Technical terms

These are the technical terms used in this website.


Chemical compound, formula (CH3)2CO, used in museum conservation work as a solvent, to remove dirt and unwanted material from the surface of archaeological artefacts.
Term for the Persian dynasty and empire that ruled Babylonia (and the region from the Indus PGP  Valley to western Turkey), 539–330 BC. Named after their founding ancestor Achaemenes (r.705–675 BC).
Greek word meaning "top of the city"; used by some archaeologists to describe the large citadel TT  mound at Nimrud and other Assyrian sites.
acrylic paint
Type of synthetic paint which can be diluted with water but is water-resistant when dry. Used in museum conservation work to cover modern restorations of archaeological artefacts so that they blend in with them but can still be distinguished from the original.
[1] New Year festival, performed over 11 days at the spring equinox, and featuring the gods' renewal of the king's right to rule. [2] Also the name of a temple outside the walls of a city, in which part of the akītu festival was performed. King Sennacherib built an akītu temple for the god Aššur just outside Assur PGP . [3] At Kalhu, an annual sacred marriage TT  ritual TT  for Nabu and Tašmetu PGP .
Semitic language TT  of ancient Mesopotamia, conventionally divided into two dialects: Assyrian from the north and Babylonian from the south. It was usually written in the cuneiform TT  script. See the writing practices section for more details.
Term for the type of light grey stone used for the relief sculptures TT  in Assyrian palaces, a form of calcium carbonate, formula CaCO3. It is also known as Mosul PGP  marble because it was quarried from local deposits.
Object thought to have healing powers, often with an image or inscription on it, and usually worn round the neck or attached to a person's clothes.
Anglo-Iraqi Treaty
Signed in 1948. The final one of three treaties between the United Kingdom and Iraq, the first signed in 1922, which were nominally declarations of alliance. In fact they gave a great deal of power to the UK, especially in matters of foreign relations, military planning, and natural resources such as oil. Despite a great deal of Iraqi opposition, the final treaty remained in force from 1948 to the end of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958.
Being of human form. Beginning sometime in the third millennium BC, gods were imagined as having human form, although so far no divine statue has survived the ages.
Literally, the study of antiquities. A precursor to modern archaeology, in which excavation is mostly seen as a means of recovering artefacts rather than as a source of useful data in itself.
Akkadian TT  word for "sage". Depending on context, refers to [1] one of the mythical Seven Sages TT  or [2] a winged genie TT  carved on Assyrian palace reliefs TT . See also fish-man TT .
Preventative, designed to ward off evil demons TT  or unfavourable events foretold by omens TT .
Mythical underground source of all fresh water, abode of the god Ea PGP  and the Seven Sages TT ; origin of the English word abyss.
Semitic language TT , spoken originally of ancient Syria but which spread all over the ancient Middle East as it was written in a convenient alphabetic script.
Place where weapons are made, stored, and/or issued, often used to describe Fort Shalmaneser in Kalhu.
Ashmolean Museum
The University of Oxford's museum of art and archaeology, founded in the 18th century to house the collection of Elias Ashmole; a major recipient of artefacts from Nimrud in the 1950s.
Group of archaeological artefacts found together in excavation, for instance, a collection of tablets or vessels. Looking at assemblages can help archaeologists understand the functions and values of individual objects as well as the relationships between them, much better than studying them in isolation.
Assyrian Expedition Fund
Short-lived private venture set up in London to fund the archaeological work of William Kennett Loftus PGP  in Assyria and Babylonia in 1853-4. It was seen as a rival to the British Museum's interests in the region and met with formidable opposition from Rawlinson PGP .
The academic study of ancient Assyria, especially its history and languages; nowadays also used to mean the study of all cuneiform TT  culture.
Scholar TT  responsible for reading and interpreting omens TT  from the positions of the stars, planets, and other heavenly bodies, as well as the weather.
In Assyrian times, astrologers TT  divined the gods' intentions for the future of the state through observing the movements of the heavenly bodies and reading celestial omens TT  from them; they did not cast personal horoscopes on the basis of a client's birth date. See the page on celestial and terrestrial divination at the Knowledge and Power website.
Scholar TT  who reads omens TT  from the flights of birds in the sky. In Kalhu, all attested augurs were from kingdoms to the northwest of Assyria.
Carrying a good omen TT .


At the end of the excavation season TT  archaeologists re-fill their trenches with earth to preserve the finds that remain in situ and to prevent looting.
Flat stone panel carved to make the images on it stand slightly proud of their background. The ceremonial spaces of Assyrian palaces were lined with alabaster TT  bas-reliefs depicting scenes of military victory, kingly piety, and divine protection.
Kindly, doing good; often used to describe genies TT  and other semi-divine beings. Its opposite is maleficent TT .
The heavier fractions of crude oil, which in Assyrian times were collected from springs on the Euphrates PGP  river, and used for waterproofing, adhesive, medical, and ritual purposes.
Another word for knob or protrusion; a feature of Assyrian shields and some architectural styles.
Metal vessel for burning fuel for heating or incense TT  offerings.
British Institute for the Study of Iraq
London-based charitable institute that promotes humanities and social science research and education on all aspects of Iraq's history, culture, and languages. Also known as BISI; successor to the British School of Archaeology in Iraq TT .
British Museum
Public museum in London, which was founded in the 1750s and greatly expanded a century later. The museum sponsored Layard PGP 's explorations at Nimrud and Nineveh PGP  in the 1840s and has been at the forefront of research on ancient Assyria ever since.
British School of Archaeology in Iraq
Research organisation founded 1932 in memory of Gertrude Bell PGP ; ran British excavations in Iraq until 1990, including those directed by Max Mallowan PGP  at Nimrud. Also known as BSAI. Superceded by The British Institute for the Study of Iraq TT .
Hard, tough metal alloyed from copper and tin. Used in Assyria for weapons, large vessels, and elements of horse harnesses.
buff ware
Type of finely made unglazed pottery, shaped into several different distinctive forms and fired to a very pale brown ("buff") colour.
Very fine and expensive type of linen TT .


