The White Obelisk

From Nineveh, northern Iraq
Neo-Assyrian, about 1050-1031 BC

Some of the earliest scenes of Assyrian narrative art

This four-sided obelisk was discovered by the excavator Hormuzd Rassam in 1853. It was called the 'White Obelisk' to distinguish it from the 'Black Obelisk', now also in The British Museum.

The 'White Obelisk' includes an inscription at the top of two adjoining sides which may not have been completed; much of it is illegible. The name of a king, Ashurnasirpal, is mentioned, but there is debate among scholars whether this refers to Ashurnasirpal I (1050-1031 BC) or II (883-859 BC). The inscription refers to the king capturing goods, people and their herds and carrying them back to the city of Ashur.

The obelisk is carved in relief in eight registers, on all four sides. The carvings show military campaigns, the bringing of tribute, victory banquets, religious and hunting scenes. The style of these might suggest the object dates to the reign of Ashurnasirpal I, since most of his courtiers and attendants wear a fez-like hat. This practice is otherwise only known from a fragmentary scene from the thirteenth century BC. These are thus the earliest representations of what were the main themes of Assyrian narrative art from the ninth century BC onwards.

Another inscription accompanies one of the carved scenes and relates that the king made an offering of wine to a deity in Nineveh. This city had been part of the Assyrian kingdom since the fourteenth century BC and was the centre for a cult of the goddess Ishtar.

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More information


J.E. Reade, 'Assurnasirpal I and the White Obelisk', Iraq-17, 34 (1972), pp. 129-50

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

D. Collon, Ancient Near Eastern art (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)


Height: 284.480 cm
Width: 70.480 cm
Depth: 42.540 cm

Museum number

ME 118807


Excavated by Hormuzd Rassam


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