"My Favorite Museum Exhibit": A great big chunk of ancient Assyria

"My Favorite Museum Exhibit" is a series of posts aimed at giving BoingBoing readers a chance to show off their favorite exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. I'll be featuring posts in this series all week. Want to see them all? Check out the archive post. I'll update the full list there every morning.

Allan Berry sent in this photo from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute Museum. That giant winged-bull-man-thing is a lammasu—ancient Mesopotamia's answer to the sphynx and possibly one of the greatest-looking monsters ever designed.

This one is part of a set that once flanked the doorway to the throne room of Sargon II, whose name really just goes perfectly with the aesthetic of the lamassu. Berry thought this might be a part of ancient Babylon, but from the spot of research I did this morning, Sargon II (and the lamassu) actually hailed from a place called Dur-Sharrukin, or, fittingly, "The Fortress of Sargon." Today, it's a village in northern Iraq, near Mosul.

Also: If you're looking for random ways to procrastinate today, I suggest reading the Wikipedia entry on the University of Chicago Persian Antiquities Crisis. Apparently, the Oriental Institute Museum has a lot of Persian tablets in its collection that are technically owned by the country of Iran. A few years ago, the U.S. Justice Department went after those artifacts, hoping to sell them off to raise money to pay to victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism. It's a weird little bit of legal/political history.


    1. One of them in the British museum has a game board scratched onto it by bored guards. They’ve got a wood and ivory version of the same game upstairs in a cabinet. It’s a rather nice link to the everyday on something so grand.

  1. One cool feature of these particular statues is that they have five legs (three in the front) – when viewed from the side, it appears to be walking, and when viewed from the front, it appears to be standing.  Neat trick.

    This often overlooked museum also features parts of the Ishtar Gate, and the sort of unwrapped mummies that used to be popular in the 1920s (a few years ago, anyway).

    A very cool and vintage place.

        1. Absolutely agree.  One caveat: NO returns.  None. Zip.  Great if you’re getting yourself something, but a little more tricky if you’re getting a gift for someone else.

    1. OMG YES!

      What a study in contrasts: the Oriental Museum is a tiny jewel and the Pergamon, a massive crown.

    2. The Pergamon museum is just insane.  Imagine walking up to an ancient Greek or other temple, then busting out a huge masonry saw and slicing a corner or the facade off the temple, and transporting that back home.  It’s just nuts to see chunks of buildings sliced off and re-assembled in Berlin!

      1. CHUNKS of building?  How about the entire building, inside another building?  A 3-story entrance to a marketplace, an entire Greek temple….it’s like the architectural equivalent of a turduken.

        Soviet buildings are astonishingly gargantuan.

  2. I once visited the apartments of a dot-bomb executive who had created furniture out of what he claimed were priceless persian antiquities looted by American embassy staff in the 1950s or 60s.  I don’t know if it was true, but the coffee table was damned impressive, would fit right in with the lammasu here.  I wonder what happened to that guy.

          1. Oh, he’s just following in the footsteps of Belzoni and Lepsius, eh?  Battering rams and blasting caps are the hallmark of classical archeology, at least in the Valley of Kings.

  3. Sargon II was king of Assyria, not Babylon, but they were both Mesopotamian empires.

    Mesopotamia had a very long tradition of these hybrid divine beings, and the relationship between them and Egyptian sphinxes is hard to determine. That is to say, they might not be the answer to Egyptian traditions.

    One of the other neat things about these guys is that they are probably what the writers of the Hebrew Bible had in mind when they wrote about “cherubim.” 

  4. There are more of these in the Louvre and the British Museum.   Very cool.   Some have lion’s bodies rather than bulls.  The BM also has a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate. 

  5. You’re making me miss the OI! I worked as an assistant curator there for almost 8 years. Fun fact, there’s an inscription on the back of the Lammasu that you can see if you peek around on the left – it’s meant to be seen only by the gods, and tells all about what an awesome guy Sargon was, and how devoted to them, and how all of this was in their honor (yadayada).

  6. ZOMG that’s my favorite museum! I always tell people, “If Indiana Jones had a museum, this would be it.”

  7. Yay!  Thanks for adding my photograph.

    This museum is pretty spectacular… they have ancient antiquities from all around the Mediterranean: Egypt, Babylon, Nubia, and various other places.  This piece is just one of many awesome objects you’ll find.  Definitely worth a trip if you’re in Hyde Park.

    Oh, and that attractive young lady in the picture is my fiancée, Tiffy.

    1. How fortunate for you….she seems like a good egg!

      To add to the extended BB family album, here are my kids (much younger) enjoying a different room in the Oriental Museum:

      1. That may be the most adorable photograph I’ve seen.  Thanks for the post.

        That bull head is tremendous.  We both thought the Persian room maybe best (although I also really liked Nubia… who knew there was civilization *before* the Egyptians).


  8. I miss the OI too.  I used to love going there, when I was going to the U. of Chicago.  Besides the colossal pieces, they have a number of small Egyptian bronzes I loved, which are just really wonderful – beautiful and perfectly proportioned.  I was particularly fond of a bronze statuette of Thoth as a baboon.

    … and I think an Oriental Institute expedition to Mesopotamia around the turn of the last century might have had something to do with the source of that “ancient Assyrian inscription” that came up on Boing Boing last year, but I never could track it down.

  9. Hey!  Quit telling everyone about this awesome little museum.  If everyone knew it was full of amazing artifacts from the birth of human civilization, it wouldn’t continue to be so wonderfully free of crowds most of the time.  ssssshhhhhhh!!!!!  Plus, all these folks visiting this museum might walk down the block to the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece, the Robie House, which is now open for tours after extensive renovation.  That would be terrible!

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