In hieroglyphic Egyptian inscriptions, a royal name surrounded by an oval line and a straight line underneath or to the left.
Large vessel suspended over an open fire, for cooking or for heating liquids. In Assyrian times, often made of bronze TT .
Cedar trees are native to the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, especially the area of the Lebanon mountain range. The Assyrians prized this strong yet flexible wood for building work.
Of the skies or heavens, including (for the Assyrians) the weather.
The main shrine of a temple, where the statue of the god stood.
Semi-precious stone composed of different types quartz crystals, resulting in a wide range of colours, especially greys and browns. Agate (dark brown and white bands) and carnelian (a solid red) are both varieties of chalcedony. All were favoured materials for seals TT  in Assyrian times.
Fortified area of a city, in Assyrian times often on a high mound, where the royal palaces, elite residences and major palaces were built. Archaeologists sometimes use the alternative term acropolis TT .
clay hand
Architectural feature of Assyrian palaces and temples in the shape of a larger-than-life fist with curled up fingers, made of baked clay and sometimes inscribed in cuneiform TT . May have been used to support beams or as decorative bosses TT .
Note at the end of a scholarly work, giving information such as the scribe TT  and/or owner of the tablet, the date and place of writing or copying, and/or the reason it was made.
colossal bull
Huge alabaster TT  statue of a beneficent TT  divine being, with a bull's body, human head and large wings, placed on either side of a major entrance to an Assyrian temple or palace. They have five legs so that they appear to stand facing those that enter the gateway and walk out with those that leave. At Kalhu alternative designs were lions and even fish at Nabu's temple.
In modern editorial practice, a text reconstructed from two or more ancient manuscripts to show how the complete work may have looked originally.
In modern archaeological and museum practice, the work carried out on an ancient artefact to protect and stabilise it so that it can withstand long-term storage, public display, and handling by reearchers.
Highly trained specialist technician in the work of archaeological conservation TT .
Person charged to represent a country's diplomatic and commercial interests in a particular city or region, instead of, or reporting to, an ambassador.
Legal document recording the transfer of ownership of a piece of land, whether through sale or inheritance.
corn docket
Legal document recording a debt of corn. These clay tablets have a distinctive triangular shape and are moulded around a piece of string, possibly indicating they were used to secure a piece of parchment TT  (which no longer survives).
Crimean War
Fought in 1853-56, between Russia on one side and an alliance of the Ottoman TT  empire, France and Great Britain on the other. It was nominally about the rights of Christians in the Ottoman-controlled "holy land" of the Levant PGP , but more deeply about territorial control of the Middle East. The war put a halt to European explorations and excavations in the Middle East for several years.
crown prince
Prince nominated by the reigning king to succeed him, not necessarily his eldest son (or indeed any son). See the page on the Assyrian royal family at the Knowledge and Power website for more details.
cultural heritage
Legacy of the past considered worth preserving, from archaeological sites and ancient artefacts to traditions of music and dance, regardless of its monetary value.
Complex system of writing made of wedge-shaped TT  impressions, usually made by a stylus TT  in the surface of a clay tablet or a waxed writing board TT . Cuneiform had many hundreds of different signs, which could take on different meanings depending on their context. See the writing practices section for more details.
Person in charge of a museum collection, or part of it, usually with specialist academic knowledge of the field.
Written in informal script, as opposed to monumental


