The 3,000-year-old stone slabs sit in silence, mostly. Weighing in at almost 2,000 pounds each, it took a lot to get them here—a boat ride down the Tigris to Basra, a skip over to Bombay, then, via ship, onward to Brunswick, Maine.
The five inscribed tablets, called bas-reliefs, are remnants of the ancient Assyrian empire in Nimrud, near modern-day Mosul, Iraq. Some of the oldest objects at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA), the stone slabs are now—in light of a record-setting $31 million sale at Christie’s auction house last week—some of the most valuable on the global art market, too.
A gypsum stone relief that climbed from $7 million to more than $31 million in last week’s bidding war originates from the same source as the BCMA’s collection—a nine-piece set sent to the United States by a Bowdoin alumnus in 1860.
The journey begins with a man called Dr. Henri Byron Haskell, class of 1855, a student at Bowdoin’s Medical School of Maine. He was working as a physicist and missionary in Nimrud when approached by an English archaeologist with a request: to keep safe the ornate palatial panels—historical, religious and cultural objects—from an uncertain political situation in the Middle East. At the time, the area was controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
To do so, he would ask Bowdoin to shoulder the $750 shipping cost to send them back to his alma mater in Brunswick. Bowdoin professors Parker Cleaveland and Alpheus Packard, class of 1816 agreed; before the slabs even boarded the boat, Bowdoin’s name was tied to an ancient history of early civilization in Turkish Mesopotamia.
The stones eventually made it to Brunswick, but not without a detour to Virginia Theological Seminary where Professor Packard’s brother, Joseph Packard, was a professor at the time. Three of the nine reliefs remained at the Episcopal college’s campus in Alexandria until last week, when the seminary decided to sell one of the seven-foot friezes at Christie’s in a transaction that neared $31 million. This is the second highest ever price for a piece of ancient art at an auction.
When I climb the stairs to the Assyrian Relief Gallery, midday, sunlight streams through the museum’s wide-paned windows. It illuminates the stone, exposing its age, cracks and time-earned softness. I am there to meet James Higginbotham, curator for the ancient collection and associate professor of classics.
He tells me stories of an ancient Assyrian ruler named Assurnasirpal II, a warrior king whose capital city of Kalhu supposedly housed some 16,000 people, mostly refugees from conquered kingdoms. Alongside the bird-spirit “apkallu” and their tree of fertility, he is the centerpiece of the slabs.
Superimposed on every piece of stone is a standard script detailing the king’s robust and ruthless reign. Carved in Akkadian, a looping script of wedge-shaped cuneiform, it represents the oldest attested Semitic language.
But he also talks of ghosts: Babylonians, Medes, Chaldeans, Cimmerians and Scythians, subjugated peoples of the Assyrians who, in the throes of revolt in 612 BCE, intentionally erased parts of the king’s body—face and wrists—like thieves in the night. Pointing to one of the life-sized panels, Higginbotham shows me how to distinguish between god and king, two figures with near-identical faces and body composition. The key, I learn, is that I’m not really supposed to spot the difference; for the Assyrians, the line between god and king was faint.
For the Western men who found them centuries later, the reliefs are proof of a different god.
“They were seen early on as confirmation of the Bible, especially early on,” Higginbotham said. “[The excavator] was very keen to connect these to Nineveh and Calah,” cities mentioned in the Old Testament.
Bowdoin graduates like Haskell went all over the world in the 19th century, Higginbotham tells me, during a time of renewed fascination with the East. The reliefs’ presence at the College, sitting in a threshold gallery between European and American collections, speaks to that liminality, that push and pull between East and West.
“A lot of [Bowdoin graduates] are referred to as Orientalists,” he said. “They’re following in the footsteps of what the British and French were already doing in this area.”
There is, perhaps in unspoken ways, a layered narrative of conquest that belies the delicate artistry of the BCMA’s reliefs. ISIS destroyed what was left of the ancient city at Nimrud four years ago; only a few of the ancient slabs exist in Iraqi museums.
The reliefs, then, now worlds apart from their original home—taken legally but at a time when cultural looting laws weren’t as stringent—occupy a precarious position in the global art market. Preceding the Christie’s sale last week, the Iraqi government issued calls for repatriation—the return of the artifact to Mosul—claiming the slab to be Iraqi property and citing the Iraqi Antiquities Law as testament.
In regards to the BCMA’s reliefs, co-directors of the Museum Anne Collins Goodyear and Frank Goodyear point to UNESCO guidelines for cultural patrimony, rules they follow closely.
“We’re extremely mindful about where everything we acquire comes from,” Anne said. “We want to enable works of art to better help us understand nuances of cultural exchange, of migration, of the development of different legal systems, different artistic and technological capabilities, and I think these reliefs enable us to do that in important ways.”
“The larger issue of cultural patrimony is something that the College and Museum take seriously,” added Higginbotham. “But we do watch our collection and think about those issues. We’re fortunate that most of our very old antiquities came into the collection a long time ago.”
When I ask about what the sale at Christie’s means for the Museum’s reliefs, the room quiets. “I think we should stick to talking about our reliefs,” Anne said.
The request is fair: the Museum is sitting on a set of stones that have just recently skyrocketed in value. Though there are no plans on the part of the Museum to sell—the decision made Virginia Theological Seminary the target of criticism last week—the stones nevertheless embody a complex and age-old conversation of conquest, of conversion and of how we, as consumers of art and history, often rely on the idea of Other to shape our own sense of self.
Standing in front of the friezes, I can’t help but feel that these men—Assurnasirpal, his winged deity, their men—though mere representation, are larger than life. Hoisted on the wall, they tower above my 5’1” frame, conveying stories of empire and domination. And then, disintegration. They, like the Bowdoin men who brought them here, represent storied systems of power, systems often thought of as ancient history. If we look close enough, though, we can make out traces, slight indents and lines, of a story that speaks still to our modern day.