Sennacherib’s “palace without rival”
In 2002, on the eve of the Second Gulf War, the Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente e l'Asia, together with the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq, the Iraq Museum, the Central Restoration Institute in Rome and the Direction General for the Archaeological Heritage of Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, began a campaign for documenting and verifying the state of conservation of the structures of the royal suite (rooms I, IV, V) of Sennacherib's palace, in the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. The purpose was that of assessing the natural damage caused by atmospheric agents and the mechanical damage caused by man. The on-site survey activities, as well as studies and laboratory activities, were conducted by an interdisciplinary group of the ICR and Centro Scavi that processed new and important data on the characterization of building materials and on the deterioration processes affecting the structures: this information proved fundamental for implementing future conservative and restoration measures.
The construction of a royal palace is by far the most effective and long-lasting instrument of celebration and glorification that Assyrian royalty had made use of. In 704 BC and in the heart of the Assyrian empire, Sennacherib founded his new residence in the metropolis mentioned in the Bible for its grandeur and subsequent ruin. We are familiar with the main stages of construction of Nineveh’s southwest palace from documents from the royal chancery: no less than ten years were necessary to build what ancient sources referred to as the “palace without rival”. The residence, of imposing proportions (approximately 200 m per side), was decorated with the most valuable and rare materials: gold, silver and bronze; stones delivered from distant lands such as red gemstone, alabaster and breccia; sturdy and perfumed wood such as sandal, juniper, cedar and ebony; in addition to ivory for the furnishings. The participation of all subjugated peoples, through labour and tributes, was simultaneously an assertion and a propaganda demonstration of Assyria’s supremacy over nearby peoples.
The summer of 2002 saw the completion of a diagnostic campaign to update the situation recorded by J. Russell’s study (1998). In the autumn of 2002, a photographic and stereophotogrammetric campaign aiming to increase our knowledge of the current state of conservation and capable of providing further data that could be transferred to stereophotogrammetric bases also began. A further aspect is the one concerning the future presentation of a monumental complex constituting a sort of open-air museum. In fact, the operations allowed a preliminary project of the possible covering of the palace’s throne room to be proposed. Other decisive aspects of the project included the petrographical study of the orthostats and the analysis of the different types of decay, with the consequent restoration strategies.
The petrographic study made by the ICR experts has provided an interesting mass of information which should be useful when conservation work can be re-started in ancient Nineveh: it provides a secure basis for understanding the mechanisms of deterioration of the materials and deciding the preventive and conservative measures required before any definitive restoration work and arrangement of the archaeological site is undertaken . Therefore there is still hope of being able to intervene quickly and decisively to safeguard these reliefs which represents, despite the significant damage suffered up till now, one of the most important masterworks of Assyrian court art in its original context.
The collection of photographic documentation and the stereophotogrammetric survey performed with the most up-to-date technologies proved useful from the first stages of the project, allowing the identification of both the areas that were most compromised by the war and of the specific sectors to perform restorations on. In fact, the photo shooting and the surveys performed in 2002, compared to earlier ones and to drawings made by the site’s discoverer in the 19th century, confirmed that the greatest damage to the plates (breakage, loss, detachment from the unbaked brick masonry) occurred between 1990 and 2002, thus allowing an actual stereoscopic/photogrammetric-based map to be made, on which the restoration project was based.
Part of the work of the “Nineveh Project” concentrated on the preparation of an improvement programme, as it contemplated an on-site musealization of the cycle of bas-reliefs that takes into account the various external influences (atmospheric, geologic, structural/mechanical, and anthropic decay) that the Throne Room and the nearby rooms are subjected to. The careful analysis of the different causes of alteration, conducted directly in the field, made possible the organization of a campaign of specific treatments of both the masonry and the orthostats, laying the necessary foundations for the Palace’s correct musealization and fruition. The technical analyses highlighted how the local chalky alabaster that was surveyed is structurally quite inhomogeneous; it was probably chosen because of contingent needs (it was readily available locally) and because it was especially suited to meticulous workmanship, as it is a soft and easily polished stone.
The orthostats, originally placed inside the palace, are currently in an open-air space, subjected to various types of geological/environmental and structural/ mechanical decay. The wide thermal excursion (daily and annual), together with exposure to direct sunlight, erosion (the throne room is currently in a sort of pit that is below the current ground level), the deterioration of the stone itself, conceived for an enclosed space and now containing many cracks that in some cases are macroscopic, are among the major issues the Italian team had to face.
The importance of the sculptural complex of relief orthostats that originally decorated the palace’s halls is well known. After the excavations that were performed in the 19th and 20th centuries, the structures of the palace on the acropolis of Quyunjik that dominates the area of the ancient Nineveh have remained exposed to the elements and, in the years that followed the first Gulf War, were the object of systematic looting that seriously damaged what remained on the site. Even the sheet metal roof covering the main areas of the royal suite has lost its effectiveness more than a decade ago. A survey performed by J. Russell in the late 1990s also highlighted the dramatic situation of the structures, specifically of the relief plates decorating the walls of the rooms around the throne room; the archaeologist even identified a series of fragments of reliefs originating from this very sector, whose removal caused irreparable damage to entire orthostats, on the antiques market. The scenario that emerges from a comparison of the situation observed by Russell and the one observed in 2002 is, unfortunately, alarming: of the 500 orthostats that were examined, only 16 did not display visible damage or mutilations and, of these, only 30% of the sculpted surface still had visible reliefs. No less than 27 orthostats had lost over 60% of their original format, and three reliefs, in addition to the five recorded by Russell’s study, were completely missing. Thus, major losses occurred between 1998 and 2002; the situation may prove to be even more dramatic when the country’s political situation will allow, we hope as soon as possible, a new census to be performed.
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