Stone relief from the South-West Palace of Sennacherib

Nineveh, northern Iraq
Neo-Assyrian, about 704-681 BC

Prisoners, probably from Phoenicia or Palestine, playing lyres

This is one small surviving fragment from a much larger composition. The scale effect on the background represents rough ground.

The musicians are often thought to have come from the state of Judah, though there is no evidence for this. The style of their dress is different to that worn by the people of Lachish (see for example, a panel showing the siege of Lachish). They are, however, almost certainly Western or Levantine in origin.

Music was clearly an important part of court life and Assyrian kings often refer to taking musicians into captivity as part of the deportation of defeated peoples. There is evidence of music in religious practice at an earlier period, but reliefs like this provide the first images of musical instruments in an ancient Near Eastern society that are not connected with a religious ceremony.

The musicians are playing lyres. They hold them more or less horizontally and use a plectrum. This type of lyre was possibly introduced into Assyria from the West in the first half of the second millennium BC. Only a few are known and the chronology and classification of the many forms of lyre in the Near East in the first millennium is neither complete nor certain.

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More information


J.E. Reade, Assyrian sculpture-1 (London, The British Museum Press, 1998)

J. Rimmer, Ancient musical instruments of (London, The British Museum Press, 1969)


Length: 99.060 cm
Width: 101.600 cm

Museum number

ME 124947


The palace was excavated by A.H. Layard (1846-51) and by many later archaeologists


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