Arabic and British English abbreviations respectively for the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an extremist jihadi organisation which took control of much of northern Syria in 2013 and northern Iraq in 2014, including the area around Nimrud. Local people, and their cultural heritage TT  and archaeology, have suffered terribly as a result.
Daily Telegraph
British newspaper, founded in 1855, which took a great interest in Assyrian archaeology in the first decades of its existence. in 1871 it sponsored an expedition to Nineveh PGP  and Nimrud, headed by George Smith PGP , to find further cuneiform evidence for the Flood TT .
date palm
Date palms were commonly cultivated in Babylonia PGP , both for their very sweet fruit (the syrup of which was used as a sweetener instead of the much rarer honey) and for their fronds, fibres and trunks which all had practical uses. Because the trees were hand-pollinated they became a symbol of fertility. See also sacred tree TT .
day book
Technical diary used, for instance, by archaeologists and conservators TT  to record their work day by day.
Demons were considered to be the agents of death and illness. They were not fully under the control of the gods, and could move easily between the divine and human worlds. Many were visualised as being composed of body parts from a variety of creatures. See also genie TT .
Concerning change or sameness over time.
Royal crown in the form of a highly decorated band that runs all the way round the head.
dig house
On more remote archaeological sites, the building(s) where the team lives and works on the objects it has excavated.
Director-General of Antiquities
Senior government official in charge of archaeology in Iraq, reporting to the Ministry of Culture TT . Their responsibility includes the management of Iraq's museums, local and international archaeological projects, and—before 1975—overseeing division of finds TT . In the Mandate TT  era, the DGA was always British or European; since independence the post has always been held by an Iraqi.
Scholar TT  who reads the gods' intentions from omens TT ; see also astrologer TT , augur TT , exorcist TT , and haruspex TT .
division of finds
Before Iraqi antiquities law was amended in 1975, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage TT  agreed with archaeological teams at the end of each season TT  which excavated objects belonged to the Iraqi state and which could remain the property of the excavators and leave the country. Nowadays under Iraqi law all antiquities are state property and cannot be exported.
Clay tablet which was originally attached to another object, usually to serve as a label or legal document of some kind. Holes for string or the impressions of long-perished sealings are typical features of dockets.
Drew Theological Seminary
Training college for future Methodist TT  ministers in New Jersey; now Drew University.


East India Company
British trading company, founded in 1600, with a royally-granted monopoly on commerce with the Indian subcontinent. It eventually became so thoroughly embroiled in local governance and politics that it was in practice a branch of the British goverment. It had a Resident TT  in Basra PGP  from 1763 and one in Baghdad PGP  from 1798, to secure overland communication routes and protect against the French. EIC officials such as Claudius James Rich PGP  and Henry Creswicke Rawlinson PGP  also became involved in the rediscovery of Assyria. The EIC was effectively nationalised and dissolved after the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857.
Some cultic personnel received messages from the gods not through the observation or induction of omens but through direct communication while in a trance-like state. Ecstatic trances could be induced (for instance by drugs or ritual actions) but could also overwhelm any individual unexpectedly. See also prophet(ess) TT .
Assyria exchanged diplomats with its allies and vassal TT  states who represented their rulers at the foreign court and acted as their representatives in oath-taking ceremonies. They also accompanied the annual tribute TT  due to the Assyrian king. The Assyrian term, ṣīru, literally means "excellency", reflecting the emissaries' high status.
Enūma Anu Ellil
The standard series of celestial TT  omens TT , named after its first line: literally "When the gods Anu PGP , Ellil PGP  (and Ea PGP  established in council the plans of the sky and earth)".
Epic of Creation
The Epic of Creation existed in two forms. The Babylonian PGP  version describes how the heroic god Marduk PGP  defeated the monstrous sea Tiamat PGP  and her evil army in a cosmic battle, created the world from her body, and thereby became head of the gods. The Assyrian version replaces Marduk with Aššur PGP . It was performed on the fourth day of the akītu TT  festival.
Adjective or phrase which describes a person or event, usually in a positive or negative light.
In the Assyrian empire, years were not counted but named after the king, high officials and provincial governors. These people are collectively called eponym officials. Scribes TT  maintained standard reference lists of eponyms, which are now invaluable resources for understanding Assyrian chronology. However, the surviving lists run out in the mid-seventh century BC, even though the system continued to be used for several decades afterwards. These so-called post-canonical eponym dates, whose order we cannot be sure of, are typically marked with an asterisk, e.g., 620* BC.
Twice a year, daytime and nighttime are of equal length. In the modern dating system the spring and autumn equinoxes fall on or near to 20 March and 23 September. In Assyrian times the first appearance of the crescent moon in the evening sky after the spring equinox signalled the new year. See also akītu TT .
Eton College
British private school for boys, founded in the 15th century. Highly infuential, it has educated many future politicians, diplomats, and powerful men.
Castrated man, usually a palace courtier.
Euphrates Expedition
Project funded by the British government and the East India Company TT  in 1835, to determine whether or not the river Euphrates PGP  could be used for river traffic to shorten the long journey between Britain and India. As part of their mapping duties, its members surveyed several archaeological sites near the river, including Nimrud.
excavation season
Period during which an archaeological team is working on the excavation site, any time from a few weeks to several months a year. The length and timing of an excavation season depends on many factors, from the academic teaching commitments of the archaeologists, the funding available for the dig, and the typical weather conditions at the site.
Explanation and interpretation of difficult passages of holy scripture.
Traditional translation of a type of scholar TT  called āšipu in Assyrian. Their intellectual interests were wide but centred on healing. At the Assyrian court their expertise was often called to ritually protect the king from harm.
Divination through the observation of the entrails of a sacrificed sheep or ram, carried out by a haruspex TT .


