Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Assyrian Wall-Reliefs for Sale Volume 49 Number 6, November/December 1996
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] This Assyrian wall-relief is now on the antiquities market. (John Russell) [LARGER IMAGE]

Three 2,700-year-old wall-reliefs from the throne-room suite of the Assyrian king Sennacherib's palace at Nineveh, Iraq, have appeared on the antiquities market, according to Columbia University art historian John Russell. The fragments were almost certainly smuggled out of Iraq after the Gulf War, when many museums were looted. Russell says he was recently contacted by a European museum seeking to check the provenance of the wall-reliefs in advance of purchase. The slabs came from rooms with intact wall decoration that has provided valuable information about the adornment of Assyrian palaces, according to Russell, who photographed the reliefs in situ between 1989 and 1990. One of the missing fragments depicts two Assyrians making an offering before dragon- and serpent-shaped standards attached to poles. The second shows laborers hauling a heavy object, while the third shows two dead sheep and a human corpse floating in water, an unusual image in Assyrian art. Russell says the museum did not purchase the reliefs.

The artifacts, which Russell has reported missing, join some 3,000 other objects known to have been stolen from Iraqi museum collections in the past five years. McGuire Gibson of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and British scholars have published three volumes of these items, but the pillaging of Iraqi sites continues. "Hundreds of people are reportedly looting [the third-millennium B.C. Sumerian city of] Ur, and the [Iraqi] antiquities department has no money to pay for guards," he says. Harsh economic conditions in Iraq are responsible for much of the looting, notes Gibson, who is not optimistic about the return of such looted material to Iraq. "You don't get the same response [from customs authorities] for stolen Iraqi antiquities as you do for European paintings," he says. "Iraqis are seen as the bad guys."

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America