Students will learn about the Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity stone relief and the palace from which it comes. They will then work in groups to examine how the stone relief shows us that over the course of human history, some things change and others remain the same.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 50 minute lesson
Standards AreaSocial Studies
Students will be able to:
- explain what the Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity represents;
- state two facts about ancient Assyria;
- list two similarities and two differences between the Assyrians and themselves;
- trace a route on a map from their home state to the four modern countries in which ancient Assyria was located (Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq); and
- identify that Ancient Assyria was located in the Middle East, which is part of Asia.
- Preparation: Read the “Details” information from the About the Art section on the Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity.
- Warm-up: Have students select one room in their house they would like to redecorate. Ask them to either draw out their changes or write a description of what they would do. When finished, they should share their ideas with a partner. Call on a few volunteers to share their plans with the class. Write down the materials used and design details the students describe.
- Tell the students that now they get to design a palace. Show them the floor plan of King Ashurnasirpal [ah-sure-NAH-zir-pahl] II’s palace. Say that they will be designing the Throne Room Suite. Don’t tell them about the time period, king, or location for which they are designing the space.
- Working in “committees” of 3-4 students, they should specify the following elements: materials for the floors and walls, wall decorations, and other decorative pieces. They may provide visual and/or written descriptions. Students may use sheets of butcher paper to draw their designs if they would like.
- Have students present their ideas to the class. Write down the materials used and the design details they describe in bullet-point fashion.
- Ask the following questions once they've shared their plans: How many of you used stone for your materials? How many of you included magical aspects to ward off evil spirits? How many of you included religious pictures or design?
- Links on King Ashurnasirpal II's palace and Assyrian history
- Paper and pencils or pens for every students
- Sheets of butcher paper
- Colored pencils and/or markers
- Access to Google Earth or map of where Assyria was located (Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq) and the ability to trace a route from their home state to the region
- About the Art section on the Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity
- Color copies of the stone relief for students to share, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Social Studies
- Understand chronological order of events
- Ask questions, share information and discuss ideas about the past and present
- Use geographic tools and sources to answer spatial questions
- Become familiar with Africa geography
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Research and Reasoning
- Writing and Composition
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
This stone carving comes from the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II, who ruled over the kingdom of Assyria in today’s Iraq. The creation of a sculptured palace generally happened only once during a king’s reign, if at all. The king took close interest in the palace and had some indirect role in choosing the subjects of the decorations. However, the general design was placed in the hands of a committee of senior officials. Within this committee, at least one official was experienced in magic, and he made sure that the magical figures on the walls (like this bird-headed deity) were placed for maximum protection. First, the stone panels were installed into the brick palace walls, and then a team of carvers would work on creating the low-relief sculpture. One person would draw or incise the main outline of the image, and the final cutting and polishing would be done by an army of artisans. Because the carvings were influenced by wall paintings, they were often painted as well.
What Inspired It?
Magicians placed protective deities throughout the king’s palace, wherever they were thought to be most effective. Bird-headed deities often stood at doorways, protecting the palace from evil spirits. Magic was an essential part of religion and daily life in ancient Assyria and was used in everything from medicine to architecture. Kings served as high priests and had ceremonial responsibilities. Icons throughout the castle, including relief carvings like this one, affirmed Ashurnasirpal’s authority as high priest and King of Assyria. Many carvings in Ashurnasirpal’s palace also tell of the importance of war during his reign.
Elaborate tassels are attached to the patterned edge of the figure’s cloak. A cloak with tassels was standard wear for kings during this time, but not for ordinary humans.
The sculpture is carved in low relief, also called bas relief, meaning that the carving projects very little from the background.
Heavy muscles are a convention of Assyrian carving and are seen throughout the palace.
The stone has a very distinctive, curvy pattern. When stones were cut from the quarry, consecutive sections went to a given room. By paying attention to the grain of the stone, we are able to identify which carvings came from the same room.
The deity is a magical combination of eagle and man, with the head, feathers, and beak of an eagle, and the muscle and flesh of a man. These qualities are integrated to make a convincing and powerful creature.
The deity holds what looks like either a pinecone or the flower of a date palm in his right hand. Because date palms require cross-fertilization by hand, a suggestion has been made that perhaps the deity is fertilizing a sacred tree. The sacred tree, not seen here, is a common motif in Assyrian art. It is identified by ornamental leaves and curling tendrils. It symbolizes vegetal health and fertility, and is usually attended by human-headed or bird-headed deities. In other places, the pinecone is held up over people or doorways that need magical protection. Although scholars are not positive about what is happening here, it does seem to be an important ritual gesture.