Glass-like material made of crushed quartz or sand, mixed with small amounts of other materials. It can be moulded and modelled like clay. When fired its exterior turns a glassy blue or green, depending on the additives used.
Small clay model or statue, often used in rituals TT  to represent supernatural beings - either apotropaic TT  genies TT  to ward off evil, or the demon TT  or witch thought to be the cause of the misfortune. Apotropaic figurines were preserved and ritually buried; maleficent TT  figurines were ritually destroyed, sometimes by throwing them into a river.
Location of discovery of an archaeological artefact, ideally recorded in in three co-ordinates and documented in relation to the surround assemblage TT  and archaeological context.
Hybrid demon TT  or genie TT , half man and half fish, which was often associated with the Seven Sages TT  from before the Flood TT .
An annual crop with beautiful blue flowers, native to the Middle East and beyond. It is grown for its fibrous stalks, which are woven into linen, and for its highly nutritious seeds, from which linseed oil is made.
Assyrian scholars divided past time into a mythical, primeval era and more recent human history, demarcated by a great flood. As well as one human family, rescued by the great god Ea PGP , seven sages TT  - half-human, half-fish - survived to bring the ancient arts of civilisation to contemporary humanity.
foundation course
The lower part of a wall, designed to remain underground or protrude only slightly above it. In Assyrian times, foundation courses were often made of fired brick, even when the rest of the building was made of less durable materials.
foundation deposit
Collection of ritual objects ceremonially placed in the foundation of an Assyrian palace, temple or fortification wall, often including a cuneiform TT  inscription identifying and praising the initiator of the construction work; in most cases, this was the king


Gantt chart
Bar chart used to visualise a project's schedule, showing multiple elements positioned on a timeline, named after its inventor.
Sticky and thick like gelatine, the key ingredient in jelly.
Supernatural being that was considered to protect human clients from demons TT  and other maleficent TT  forces. On the reliefs TT  of the Northwest Palace at Kalhu, genies were mostly depicted as human-like figures with wings, sometimes with eagles' heads. See also apkallu TT .
Glassy layer on the surface of some types of pottery, applied as a powder or solution before firing and used for decoration, waterproofing and/or to strengthen the vessel.
Almost all Assyrian gold came ultimately from Egypt PGP , whether through direct trade, collection of tribute TT  from vassals TT  or capture of booty from conquered cities in the region.
Highest official in a province TT  of the Assyrian empire, personally selected and appointed by the king to govern this subdivision of the state on his behalf. In addition to their local administrative duties, governors were in charge of collecting and distributing taxes, and of mustering and supporting contingents of soldiers for the Assyrian army.
Modern term for eagle-headed demon TT  with a lion's body, often with wings.
Gulf War
Fought January-February 1991. On 2 August 1990, the Iraqi army invaded neighbouring Kuwait, precipitating an international crisis. The United Natiosn first imposed a range of sanctions TT  on the government of Iraq to force them to leave. When that appeared to have no effect, the UN backed an international coalition of armies, led United States of America. The war ended with Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait and an increased sanctions regime. In the aftermath of the war, anti-government rebellions in the south of Iraq were heavily quashed; some provincial TT  museums were looted and damaged.


In Assyriology TT , a black-and-white scale drawing of a cuneiform tablet.
Literally "house of the women": a part of the royal palace containing the living quarters of the female members of the court headed by the queen, managed by a female administrator and guarded by a eunuch TT ..
Type of scholar TT  specialising in extispicy TT , i.e., determining the divine will by reading the entrails of sacrificed sheep; the Assyrian term is bārû.
Period of c.300 years from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, during which Greek language, culture, and political power dominated the Middle East; also applied to typical features of that era.
How damp the air is; important to control in museums and conservation TT  work because some ancient artefacts are particularly sensitive to changes in humidity.


Conventional meanings attached to images (such as love, for a heart); and the academic study of those meanings and the ways in which they are represented visually.
Worship of idols; that is, images or statues of gods, saints or other divine beings.
Illustrated London News
Pioneering illustrated news magazine, which was founded in 1842 and folded in 2003, after decades of declining circulation. Throughout its history the ILN took a strong interest in the excavations and discoveries at Nimrud, and the arrival of finds at the British Museum.
Mark left, especially on clay tablets, by other objects such as seals TT , cloth, or fingernails pushed into the surface.
Words spoken or chanted in ritual TT  context to communicate with a deity, demon TT , or genie TT .
Mixture of aromatic plant products, designed to be burnt in a censer to release fragrant smoke during rituals TT .
Grit, plant matter, and other tiny particles in clay, often added deliberately; for instance to increase its flexibility when working with it, or help steam escape during firing so the pot doesn't break. Tablet TT  clay may also have accidental or deliberate inclusions.
inscribed brick
Assyrian bricks were very large, square and flat, more like modern paving stones than modern house bricks. Some bricks used in important buildings such as temples and palaces had a small inscription stamped into their top surface, typically recording information such as the name and function of the building, the king who commissioned it, and the god(s) who inspired him.
Institute of Archaeology
Formerly a department of the University of London, now part of University College London, this was the institutional base for Max Mallowan PGP  (Professor of Western Asiatic Archaeology, 1947–62) and other members of the team who worked on Nimrud in the 1950s.
Iraq Museum
Museum founded in the 1920s by Gertrude Bell PGP  in Baghdad PGP  and now Iraq's national museum. Holds many artefacts excavated from Nimrud in the 20th century.
Iraq Petroleum Company
Founded by a consortium of international companies after the discovery of oil in northern Iraq in 1927, the IPC held a virtual monopoly on oil production in Iraq for nearly half a century. It was nationalised in 1972.
Iraq War
The United States of America led an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 on the grounds that it had developed chemical, biological and/or nuclear weapons in contravention of the UN sanctions TT  regime. Those claims proved unfounded but the Iraqi army was swiftly defeated and for many years Iraq remained occupied by international forces.
Teeth or tusks of elephants or Egyptian PGP  hippopotami. Elaborately carved and inlaid ivory objects, from tiny boxes to thrones and bedsteads, were highly prized by the Assyrians. Large quantities of decorated ivory have been found by archaeologists in Assyrian palaces, much of which seems to have been plundered as booty from other cities. Ivory requires special conservation techniques.


