Students will critically examine and discuss the image of the Bird-Headed Deity. They will use information gathered to create a group chart noting symbolic intent found in the object. They will then compare and contrast how contemporary American society and various cultures use art objects for similar functions.
Intended Age GroupSecondary (grades 6-12)
Length of LessonOne 50 minute lesson
Standards AreaSocial Studies
Students will be able to:
- describe and analyze what they see in the Bird-Headed Deity;
- discuss symbolic meaning and intent found in a work of art;
- identify connections between geographical regions and artist representation; and
- investigate similarities and differences in cultural uses of art objects.
- Show students the image of the Bird-Headed Deity. Ask them to describe what they see, talk about what they think it might mean, and identify any possible clues as to this meaning.
- Share the information from About the Art, pointing out elements from the "Details" section. Point out that this was a relief carving taken from the walls of an ancient Assyrian palace. The various elements of the relief carving tell us a lot about what the king or ruler wanted to say about his identity and beliefs.
- Have students create a T-chart either on their own or as a group. Encourage them to use information from the About the Art section as a resource. Ask them to write what they see in the object on the left side of the T, and the meaning of those elements on the right side. An example might be “muscled arms” on the left, and “tells us the king was strong and powerful" on the right. Or, “presence of magical deities” on the left might correspond with “religious beliefs of the culture at the time” on the right. What else can students find?
- Have students try to locate ancient Assyria on a modern map. Discuss with the students why they are unable to find this country on the map, pointing out that what was once ancient Assyria is now a part of Iraq. Discuss what students know about modern-day Iraq and its religions.
- The Bird-Headed Deity was used to depict the power and values of the inhabitants that lived in the building for which it was created. Have students compare and contrast ways of showing these similar ideas in modern dwellings. For instance, some people fly a flag on their front porch to show allegiance to a country or perhaps a sports team. Some decorate their home with religious symbols. What are other comparisons that can be made?
- Note-taking paper for each student
- Paper, chart, or (interactive) white board for display of final group-created T-chart
- Variety of pencils, markers, or other writing implements
- About the Art section on the Bird-Headed Deity
- One color copy of the image for every three to five students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Social Studies
- Evaluate and analyze sources using historical method of inquiry and defend their conclusions
- Understand the concept that the power of ideas is significant throughout history
- Become familiar with Eastern Hemisphere historical eras, groups, individuals, and themes
- Analyze the concepts of continuity and change and effect
- Analyze the concept of complexity, unity and diversity
- Become familiar with people in the world who are interconnected by geography
- Understand geographic variables and how they affect people
- Use geographic tools and sources to answer spatial questions
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- 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.