What a relief!

You may not have seen the 9th century BC Assyrian Relief before. Even though it’s been on display in the main hall of the old Royal Museum Building since the 1950s, it was generally hidden by banners advertising exhibitions. So as part of the Royal Museum Project, a decision was made to display it more prominently in the new Discoveries gallery. However, getting it down from its previous location was always going to be a difficult task, particularly as we had no record of how it was attached to the wall.

The Assyrian Relief in the old Royal Museum building
The Assyrian Relief originally adorned the walls of the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II, who ruled Assyria from 883-859 BC. The relief was discovered by Austen Henry Layard, who had uncovered the palace remains at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) in northern Iraq.

Theo Skinner, recently retired artefact conservator, was hired as a consultant to manage the de-installation of the piece, as we needed his experience when dealing with such a complex job. He worked with a team of engineers to remove it from the wall. He found that it was built into a double brick wall to which it was tied with thin copper wires embedded with resin on the back of the stone. When we saw how little was supporting it we were rather startled to say the least.

It was a very dirty job removing it as the wall had to be partially taken down behind it to release it.

Removing the brickwork to access the back of the stone
Removing the brickwork to access the back of the stone.
Dirty work
Dirty work.

The Relief is broken into three pieces and we were not sure how these were joined together, so the team had to work very carefully to ensure it could be got out safely as one piece. Its estimated weight is 2000kg. A temporary support frame was made around it to hold it together and it stayed in this frame to be transported to Granton on the back of a Hiab lorry (a lorry with a crane mounted on the back). It only just fitted out of the old Royal Museum goods entrance.

Lifting the Relief from the wall and into a supporting frame
Lifting the Relief from the wall and into a supporting frame.

The designer’s plan for the relief’s re-display in the new gallery has proved to be an added challenge, as rather than having it set into the wall as before it is now due to be hung off the wall. This meant we went into a long period of discussion with the designers, the Royal Museum Project team and the structural engineers in order to come up with a method that was physically possible and ethically responsible without compromising too much on the design intention.

We have now completed the first stage of this process of preparation for display. Not only did we need to ensure that the whole piece was very securely held to the wall, we also needed to be certain that the three pieces were held together strongly. We therefore took the difficult decision to drill into the back of the stone to attach a connecting frame that would prevent any movement.

Drilling holes for the fixing points
Drilling holes for the fixing points.

We had to go very carefully to ensure we attained the precision needed for the drill holes and the steel work to be connected together. Rather than creating one solid frame, we wanted to be able to construct it in sections so that it was easier to handle and also to remove if necessary. We also had to work within the confines of the temporary support frame, which we could not dismantle until we were sure the stone was firmly secured with our new steelwork. Therefore we ended up with something which looks rather like a giant piece of meccano on the back of the stone.

Attaching the new support
Attaching the new support.
The 'meccano' framework on the back of the Assyrian Relief
The ‘meccano’ framework on the back of the Assyrian Relief.

With bated breath we finally removed the last elements of the temporary frame last week and were able to take off the protective sheeting which has been covering the beautiful carving and were able to look at the front for the first time in two years. The carving was intact and the stone did not appear to have suffered any damage from the complex work that was carried out on the back of it.

We are now waiting for the steel to be manufactured to construct the exterior frame which will be used to support the piece on the wall. This is bound to present us with a new set of challenges as will the final stage, when it re-enters the museum to be reinstated.

The Assyrian Relief from the front
The magnificent Assyrian Relief from the front.
Detail from the Assyrian Relief
Detail from the Assyrian Relief depicting King Ashurnasirpal II, whose palace walls the Relief decorated in the 9th century.

You can find out more about the Assyrian Relief on our website.

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