Ancient Assyrian Art

Located in Mesopotamia, the ancient kingdom of Assyria thrived on the upper banks of the Tigris River. Initially the kingdom was comprised city states along with a few small Semitic kingdoms. Historians believe the first rulers date to roughly 2000 B.C. Assyria’s first capital was located at Assur from which it took its name. Assyria’s career as a regional power waxed and waned during the ancient period, but it was a dominant power ruling much of upper Mesopotamia from 2000 B.C. to 1500 B.C. and later from 911 B.C. to 612 B.C. Assyria came to be famed for its fierce warriors, ambitious kings, and singular art.

Scholars believe that Assyrian art began to emerge around 1500 B.C. At this point, artifacts demonstrate a break with Babylonian and Sumerian art and showcase features that are uniquely Assyrian. In time, the Assyrians became particularly skilled at preserving important aspects of their culture in art. Assyrian art of ancient Mesopotamia is among the most famous of the region. Many archeological relics of Assyrian art were discovered during excavations of the twentieth century; these items are collected by some of the most prestigious museums in the world.

Most Assyrian art dates to the Neo-Assyrian period (911 B.C.-612 B.C.). Assyrian artists typically carved battle scenes on stone reliefs. Sculpting reached sophisticated levels in Assyrian art during this period. Some reliefs depicted the violent deaths of entire villages. Scholars believe that such graphically detailed works of violence were meant to advertise the power of the empire and its rulers and to intimidate their enemies. The artwork was showcased on palace walls and royal monuments in order to impress foreign dignitaries. Other reliefs have been unearthed, however, that portray elements of Assyrian life such as the transporting of goods by boat. Certainly some of the works were religious in nature as well.

Among the most famous Assyrian subjects are its animal forms. Lions and horses were often depicted with great precision. Often the animal carvings and statues were viewed as protective forces containing religious significance. Assyrians placed these guardians in gateways or at entrances. Winged lions and other beasts often sported human heads and are among the artistic works that Assyria is best remembered for today. One of the most famous animal relief works depicts Assurnasirpal II during a ninth century B.C. lion hunt; the work was achieved in alabaster and can be viewed at the British Museum. This museum also contains a famed alabaster lion hunt scene featuring the famed ruler Assurbanipal during the seventh century B.C. Winged bulls with human bearded heads also feature predominantly on Assyrian reliefs. Other museums that contain significant collections of Assyrian artwork are the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Oriental Institute in Chicago.