VTS Announces Symposium on Carvings from Assyrian Temple

In August of 2019 Virginia Theological Seminary will host an international symposium “The Reliefs of Ashurnasirpal II: Architecture, Iconography, and Text.” Under the direction of J. Caleb Howard, Ph. D., visiting professor, the participants will present cutting edge scholarship on carvings from the palace, temple, and related buildings of the ancient king from Nimrud. Dr. Melody Knowles, academic dean and Old Testament professor, wants to be clear this conference is not about dusty artifacts. “These [carvings] have everything to do with religion, politics, and the media. This is how ancient kings communicated who they were and what they were about. This was their media policy.”

The two low-relief carvings that will be the focus of this symposium were part of a shipment of three tablets to Virginia Seminary in 1859 from Austen Henry Layard’s excavation of the Temple-Palace complex of ancient Nimrud, built in what is now Iraq by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II. It’s uncertain where the two tablets were located in the ancient city of Nimrud, but it is well-established that large stone panels lined the walls of the palace and its temples, depicting scenes of military triumph and agricultural abundance. The carved figures combined idealized human perfection with godlike attributes such as wings and the features of powerful animals; the cuneiform text recounted the king’s lineage and exploits in battle. All of this, says Knowles, was designed to intimidate the visitor. “Even those who couldn’t read the inscriptions saying the king was chosen of the gods and a master of conquest, they were still confronted with wall after wall of these huge panels representing human/divine figures with bulging muscles, flowing beards and battle weapons. You knew you didn’t want to mess with this guy.”

The reliefs from the palace side of the complex have been widely studied, right down to the menu that fed over 69,000 people for ten days when the king officially opened the palace to visitors. But the original placement of the reliefs that remain at VTS continue to be a mystery. Conference papers will focus on the production and functions of the Nimrud reliefs as well as their ancient placement.

At the time of Layard’s excavation, colleges and seminaries considered the reliefs to be archeological proof that the Old Testament histories were true. Now they are considered important for understanding the ancient milieu in which the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures took shape. At VTS the tablets were treated as research material and openly stored in the seminary library, first in Packard-Laird and later in Bishop Payne Library. Time and destructive conflicts in the Middle East have transformed them into rare treasures. The burden of their care has risen with their value, and in 2017 the annual cost of insurance alone topped $70,000.

After a long discernment process, the Board of Trustees determined that the open display of the reliefs was no longer feasible but the cost of securing them would divert resources from the Seminary’s primary mission. A compromise decision put the thoroughly studied carving from the palace side of the complex up for sale, allocating some of the proceeds for scholarship funding. Sale proceeds will also help fund an appropriately secure display space in Bicentennial Hall for the remaining reliefs. Dr. Knowles hopes the 2019 symposium will inaugurate the remaining reliefs’ new home. “Bicentennial Hall is a pristine example of the Seminary’s original architecture,” she says. “It is, itself, an artifact. Both the building and the artifacts within it point to the heritage on which our mission rests. Seminary education has ancient roots. You see the objects themselves and you see the cloud of witnesses—scribes, architects, archeologists, missionaries, teachers and students—standing with you alongside these artifacts of our past.”

The two images are watercolors from A. H. Layard,The Monuments of Nineveh, London, 1849–1853.
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