The Joy of Museums

Finding Beauty & Meaning in Museums

The Lion Hunt

Sculpted reliefs depicting Ashurbanipal, the last great Assyrian king, hunting lions, gypsum hall relief from the North Palace of Nineveh (Irak), c. 645-635 BC, British Museum (16722368932)

“The Lion Hunt” is a low relief sculpture showing the Royal Lion Hunt of King Ashurbanipal with his royal entourage, together with horses, dogs on leashes and chariots. The sculpture shows captured lions and lionesses being released from cages to do battle with the King. The Lion Hunt is one of the most beautiful works of art from antiquity.

The suffering lions are depicted as brave and defiant, but they are eventually defeated with arrows, spears, and swords and are shown in detailed suffering and dying in agony. The ancient artist expertly captured the lions in motion depicting each animal as a unique individual. This detailed artistry was created over 2,500 years ago with primitive tools, and it is a masterpiece of Assyrian art.

British Museum Room 10 lion hunting

These masterpieces were made about 645–635 BC, and originally formed different sequences placed around the palace. They may originally have been painted and formed part of a brightly coloured Palace decor. They also reinforced the power and majesty of the King as they represented a formalised ritual “hunt” in an arena, where captured Asian lions were released from cages for the king to slaughter with arrows, spears, or his sword.  There may have also been a religious or royal privilege dimension to the Lion hunt. An ancient a clay tablet records that when a lion entered a house in the provinces, it had to be trapped and taken by boat to the king.

King Ashurbanipal reigned from 668 to 681 BC and “The Lion Hunt” sculptures were discovered at his Palace of Nineveh in 1853 at the site of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Nineveh was the oldest and most populous city of the Assyrian Empire, which was located on the east bank of the Tigris opposite modern Mosul in Iraq.

Map of Assyria

Map of the Assyrian Empire

King Ashurbanipal was the last great Assyrian leader, for after his reign ended the Empire descended into a period of civil war between his descendants, generals and rebelling parts of the empire. Less than 30 years after the Lion Hunt was created the empire had fallen apart and Nineveh been sacked and burnt.

Modern map of where the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh lays buried.

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Royal Lion Hunt of King Ashurbanipal:

  • Material:                        Gypsum alabaster
  • Sculptured:                    645–635 BCE
  • Excavated:                     1852–54  CE
  • Original Location:        Nineveh (near Mosul, in modern-day northern Iraq).
  • Museum:                        The British Museum

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“Fear the goat from the front, the horse from the rear and man from all sides.”
– Assyrian Proverb

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Photo Credits in order of above: 1) By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons  2) By Matt Neale from UK [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Ningyou [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons