In discussions of Assyrian art the term sculpture is used to describe sculptures in the round as well as bas-reliefs, and both are treated in this book. These reliefs are often accompanied by a cuneiform text, which can serve as a caption for the actions depicted but can also be part of a continuous text describing the other actions of the king throughout his reign. Other times, the cuneiform text can serve as a label; this type of text is often surrounded by a rectangular box, distinguishing it from other, narrative texts. The most recent publication covering the broad topic of the Assyrian sculptures in the British Museum was R. D. Barnett and A. Lorenzini’s Assyrian Sculpture in the British Museum of 35 years ago, no longer available in print. Paul Collins’s Assyrian Palace Sculptures differs from the previous publication in its greater attention to detail and by its use of colour photographs. Whilst J. Reade has published an overview of the Assyrian sculptures in the British Museum ( Assyrian Sculpture, 1998 (second edition)) his book is intentionally aimed at a less specialised audience and gives much weight to the wider context of Mesopotamia and its culture. An aspect that is particularly important about the book under review is that the reliefs are given primacy so the text explains the message that the expert photographs portray. Here, Collins’s intimate knowledge of the reliefs, with which as a curator in the British Museum he works daily, comes across throughout the book. The reliefs in the book have been chosen not only for their aesthetic quality, but for their cultural significance as well. A balance between scenes of warfare and ones that show the Assyrians as more than just harsh conquerors is perfectly met.
The ingenuity of the Assyrians shines through whether they are seen using battering rams to siege a city or fording a river by floating on inflated animal skins. Close-ups of sword scabbards and embroidery illustrate the great detail the Assyrians took when carving the reliefs. Though these types of images are included, they are not included solely because they are beautiful; the cultural history and religious significance of these details is fully explained in terms of both Assyrian society and their place in the reliefs. Collins has also emphasised the connection between the cuneiform text and relief in both the text portions of the book and the photographs. Since in some royal inscriptions we find descriptions of the manufacture of the reliefs, the intimate connection between text and image becomes manifest. The reliefs also have an international aspect, depicting not only battles in the Assyrian heartland, but also sieges in places further afield such as Palestine and Elam. For example, reliefs of the battle of Lachish are extant, not mentioned in the Assyrian royal inscriptions, but described in the Old Testament.
In the reliefs the king is always the centre of attention, not only in warfare, but in all activities. This is perhaps most notable in the depictions of royal lion hunts, with those of Ashurbanipal taking aesthetic pre-eminence. These sculptures further connect the images to the text of the royal inscriptions as the king’s hunting activities as well as his military programme were often described in them. The king is also shown in religious contexts and this religious iconography constantly demonstrates the piety of the king toward Assur and the gods of Assyria.
The layout and format of the book make it easy for the reader to correlate the text with the images. Collins divides his book into five chapters, each chapter dealing with the relief programme of a specific Assyrian king; there is also an extensive introduction where Collins provides the context in which these sculptures were found along with the reception of them in nineteenth-century Britain. The inclusion of magazines and drawings from the time of the installation of the sculptures is especially enlightening regarding their reception when first unveiled. In describing how these works of art came to be housed in the British Museum, Collins laments the museum policy at that time of only accepting one example of each work since, were all the reliefs together, it would be easier to get a sense of how they appeared in their original contexts in the palaces. The last section of the introduction discusses the reasons for creating these sculptures as well as how they were made. A history of Assyrian royal inscribed images is given, along with the connections between reliefs and the corpus of texts known as royal inscriptions.
Chapter One is concerned with the reliefs of Ashurnasirpal II, who was ‘the first Assyrian king to use relief decoration extensively’ (p. 29). The religious and historical meaning of the reliefs is explained along with how the placement of the reliefs in the palace (mainly the programme of the throne room) achieves it. Chapter Two discusses the reliefs of Tiglath-Pileser III. These reliefs were made at the end of Tiglath-Pileser III’s reign to record his extensive campaigning to regain the parts of the empire that had rebelled during the 125 years between his reign and that of Ashurnasirpal II. A discussion of the quality of his reliefs and their overall programme is included in this chapter. The next chapter considers the sculptures of Sargon II; here the illustrations are much more sparse since most of the reliefs are in the Louvre. Collins, however, does not lose the thread of his narrative from king to king.
Chapter Four introduces the sculptures of Sennacherib. In discussing the themes of the sculptural programmes of Sennacherib, Collins again reminds the reader of the interconnectivity of relief and text. The reliefs were usually accompanied by text. This text was sometimes lost as a result of some of the reliefs having been shipped from Iraq without this text intact; the inscription was often a standard one, thus repeated throughout the sculptural programme and consequently not saved on all reliefs. Special attention is given to the representation of the siege of Lachish, as it is not mentioned in the royal inscriptions. The placement of reliefs within the rooms of the palace and the order in which they were meant to be seen is also discussed with great success and gives the reader the feeling of actually ‘being there.’
The final reliefs treated are those of Ashurbanipal where we find a more diverse thematic approach to the palace sculptures. Two major series of this king’s reliefs are centred on the theme of the lion hunt. Along with the regular scenes of conflict, an unusual image of Ashurbanipal exists in his reliefs. We find a scene of the king reclining in a garden surrounded by only female attendants with the head of the Elamite king whom he defeated hanging from one of the branches. The importance these images held in ancient times resonates in the imagination when Collins explains that the image of the king was specifically sought out and smashed when Assyria fell to the Medes in 612 BC.
As a graduate student of Assyriology researching Assyrian history, this reviewer found that the book gave much new insight into the reliefs and the story they tell. For those not able to study the reliefs in the British Museum this book comes as near as any book can to conveying their majesty and exquisite content.