The figure wears a horned cap, indicating divinity, and jewelry: visible are a large pendant earring, a collar consisting of two bands of beads and spacers, armlets with animal-head terminals, and bracelets, one artificially reversed so that the large central rosette symbols, associated with divinity and perhaps particularly with the goddess Ishtar, are visible on both. Although we cannot know how these elements were originally painted, excavated parallels include elaborate jewelry in gold, inlaid with semi-precious stones. A collar or necklace such as that shown here might have been made up of semi-precious stones separated by gold spacer beads. The figure carries three knives, tucked into a belt with their handles visible at chest level, and one of these is also animal-headed.
The figures are supernatural but do not represent any of the great gods. Rather, they are part of the vast supernatural population that for ancient Mesopotamians animated every aspect of the world. They appear as either eagle-headed or human-headed and wear a horned crown to indicate divinity. Both types of figure usually have wings. Because of their resemblance to groups of figurines buried under doorways for protection whose identities are known through ritual texts, it has been suggested that the figures in the palace reliefs represent the apkallu, wise sages from the distant past. This may indeed be one level of their symbolism, but protective figures of this kind are likely to have held multiple meanings and mythological connections.
Figures such as these continued to be depicted in later Assyrian palaces, though less frequently. Only in the Northwest Palace do they form such a dominant feature of the relief program. Also unique to the Northwest Palace is the so-called Standard Inscription that ran across the middle of every relief, often cutting across the imagery. The inscription, carved in cuneiform script and written in the Assyrian dialect of the Akkadian language, lists the achievements of Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883–859 B.C.), the builder of the palace. After giving his ancestry and royal titles, the Standard Inscription describes Ashurnasirpal’s successful military campaigns to east and west and his building works at Nimrud, most importantly the construction of the palace itself. The inscription is thought to have had a magical function, contributing to the divine protection of the king and the palace.