Valley Jewels: The Mead Art Museum, Amherst College

Daily Hampshire Gazette
Relief of Winged, Eagle-Headed Genie from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II

Artist: Unknown Title: Relief of Winged, Eagle-Headed Genie from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II
Medium: gypseous alabaster
Date: 883-859 B.C.E.
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College
Gift of Dr. Henry John Lobdell (Class of 1849), sent from Nimroud in 1852
Acc. No.: AC S.1855.5

The story of how Amherst's Mead Art Museum came to have a spectacular wall carving from ancient Assyria has all the ingredients of a swashbuckling adventure tale, says curator Elizabeth Barker.

The carving, in gypseous alabaster, dates back to the ninth century B.C.E. and comes from the region that is now Iraq. It's an otherworldly scene dominated by a fantastical figure. His lush beard is carefully curled. His fur-trimmed cloak flutters in the breeze. And one more thing -- he's sporting magnificently feathered wings.

The way Amherst acquired the relief, one of four on view at the Mead, is the college's own version of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Barker says.

In the mid-1800s, student Henry Lobdell was struggling to pay his tuition. The college president, Edward Hitchcock, learned of Lobdell's predicament and helped raise the necessary funds.

Lobdell went on to become a Christian missionary in Mosul, near where archaeologist Austen Layard was on an expedition for the British Museum. People in England and America were enthralled by the finds, and museums scrambled to acquire Layard's discoveries -- worried, Barker says, that if they weren't relocated to Christian nations "the infidels" would destroy them.

Hitchcock wrote to Lobdell: Could he obtain any of the antiquities for Amherst? And Lobdell, grateful for the president's past kindness, came through. But getting the sculpture to the college was daunting. It had to be pried from the walls of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, cut into pieces, carried in crates on camels' backs, then transported via ship, train and horse-drawn wagon from the Middle East to the United States. The reliefs finally arrived on campus in 1853.

Now they are a centerpiece of the Mead Collection -- so important that when the museum was renovated a few years ago, creating a proper showcase for them was at the top of the list. The new space, the Kunian Gallery, echoes the proportions of the throne room antechamber the reliefs were taken from.

"They've become part of Amherst's history," says Barker. "I love them not only because the quality is extraordinary" -- dazzling detail, tiny remnants of color that reveal that the reliefs were not only carved but painted, too (the equivalent of a belt and suspenders, Barker jokes) -- but because they are a reminder of the fleeting nature of man's achievements. The Assyrians had a spectacular run of success, building a capital city in the desert, trading globally, but things quickly fell apart. "Nineveh didn't last long as the Assyrian capital," Barker says. "Less than 100 years."