Assyria to America: A Digital Exploration

Assyria to America: A Digital Exploration


In addition to exploring the ancient and modern histories of the Assyrian reliefs at Bowdoin, the exhibition Assyria to America, launched in 2019, showcases a variety of new digital approaches to the study of ancient art that the BCMA staff have been deploying across the collections.

Co-Curated by Sean P. Burrus (Andrew W. Mellon Post-doctoral Fellow) and Professor Jim Higginbotham (Curator for the Ancient Collection, Department of Classics), the exhibition incorporates more digital components than ever before deployed in the BCMA galleries in order to create opportunities for visitors to engage with the art and artifacts on view. Created in collaboration with Bowdoin students Brooke Wrubel, ’21, and Ayub Tahlil, ’22, and members of Bowdoin’s Academic Technology and Consulting, these digital features include polychrome projections, mapping and timeline modules, RTI and IIIF image technologies, 3D models, installed on touchscreens and projectors throughout the exhibition. Below, online versions of these features have been prepared so that you too can explore Assyria to America at home.



While visitors today can appreciate the carved form and detail of Bowdoin’s Assyrian reliefs, the ancient viewer was treated to a much more colorful display. Although surviving colors are sparse and our present understanding of painting schemes on Assyrian panels is limited, it is generally agreed that many of the reliefs were originally painted, either over their entire surface or, perhaps more often, in specific areas. Indeed, traces of color are visible on the relief illuminated here. White paint remains around the pupil of the Apkallu figure and a reddish-brown pigment highlights the sole of his sandal. In addition, spectral and chemical analysis of several reliefs in other museum collections have added to our knowledge of the colors employed by Assyrian artists as well as where they applied their paint.

Professor Jim Higginbotham worked with Paul Benham from Information Technology’s Academic Technology and Consulting to reconstruct the original coloration of the reliefs using historical records and scientific analysis of pigment remnants to guide the color choices. Once a color palette had been agreed upon, a high powered projector was positioned in front of the relief of Apkallu (the Winged Spirit) which projects colored light onto the surface of the stone mimicking the original pigments. Using projection mapping software, each element of the relief was carefully picked out and given the appropriate color.

The wings, beard, crown and some of the robes take on a new life, as shades of gold, red, blue, white are “digitally painted” onto the relief—colors that can change with a click of the mouse.

“If we could hide the projector, then you might think, and some people have indeed been fooled into thinking, that we have physically painted the relief,” said Benham. Higginbotham said he had actually been approached by one or two people “demanding to know why we had painted these ancient reliefs!”

Understanding the History

The great stone figures that today grace the Assyrian Gallery of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art were carved more than 2500 years ago for the palaces and temples of Assurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.), ruler of the empire of Assyria, centered in what is now northern Iraq. To help visitors get a better sense of these vast timelines and to contextualize these structures from their placement in Assurnasirpal’s massive palace to their inglorious destruction at the hands of ISIS, we created a timeline on a touchscreen device which visitors could interact with to gain deeper insights about the culture and history surrounding these artifacts. Below is an online version of this timeline. The commentary was written by Brooke Wrubel ’21.

A Timeline of the Reliefs

Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art uses a number of digital techniques to help promote the study and enjoyment of its objects. One new tool that we debuted for this exhibition is Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). RTI is a computational photographic method that captures a subject’s surface shape and color and enables the interactive re-lighting of the subject from any direction. RTI also permits the mathematical enhancement of the subject’s surface shape and color attributes. The enhancement functions of RTI reveal surface information that is not disclosed under direct empirical examination of the physical object. RTI imaging is useful for analyzing the techniques, materials, and condition of works of art—from seventeenth-century etchings to ancient Greek vases—and can be used to answer a wide range of questions from different disciplines.

