Assyrian Lion Hunt


We were in the British Museum the other day when I came across these extraordinary low-relief carvings from Nineveh.

Although I am familiar with the big gates from Nimrod in the museum these 'lion hunt' stone panels were a real revelation.

The carvings date from 645 - 635 BC and lined a chamber in the North Palace at Nineveh.

The palace was built for King Ashurbanipal. Although a keen sportsman, rather than hunting lions in the wild, Ashurbanipal had them rounded up and brought to an arena where he could shoot them down one by one. The staged hunt must have been a real spectacle and testament to his power and authority.

What I find really extraordinary about the carvings is that while the people in the images remain very stylized - always shown in profile and with no expression on their faces, the dying lions are depicted with an intense realism and - to my eye at least - an empathy for their suffering. You can clearly see the pain in their snarled and furrowed muzzles. 

Perhaps there were strict rules and conventions about how humans could be depicted, whilst the sculptors were left to interpret the animals in a much freer way.

Whatever the truth, if you have a spare fifteen minutes in the British museum they are well worth a visit.