The Northwest Palace at Nimrud

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The palaces of ancient Assyria on the citadel mound of the city of Nimrud (ancient Kalhu, northern Mesopotamia) were discovered by Austen Henry Layard between 1847 and 1851. Layard, assisted by Hormuzd Rassam, excavated stone bas-relief in the debris of the mud brick walls of the public halls of the palaces. Layard and Rassam were followed at Nimrud on behalf of the British Museum by William Kennet Loftus and William Boutcher in 1854-55 and George Smith in 1874-5. Rassam returned there from 1878-82. Then, for nearly half-a-century, except for essentially private visits/excavations to the site of Nimrud by Iraqi families and antiquities dealers, to pick up fragments or scavenge in the citadel ruins, interest in Nimrud waned. Also, there seemed to be nearly enough pieces of Assyrian sculpture around to satisfy interested collectors and museums. No work by trained archaeologists was done again at Nimrud until 1949, when, a century after Layard, Max Mallowan, on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and the British Museum, re-opened the site to research. When Mallowan and his successor, David Oates, completed their tenure at Nimrud, the Iraqi State Organization of Antiquities continued with its own excavation and restoration projects, most recently under the direction of Muzahim Mahmud Hussein. It was during the Iraqi excavations of the 1970's that the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology, Warsaw, arrived at Nimrud with a permit to excavate the center of the Nimrud citadel. One of the by-products of the Polish time there was the attention paid to the re-excavated the 9th-century BC Northwest Palace of Ashur-nasir-pal II (the paradigmatic royal palace of the late Assyrian empire) and the close collaboration with the continuing presence of the Iraqi mission. Janusz Meuszyński, the director of the Polish project, with the permission of the Iraqi excavation team, had the whole citadel site documented on film, including every bas-relief that remained in situ as well as the fallen, broken pieces that were distributed in the restored rooms across the site or re-excavated in the debris mounds left from the 19th-century excavations. Meuszyński also arranged with the architect of his project, Richard P. Sobolewski, to survey the site and record it in plan and in elevation. The combined and individual efforts of the 20th-century archaeologists would eventually more than triple the size of the Northwest Palace as it was understood from the 19th-century excavations and situate other palaces, administration buildings, temples and defensive walls in their proper places on the citadel mound. The 20th-century work led to the reconstruction of the mud brick walls and arched doorways, and the restoration of bas-relief fragments that remained in the debris of the 19th-century excavations reversing, in part, a century of neglect, and thereby creating a site museum.

After the accidental death of Meuszyński in May, 1976, the Polish work at Nimrud ceased. The late Professor K. Michalowski, then Director of the Polish Center of Archaeology, arranged for Sobolewski and A. Mierzejewski, two of Meuszyński's colleagues, to finish the part of Meuszynski's work that was near completion. This was done with the help of Professor Barthel Hrouda (University of Munich) and Professor Samuel M. Paley (University at Buffalo), who continues to work with Sobolewski to complete the documentation of the archaeological remains of Nimrud. One of the results was a complete documentation and restoration on paper of the Northwest Palace, published by the German Archaeological Institute, including the complete and fragmentary bas-relief slabs that had been taken from Nimrud since Layard’s original discovery and are now to be found in museums and private collections across the world. Another result, eventually, will be the publication of the Polish excavation results in the center of the citadel.

All work at Nimrud was halted as a result of the 2nd Gulf War, in 1991, then started again briefly by the Iraqis in the late 1990s to be stopped again in the aftermath of the 3rd Gulf War, in 2003. With the available information about the Palace collected and a hypothetical restoration on paper of the decoration and its plan available, it seemed timely to make progress in our understanding of the totality of the sculptural program, architectural details, and spatial layout of the Northwest Palace as a single conceptual whole. Since the site was increasingly out of the reach of scholars and tourists, a digital model of the citadel, which included the results of a century and a half and more of research, was proposed as an alternative to the possibilities of physically visiting the site. Also, with the new technologies available, the physical remains of the decorative elements of the buildings are Nimrud spread across the world, could be included in one digital space. So, in 1998, the next stage of the collaborative, systematic documentation and analysis of the Palace began and is still in progress with the help of Professor Alison B. Snyder, University of Oregon, architect, Donald H. Sanders, archaeologist and computer technologist and his company, Learning Sites, Inc., Professor Thenkurussi Kesavadas (University at Buffalo Mechanical Engineering and the director of the UB Virtual Reality Laboratory), in which a 3D computer model of the remains at Nimrud is being constructed, digitally linked to explanatory hypertext, 2D and 3D images, and a virtual world of the Northwest Palace, allowing scholars to study the complex as if at the site.

Some of the new questions being asked of the palace’s digital model are:

  • Why was certain bas-relief motifs placed so that they were visible through doorways?
  • Was this part of some decorative plan that related to the functions of the rooms and the narrative propaganda of Assyrian kingship?
  • How was the palace lighted?
  • Were the bas-reliefs painted and how much paint was used?
  • Are there new architectural, spatial and decorative relationships that can be discovered from the study of an interactive, digital model of the palace and the citadel mound in comparison with other Assyrian palaces and citadels constructed during the Assyrian Empire. (To this end, more digital models of other Assyrian buildings have been proposed as part of the larger project.)

To try to answer such questions before was more difficult because, since Layard, who tried to understand the Palace decoration as a whole -- he had seen it unfold before him for the first time in 2600 years as it was excavated -- most scholars since Layard studied individual bas-reliefs or small groups of them to understand style and iconography rather than context. Recent publications, now that the “paper reconstructions” of the Northwest Palace are available and parts of the digital model can be studied, have introduced the discussion of the meaning of the motifs and their use in the specific contexts in the decorated wings of the palace. Thus the computer model of the palace and its virtual world has become an integral element in the study of ancient Assyria.

The Iraqis were still excavating at Nimrud when the Gulf War broke out in 1990, attesting to the fact that more building are there to be discovered. Comparing Layard's plan of the Palace to what is now known, that is the plan ca. 1850 vs. that of the 1990s the size of the Palace is estimated to be 175+ meters long from north to south by 75+ meters wide from east to west, or roughly 5700 square meters in size on the ground floor. This is over three times the size known from Layard's time. About a third of the Palace still remains buried and numerous details of architectural theory, construction methods and materials, plan, drainage, roofing etc. are yet to be worked out. Considering the state of preservation of the Citadel of Nimrud, the far-flung distribution of the fragments of decoration of its buildings, the dangers to its existing, preserved remains from natural environment, pollution and robbery, and the present political situation in the area, there will be no real experience for this generation of students to walk through its rooms and see and appreciate its grandeur. This is the reason why the virtual reality reconstruction is being prepared: it will bring together all existing information about the citadel and will provide a visualization of the first of the great Late Assyrian palaces in its architectural context in a way not possible even at the site museum. Students and scholars who would not be able to visit Iraq in the best of times will be able to study the buildings and everyone will be able to visit its ruins with new incites learned from the virtual reality model.

It is the plan of the collaborators in this project to expand the work to other Assyrian sites and their public buildings, palaces and temples. A preliminary project has been funded to include the 8th-century palace of Tiglath-pileser III at Nimrud (The Shelby White-Leon Levy Fund for Archaeological Research at Harvard University) and the 7th-century palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh (also discovered by Layard), the latter with Professor Sarah Jarmer Scott of Wagner College using the digital cameras of Mr. Adam Lowe of Factum Arte, Madrid ,to document bas-relief in 3D. UB has assisted the project with digital research funds. Private funding has also been received to continue the work of the project.

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