Ancient Near Eastern Art


The Museum's collection of ancient Near Eastern art includes more than seven thousand works ranging in date from the eighth millennium B.C. through the centuries just beyond the time of the Arab conquests of the seventh century A.D. Objects come from a vast region centered in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and extending north to the Caucasus and the Eurasian steppes and south to the Arabian peninsula. To the west the region includes Anatolia, Syria, and the Levant, bordered by the Mediterranean; to the east, it extends through Iran and western Central Asia, with connections as far as the Indus River Valley.

What's On View

The galleries for Ancient Near Eastern Art present objects in contexts that illuminate their significance as well as their connections to the art of neighboring cultures. The art of the ancient Near East exhibits a great variety of forms and styles, reflecting the many peoples, cities, kingdoms, and empires that flourished in the region over thousands of years. Yet, in the midst of this diversity, there was also consistency and continuity. One of the constant and primary aims of ancient Near Eastern art was to capture the relationship between the terrestrial and divine realms—a link expressed in some of the most distinctive works in the collection. Whether in the form of a votive sculpture, dedicated in a god's temple to worship in perpetuity, or a statue of a pious ruler who was guided by the gods in all his actions, these images were meant to communicate to both human and divine audiences. The world of the gods was also populated with supernatural creatures who could either protect or harm humans and other living creatures, and their vivid portrayals in art evoke their crucial role as intermediaries. The works on view are richly varied in terms of their materials, date, and the cultures which created them, but all partake in a common visual language.

A progression of galleries leads visitors chronologically through an overview of Near Eastern culture beginning in the Neolithic period, when the first permanent settlements were built, through the development of writing, cities, and organized religion, the rise of territorial empires, and the development of international trade and diplomacy—demonstrating that, long before the Silk Road, much of the world was intensely engaged with the ancient Near East. At the core of the display, the monumental relief slabs and guardian figures (lamassu) from the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud have been installed in an arrangement designed to evoke a royal audience hall open to natural light from above, giving visitors the experience of entering an Assyrian palace. An adjoining gallery complements the reconstructed hall by showing ivory furnishings from the palace, as well as decorative and monumental arts from the surrounding regions during the period of Assyrian domination. Beyond this, a gallery explores crosscultural themes such as medicine and magic, money and weights, the biblical world, and the relationship between art and text in the ancient Near East. The interconnected world of the third and second millennia B.C., emphasized in the permanent galleries, was highlighted in the special exhibitions Art of the First Cities (2003) and Beyond Babylon (2008). An exhibition planned for 2014 will explore these themes during the first millennium B.C.

History of the Department

The first ancient Near Eastern objects to enter the Museum's collection—Assyrian stone reliefs, cuneiform tablets, and stamp and cylinder seals—were acquired in the late 1800s. These were overseen by the Department of Decorative Arts until 1932, when a separate Department of Near Eastern Art, comprising both the pre-Islamic and Islamic eras, was formed. With the influx of works of art, such as the ivories from Nimrud, and advancing scholarship, the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art was formally established in 1956.

The department's collection has been acquired by gift, by purchase, and through participation in archaeological excavations in the Near East. Sites where work has been supported by the Museum include Ctesiphon, Nimrud, and Nippur in Iraq, Hasanlu and Qasr-i Abu Nasr in Iran, and Tell ed-Duweir (ancient Lachish), Tell Brak, Tell Mozan and Umm el-Marra in the Levant and Syria. The permanent display has also been generously enriched by long-term loans of excavated works of art from other museum collections. Foreign lenders have included the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin; The British Museum, London; the State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow; the Israel Antiquities Authority; and the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences, Tajikistan.

Ongoing Research

The commitment to archaeological exploration in the Near East has long been an integral part of the mission of the department. Most recently, it has provided financial support and staff to two expeditions in Syria: Tell Mozan and Umm el-Marra. While antiquities laws no longer support the transfer of objects to foreign lands, the participation in archaeological excavations and the study and interpretation of artifacts discovered remain a vital aspect of the department's role in bringing to light the great traditions that lie at the root of modern society.

View highlights

Featured Media: Ancient Near Eastern Art

Conversation with an Educator—Relief Panel from the Palace Rooms at Nimrud, Ancient Near Eastern Art
February 25, 2016
Free with Museum admission
Talismans, Charms, and Amulets. The Charles K. Wilkinson Lecture Series
March 8, 2016
Free with Museum admission
Monsters and Demons in the Ancient Near East
March 13, 2016
Free with Museum admission

Last updated: Friday, February 12