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Lamassu from the citadel of Sargon II

Lamassu were winged bulls with human heads that guarded the gates of the Assyrian citadel of Sargon II in ancient Mesopotamia. They were carved from single blocks of stone; had intricate decorations on their crowns, wings, fur, and beards; and had cuneiform inscriptions. They had five legs to show different perspectives: stationary from the front and moving from the side.

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) -Ancient Mesopotamia is often credited as the cradle of civilization, that is, the place where farming and cities began. It makes it seem so peaceful, but this was anything but the case. In fact, it was really a series of civilizations that conquered each other. -We're in a room in the Louvre filled with sculpture from the Assyrians, who controlled the ancient Near East from about 1000 BCE to around 500 BCE. -And these sculptures in particular come from the palace of Sargon the 2nd, and we're carved at the height of Assyrian civilization in the 8th century BCE. -So this is modern day Khorsabad. -In Iraq. -And various Assyrian kings established palaces at different cities. So there were palaces at Nimrid and Assur before this, and after there'll be a palace at Nineveh, but these sculptures come from an excavation from modern day Khorsabad. -The most impressive sculptures that survive are the guardian figures that protected the city's gates, and protected the gates of the citadel itself. That is, the area within which were both the temple and the royal palace. -So at each of these various gates, there were guardian figures that were winged bulls with the heads of men. -We think they were called Lamassu. -As figures that stood at gateways, they make sense. They're fearsome, they look powerful. They could also be an expression of the power of the Assyrian king. -They are enormous, but even they would have been dwarfed by the architecture. They would have stood between huge arches. In fact, they had some structural purpose. It's interesting to note that each of these Lamassu are actually carved out of a monolithic stone, that is, there are no cuts here. These are single pieces of stone, and in the ancient world, it was no small task to get these stones in place. -Well, and apparently, there were relief carvings in the palace that depicted moving these massive Lamassu into place. So it's important to remember that the Lamassu were the gateway figures, but the walls of the palace were decorated with relief sculpture showing hunting scenes and other scenes indicating royal power. -This is a Lamassu that was actually a guardian for the exterior gate of the city. It's in awfully good condition. -Well my favorite part is the crown. It's decorated with rosettes, and then double horns that come around toward the top center, and then on top of that, a ring of feathers. -It's really delicate for such a massive and powerful creature. The faces are extraordinary. First of all, just at the top of the forehead, you can see kind of incised wavy hair that comes just below the crown, and then you have a connected eyebrow. -And then the ears are the ears of a bull that wear earrings. -Actually quite elaborate earrings. -Well the whole form is so decorative. -And then there's that marvelous, complex representation of the beard. You see little ringlets on the cheeks of the face, but then as the beard comes down, you see these spirals that turn downward, and then are interrupted by a series of horizontal bands. -And then the wings too form this lovely decorative pattern up the side of the animal, and then across it's back. -In fact across the body itself there are ringlets as well, so we get a sense of the fur of the beast. And then under the creature, and around the legs, you can see inscriptions in cuneiform. -Some of which declare the power of the king. -And damnation for those that would threaten the king's work, that is, the citadel. -What's interesting too is that these were meant to be seen both from a frontal view and a profile view. -Well if you count up the number of legs, there's one too many. There are five. -Right, two from the front, and four from the side, but of course, one of the front legs overlaps, and so there are five legs. -What's interesting is that when you look at the creature from the side, you actually see that it's moving forward, but when you look at it from the front, those two legs are static so the beast is stationary. And think about what this means for a guardian figure at a gate. As we approach, we see it still, watching us as we move, but if we belong, if we're friendly, and we're allowed to pass this gate, as we move through it, we see the animal itself move. -And then we have this combination of these decorative forms that we've been talking about with a sensitivity to the anatomy of this composite animal. His abdomen swells, and his hindquarters move back, and then we can see the veins, and muscles, and bones in his leg. -So there really is this funny relationship between the naturalistic and the imagination of the sculpture. -And the decorative, but all speaking to the power, the authority of the king and the fortifications of this palace, and this city. -They are incredibly impressive. It would be impossible to broach the citadel without being awestruck by the power of this civilization. (piano music)