In the spring of 2019 Virginia Theological Seminary will host an international symposium “Reconstructing the Reliefs from the Temple of Ninurta.” Scholars will pore over a pair of 3,000 year old carvings of a winged creature with hawk-like head and human limbs; they will analyze the cuneiform text embedded in the images and discuss what is known of their history. But conference organizer the Rev. Melody Knowles, Ph.D., 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 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. The large stone panels lined the walls of the palace and its temples, depicting scenes of military triumph and agricultural abundance. The figures combine idealized human perfection with godlike attributes such as wings and the features of powerful animals; the cuneiform text recounts 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 adjoining Temple of Ninurta remains a relative mystery, and when ISIS destroyed the original site of the excavation in 2015
, existing artifacts in collections around the world gained even greater significance for scholars. Under Dr. Knowles’ direction the symposium will gather Assyriologists and curators of related reliefs to present what is known about other reliefs from the Temple of Ninurta and to collaborate on an analysis of the artifacts. Invitations to the symposium will be extended this summer.
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.
ISIS’s vandalism caused the value of the reliefs to skyrocket, raising concerns about their unsecured location and bumping the cost of insurance, alone, to $70,000 a year. After a long process to discern the best stewardship of what had become world treasures, the Board of Trustees determined
that the open display of the reliefs was untenable 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 the proceeds for scholarship funding
. Sale proceeds will also help fund an appropriately secure display space in Key Hall for the remaining, temple reliefs. Dr. Knowles hopes the 2019 symposium will inaugurate the temple reliefs’ new home. “Key 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.