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The Northwest Palace of Ashur-nasir-pal II at Nimrud

An Interactive Publication -- Prototype

page updated Feb. 27, 2001

by Samuel M. Paley


AUSTEN Henry Layard discovered the Palace of Ashur-nasir-pal II on the citadel of Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) during his sojourn in Mesopotamia between 1847 and 1851. Using local workmen, Layard excavated stone bas-relief -- some still lining, others fallen -- in the debris of the mud brick walls of the "public rooms" of the Palace. 

William Kennet Loftus and William Boutcher worked at Nimrud in the Fall, Winter and early Spring of 1854-55 on behalf of the British Museum and the Assyrian Excavation Fund. George Smith worked there in 1874-5 and Hormuzd Rassam returned there from 1878-82, both for the British Museum. But these excavations did not concentrate on the Northwest Palace (Curtis and Reade). Then, for nearly half-a-century, except for essentially private visits/excavations to the site of Nimrud by Iraqi families and antiquities dealers, to pick up fragments or re-excavate in the Palace ruins, interest in Nimrud waned. Also, there seemed to be nearly enough pieces of Assyrian sculpture around to satisfy interested collectors and museums. 

Anyway, the world political situation established different sets of priorities. No work by trained archaeologists was done again at Nimrud and the Northwest Palace until 1949, when, a century after Layard, Max Mallowan, on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and the British Museum, re-opened the site and paid attention to this monument of Ashur-nasir-pal II's reign.

The Return to Excavate Nimrud and the Northwest Palace

When Max Mallowan led the British return to the site, attention was directed both to re-excavating Layard's finds and to extending the excavation into the untouched areas of the Palace. The actual results of the British campaigns were not only the further excavation of Palace wings, especially the private rooms that had not been touched by Layard or Rassam and did not have stone wall bas-relief decoration, but also the restoration of the bas-relief decoration of the re-excavated portions of the Palace.  Then the Iraqi State Organization of Antiquities continued with its own excavation and restoration projects.

The British made a plan of the Palace, that is, a plan based on the one Layard made, to which they added the newly excavated private rooms and by following the tops of the bas-reliefs in rooms that had not yet been fully re-excavated. Mallowan's team, and the Iraqi excavators that followed him, also discovered that Layard had dug along the lines of the walls, but had not excavated out the centers of all the rooms. This the British began to do, and then the Iraqis continued their work. The new plan was a vast improvement on Layard's, if not for its preciseness in every detail, at least for the understanding of how vast and how complicated this building complex really was. These combined and individual efforts would eventually more than triple the size of the previously known building.  Also, this work led to the reconstruction of the mud brick walls and arched doorways, the restoration of bas-relief fragments that remained in the debris of the 19th-century excavations and reversed, in part, a century of neglect.

Publishing the Results of the Excavations of the Northwest Palace at Nimrud

It was during the Iraqi excavations of the 1970's that the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology, a branch of the Polish Academy of Sciences, arrived at Nimrud with a contract to excavate the area of the Central Palace of Tiglath-pileser III which lies to the south of Ashur-nasir-pal's palace. One of the by-products of the Polish time there (1974-76) was the attention paid to the re-excavated Northwest Palace and the collaboration with the continuing presence of the Iraqi mission (Sobolewski). 

Janusz Meuszynski, the director of the Polish project, with the permission of the Iraqi excavation team, had the whole site documented on film--in 35mm slide film and 120mm black and white print film. Every relief that remained in situ, as well as the fallen, broken pieces that were distributed in the rooms across the site were photographed. Meuszynski also arranged with the architect of his project, Richard P. Sobolewski, to survey the site and record it in plan and in elevation. 

After the accidental death of Meuszynski in May, 1976, the Polish work at Nimrud ceased. The late Professor K. Michalowski, then Director of the Polish Center of Archaeology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, arranged for Sobolewski and A. Mierzejewski, two of Meuszynski's colleagues, to finish the part of Meuszynski's work that was near completion. This was done with the help of Professor Barthel Hrouda (Meuszynski).  Samuel M. Paley began a collaboration with Sobolewski to help with the American collections of Ashur-nasir-pal relief, with footnotes and bibliography, and to follow through with Meuszynski's questions and methods. 

The reconstruction of the Palace on paper proceeded apace along with the Iraqi's excavations and restoration. The Iraq State Organization of Antiquities turned the Palace into a site museum. Meuszynski, Sobolewski, and Paley worked to document each in-situ relief and to re-place in their original positions all the known bas-relief fragments and complete slabs that had been taken from Nimrud over the last century and a half (Meuszynski; Paley and Sobolewski II; Paley and Sobolewski III). 

