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Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III | Construction, History & Purpose

Instructor: Kristina Doyle

Kristina has a Liberal Arts degree from Amherst College, an MSc in Archaeological Science from the University of Oxford, and an MA in Viking and Medieval Studies from the University of Oslo. She specializes in topics across the arts, history, folklore, and anthropology. She has experience teaching children and college students, both in a classroom setting and in experiential education.

Explore the construction of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. Find out what the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III is, discover its history, and see its purpose. Updated: 02/04/2023

What is the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III?

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III is an Assyrian monument now on display in the British Museum in London. The builders initially erected the Black Obelisk in 825 BCE in Nimrud, an ancient city in northern Iraq. The obelisk is made from black limestone and features bas-relief scenes on each of its four sides. A cuneiform inscription accompanies each scene. The carvings depict the military accomplishments of Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, who was in power from 858 to 824 BCE.

British archaeologists excavated the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III in 1846. The find was notable because the obelisk was in pristine condition. It remains one of two complete Assyrian obelisks known to exist. Researchers discovered the obelisk contained the first known depiction of Biblical characters, Jehu of Bit Omri, the King of Israel, and Hazael, the King of Damascus.

Purpose of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III

The Black Obelisk of Shalamaneser III stood in the Central Building in Nimrud, built during a time of civil unrest to remind viewers of the king's power and accomplishments. Each side of the obelisk includes five registers or sections depicting individual scenes. Each register shows a different foreign king bowing to King Shalmaneser III or paying tribute to him in the form of elaborate gifts. Each register includes a caption, and the builders inscribed the top and bottom of the obelisk with descriptions of Shalmaneser III's military exploits. The inscriptions are in Akkadian cuneiform, an ancient writing system used throughout Mesopotamia.

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III is on display in the British Museum. The British brought the monument to London via boat and buffalo-cart.

A large black obelisk displayed among other monuments in a museum gallery

History of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III

Dayyan-Assur, King Shalmaneser III's commander-in-chief, likely commissioned the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III. Around the time of the monument's construction, Assyria was undergoing a civil war, and unrest was common in the city. The king probably intended the obelisk to remind the public of the king's power and esteem throughout Mesopotamia.

King Shalmaneser III died in 824 BCE, shortly after the monument's completion. By the time of his death, the civil war had ended under the command of his son, Shamshi-Adad V, who became king when Shalmaneser III died. The obelisk remained in place until 1846 when Sir Austen Henry Layard, an Assyriologist for the British Museum, uncovered it while excavating Nimrud's fortified central complex. Layard's team found it adjacent to several similar monuments dedicated to other kings, suggesting the area served as a display area for such items.

The British shipped the obelisk to London shortly after its discovery and put it on display in the British Museum. It became a popular attraction and an important object of study as it is one of only two complete Assyrian obelisks ever found. The inscriptions are very detailed compared to many cuneiform texts. Henry Rawlinson and Edward Hincks, who identified the Biblical connection, translated the inscriptions. The obelisk remains in the British Museum to this day and is still one of the institution's most famous artifacts.

Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III Construction

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III is a stela, or upright monument, carved from a single slab of black limestone. It stands 197.48 cm in height and is 45.08 cm wide at the largest point. The top of the obelisk is carved in the shape of a ziggurat. The top and base of the monument feature extensive cuneiform writing. The writing is a late form of Akkadian cuneiform; it uses simplified symbols and is meant to be read horizontally. Each side of the stela includes five separate registers with figures rendered in bas-relief, a shallow form of surface carving. A cuneiform caption accompanies each register.

The carvings depict various kings and other dignitaries paying tribute to Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, to whom the obelisk is dedicated. The most highly studied portion of the stela is the second register, which depicts an 841 BCE tribute from Jehu of Bit Omri, the King of Israel at the time. King Jehu is in the biblical Book of Kings 9-10. This is the first known depiction of an Israelite in history and has given the obelisk a prominent position in biblical research.

After the obelisk's discovery, it became a famous artifact throughout the world. Multiple full-scale casts of the stela exist, and copies have been studied and displayed worldwide. Replicas of the obelisk are at the Oriental Institute in Chicago, the Museum of the Ancient Near East at Harvard University, and other locations.

Features of the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III

The Black Obelisk contains a visual and written record of the first 31 years of King Shalmaneser III's reign. Each record contains a different scene, and the cuneiform writing provides information about military campaigns.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was Shalmaneser III known for?

Shalmaneser III was an Assyrian king. He was known for his extensive military campaigns, which are depicted on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III.

What does the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III commemorate?

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III commemorates the first 31 years of military campaigns that the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III had conducted. It depicts other rulers paying tribute to the king.

Who discovered the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III?

Austen Henry Layard, an Assyrologist working for the British Museum, discovered the obelisk in 1846. He and his team uncovered the monument while excavating the ancient city of Nimrud.

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