Object made to fit inside the narrow opening of a pot or jug in order to stop its contents leaking out.


Lamenters TT  used enormous hemispherical drums in their ritual TT  performances to dooth divine anger. The drums, made of oxhide and bronze, were themselves ritually constructed.
Korean War
Fought between North Korea and South Korea, June 1950-July 1950. The United States allied with the South, the Soviet Union with the North. It is seen by many historians as one of the starting points of the Cold War perios, several decades of heightened international tension during which capitalist western nations faced off against communist Eastern countried.
Kuyunjik collection
Large collection of cuneiform tablets TT  now housed in the British Museum TT , mostly found during Layard's PGP  excavations through the citadel TT  mound at Nineveh PGP , whose modern name is Kuyunjik. For more information see the Ashurbanipal Library Project's website


label run
Type of museum labelling where text is written on a long, thin label strip. Usually placed at the bottom of the case or on a shelf edge.
Literally, "hairy": benevolent protective spirit or genie TT  in the form of a curly-haired hero.
Scholar responsible for performing propitiatory (soothing, or apologetic) rituals TT  with chanting and kettledrums to calm the gods' mood after a diviner TT  had detected unfavourable omens. The aim was to reverse the gods' decision and persuade them to be favourable once more. The Assyrian word is kalû.
landscape format
Alternatively, horizontal format: when a document is written with the script parallel to the long edge. The opposite is portrait format TT .
lapis lazuli
Intensely blue semi-precious stone from Afghanistan that was highly valued in Assyria. Sparkling yellow flecks on the stone's surface were thought to resemble the twinkling stars in the night sky.
Summoning part-time soldiers from their peacetime occupations, such as farming, in perparation for military activity.
lexical list
Scribal training invariably included the copying and memorisation of long, standardised lists of cuneiform signs, words and phrases, usually with both Sumerian and Akkadian spellings.
Rituals TT  often included the sacrifice of a liquid offering to a god or supernatural being. The libation, usually wine but sometimes also beer or milk, was poured into the ground from a special libation bowl.
Mortar or cement, more particularly its main ingredient, powered calcium oxide (CaO), which is made by heating limestone to very high temperature.
Linked Open Data
Principle of structuring online information, and allowing it to be reused, in order to intregrate data on a common theme from many different sources.
Egyptian white water-lily, which has large round leaves that float on the water and large, many-petalled flowers. Its highly characteristic buds, which bulge at the bottom, taper in the middle and open wide at the top, were a popular motif in ancient Near Eastern art, for instance on the Nimrud ivories TT .
Public museum in Paris, opened in 1793 during the French Revolution, in a grandiose former royal palace. Amongst its vast holdings are finds from Botta's PGP  explorations in Assyria in the 1840s.


Storeroom or warehouse, especially for weapons.
Literally "great one": a designation for one of the Assyrian king's senior political or military advisors.
Doing evil. The opposite of beneficent.
Period, 1920–32, when Britain ruled Iraq under a mandate issued by the League of Nations, a forerunner to the United Nations. More generally, an official order to act on someone's behalf.
Type of crystalline limestone that is particularly suitable for carving. Assyrian marble came from quarries around modern-day Mosul PGP  in the heartland of the empire. See also alabaster TT .
Either the representative of a city (or a city quarter, as in Assur PGP ) or a temple (like the temple of Nabu in Kalhu); chosen by the king from among the local population.
Protestant TT  Christian movement, founded in the eighteenth century, with an emphasis on social inclusion and therefore also missionary TT  work.
methylated spirits
Solvent based on ethanol, formula CH3CH2OH, with various additives. Used by conservators TT  for cleaning archaeological artefacts; useful because it can be mixed with water.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Large art museum in New York, founded in 1870, which was one of the major sponsors of the 1950s excavations at Nimrud. It houses a significant number of finds from the site.
Engraving technique that enables the artist to depict very delicate differentations of shade and light.
Before the advent of digital photography, an efficient way to reproduce documents and books in portable form was to photograph them onto film, which could then be read with a special magnifying machine.
Middle Assyrian
Period of Assyria's first major empire, in the late second millennium BC, c.1392-1056 BC; also the dialect of Akkadian TT  and form of cuneiform TT  script written at that time.
Weight measure roughly equivalent to 0.5kg, which was divided into 60 shekels.
Ministry of Culture
Iraqi government ministry which manages archaeology in the country, and has done so for much of the country's history. For three years, 2012-2015, archaeology was under the direction of a separate Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
Person sent to do religious work in another country; particularly refers to nineteenth-century European and north American Protestant TT  Christians who tried to convert others to their religion.
Mosul Museum
Public museum in Mosul PGP  which displayed antiquities from northern Iraq, especially from Nimrud, Nineveh PGP  and Hatra. Closed for many years for refurbishment, it was ransacked by Da'esh/ISIS TT  in early 2015.
mud brick
Bricks made of mud or clay and left to harden in the sun instead of being baked in a kiln. They are much cheaper to produce than baked bricks, and so were often used in antiquity. But they are not as weather-proof and are therefore problematic for restoration TT  projects.


