British Museum Decided Against Uniting a Cursed Assyrian Stele and Bad Luck Fell to the Police
“Whoever discards this image from the presence of Salmanu puts it into another place, whether he throws it into water or covers it with earth or brings and places it into a taboo house where it is inaccessible, may the god Salmanu, the great lord, overthrow his sovereignty; may his name and his seed disappear in the land; may he live in a contingent together with the slave women of his land…”
-Translation of the curse on the Assyrian stele
An unknown author inscribed a curse onto an Assyrian stele in 800 BC. The stele was eventually broken in two – one half ended up in the hands of the British Museum and the other in Bonhams auction house. It was something of a surprise when news broke in 2014 that the British Museum decided against purchasing the second half of the rare artifact.
The fragment of the stele in the British Museum’s collection was found in 1879 in Dur-Katlimmu (modern Sheikh Hamad) in Syria. It was formed in basalt to commemorate a military achievement of King Adad-Nirari III. The British Museum has the top of the statue with the image of the king’s head in their portion of the stele. They had bought it from a private collector in 1881.
The top part of the stele is in the British Museum’s collection. (CC BY NC SA 4.0)
The lower portion of the stele was put up for auction by a private collector in Bonhams in London in 2014. The piece was estimated to fetch £ 600,000 - 800,000 (US$ 830,000 - 1,100,000) but was withdrawn. No information was provided at the time by the auctioneers regarding when or how the stele fragment had left Syria. They only reported the artifact as having been gifted “from father to son in the 1960s.” The lack of detail led many experts and the authorities to wonder if the artifact had been illegally removed from Syria.
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If the stele was united it would measure 2.1 meters (6.89 ft.) tall. The king depicted on the stele ruled between 810 BC and 783 BC. His stance shows the ruler alongside sacred symbols: the winged sun disc of Shamash; the star of Ishtar; and the thunderbolt of the weather god Adad. The king holds his right hand in a gesture of worship while his left hand contains a mace.
There is also cuneiform script on the sides and across the front of the king’s body. It reads:
“…Negal-eres, governor of the country of Rasappa… presented an image of Adad-nerari III, king of Assyria, his lord, to the god Salmanu, his lord, who protects the throne of his priesthood, to give into his hands the sceptre that shepherds the people, for the well-being of his seed, the well-being of the people of Assyria and the well-being of Assyria, to scatter his adversaries, to destroy his fierce foes, to subdue his enemy princes.”
Another stele, this one complete, depicting king Adad-Nirari III. (Public Domain)
As with the first inscription, this too identifies Dur-Katlimmu as the seat of the god Salmanu. The inscriptions confirm documents which have previously been found at Tell Sheikh Hamad. The renovation of Salmanu’s temple at Dur-Katlimmu is mentioned in the inscriptions as well as both a call to future rulers to care for the sacred site and a curse against anyone who dares to move the stele.
Tell Sheikh Hamad in Syria, where the upper portion of the stele was found. ( Eastern Atlas )
The stele was a gift to the temple by Nergal-eres, a governor in the region. Nergal-eres presented it along with a namsaru sword – a blade which was believed to be fit for a god. The governor presented these gifts as a way to show his loyalty to his ruler as well as to bring Salmanu's blessings.
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This is not the only stele which was placed at a temple. The monuments were seen as a symbol of Assyrian power and used as a tool of intimidation for foreigners – many present images of the mighty Assyrian army. Statues and steles of rulers also were linked to the king’s authority, so people would be required sometimes to swear oaths in front of them as if they were in the king’s presence.
It was common practice for inscriptions to be addressed to future rulers with an appeal for the statue’s care and respect. It’s not surprising to consider that the monuments were also desired by rival kings; who would attempt to steal them and have their own name inscribed on the “trophy.” Curses were written on the statues to prevent this.
This basalt stele was erected by one of the king’s local governors, Nergal-Eres, at Saba. The stele’s inscriptions report on the King’s victorious campaign against Palashtu (Palestine) and features the Assyrian king Adad-Nirari III praying in front of divine symbols. From Saba. Neo-Assyrian period, 810-783 BCE. Ancient Orient Museum/Istanbul Archeological Museums, Turkey. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/CC BY SA 4.0)
The Assyrian Empire had expanded its lands from modern Iraq to the Nile during the 9th century BC. But in 612 BC the capital, Nineveh, fell to the Babylonian and the Medes armies. The rest of the empire soon collapsed as well.
In January 2017 the bottom half of the stele made international headlines once again. This time it was at the center of a dispute between its former owner and the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London. The Commissioner was being sued by a Lebanese antiquities dealer after the police confiscated the relic due to questions about its provenance.
The British Museum revealed at that time that they declined to purchase the bottom half when it went up for auction in 2014 due to doubts about how it came to be in the hands of the dealer. The former owner claimed he has proof that it was obtained legally and sued the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who ordered the removal of the stele from Bonhams auction house.
NOTE: Ancient Origins does not condone the trade of ancient artifacts or the antiquities market when it encourages the removal of precious artifacts from their ancestral home.
Online Collection – British Museum
Written in Stone – by Gwendolyn Leick