The Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art was formed in 1956, although the first objects to enter the collection—cuneiform tablets and stamp and cylinder seals—were acquired in the late 1800s.
Today, the department covers both a lengthy chronological and a vast geographical area. The works of art in the collection range from the eighth millennium B.C. to the time of the Arab conquest in A.D. 651, more than 8,000 years later. They were created in ancient Mesopotamia, Iran, Syria, Anatolia, and other lands in the region that extends from the Caucasus in the north to the southern Arabian peninsula in the south, and from western Turkey to the valley of the Indus River in Pakistan.
The department's collection has been acquired by gift, by purchase, and by participation in archaeological excavations in the Near East. It has been enriched by long-term loans from other museum collections. Foreign lenders include the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin; the British Museum; the Israel Antiquities Authority; and the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences, Tajikistan. Its strengths include Sumerian sculptures; an exceptional collection of Anatolian and Mesopotamian ivories; Iranian bronzes; metalwork from Bronze Age Bactria-Margiana (ca. 2000 B.C.) in modern
Afghanistan and Turkmenistan; and magnificent silver and gold vessels from the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian eras (fifth century B.C.-seventh century A.D.) in Iran. An extraordinary group of Assyrian reliefs and enormous guardian figures from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (r. 883-859 B.C.) at Nimrud, as well as fine Assyrian ivory carvings, many of which were originally furniture ornaments from that site, can be seen in the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery for Assyrian Art.
There is also a large collection of stamp and cylinder seals representative of the various cultures of the ancient Near East.
Among the most famous pieces in the collection are: imposing glazed brick lions created during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar that decorated the walls of the processional street between the Ishtar Gate and the Festival House in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.; the copper alloy head of a ruler with an elaborate headdress, ca. 2200 B.C., presumably from central Iran; the only complete statue in the United States of the Neo-Sumerian ruler Gudea, who united a large area in southern Mesopotamia ca. 2100 B.C.; a gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian headdress discovered on a young female attendant who had been sacrificed in the Royal Cemetery at Ur in Mesopotamia (ca. 2600-2500 B.C.); a Hittite silver drinking vessel in the form of a stag from central Anatolia, dating to the Empire period ca. 15th-13th century B.C.; colossal guardian figures of stone from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud (r.883-859 B.C.); a silver and gold foil axe head from ancient Bactria, decorated with fantastic creatures, ca. 2000 B.C.; and masterfully crafted Sasanian objects, including a silver plate with an image of a fourth-century king and an extensive collection of silver-gilt vessels.
June 10, 2008