The Khorsabad Barrel

8th Century B.C.
burnt clay
searing, incision (cuneiform characters)
length: 22,8 cm; width: 11 cm; height: 6,3 cm


    Texts: Cătălina OPASCHI Photo: Marius AMARIE


    In the year 1978, the collections of our museum welcomed an archaeological rarity known as the Khorsabad “barrel”. It is a cylinder made of clay, whereon a text is inscribed with cuneiform characters, regarding the rule of Assyrian King Sargon II (721 – 705 B.C.): his battles and conquests, his way of organizing and administrating the empire, the history the foundation of his new capital, Dur-Sarukin (Khorsabad).

    Assyrian Kings were in the habit of integrating into the foundations of new buildings various objects containing messages to future generations. The history of the journey of this object discovered on the territory of the old Kurdistan (Iraq), which illustrates a period in the history of Assyria, is entwined with the activity of diplomat Victor Place. The barrel was a part of the archaeological inventory of the Khorsabad dig, where there once used to stand the capital city of Assyrian King Sargon II. The area had been explored before during the early decades of the 19th century by the former French consul in Kurdistan, Paul-Émile Botta, but in 1844, the digging had ceased. France, who had once again brought the echoes of Assyrian civilization to the attention of Europeans, was fiercely rivaled in those times by England, who had also opened archaeological digs in the same area. Under those circumstances, Victor Place, appointed consul in Mosul, addressed, in 1851, a request to the secretary of the Parisian Academy of Inscriptions, soliciting permission to continue the excavations abandoned by Botta, and expert guidance. Convinced of the advantages of the consular position which allowed Victor Place to stand on the very site of the coveted antiquities, the members of the Academy sent him rigorous instructions regarding the procedures of unearthing, identifying, and preserving the objects, depending on their structure and particularities. Upon arriving in Kurdistan, the young consul begins prospecting work around the old digging site. After several digging sessions at Khorsabad, he is surprised to discover a true archaeological treasure trove: the residence of King Sargon II (721-705 î.Chr.). For four years, battling many financial hardships, facing the reluctance and suspicion of locals mistrustful of an activity the utility of which they could not comprehend, consul Place dedicated himself to this work with a passion which oftentimes brought him repremand from his superiors. Keeping his promise to the Academy of Inscriptions, he regularly informed the scientific forums regarding the evolution and results of his investigations. From the recording of proceedings of the Academy’s sessions we learn important data regarding the discovery of the first barrels at Khorsabad. In a report sent on August 27th 1852, it is revealed Place has found, within the precincts of the palace, in the “Seraglio”, two such barrels, cylindrical in shape, featuring cuneiform text. It is specified that they were found in the thick of the wall and their measurements are mentioned: Height = 23 cm; Diameter = 40 cm; Height = 25 cm; Diameter = 46 cm. In the monumental work he published between the years 1867 – 1870, Victor Place noted that apart from the barrels he had signaled (found in the thick of the wall between rooms 20 and 18), he later discovered more barrels, within the exterior wall of the Harem. The Harem proved to be, according to the contemporary findings of the Chicago Oriental Institute experts, a religious complex. Here, 14 barrels were found featuring ten facets (according to the finder’s statement). In total, there would have been 16 items of the kind. The majority of these barrels have ten sides. In volume III of Victor Place’s work, which comprises blueprints of the Khorsabad ensemble, of the edifices, reconstructions and pictures of the objects, two barrels are shown in figure 78 which have eight sides. But, unlike these pieces with ten and eight sides, the barrel in the National Museum’s collection has... nine sides. As to the place of its discovery, no indications are given in Victor Place’s work. We do believe, however, due to the small “inaccuracy” we were analyzing above, this barrel too may belong in the group of barrels found in the “Harem”, which was the largest. Perhaps it was precisely its uniqueness, brought by its having nine sides, that compelled Victor Place to keep it. It too is, doubtless, a piece that illustrates the foundation rituals very carefully observed by the Assyrians. Its measurements are: Length = 22,8; Width = 11 cm; Height = 6,3 cm; obviously smaller than the ten-sided barrels. The fate of the other barrels, as that of many other pieces of great value is specified in the discoverer’s work. They lie sunken at the bottom of a tributary stream of the Tigris, as a consequence of a large portion of the archaeological objects Victor Place discovered in Kurdistan being destroyed or sunk from the raft that was conveying them to France, by attackers of the convoy, who were irritated at not having found any precious metal objects. In the given situation, few objects ever reached Paris compared to the richness of the discoveries (they were intended to be shown at the universal Exhibit of 1855).


    The truly inestimable worth of the barrel lies in the lines of cursive cuneiform characters which cover its surface tight and neat rows. The text etched into the National Museum’s barrel is the same as that on similar pieces which survived (with inessential omissions). It has been deciphered by the English Rawillson and Morris and published as early as 1856 in the “Journal Asiatique” by Menant and J. Oppert. Important fragments of this text were quoted and discussed in H. Chavaniol’s work, and the whole of it, in V. Place’s work. Seeing as they were objects used in the ritual of laying a building’s foundation, with the role of warding off evil spirits, like the small plates made of various materials found in a stone chest under one of the palace’s thresholds, the texts contained, aside from homage to the gods, an account of King Sargon II’s feats of bravery and the history of the city’s construction. Such objects are only attested around the end of the IInd millenium B.C and the beginning of millenium I B.C.. Mesopotamians believed in the power of words, which they assimilated to creation or existence, and they did not doubt their effectiveness. Before building or restoring an edifice, the King would place inside the foundations, beneath thresholds or inside walls, texts written on different materials, as many copies as possible, in order to enhance their chance of lasting through eternity. The texts were mostly addressed to gods and generations of sovereigns to come, who were obliged, if they were to restore the building, to put them back piously, and to multiply them in order to perpetuate their glory and grandeur. In case of destruction, the perpetrator was to suffer the rigours of the curse with which the texts closed. The text on the Khorsabad barrel, published by V. Place in the work Ninive et Assyrie. Avec des essais de reconstitution par Felix Thomas, Paris, 1867-1870, vol. II, pp. 300-301 (selection): “Sargon, spokesman of Bel, lieutenant of Assur, pupil of the eyes of Oanes and Dagon, the great King, the powerful King, the King of legions, King of Assyria, King of the four regions, favourite of the great gods and the true shepherd to whom the gods Assur, Mardoch, have bestowed royalty, peoples, and whose glorious name they have spread to the edge of the earth (…). I am the King, who upon rising to power has no rivals; in fights and in battle I have now acted a coward; I have ground up all lands like kohl and I have demanded from them tokens of submission in the four elements. I have opened up many deep and very vast woods, I have leveled inequalities. I have traversed winding arid valleys that were places of deadly heat, and passing by I had cisterns dug (…). Merciless, intolerant of defiance, I uprooted Hamath’s country and I tortured King Ilubid and skinned him alive, I had his skin dressed and hung it like a fur. I blew upon the Circesim when the power of my wrath touched Pisiri, for he had conspired to rise against me. I declared war to Armenia. I plundered Mussair, after Ursaha the King of Armenia, overcome with horror, took his own life. I shuffled the cities of Papa (Paphos), Lalukmi, Sukkia, Bala, Abitikma, who had secretly connived with the country of Kakmi. I erased from the face of the earth Andia Zikirtu and I deathly struck all their inhabitants and cast upon the insurgents the terror of death. Boldly I have evidenced the power of my deeds. I have made of Media my provincie for it would not obey me, I subjugated the people of Kharkhar. I augmented Assyria’s expanse. I distributed (divided) the country Van Sabhi, I reestablished the peace in Illib. I strengthened the empire in the countries of Kilallam; I made it so our memory shall be revered (…). I, the King with open senses, the chosen one of all Kings, was careful to observe all the traditions perpetuated by mysterious destiny and awe-inspiring fate. The land of Assyria was a vast desert, marshes and weeds had take over the palaces; and instead of being the storage places of regal riches, they had become the bay of storms. I thought I was looking upon the edges of the earth which are despoiled by hunger and poverty, for the grazing of cattle here was a rampant desert, no grains did grow... (missing text). Then I demanded toil of the people, so that the bitter weed may be plucked from my country, which did not yet reveal its true worth, and so that the bad seeds may be removed, (asking for) the help of the god Serach in this endeavour. I examined intently all the treasures, the glory of god and King, all animate beings employed, and the total of expenses necessary in order to see this whole land reborn. Morning and night I thought of building this city, with the help of the Sun god, the great lord of great gods, who would allow and help my designs to come to life, and I ordered that the dwellings be populated in this place (…) As for the people of Assyria, knowledgeable in all sciences, I have had them instructed by wise men and scholars at my palace, in the art of deriving profit from labour, and in the fear of gods and King. The gods that dwell this city have blest me and assigned me perpetually with the construction of the city and the durability of all that it holds. But he who attacks the work of my hands, who wipes out my sculptures and takes away the containers which hold my riches, who robs my treasure house, may Assur, Samas, Bin, and the gods who dwell this city, wipe his name and his kind from the face of the earth in this country, and make it so that he is deemed a rebel by his enemies”.


