Neo-Assyrian. Cast of the Original in the British Museum, London. Original wall panel from the North West Palace in Nimrud (Northern Iraq), Gypsum, c. 865-860 BCE.

King Ashurnasirpal II ruled Assyria from 883-859 BCE. During this time, he moved the Assyrian capital from Ashur to Nimrud, sparking a large building program in the new capital city. Included in the building program was the Northwest palace. The palace was richly decorated with limestone wall panels carved in low relief. This particular cast is taken from the panel that was located directly behind the king’s throne.

At the center of this panel is a stylized tree often identified as a date palm. A deity, likely Shamash or Ashur, appears in the winged disc above the tree. Flanking the tree are two representations of King Ashurnasirpal II holding a mace associated with kingship. Behind each figure of the king are winged figures known as apkallu, or guardian spirits, who each hold a bucket of water and a date palm male flower cluster. The items that the apkallu hold are essential to date palm pollination. In the ancient near east, farmers would shake male flower clusters over the flowers of a female tree, using water to help the pollen stay in place long enough for fertilization. Yet in this work the apkallu are not pollinating the central, stylized tree. They seem to be pollinating the figures of the king. The king gestures to the deity in the winged disc who in turn holds out a ring toward him in a symbol of god given authority. While much of the visual language of the ancient past remains a mystery, many scholars argue that the scene likely represents the king’s ability to provide abundance to the land and stresses his role as a mediator with the divine.  This visual representation of abundance provided by the king due to his special relationship with the gods is underscored by the prolific number of inscriptions left behind by kings in ancient Mesopotamia verbally expressing this same idea.

In the lower one third of the work, an inscription, known as the “Standard Inscription,” is written across the figures depicted in this relief. The “Stand Inscription” is so named because it was carved across every relief within the Northwest palace. The cuneiform inscription, written in Akkadian, extols King Ashurnasirpal II and his accomplishments. The inscription was likely thought to hold a magical function which may account for its repetition throughout the palace.

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