natural history
Study of nature and its history, through observation of natural objects; a counterpart to antiquarianism TT  and a precursor to the modern disciplines of biology, botany, etc.
Period of Assyria's greatest empire, c.883–612 BC; also the dialect of Akkadian TT  and form of cuneiform TT  script written at that time.
Period of Babylonian imperial rule, c.623–539 BC; more generally the dialect of Akkadian TT  and form of cuneiform TT  script written in Babylonia PGP  in the first half of the first millennium BC.
New Year Festival
Religious festival performed over several days at the spring equinox TT , and featuring the gods' renewal of the king's right to rule; See akītu TT 
Nimrud Horse Lists
Forty-two letters form Nabu-šumu-iddina PGP , mayor TT  of Nabu's temple in Kalhu, concerning deliveries of horses to Fort Shalmaneser. See further Royal liaison officers.
Nimrud ivories
Archaeologists have found many thousands of carved, inlaid, and/or gilded ivory TT  fragments—of furniture, domestic objects and ornaments—at Nimrud. They were mostly made in Egypt and the Levant and were taken to Assyria as tribute or war booty. Specialist art historians study their decorative motifs and styles of production. See the page on their object biographies and the page on their conservation for more details.
Nimrud Wine Lists
About 30 ration lists of bread and wine found in Fort Shalmaneser, dating from the reigns of Adad-nerari III PGP  and Tiglath-pileser III PGP . These texts may represent regular allocations to court personnel and visiting dignitaries, or extra distributions on special occasions. See also Scholars at court in 8th century Kalhu.


Tall, needle-like monument made of a single piece of stone, often decorated with images and/or inscribed with text. See for instance the Black Obelisk.
Woman or man dedicated (often by a patron or senior family member) to a deity, to work for and/or worship them in perpetuity.
obverse, reverse
Front and back of a cuneiform tablet TT .
Old Assyrian
Period of Assur PGP 's greatest influence as a city state, c.1910–1740 BC; also the dialect of Akkadian TT  and form of cuneiform TT  script written at that time.
Plural sometimes "omina"; adjective "ominous". Assyrian omens take the form, "If X is observed, then Y will happen", where X is any event or phenomenon in the sky, on earth, or on a person's body. The outcome Y (which could be favourable or unfavourable) was not inevitable but could be averted by rituals TT  performed by expert lamenters TT . Specialist diviners TT  such as astrologers TT , augurs TT , exorcists TT , and haruspices TT  were responsible for reading and interpreting ominous signs by means of standardised collections of omens.
Message from the gods, usually sent to a prophet(ess) TT  through a dream or trance; but it can also mean the divine answer to an extispicy TT  query.
Empire based in modern-day Turkey that ruled the Middle East from the mid-fifteenth century to the eve of the First World War; also a form of Turkish spoken and written in Arabic script.


palace ware
Finely made unglazed TT  pottery with few inclusions TT , in elegant shapes suitable for use by members of the royal court.
Early form of paper, made from the pith of the papyrus reed that grows in the Nile valley, and imported into Assyria from Egypt PGP .
In Assyria the parasol was as much a status symbol as it was a sun-shade. In palace bas-reliefs TT  showing outdoor scenes, the Assyrian king is fequently depicted standing or sitting under a parasol, held aloft by a personal servant.
Using a pen and ink, texts in alphabetic Aramaic script were commonly recorded on leather scrolls. While the term "parchment" is frequently used as a translation for these scrolls, this is anachronistic and should be avoided as "parchment" refers to a very specific leather-derived product prepared according to a recipe not yet attested in Assyrian times.
Provincial governor TT  of the Ottoman TT  empire.
In the Assyrian court, a scholar TT  with particular responsibility for the physical wellbeing of the royal family; Assyrian asû.
Picture Post
Popular British weekly magazine, published from 1938 to 1957, featuring photographic essays on a range of journalistic topics. It was very different in style and politics to its more conservative rival The Illustrated London News TT .
Flat object used for decoration or display; may be made of precious materials and usually carries an image and/or inscription.
Writing board TT  with several waxed writing surfaces hinged together.
polyvinyl acetate
Adhesive commonly known as PVA, formula (C4H6O2)n. Used by conservators TT  to consolidate fragile organic materials such as ivory TT , or to glue pieces together.
Fruit tree native to the Middle East, whose sweet multi-seeded fruit was popular as a food and, symbolising fertility, also in rituals TT .
portrait format
Alternatively, vertical format: when a document is written with the script parallel to the short edge. The opposite is landscape format TT .
postern gate
Minor or private entrance.
Also sherd; a broken fragment of pottery.
Individual who receives messages from the gods through oracles TT . They can be attached to a temple.
Christian who does not recognise the authority of the Pope; for instance followers of the Church of England. In the nineteenth century, some British and American Protestant churches sent missionaries TT  to the Middle East to try and convert Muslims and Catholic Christians to their faith.
In US English, provenience. The life history and/or origins of an artefact, including past ownership and, for archaeological objects, any findspot TT  information. Also refers to documentary evidence of this life history.
Large-scale administrative unit of an empire. Assyria was divided into about 70 provinces, each under the control of a governor (Assyrian pāhutu or bēl pāhete) personally appointed by the king. The three provinces (vilayets) of the Ottoman TT  empire that roughly correspond to modern-day Iraq were centred on Mosul PGP , Baghdad PGP  and Basra PGP . Each was governed by a pasha TT . Iraq is now divided into 19 provinces or governorates, including the three that make up Kurdistan.