    After having consolidated his power through territorial expanse, administrative organization, populating certain areas, opening new roads, and securing water supplies for agriculture, the King moved on to building his new capital city. The place is chosen carefully: “…The King is mindful of his duty and nursing a desire for glory... he turned his attention to the unattainable cliffs... here he found the placement of foundations... He brought to the forsaken valley, which under former Kings had never known foundations, renewing zeal and plans of a city that had not been here before...” Sargon, who had discretionary power over all beings and their goods, made sure to pay damages to the owners of the land where he was to build his palace. To the ones who would not receive money, he alotted a different plot of land, not wishing to start such an enterprise by committing any abuse or injustice. Damages had to be paid in order to avoid the consequences of some potential curse. During the third month (Sivan) of the year 717 B.C., the fashioning of construction bricks was commenced. The event of the city’s construction is noted in short texts etched into bricks: “Sargon, King of the Universe, has built a city, and named it Dur-Sarukin. An unrivaled palace he did build inside it”. During the fifth month (Ab), the city’s foundations were laid; shrines were built to honor gods Salman, Sin, Militta, Bin, Samas, and Ninip. This was the moment when the foundation inscriptions written on various materials and barrels were placed in certain spots throughout the palace. The erecting of the palace was begun, which was covered with animal skins and upheld by pillars of precious essences: ebony, cedar, pistachio, cypress, and tamarind. Measurements were rigorously calculated, and the space of the city rigorously divided. The King ritually attended the construction work together with his family, in order to endear himself to the gods. Sargon’s capital took up a trapezoidal surface of approx. 300 hectares and had seven gates, each one dedicated to a deity. Three of them were festively adorned with bas-reliefs and friezes made of polychromous bricks. The city displayed all the urban elements of the time: the King’s palace, the Crown Prince’s palace (in the southern part of the city), a ziggurat (V. Place calls it an “observatory”, Nebo’s temple, and a secondary residential cluster with an unknown destination. The royal palace had 209 rooms and 31 gardens grouped in three distinct grounds: the King’s reception rooms, the employee grounds, and a holy area. It had three facades with square towers, guarded by winged man-headed bulls bearing inscriptions. The middle tower was guarded by man-headed bulls as well as a giant bas-relief depicting un uriaş relief înfăţişându-l pe Gilgamesh wrestling the lion. The thresholds were made of stone and the baseboards were adorned with bas-reliefs and paintings showing ceremonial scenes or hunting scenes where, evidently, the King solemnly dominates. Animated by his deep piousness, the King demonstrated special care toward honouring all gods. Not only did he build them shrines everywhere (in Khorsabad there is a veritable neighbourhood of the gods), but he also dedicated the city gates to them. To the Sun and to the god Bin, the eastern gates; the southern gates, to gods Bel-El and Milittei-Taanath; the northern gates to gods Nisroch, Salman, and Milittei; and the western gates, to Oannes and the goddess Ishtar. He built a separate temple for Nebo, as son of the great god Marduk. In order for gods to be able to descend to the earth, to illuminate royal thought and judgement, there was need for a way to connect the earth and the heavens. In the Assyrian architectural conception, the “pier” where the divine ship of the supreme god Assur docked materialized in ziggurats which had their sanctuaries on the roof. Such a ziggurat was encircled by a slanted access road or stairway. The King would withdraw into the sanctuary during certain periods to receive divine illumination or to meet the great priestess ritually. In the reconstruction rendered by architect Felix Thomas, published in Victor Place’s work, the Khorsabad ziggurat had seven ornamental levels of different symbolic colours, namely white, black, purple, light blue, silver, and gold at the top, probably having a height of 42,70 m. In the opinion of contemporary architect Busink’s, an expert in the restoration and reconstruction of old monuments, Sargon II’s temple did not have more than five stories and at the top it housed a temple of Assur, who belonged to this king’s pantheon and had no other sanctuary in the city. Also according to Busink, the access road was not a stairway, but a spiraling ramp with very sparse steps, which circled the tower. All the city’s buildings were richly ornamented with sculptures made of alabaster gypsum, soft and not resistant to weather factors. The suite of yellow and blue paintings and enameled brick mosaics completes the ornamentation. From the text on the barrel, verified by V. Place’s field discoveries, one can deduce the meticulousness with which such an enormous initiative as the building of a city was prepared and carried out. The traces of buildings found at Khorsabad attest, on the other hand, how well Assyrian architects and builders knew their craft. Although the construction materioal was perishable (sun-baked clay bricks and wooden structures), the building technique and architectural rigour were such that they enabled all precincts to be reconstructed. On the other hand, the perfection of the establishments, the amplitude and orderliness of the city’s elements, and the richness of the decor, make of Sargon II’s capita; city a unique monument.