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An Assyrian Palace Ware Beaker or Vase

September 6, 2018

Do not listen to Hezekiah, for thus says the king of Assyria: ‘Make your peace with me and come out to me.Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive trees and honey, that you may live, and not die. And do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.”Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria?’ (2 Kings 18:31-33, cf. Isaiah 36:16-18 ESV)


Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger;the staff in their hands is my fury!Against a godless nation I send him,and against the people of my wrath I command him,to take spoil and seize plunder,and to tread them down like the mire of the streets(Isaiah 10:5 ESV)




First mentioned several times in Genesis (e.g., 2:14, 10:11,22), Assyria and the empire forged by her kings became the most serious adversary and foreign threat to Israel and Judah, as well as the entire region throughout the ninth, eighth and much of the seventh century BC.  Often cited by the prophets as the vehicle for God’s judgment, both directly and by implication, the might that was Assyria struck awe and fear into her adversaries and subjects.  Assyria ruled by power and intimidation, using psychological propaganda and terror to keep her vassals loyal and potential revolts from materializing.  Because of her dominance in global politics and despite their distain or even hatred towards her, many elites in Samaria and Jerusalem embraced certain aspects of Assyrian culture into their lifestyles.  Most apparent of these cultural adoptions was their use of superbly made, locally produced copies of Assyrian “palace ware” style pottery.  Uncertainty persists as to whether resettled Assyrian potters or locally trained potters produced these wares (e.g, Begg 2013: 128), but chemical analysis of the pottery clearly demonstrates that the potters utilized locally sourced clay (e.g., Engstrom 2004).  Archaeologists have unearthed Assyrian style pottery at many sites in Israel and Jordan. However, this does not indicate that a heavy Assyrian presence existed in these areas, nor does it reflect evidence that Assyria exercised direct control over vassal states.  Recent studies indicate that Assyria’s interest in her subjects was limited to exploitation of natural resources, goods and labor.  Obtained via intimidation from her vassals and from her provinces because of military action, Assyria shuttled these resources from the periphery of the empire to her great epicenters (Begg 2013: 131).  Apart from border areas, such as the western Negeb facing Egypt, no evidence exists of direct Assyrian rule despite many claims voiced by scholars.  Apart from mass deportations, Assyrian and biblical evidence do not mention any instances of forced vassal adherence to Assyrian language, religion or customs.  Nor does evidence exist for name changes to towns, rivers, or other topographical features. Neither did Assyria instigate any large-scale urbanization plans nor public works projects for kingdoms in the region (Begg 2013: 125-129).  Violent and brutal as they often were, Assyria produced many talented artisans and potters who in turn created many objects of great and lasting beauty.  Similarly, interpreting Assyrian style pottery, including the fine “palace ware,” more as a cultural fashion statement for local elites, rather than a mark of direct imperial control, is now preferable.

Assyrian palace ware represents the pinnacle of Assyrian achievement in ceramic artistry.  Of the various attested forms, the beaker is perhaps the most recognized and among the most beautifully crafted.  Cream colored, with delicately thin fabric, an everted rim, long neck, globular body and a rounded, bullet shaped base, some examples of the beaker also exhibit ribbing and patterns of fingertip fashioned indentations or ‘dimples.’ These drinking vessels, also categorized as vases or goblets, probably represent ceramic copies of gold, silver or bronze vessels used in Assyrian royal court and by Assyrian elites.  


Relevance to the Biblical Account


A number of prophetic voices both warned of and condemned Assyrian aggression and brutality.  Likewise, the prophets rebuked the elites of Samaria and Jerusalem for their ambivalence to this threat as well as voiced strongly worded criticism of their extravagant lifestyles and attempts to imitate the elites and royalty of Assyria.

Listen to this, you fat cows of Bashan who are on the mountain of Samaria. You make it hard for the poor. You crush those in need. You say to your husbands, “Bring us something to drink!” As the Lord God is holy, He has promised, “The days are coming when they will take you away with meat hooks. And the last of you will be taken with fish hooks.  You will go out through breaks in the walls. Each of you will go straight out. And you will be sent to Harmon,” says the Lord(Amos 4:1-3 ESV)

The voice of the Lord is calling to the city, and it is wise to fear Your name: “Listen, O family of Judah, you who are gathered in the city. O sinful house, can I forget the riches you got by wrong-doing? You lied about the weight of things, which I hate. Can I make a man not guilty who lies and has false weights in his bag?  The rich men of the city have hurt many people. Her people are liars. Their tongues in their mouths speak false words.  So I have begun to punish you, to destroy you because of your sins(Micah 6:9-13 ESV)


Physical Description


The Horn Museum Assyrian Palace Ware beaker (66.0046) reportedly came from the mound of Khorsabad, ancient Dur-Sharrukin (Fort Sargon), the unfinished capital of Assyrian king Sargon II (Isaiah 20:1). Khorsabad is located some 20 km northeast of Nineveh in Iraq.  Its provenance suggests that the beaker dates to the late eighth or seventh century BC, which characterizes the high-water mark of Assyrian culture and might.  The vessel measures xx inches in heighth.  The late SDA General Conference President Reuben Richard Figuhr donated this artifact to the Horn collection in 1966.




Local imitations of foreign pottery and art are common to most cultures.  Mesopotamian and Egyptian influences touch many aspects of ancient Levantine art.  Subsequent classical styles from Greek and Roman rule influenced local pottery and art to an even greater degree.  All of these styles continue to enjoy tremendous influence in modern Western culture. Examples of and parallels to Assyrian palace ware are displayed and discussed in various publications (e.g., Hunt 2015; Jamieson 2012; Mallowan 1966 1: 190 and Plate 123; Oates 1954: 166 and Plate 38.2; 1959: 133-134 and Plates 34, 37; Rawson 1954).




Anastasio, Stefano

            2010    Atlas of the Assyrian Pottery of the Iron Age. Subartu 24.  Turnhout:  Brepols.


Begg, Ariel M.

2013    Palestine under Assyrian Rule:  A New Look at the Assyrian Imperial Policy in the                   West.  Journal of the American Oriental Society133: 119-144.


Engstrom, Christin M. A.

2004    The Neo-Assyrians at Tell el-Hesi:  A Petrographic Study of Imitation Assyrian Palace             Ware.  Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research333: 69-81.


Hunt, Alice M. W.

2015    Palace Ware Across the Neo-Assyrian Imperial Landscape:  Social Value and                            Semiotic Meaning.  Culture and History of the Ancient Near East 78.  Leiden:  Brill. 


Jamieson, Andrew

2012    Tell Ahmar III.  Neo-Assyrian Pottery from Area C.  Ancient Near Eastern Studies                      Supplement 35.  Leuven:  Peeters.


Mallowan, M.E.L.

            1966    Nimrud and Its Remains.  3 Volumes.  London: Collins.


Oates (Lines), Joan

1954    Late Assyrian Pottery from Nimrud.  Iraq 16: 164-167.       

1959    Late Assyrian Pottery from Fort Shalmaneser.  Iraq21: 130-146.


Rawson, P. S.

1954    Palace Wares from Nimrud:  Technical Observations on Selected Examples.  Iraq 16:                168-172.

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