Literally "woman of the palace": the official wife of the Assyrian king and usually also the mother of the crown prince TT . Many of the early Neo-Assyrian TT  queens were buried in the Northwest Palace.
queen mother
[1] The widow of the preceding king; [2] the ruling king's mother.


registration number
Unique number assigned to an object upon entry to a museum collection. Used for identification purposes and usually inscribed upon the object itself.
See bas-relief TT .
Post of senior representative of the East India Company TT  (EIC) and/or that person's official residence; in early nineteenth-century Mesopotamia there were EIC Residencies at Basra PGP  and Baghdad PGP .
Archaeological restoration involves preserving a building or settlement to help give researchers and visitors a sense of what it must have originally been like. Restoration should not damage the original fabric of the structure but it should also protect it from wear and tear. A closely related method is reconstruction, which uses new materials in the restoration. Good reconstruction projects are careful to differentiate the original structure from the new additions.
ring base
Many pots and containers are made with flat bases so that they can stand upright unsupported. Others have rounded bases to enable easy internal cleaning, or even heat distribution when suspended over a fire. In some cases, either of these types may have an extra horizontal ring added to the base for increased stability.
rite, ritual
At its simplest, a ritual is a socially agreed set of symbolic actions and/or utterances, performed in a stylised way. Rituals may be performed at set times or as the need arises. In Assyria rituals could have any combination of religous, magical, political, social, or healing significance; they could be perfomed by scholars TT  or priests on behalf of a client (such as the king). The word "rite" is usually reserved to describe predominantly religious rituals.
rock crystal
Transparent type of quartz stone which looks like modern glass.
Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland
London-based learned society founded in 1823 to study the history, languages, cultures and religions of Asia, from the Middle East to the Far East and still in existence today. In 1830 the Bombay PGP  Literary Society (which had been running for some 25 years already) affiliated with it as the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, publishing its own journal.


sacred marriage
Ritual TT  in which two deities, or a goddess and a king, were symbolically united. At Kalhu, the akītu TT  ritual featured an annual marriage between the gods Nabu and Tašmetu PGP .
sacred tree
Modern name for the highly stylised tree shown on bas-reliefs TT  in the ceremonial spaces of Assyrian palaces, especially the Northwest Palace in Kalhu.
Wise person; in Assyria, one of the seven semi-divine scholars from before the great Flood TT , who brought wisdom and learning to humankind.
In August 1990, in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the United Nations imposed a heavy ban on international trade and communication with Iraq. The original aim was to force the withdrawal of Iraqi troops without declaring war. However, even after the 1991 Gulf War TT , the sanctions regime remained in place and was tightened further. It began to be lifted only after Iraq War TT  of 2003.
Monumental coffin, usually made of stone.
Semi-precious stone cut in the shape of an oval beetle, with an inscription or decoration carved on the flat underside; often used as a seal TT .
The Assyrian court employed a variety of learned, literate men to advise the king on his relationship with the gods. The scholars included astrologers TT , augurs TT , exorcists TT , haruspices TT , lamenters TT , and scribes TT . Such roles, and the specialist education they entailed, were often handed down within families.
Professionally literate person, who may have been as lowly as a secretary or as eminent and powerful as the king's senior scholar TT . Scribes might write on papyrus TT  or writing boards TT  as well as, or instead of, clay tablets TT .
seal, sealing
Tablets TT , writing boards TT , papyri TT , and other objects could be sealed with clay, either to prevent unauthorised access to them or to mark them with the symbol of the official or individual responsible for them. The sealing official either impressed the clay with a stamp-seal, or rolled out the inscribed or decorated surface of a cylinder-seal, and left it to dry before releasing the object.
Semitic language
Akkadian TT , Aramaic TT , and Hebrew and Arabic, amongst other languages, all share a set of common features. One of the monst important of these is that the basic meanings of words are carried by two to four root consonants, regardless of their grammatical function. The same roots may be shared, or changed a little, across Semitic languages too.
Large knife with a curved blade, used for harvesting grain but also as a weapon.
In Assyrian times, most silver came from mines around the area of Que PGP  in the northwest of the empire.
Society for Biblical Archaeology
British society of Egyptologists and Assyriologists, founded in London in 1870 to discuss, publish, and promote research (not just archaeology) on the ancient Middle East (not just the Biblical lands). In the early 20th century its membership declined dramatically as these subjects became increasingly embedded in British universities and it was eventually wound up.
Impression of an inscription or carving made by pressing layers wet paper into it, leaving the paper to dry, and then peeling it off. The result is a mirror image of the original. Squeezes were a useful means of accurately copying inscriptions on immovable objects before photography became reliable but they were also fragile and difficult to reproduce.
Standard Babylonian
Literary dialect of Akkadian TT  in the first millennium BC, used in Assyria as well as Babylonia PGP .
State Board of Antiquities and Heritage
Iraqi government authority in charge of managing archaeology, museum work, and related research, under the direction of the Ministry of Culture TT .
stela, stele
Plural stelae. Large, standing stone monument, carved with inscriptions and/or images.
Two slightly different photographic images, designed to be viewed together — one by the right eye, the other by the left — in order to create a sense of visual depth.
Having clear stratigraphy TT ; unstratified excavation sites have usually been disturbed before the arrival of the archaeologists, for instance by long-ago burials or building works, or the activities of farmers or burrowing animals.
Archaeological study of the different layers, or strata, left by human (or animal) occupation of a building or settlement over time. Individual stratigraphic layers often show up as different colours, textures or densities of earth in the excavation.
Pointed writing implement, the size and shape of a pen, used to impress cuneiform TT  signs on the surface of a tablet TT  or a writing board TT .
In the Assyrian context, ensuring that the ruling king's nominated successor, his crown prince TT , becomes king in his turn.
Archaeological survey involves investigating the surface of a site, or series of sites. It may include techniques such as examining pottery and other artefacts found on the surface in order to date the site, mapping the contours of the site(s), or taking soil samples at regular intervals.


