- Museum number
Object: Burney relief
Object: Queen of the Night
Rectangular fired clay plaque; modelled in relief on the front depicting a nude female figure with tapering feathered wings and talons, standing with her legs together; shown full frontal, wearing a headdress consisting of four pairs of horns topped by a disc; wearing an elaborate necklace and bracelets on each wrist; holding her hands to the level of her shoulders with a rod and ring in each; figure supported by a pair of addorsed lions above a scale-pattern representing mountains or hilly ground, and flanked by a pair of standing owls; fired clay, heavily tempered with chaff or other organic matter; highlighted with red and black pigment and possibly white gypsum; flat back; repaired.
- Production date
- 19thC BC-18thC BC
Height: 49.50 centimetres
Thickness: 4.80 centimetres
Width: 37 centimetres
- Curator's comments
- Scientific analysis of the pigments reveals extensive use of red ochre on the body of the main female figure. It is probable that gypsum was used as a white pigment in some areas although the possibility that it is present as the result of efflorescence from salts contained in ground water cannot be firmly excluded. The dark areas on the background all contained carbon rather than bitumen as previously assumed.
The shape and basic composition of a large central figure flanked by a pair of small figures is reminiscent of a gypsum plaque attributed an early 2nd millennium date and found at Assur in 1910 (cf. E. Klengel-Brandt, q.v. 'Kultrelief', pp. 150-51, cat. no. 92 in L. Jakob-Rost et al., 'Das Vorderasiatische Museum', Berlin 1992 = inv. nr. VA Ass 1358).
A similar motif occurs on terracotta plaques (1994,1001.1), for which a mould also survives (1910,1112.4 = 103226). This motif, curiously, also recurs on reproduction Roman terracotta lamps sold in western Turkey (of which there is one example in the registered ANE Ephemera collection) as well as in popular modern western cults. The term "Queen of the Night" has also been previously applied to a character in Mozart's "Magic Flute" ["Die Zauberflote"], for which David Hockney did Egyptianising sets for in the 1978 Glyndebourne production; features in a song by Whitney Houston, and is the name of at least one species of night-blooming orchid cactus, the Epiphyllum oxypetallum.
The story of her renaming is that there was a desire to give it a distinctive title, and one that would replace the now misleading one of the Burney relief. Frances Carey, then Head of National Programmes in the Museum, penned the following limmerick and on the basis of this, the object in question became known as 'The Queen of the Night'.
'There was a winged figure from Ur
Whose identity we may only infer
That the owls left and right
Make her Queen of the Night
That mysterious female from Ur'
The object is not from Ur, but most likely to come from the final period of occupation at Tello (ancient Girsu), where mass-produced fired clay plaques showing the same female figure have been found, and attesting that this relief was part of a wider iconography and probably not unique. It might be added that large fired clay sculptures of deities and guardian figures were relatively common in southern and central Mesopotamia. Other evidence for early 2nd millennium BC painted clay sculptures from Mesopotamia include a head in the National Museum in Copenhagen.
Web and newspaper articles relating to this object after its acquisition by the British Museum include:
The Guardian, 9 March 2004 (Maeve Kennedy);
The Scotsman, 20 March 2004, entitled "Queen of the Night comes into the light" (Susan Mansfield);
The Independent Magazine, editorial on p. 5 by Christopher Hirst, entitled "A close encounter with a Babylonian babe", 20 March 2004; "The Museum recently snapped up this deific wild child - her downward pointing wings indicate underworld associations - for £1.5m. It is money well spent."
"No less worthy of attention is The British Museum's Queen of the Night. she has a cool contemporary look to her, not unlike the latest Britney Spears video. She has already cast her spell in Glasgow and Sunderland, and is shortly off to make merry hell in Leicester", Peter Aspden, 'Financial Times Magazine', 24.4.04.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2008-2009 18 Nov-15 Mar, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 'Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C.'
2008 26 Jun-5 Oct, Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum-Pergamonmuseum, 'Babylon, Myth and Truth'
2008 14 Mar-2 Jun, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 'Babylon'
2004-5, UK Tour (Glasgow, Sunderland, Leicester, London, Cardiff, Birmingham), 'The Queen of the Night'
2003-2004 1 Nov-18 Mar, BM, Round Reading Room
1979-1991, BM, The Babylonian Room
- Broken; repaired
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Deposited 15/11/99 (entry 571). Purchased to mark the 250th Anniversary of The British Museum with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Art Collections Fund, the Friends of The British Museum, Sir Joseph Hotung and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom Fund. Previously on deposit as a loan by Mr G. Sakamoto = Loan 1238 (returned 14 June 1991).
This object was first offered to the British Museum in 1935 for £350 by Selim Homsy & Co acting on behalf of Abdul Jabar of Basra (Smith, 'Reports to Trustees', 5 July 1935; a photograph was submitted to Trustees 13 July 1935 (minute 64). This or a similar photograph exists on file in ANE (neg.number M.29) with the annotations as being owned by Roger Homsey [sic; who appears to have deposited it previously on 20 February 1933 as a "Terra-cotta relief (broken in 3 large pieces & a number of frags.)", and signed for on 26 February 1935; [then] Col. N. Colville, later S. Burney; one annotation states "before March 1933". Probably the same object as the "Terracotta plaque" sent to the Laboratory for treatment by Sidney Burney on 20 November 1937 (WAA deposit book entry).
- Middle East
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
Other BM number: Loan 1238 (previous number)