The scientific tourist #212 — leaning into it

Today’s photo comes to you from the National Archaeological Museum of Florence (Museo Archeologico Centrale dell’ Etruria); it’s a fragment of limestone, originally from the palace of Sennacherib in Ninevah:

Leaning into it

Pieces like this always leave me in a bit of a quandary over where to start. The piece has a history, as does the site it came from, and the museum it’s hosted in.

So let’s start with Assyria, Ninevah, and Sennacherib. Geographically, Assyria covered the northern end of the Tigris / Euphrates valley, land that now is part of northern Iraq. Civilization there goes back thousands of years, and as you can well imagine, it’s seen its share of ups and downs. Under the Akkadian Empire in the 24th century BC, Assyria grew as a minor kingdom; after the empire fell circa 2154 BC, Assyria grew in prominence until it settled into a long period of competition with Babylonia (which covered the southern end of the Tigris / Euphrates valley). This lasted until civil war broke out circa 627 BC; the Assyrian’s neighbors took advantage of the resulting chaos, and the Assyrians spent the next 1200 years as vassals to a variety of empires (until the Islamic invasion and conquest of Mesopotamia in the 7th century AD, when Assyria finally disappeared as a political entity).

Ninevah was a small provincial town until Sennacherib was named king, and subsequently moved the Assyrian capital there in 703 BC. He rebuilt the town in grand style, erecting a home he called the “palace without rival,” and surrounding the city with a wall some 12 km long, 16 meters (53 feet) high, and 15 meters (49 feet) thick. This piece dates from Ninevah’s heyday in the 7th century BC.

Of course, this happy situation (for the Assyrians, anyway) only lasted a few generations — the city was sacked and razed in 612 BC as the Neo-Assyrian empire spiraled down. It spent the next few thousand years as humble mounds on the banks of the Tigris (across the river from modern-day Mosul, Iraq), the ruins not seeing excavation until the mid 19th century.

The National Archaeological Museum of Florence was inaugurated in 1870, and moved to its present building ten years later. Most of its artifacts are housed in one of two collections — one of Egyptian artifacts, the other of Etruscan ones. But there’s a smattering of artifacts from further afield, like the one above, and of course this one. It’s an impressive collection (well worth a visit if you ever find yourself in that corner of the globe), but is a bit lacking in explanatory material.

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