Most simply, a document made of clay, on which cuneiform TT  writing was impressed with a reed stylus TT .
Tablet of Destinies
Magnificent lapis lazuli TT  tablet TT  owned by the gods, on which they inscribed the fate of humankind. It was stolen by the evil Anzu PGP  and reclaimed by the god Ninurta. Likewise, the Seal TT  of Destinies was used by the gods to sign particularly important documents such as Esarhaddon's succession treaties.
temple steward
While the Assyrian term lahhinnu is a loan from a Hurrian word of unknown meaning, it is clear that it designates a high-ranking administrative temple official.
topographical map
In archaeology, a map that details the contours of a site, often in order to determine where the remains of structures mihght be lying under the surface.
Decorative metal band worn tightly around the arm, emphasising the wearer's muscles; appears frequently on the king and genies TT  on Assyrian palace bas-reliefs TT .
Act of betraying one's country, or its current ruler.
In archaeology, a narrow, rectangular hole cut into the surface of a site, layer by layer in order to expose and record the site's stratigraphy TT  and any artefacts found in that context.
Annual payment by a vassal TT  state to the Assyrian king, either handed over at the border to a governor TT  or delivered by emissaries TT  to the king in person. This second option was seen as more dignified and prestigious.
type series
In archaeology, a collection of artefacts, especially pottery, that systematically shows a representative range and variety of shapes found at a particular site from a particular period in the past. This series of typical artefacts then serves as a standard reference set to help date or categorise material found at other sites.


In relation to Assyria, a neighbouring state which was loyal to Assyria and paid regular tribute TT  to ensure Assyria's continuing protection and friendship but was still nominally independent from it.
Gluey or sticky; see also gelatinous TT .
Very senior official (magnate TT ) in the king's personal retinue, who held high administrative functions within the empire and commanded a border province TT  of key strategic importance.
Object or person dedicated to a deity, thereby becoming the property of the temple; see also oblate TT .


water buffalo
Large cattle with huge horns which spend a lot of time in rivers and marshes, and eat reeds and other aquatic plants. They are very strong and docile draft animals, and produce highly nutritious milk. Water buffalos probably originate in India but there have been significant populations in southern Iraq since at least the third millennium BC.
Basic component of cuneiform TT  script made by pushing the edge of a stylus TT  into the surface of a clay tablet TT  and lifting it up again. For more detail see the Cuneiform Revealed [] website.
West Semitic
Subgroup of the Semitic languages TT  from Syria and the Levant PGP ; Akkadian TT , by contrast, is the only Eastern member of this language family.
winged disk
Symbol originating in ancient Egypt PGP , consisting of a round centre flanked by two horizontal wings. On Assyrian palace bas-reliefs TT  it is always shown close the king's head. It may represent the divine aspect of kingship, or the sun-god Šamaš PGP  or a combination of the two.
writing board
Scribes TT  often wrote on wooden boards which were covered in a thin layer of wax. The wax could be warmed to smooth the surface and erase the writing on it. Writing boards had the advantage of being more portable than tablets TT  and could be hinged together to form polyptychs TT . Fortunately for modern scholarship, in Assyrian times the perishable writing board never completely replaced the relatively indestructible tablet TT  - or we would have almost no surviving written evidence to work with.




Stepped tower in or near a temple precinct and itself a place of worship as well as a major landmark and symbol of a city's prestige. In Kalhu the ziggurat was associated with Ninurta's temple.
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Content last modified: 18 Dec 2019.

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