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Work Frieze of the Transportation of Timber

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Mesopotamia

Frieze of the Transportation of Timber

© 2010 Musée du Louvre / Angèle Dequier

Near Eastern Antiquities
Mesopotamia

Author(s):
E. Morero after E. Fontau

Made of five carved slabs depicting the transportation of timber, this frieze is a famous work from the palace of King Sargon II in Khorsabad. It is one of the first Assyrian reliefs known in the West. It has often been reproduced to illustrate various subjects: the construction of Assyrian palaces, trade, Phoenician civilization, and the cedars of Lebanon.

Procuring timber

Timber was needed to build monumental palaces, but Assyria lacked quality building timber. Lebanon was famous for its cedar forests and from the end of the 2nd millennium, the Assyrian kings imported wood from this region as the cuneiform inscriptions explain. The trees felled in the Lebanese mountains were carted from Sidon to a port south of Tyre. The timber was loaded on ships that sailed north along the Phoenician coast, skirting Tyre then Ruad; it was no doubt unloaded at the mouth of the Orontes River. From there the timber could be transported to Assyria by river or road.

A partial reconstruction

The scene has been carved on five slabs of gypseous alabaster, also known as Mosul marble, a material traditionally used by the Assyrians to make orthostats.
The friezes were severely damaged but have been partly reconstructed from drawings made in Khorsabad by Eugène Flandin in the mid-19th century when the city was discovered by P.E. Botta in 1844.
The scene unfolds from right to left:
Slab ao19888: Twenty-eight people are busy unloading timber in a mountainous landscape.
Slabs ao 19889: Two slabs together. Ten boats, each with a horse's head at the prow and a fish's tail at the stern, are sailing over seas swarming with sea creatures. Seven are heavily loaded with posts or are towing logs behind them. The boats are sailing off two island cities fortified with a double wall, probably Tyre and Ruad. Three fantastic creatures, a merman, and two winged bulls are acting as protectors.
Slab ao 19890: Four boats are nearing the shore while two others are pulling away. The timber is being unloaded under the protection of a merman.
Slab ao19891: The upper part of the relief is a modern restoration. The lower part of the slab shows timber being unloaded. Eleven men are pulling a load with a rope. The end of a beam can be seen at the bottom. Beside the path is a pile of nine logs, trimmed and bored to take a rope.

Royal domination

There are gaps in Flandin's drawings, so much of the reading and understanding of the frieze is conjectural, especially as these reliefs have no inscriptions. When they were found, little was known about Assyrian civilization and the interpretations made at the time have since been abandoned. The frieze was once thought to depict an attack on a maritime stronghold (the siege of Pelusium by Sennacherib or the taking of Ashdod by Sargon) or the construction of a city or a palace. However, the most commonly accepted interpretation is that of the transportation of cedarwood from Lebanon, intended for Sargon's palace, along the Phoenician coast.
More recently, P. Albenda has suggested that the scene depicts timber being transported from Cyprus, not Lebanon. The wood would have been carried from a Phoenician port such as Larnaca, to the south of Tyre, and then northwards, perhaps as far as Al Mina. However, Cyprus was not particularly renowned for its cedarwood in ancient times. The work would therefore have had a political purpose, for at the time Sargon had extended his domination to Cyprus. Placed in a strategic part of the palace, here a facade of the ceremonial courtyard onto which the throne room opened, and included in other portrayals of conquered nations, this scene could then symbolize the king's domination of the entire known world.

Bibliography

ALBENDA P., "A Mediterranean Seascape from Khorsabad", Assur 3/3, 1983, p.1-17.
FONTAN E., "La Frise du Transport du Bois, Décor du Palais de Sargon II à Khorsabad", DOUMET-SERHAL Cl. (ed.), Cedrus Libani, Archaelogy and History in Lebanon , 2001, vol.14, p. 58-63.

Technical description

  • Frieze of the Transportation of Timber

    Neo-Assyrian period, c. 713-706 BC

    Khorsabad (present-day Dur Sharrukin, Iraq)

  • Bas-relief, gypseous alabaster

    H. 3.03 m; W. 2.16 mH. 3.08 m; W. 4.09 mH. 3.08 m; W. 2.41 mH. 3.08 m; W. 2.41 m

  • Excavations by P.E. Botta, 1844

    AO 19888

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Mesopotamia, Assyria. Khorsabad
    Room 4

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