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Brief Identification Edit
The Lamassu is a mythical creature present in ancient Assyrian architecture. These towering creatures were over four meters tall and depicted a beast with the body of a bull or lion, the head of a man, and the wings of an eagle. The Lamassu served as the symbolic protector of a kings palace and where prominent in Assyrian architecture in the 800s and 700s B.C.E.
Paul Emile Botta of France discovered the Palace of Sargon II in 1843. While on a search for remnants of the ancient Assyrian Empire, Botta was tipped off about a location in Khorsabad by a local farmer. After a shallow dig in the area, Botta discovered a massive structure of hallways lined with low relief sculptures, carved in gypsumslabs. What Botta had found was the Palace of Sargon II, which was built sometime around 710 B.C.E. After Botta's discovery, France allocated funds for more research on the discovery. Some of the Sculptures where brought back to the Louvre in France to be put on display, however the two massive Lamassu, weighing sixteen tons each, were to heavy to be transported. The Lamassu were later bought by British Resident, Sir Henry Rawlinson, in 1849 and sawed into smaller, lighter pieces which where much easier to transport [See Reade 1998, 6-7]. The Lamassu of Sargon II's palace can today be found at the Louvre, in Paris, France.
The Lamassu were carved from Gypsum. Gypsum is commonly found close the surface, and therefore is easily extracted. Gypsum slowly dissolves if exposed to excess water and has a weak powdery exterior. Deeper down there are more solid deposits that can be cut into larger blocks. [See Reade 1998, 25]. Gypsum is ideal for sculptures, as long as it is protected from weather. Gypsum is soft yet robust and can be carved in the finest detail [See Reade 1999, 25].
The extraction process of gypsum required large amounts of manpower. Gypsum blocks where extracted by Assyrian prisoners using picks. These huge blocks where then cut into smaller blocks with the use of huge iron saws. Finally, before transport to the palace, these blocks where roughly sculpted to reduce the weight. Final details were applied once the sculptures were set in place in the palace [See Reade 1998, 24-25]. It is believed these low relief sculptures were also painted because of trace amounts blue paint detected [See Reade 1998, 29-30].
Local Historical ContextEdit
Within the Assyrian Empire the Lamassu were a symbol of a king's intiation to power and legitimacy of rule [See Atac 2010, 147]. The human head symbolized intellect, the wings symbolized speed, and the body of a lion or bull symbolized strength and power [See Reade 1998, 29]. The Lamassu is a five legged creature and can be seen in motion from the side with four legs spread out as if it were walking, however from the front it appears to be standing still [See Barnett 1975, 24].
These massive sculptures served as symbolic guards of Assyrian king's domain, being placed at the entrance to both the city and palace gateways [See Collins 2008, 72]. The Lamassu not only served to symbolically uphold the palace, they also served an architectural function and quite literally held up the barrel vault of the palace [See Barnett 1975, 24]. These Lamassu were extracted from Sargon II's Palace in Khorsabad, however Sargon II was not the only Assyrian king to have bolstered his palace with such creatures, the palaces of Ashurnasirpal IIand Sennacheribcontained the Lamassu.
World Historical SignificanceEdit
The Lamassu's appearance is imposing to anyone who sees it. However in Assyrian and ancient Mesopotamian culture a statue's appearance took on a whole new meaning as statues where believed to be manifestations of deities [See Mackenzie 1915, 62]. Mackenzie also describes how in his time, native workmen to Khorsabad still "Entertained Dread of the winged and human-headed bulls guarding the royal palace," even though the objects had been buried beneath the sand for centuries [See Mackenzie 1915, 62].
Mehmet-Ali Atac describes the Lamassu as being an "integral component of Cosmology, that refers to notions of initiation and gnosis, deeply embedded in the minds of Assyrian scholars, drawing on a long standing Mesopotamian intellectual tradition." [See Atac 2010, 147] Although the Lamassu is particularly prominent in Neo-Assyrian architecture, its roots can be found farther back in Mesopotamian culture. The lamassu itself is not particularly identified as a certain deity, however its features represent a common motif with other deities in Mesopotamian culture. These deities were many times described as having different features of several different animals, particularly many with a human heads, wings, and the body of a beast [See Black 1992, 51].
Atac, Mehmet-Ali. The Mythology of Kingship in Neo-Assyrian Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.