In order to do this accurately, each relief and fragment of relief, in situ and in museums and collections, was drawn to the same scale from actual on-site measurements and photographs. Systematic documentation of the in situ remains were critical in the identification of style, theme, and layout of the figures in the design. Layard's notes were analyzed. Many scholars in the last fifty or so years had tried their hands at identifying the placement of the bas-relief they knew, based upon iconographic details, the inscriptions, and Layard's original drawings and descriptions -- among them C. J. Gadd, E. F. Weidner, J. B. Stearns, and J. E. Reade. Their work was also researched. During the British stage of the work in the 1960's, the observations of J. E. Reade, then a member of the British excavation at Nimrud, concerning differences among the bas-reliefs of the Palace as it was being reconstructed by the Iraqi's, was particularly crucial -- for example, the height of the band of inscription cut across every individual slab and the style of garment worn by individual figures.  His observations were the first to take serious account of in situ remains.  He published his observations in a seminal article in the journal Iraq called "12 Ashurnasirpal Reliefs" in 1965. 

Based upon all this scholarship, and with new photographs and drawings, a good approximation of the original schemes was completed. To this was added information about the Palace plan from the continuing excavations of the Iraqi mission to Nimrud, courtesy of Dr. Muayyad Said Damerji, Director of the Iraqi State Organization of Antiquities. The result of what the complete set of bas-relief wall decorations looked like and the extent of the excavated remains as of 1989 is explained in the Meuszynski-Sobolewski-Paley publications with line illustrations (including a new Palace plan) and selected photographs. 

There are still, however, several lacunae. In antiquity, as the Palace began to become decrepit (even after it was partially rehabilitated by King Sargon II in the middle of the 8th century BCE), it probably became too difficult to restore; and, the same as today in parts of the Middle East, expensive pieces of construction material were salvaged: roof timbers, floor pavements, and even the stone wall relief were taken away, some to be reused, for example, in the building of another palace on the SW corner of the acropolis for King Esarhaddon, for the building of a palace in the center of the southern part of the citadel next to the Nabu Temple, for the repair of the Ninurta Temple beside the citadel's Ziggurat, and so forth. This ancient mining of the abandoned Palace exacerbated its destruction and eventually it collapsed almost entirely from neglect. A few of these slabs have been incorporated in the paper reconstruction in the publications, identified, and placed in the original or approximate positions from where the ancient builders had removed them. 

Now that all of the available information about the Palace has been collected and a restoration on paper of the decoration and its plan is available, it seems time to progress in our understanding of the totality of the sculptural program, architectural details, and spatial layout as a single scholarly whole.  The next stage of the collaborative, systematic documentation and analysis of the Palace continues with the help of Alison B. Snyder, architect, Donald H. Sanders, archaeologist and computer technologist and his company, Learning Sites, Inc., in which a 3D computer model of the remains will be constructed, a reconstruction of the palace built, and the two models digitally linked to explanatory hypertext, 2D and 3D images, and a virtual world of the Palace allowing scholars to study the complex as if at the site.

Present Work: The 3D Modeling Project

The results of the Iraqi reconstruction at the site museum and those on paper are encouraging because our colleagues, as well as ourselves, have begun to use them to say something new about Assyrian art, especially about the relationships between placement of specific motifs in the various rooms of the Palace and at doorways. Some of the new questions being asked are:

  • Why were certain bas-relief motifs placed so that they were visible through doorways?
  • Was this part of some decorative plan that related to the functions of the rooms and the propaganda of Assyrian kingship?

To try to answer such questions before was more difficult because, since Layard, who had tried to understand the Palace decoration as a whole -- he had seen it unfold before him for the first time in 2600 years as it was excavated -- most scholars have studied individual bas-reliefs or small groups of them to understand style and iconography rather than context.   Recent publications by Winter, Paley and Sobolewski, and an upcoming article by John Russell to appear in the American Journal of Archaeology discuss the meaning of the motifs and their use in the specific contexts in the decorated wings of the Palace. 

The Iraqis were still excavating at Nimrud when the Gulf War broke out in 1990, attesting to the fact that much more of the Palace is there to be discovered. Comparing Layard's plan of the Palace to what is now known, that is the plan ca. 1850 vs. that of 1989, the size of the Palace is estimated to be 175+ meters long from north to south by 75+ meters wide from east to west, or roughly 5700 square meters in size on the ground floor. This is over three times the size known from Layard's time. About a third of the Palace still remains buried and numerous details of architectural theory, construction methods and materials, plan, drainage, roofing etc. are yet to be worked out. 

Considering the state of preservation of the Palace, the far-flung distribution of the fragments of decoration of its walls, the danger to its existing, preserved remains from natural environment, pollution and robbery, and the present political situation in the area, there will be no real experience for this generation of students to walk through its rooms and see and appreciate its grandeur. This is the reason why this virtual reality reconstruction is being prepared: it will bring together all existing information about the building and will provide a visualization of the first of the great Late Assyrian palaces in a way not possible even at the site museum. Students and scholars who would not be able to visit Iraq in the best of times will be able to study the building and everyone will be able to visit its ruins with new incites learned from the virtual reality model.

The Global Distribution of the Remains Our Reconstruction Rationale
Descriptions of Palace Spaces:
The Great Northern Courtyard
The Throne Room
The Digital Reconstruction Process Images from the Digital Model
The Northwest Palace Home Page
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