page added December 26, 2006

General Background

The Black Obelisk is Neo-Assyrian, dating to the reign of Shalmaneser III (c.858-824 BCE). It is made of black limestone, is roughly 2m tall, and has scenes and inscriptions carved onto all four faces. The Obelisk is presently in the British Museum, London (inventory number WAA 118885). The Obelisk was uncovered by Austen Henry Layard in 1846 in the Central Palace area, about 15m north of the lamassu in the so-called West Area encompassing the Shalmaneser Building, but the exact find spot is unknown (we have positioned it in our 3D computer models in a location relative to the Shalmaneser Building that is similar to the location of the so-called Rassam Obelisk in relation to the Ashurnasirpal Building).

The Obelisk was apparently erected as a public monument in 825 BCE during a period of civil war. The relief sculptures glorify the achievements of Shalmaneser III and his chief minister. It lists their military campaigns over thirty-one years and the tribute they exacted from their neighbors (such as, camels, monkeys, an elephant and a rhinoceros). These rather exotic animals were collected as an expression of the king's power.

There are five scenes of tribute of each face, in separate panels stacked vertically, each scene identified by a line of cuneiform script above the panel. The scenes, from top to bottom depict: Sua of Gilzanu (in north-west Iran); Jehu of Bit Omri (ancient northern Israel); an unnamed ruler of Musri (probably Egypt); Marduk-apil-usur of Suhi (middle Euphrates, Syria and Iraq); and Qalparunda of Patin (Antakya region of Turkey).

One of the most significant of the scenes, is the second register from the top, which includes the earliest surviving picture of an Israelite--the Biblical Jehu, king of Israel, who brought or sent his tribute in around 841 BCE. The accompanying text reads: "The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri: I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king [and] spears."

Discussion of its Findspot

What little we know about the actual findspot of the Black Obelisk comes from Layard's own discussions: "...I mounted my horse; but had scarcely left the mound when a corner of black marble was uncovered, lying on the very edge of the trench. This attracted the notice of the superintendant of the party digging, who ordered the place to be further examined. The corner was part of an obelisk.

"An Arab was sent after me without delay, to announce this discovery; and on my return I found the obelisk completely exposed to view. I descended eagerly into the trench, and was immediately struck by the singular appearance, and evident antiquity, of the remarkable monument before me. We raised it from its recumbent position, and, with the aid of ropes, speedily dragged it out of the ruins. Although the shape was that of an obelisk, yet it was flat at the top and cut into three gradines. It was sculptured on the four sides; there were in all twenty small bas-reliefs, and above, below, and between them was carved an inscription 210 lines in length. The whole was in the best preservation; scarcely a character of the inscription was wanting; and the figures were as sharp and well defined as if they had been carved but a few days before...

"I lost no time in copying the inscription, and drawing the bas-reliefs, upon this precious relic. It was then carefully packed, to be transported at once to Baghdad. A party of trustworthy Arabs were chosen to sleep near it at night; and I took every precaution that the superstitions and prejudices of the natives of the country, and the jealousy of rival antiquaries, could suggest" (A. H. Layard, Nineveh and its Remains, volume I, New York: Putnam, 1849:345-7).

According to Julian Reade, there should be another account in Layard's original report to Canning (his sponsor at the time). A letter Layard wrote at the time to his Aunt Sara says "But the most remarkable discovery is perhaps that of the black obelisk about seven feet high" (quoted by G. Waterfield, Layard of Nineveh, New York and Washington: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963:168). Layard presumably kept a diary during this period but it is now lost (the data in this paragraph provided to us via personal communication courtesy of Julian Reade, 2004).

Discussion of its Dimensions

After researching the size of the Black Obelisk, it has become clear to us that the published dimesions of the Obelisk are mostly incorrect. This situation has come about probably because: (a) precise dimensions were not given in Layard's books; (b) the installation of the Obelisk in the British Museum obscures part of the bottom of the stone; and (c) the various casts made from the original are all slightly different in size.

For example, the British Museum gives the dimensions as 197.85cm x 45.08 cm; Börker-Klähn's Altvorderasiatische Bildstelen und vergleichbare Felsreliefs (Mainz: von Zabern, 1982:190) has the size as 1.98m x 0.61m; Pritchard's The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament (1954:#351) the dimensions as 2.02 m x about 0.60m near the bottom; and K. C. Hanson's online Collection of Mesopotamian Documents ( gives 2.02m as the height, but no dimensions of the width.

It is more difficult to determine the precise sizes of the carved panels, the stepped top, and the changing widths of the stone. During the course of 2004 and 2005, we contacted the British Museum (thanks to Julian Reade and Domonique Collon), the Semitic Museum, Harvard, home of one cast of the Black Obelisk (thanks toJoseph Greene), and the Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago, home of another cast (thanks to Thomas James and Geoff Emberling) in order to determine just what the exact measurements are. The detailed and precise dimenions provided to us by the British Museum are the basis for our virtual reality model of the Obelisk. The image links below provide a summary of our results and access to our 3D computer models.

British Museum chart of dimensions (from the original)
Semitic Museum chart of dimensions (from their cast)
Oriental Institute chart of dimensions (from their cast)
Adobe .pdf file containing all three charts (2.4MB)

Our virtual reality model of the Black Obelisk (with photographs as texture maps); please check here first to see whether you have the proper specs for viewing this interactive model.
Our virtual reality model of the Black Obelisk (with drawings as texture maps); please check here first to see whether you have the proper specs for viewing this interactive model.

Reference Information

page created:  December 26, 20064
page updated:  December 26, 2006
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