Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 1: The Assyrian Artifacts
Yesterday ISIS released yet another propaganda video, this time showing what has been feared since the fall of Mosul last summer: the destruction of ancient artifacts of the Mosul Museum. By now most of the world has seen this video, which has been featured in all the world’s major news agencies. This post and those following it will attempt to identify what has been lost and assess the damage.
These ruins that are behind me, they are idols and statues that people in the past used to worship instead of Allah. The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain to whom they offered sacrifices…The Prophet Mohammed took down idols with his bare hands when he went into Mecca. We were ordered by our prophet to take down idols and destroy them, and the companions of the prophet did this after this time, when they conquered countries.
The video then shows a montage of ISIS fighters toppling sculptures, smashing them with sledgehammers and using jackhammers to pulverize the faces of some statues.
Most of the destroyed artifacts fall into two categories: Sculptures from the Roman period city of Hatra, situated in the desert to the south of Mosul, and Assyrian artifacts from Nineveh and surrounding sites such as Khorsabad and Balawat. This post will focus on the Assyrian artifacts and a later post will discuss the artifacts from Hatra.
The Nergal Gate
The scene with the narrator was shot at the Nergal Gate, one of the gates on the north side of Nineveh. The entrance to the gate was flanked by two large winged human-headed bulls known as lamassu in Akkadian. The gate and its lamassu were first excavated by Sir Austen Henry Layard in 1849 but then re-buried. The left lamassu (seen above behind the ISIS narrator) was uncovered again sometime before 1892, and a local man paid an Ottoman official for the top half of it, cut it off and broken down over a fire in order to extract lime. The right lamassu remained buried until 1941 when heavy rains eroded the soil around the gate and exposed the two statues. The gate was later reconstructed around them and they have remained on display ever since.
The gate was built during Sennacherib’s expansion of Nineveh sometime between 704 and 690 BC.
The video stops at 2:26 to emphasize the sign which states that “this gate is related to the god Nergal, the god of plague and the lower world.” The left lamassu, already missing its upper half, does not seem to have been targeted. The right lamassu had its face chiseled off with a jackhammer, likely causing irreparable damage.
Here is a photo of the Nergal Gate prior to its destruction for comparison. There is no indication that the reconstructed gate itself was damaged. Here is a map of Nineveh showing the location of the gate.
Inside the gate there are two additional lamassu which were less well preserved than the lamassu on the outside of the gate. Both were heavily cracked, and the one on the left was missing his head above the nose and the one on the right was missing everything except its head.
The lamassu on the left was broken apart with sledgehammers into large chunks. The head on the right was broken apart with a jackhammer.
The Balawat Gates
The video briefly shows segments of the bronze gates of the city of Balaway (near modern Qaraqosh). Three such gates were excavated, two by Hormuzd Rassam in 1878 which are now in the British Museum, and another by Max Mallowan in 1956 which were put on display in Mosul. Rassam’s gates were built during the reigns of Ashurnasirpal II (reigned 883-859 BC) and Shalmaneser III (859-824 BC). Mallowan’s gates were also from the reign of Ashurnasirpal II.
The bronze bands held the wood beams of the doors together and attached them to the posts. The beams were decorated with ornate scenes from Assyrian military campaigns.
Around thirty panels from the Mosul gates were looted in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion before American troops were able to secure Mosul. The gaps where the looted pieces once sat can be seen in the image above.
Nothing in the video shows the gates being destroyed or damaged. As they are portable, it is possible they may be sold on the antiquities black market. To help recognize them if they appear, I add the following photographs of the Balawat gates found in the British Museum:
At 1:10 of the video, two additional lamassu can be seen. These are an earlier type with a lion’s body instead of a bull’s. They are not shown being destroyed although by the end of the video all immovable sculptures in the museum seem to have been destroyed so there is little hope for their survival.
At 1:19 a partially reconstructed relief identified by its sign as coming from Dur-Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad) can be seen. The city was constructed by Sargon II sometime after 716 BC and abandoned upon his death in 705. This sort of relief usually shows tribute-bearers seeking an audience with the king and in this case one of the supplicants is holding a model of a fortification.
UPDATE: Here is a better photo of the relief in the Mosul Museum sent in by reader Hubbert Debasch. This appears to be a heavily reconstructed but genuine relief from Khorsabad:
Similar scenes can be seen in reliefs from Khorsabad held in other museums, such as the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago:
Another relief from the Mosul Museum (1:26 of the video) shows a king kneeling before a god and goddess. Similar scenes are found in other Near Eastern art including on the stele of Hammurabi.
UPDATE: Prof. Paolo Brusasco has pointed out that the above image is a copy of the Maltai rock relief, which is carved into the side of a cliff near Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. It shows Sennacherib worshiping the gods Ashur, Ninlil, Sin, Anu, Shamash, Adad and Ishtar.
Another at 1:28 shows a siege scene where one soldier is counting the heads of enemy dead while others attack a fortified wall with scaling ladders:
Something seemed slightly “off” to me about both the color and the level of detail in this relief. Initially I believed it to be a plaster cast of a relief held somewhere else but I have not been able to identify an original. It is definitely in an earlier style typical of the 9th-10th centuries. This may be a replica.
Another relief shown at 1:42 shows a dying lion from the famous lion hunt reliefs of Ashurbanipal (r. 668-627 BC):
This is clearly a replica taken from the reliefs in the British Museum:
Today the British Museum issued a press release stating in part that “We can confirm that none of the objects featured in this video are copies of originals at the British Museum.” However, as can be seen from the above comparison this is not the case, as there is at least one that was either cast directly from the British Museum original or more likely was made as a replica in imitation of it.
At 1:43 the camera pans to a relief showing two archers and a battering ram:
Therefore, I believe it is safe to say that a number of the Assyrian reliefs seen in the video are not originals.
Statue of Sargon (?)
At the 1:44 mark the video showed a fallen, broken statue identified by a museum sign as a statue of Sargon II of Assyria (r. 722-705 BC):
The broken sections of this statue clearly indicate it is made of plaster. The shape of the statue and the pattern of folds in the robe resemble the statue of Ashurnasirpal II from the British Museum. However the hat on the above image means it is not a copy of that artifact, and the ringlets on the beard more closely match the following sculpture from the British Museum:
This statue may be a reconstruction based on an original base. Similar statues of the god Nabu were found at Dur-Sharrukin. It is not, however, a statue of Sargon II but merely one from his reign:
It is worth noting that in 2003 around 1,500 smaller objects from the Mosul Museum were relocated to the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad in order that they may be better protected. Nevertheless, many statues otherwise too large or delicate to be moved remained.
When it comes to the Assyrian artifacts, by far the most important losses are the lamassu at the Nergal Gate, one of which was exceedingly well preserved. They were some of the few lamassu left in their original locations to greet visitors to Nineveh the same way they would have greeted visitors in ancient Assyria.
As for the items inside the museum, a number are replicas of originals held elsewhere, while others are likely genuine.
The destruction of sculptures from Hatra appears to be even more devastating, and I will have another post on this damage shortly.
Update 10/4/2015: A translation of both articles is now available in Kurdish.
 J.P.G. Finch, “The Winged Bulls at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh,” Iraq 10, No. 1 (Spring 1948): 9-18.
Article and relevant images © Christopher Jones 2012-2015.