A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The Northwest Palace at Nimrud
The best preserved and most elaborately decorated Assyrian palace complex is the Northwest Palace at Nimrud (in present-day Iraq). Built by Ashur-nasir-pal II during the ninth century B.C., the palace has been extensively excavated by a succession of British, Iraqi, and Polish teams since the 1840s. Its magnificent wall reliefs are now scattered among more than 80 museums and private collections around the world, making scholarly research of the original complex nearly impossible. It is also the site of continuing gun battles between gangs of looters and local guards, who are only occasionally backed up by coalition forces.
Photographs showing results from the attempted looting of a relief head (upper) anda recent bullet hole in one of the inscriptions (lower) (© 2003 Mark Altaweel)
The project's primary goals have been to: (1) re-assemble the globally dispersed wall carvings from the palace back into a simulation of their original contexts for detailed study, (2) test various theories about how the building functioned, and (3) evaluate previous visualizations for accuracy. We began with a massing model of the citadel topography and major monuments, the Northwest Palace, Central Palace, and adjacent temples, gates, and ziggurat to establish the setting and context. (A massing model is a 3D computer model of only general mass of the architecture, generally created without textures as a quick mock-up of what's present.) We then moved on to a detailed virtual re-creation of the Northwest Palace based on extrapolations of in-situ remains, from early excavation reports, and from photographs of surviving reliefs from various museums. This was done first to test the accuracy of previous visualizations, especially the hand drawings and renderings that have been the basis for understanding the site since the early nineteenh century.
Massing model of the major buildings along the western side of the citadel at Nimrud (the Northwest Palace is marked as "A") (© 2004 Learning Sites, Inc.)
While constructing the 3D models and walking through the results in virtual reality, we immediately gained new insight into Assyrian architecture, use of lighting, the carefully planned locational relationship between the wall reliefs and interior circulation and sightline patterns, and thus about the iconographic, educational, and propagandistic purposes of reliefs and the functions of spaces. When building texture maps for the model, we discovered that the published drawings were not very accurate, not in detail or the shape of figures, nor often in transcription of the inscriptions, which have been relied upon for decades as the basis for research and cultural extrapolations. This offers a cautionary tale for those relying on period source material--always go back to the originals (for more detailed and drastic examples, see Peter V. Bartl's 2005 article "Layard's Drawings of the Incised Decorations on the Nimrud Reliefs Compared with the Originals," in the journal Iraq volume 67, number 2, pages 17-29). Our consulting Assyriologist, Samuel M. Paley, sums it up this way: "So here I had all this data and was asked to hand it over to the computer graphics experts. It was then I began to realize more than before that what I had was not complete enough or precise enough for the new technology. Plans were inexact; some of them had been copied over by hand so many times that individual buildings had literally moved across the site. Information on some of the plans (e.g., lack of elevation data) was insufficient for the new digital tasks."
Nevertheless, the results were convincing, Paley adds: "I am particularly pleased with such virtual reconstructions, because I am able to visit the site and travel through it and see things that I could not see in one image before or even see easily and quickly if I were able to visit the actual ruined site; I can see spatial relationships the way the ancient Assyrians intended."
The Northwest Palace project shows how virtual reality can bring together globally dispersed collections of material so that the original decorative schemes and narrative programs can be fully appreciated in a simulation of their original scale, lighting, color, and 3D spatial complexity.