The excavations of Khorsabad

The excavations of Khorsabad

  • Two Assyrian geniuses.

    BOTTA Paul-Emilie (1802 - 1870)

  • Winged androcephalic bull, Khorsabad site.

    FLANDIN Eugène (1803 - 1876)

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Institut de France) - Gérard Blot

Winged androcephalic bull, Khorsabad site.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais (Institut de France) - Agence Bulloz

Publication date: May 2011

Historical context

Paul-Émile Botta, the inventor of Assyriology

In 1842, when Louis-Philippe opened a new consular agency in Mosul, the post of consul was entrusted to Paul-Émile Botta (1802-1870), an energetic Italian whose family moved to France at the time of the annexation. of Piedmont by Napoleon.

A doctor by training, but also a naturalist and passionate about languages, Paul-Émile Botta began his career as a diplomat in Alexandria in 1833, and it was undoubtedly in Egypt that he began to take an interest in archaeological research. It is therefore not a neophyte who settles on the banks of the Tigris: the consular agent has a good knowledge of the Eastern world and he knows that under the sand lie the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh. The Assyrian civilization is then known only through biblical accounts and certain classical texts, while the cuneiform scriptures have not yet been deciphered.

Botta’s first excavations focus on one of the two tells (mounds made of ruins) located in front of Mosul, on the other side of the river. They turn out to be unsuccessful, although the English archaeologist Henry Layard will later prove that the remains of Nineveh were indeed there.

In the spring of 1843, Botta moved his workers sixteen kilometers north-east to the Khorsabad site. Thinking to have discovered Nineveh, he has just brought to light the palace that the Assyrian king Sargon II (721-705) built in his new capital of Dour Sharroukin, whose name means “fortress of Sargon”.
As they are exhumed, the gypsum alabaster slabs disintegrate on contact with the air, and Botta sees the fruit of his patient research wiped out. In order to preserve a testimony of the remains, he tries to draw the bas-reliefs as soon as the workers take them out of the ground.

Unable to carry out the registration of discoveries on his own and fearing their rapid degradation, he obtained from the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres that a designer be assigned to him. This immense harvest of texts will accelerate the deciphering of the cuneiform in Mesopotamia.

Image Analysis

Eugène Flandin, an artist helping the archaeologist

While Botta recognizes the need for surveys to ensure that nothing is lost of the archaeological context of his findings, the lack of training in drawing prevents him from quickly producing surveys that can be used for scientific purposes. He exhausts himself in awkward and rough drawings. Here, for example, he carefully avoids depicting the faces of geniuses, and there is some awkwardness in the articulation of the arms to the bodies or in the treatment of the knees. On the other hand, he dwells on the ornamental details, such as the feathers of the wings of the genius on the left or the trimmings of the garment of the one on the right. These drawings are nevertheless a moving testimony to Botta's tenacity.

Flandin, who received the Legion of Honor in 1842 for the iconographic surveys carried out during his mission in Persia on behalf of the Institute, perfectly masters archaeological sketches: his line is clear and sure, precise and elegant.

His artistic skill appears widely in his works, especially in independent figures like this winged androcephalic bull. He retains the scientific rigor essential to archaeological surveys (accidents of the support, accuracy of proportions), knows how to get to the point without sacrificing the many decorative details to which he pays meticulous attention and, at the same time, nevertheless manages to translate the power and the grandeur of this monumental sculpture by a skilful distribution of shadow and light.

Flandin's drawings were engraved to illustrate Botta's publication, Nineveh monument (1849-1850), an immense work in five volumes that can be considered as the first excavation report written with great objectivity and perfect scientific rigor.


The time of the archaeological consuls

In October 1844, the Khorsabad yard had to be closed because of the exhaustion of funds. Botta then made a choice among the most remarkable and best preserved sculptures and sent them to France, where they arrived three years later, after many adventures. These first excavations in Mesopotamia had great repercussions: the English sent Layard and Rawlinson to Nimrud then to Nineveh, and, in 1851, France charged Victor Place to reopen the Mosul consulate and take over the Khorsabad site.

Botta inaugurates the epic of the archaeological consuls, French or British, who, appointed to Mosul, Baghdad and Basra in the mid-19th centurye century, played a pioneering role in archaeological research.

  • archeology
  • East
  • Louvre
  • Museum
  • Assyria


Élisabeth FONTAN (dir.) With the collaboration of Nicole Chevalier, From Khorsabad to Paris, the discovery of the Assyrians, catalog of the Louvre Museum exhibition, Department of Oriental Antiquities, November 1993-February 1994, Paris, R.M.N., 1994 Jean BOTTERO and Marie-Joseph STEVE, Once upon a time in Mesopotamia, Paris, Gallimard, coll. "Discoveries", 1993.

To cite this article

Béatrice MÉON-VINGTRINIER, "The excavations of Khorsabad"


Video: Khorsabad