A touchscreen in the exhibition allows visitors to use RTI enhanced views of the reliefs while gazing at the actual artifacts as a frame of reference. Included here is a very similar system which you may use to explore the reliefs through RTI imaging, conducted by co-curator Sean P. Burrus with the assistance of Ayub Tahlil, ’22. Tap or glide anywhere on the image to change the light direction. Tap the magnifying glasses to zoom in and out. Switch among the five reliefs by clicking their icon below the main image.

International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF)

Another digital technique we used in Assyria to America and many other exhibitions is the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF). It provides a standard for creating rich interaction with digital images allowing deep zoom, annotation capabilities, and other features. Via a touchscreen in the Assyrian Gallery, users can take a deeper look at the artifacts by highlighting specific facets in context with commentary written by Brooke Wrubel ’21, with the assistance of David Francis, Senior Interactive Developer in Academic Technology and Consulting.

3D Modeling

In August, 2019, co-curators of Assyria to America Sean P. Burrus and Jim Higginbotham travelled to London to undertake a 3D imaging project in partnership with the British Museum on an important Assyrian sculpture in their collection: a statue of the king Assurnasirpal II, who ruled from 883-859 BCE and who commissioned the massive reliefs familiar to many BCMA visitors. The photogrammetric scan of Assurnasirpal’s statue are made available to museum visitors via touchscreen displays in the gallery, and a life-size 3D printed replica—printed on Bowdoin’s campus in collaboration with David Israel, of Bowdoin’s Academic Technology and Consulting.

The virtual model and printed replica not only help visitors imagine the royal personage of Assurnasirpal II; they represent new ways of sharing and displaying ancient art that would otherwise be unavailable to visitors. The ‘banquet stele’ is too large and heavy to transport, and the statue is now too fragile to go on loan. By adopting new 3D imaging techniques and partnerships, the BCMA is at the forefront of promising new models for collaborations and sharing and preserving of objects, exploring new avenues and alternatives to traditional object loans. Such work is all the more important in a moment when ancient objects are targets for destruction and subject of repatriation conversations.

Portraits of King Assurnasirpal II are rare among the reliefs at Nimrud, and Bowdoin is fortunate to hold two reliefs bearing images of the king. Discovered in excavations of the Nimrud palace complexes, the British Museum statue of Assurnasirpal II sculpted in the round is an exceptional rarity among Assyrian stone sculpture which was predominantly done in bas-relief. Below, explore the virtual model produced through this exciting collaboration.

The Reliefs around the Globe

Early in the 9th c BCE, in the first years of his reign, the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II undertook one of the grandest building projects the world had ever seen. Amidst rubble and ruins at the site of Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), Ashurnasirpal founded a new capital for his growing empire replete with a citadel featuring a magnificent palaces and temples towering above the city. The walls of buildings like the king’s Northwest Palace were lined with monumental stone slabs carved in relief and painted with fantastic figures and scenes of battles and hunts, a first in what was to become a distinctive tradition in Assyrian art.

The site of Nimrud was ‘rediscovered’ in 1845 by Sir Austen Henry Layard, an English explorer, diplomat, and archaeologist who conducted the first excavations at the site from 1845 to 1851. His finds at Nimrud were widely publicized at the time, and his accounts of his excavations, lavishly illustrated with watercolors and aimed at a general public, became best-sellers. Many of the best finds from his excavations, including the reliefs, were sent by Layard and his successors to the British Museum. Others found their way to the Louvre, and other European museums and private collectors. In the 1850’s, a time when American missionary activity in Iraq was increasing, the first reliefs were sent to American shores. Bowdoin’s reliefs, among the oldest and earliest antiquities in the state, were sent to the college by Dr. Henri Byron Haskell, ’55, who was serving at the time as a missionary in the Ottoman province of Mosul.

In all, approximately half of the original reliefs that lined the palace walls of Nimrud were removed from the site and are housed today in public and private collections across the world. The dispersal of the reliefs and other artifacts from Nimrud has had important consequences that continue to the present. Many of the relief panels relate directly to their neighbors, and the removal of hundreds of the panels from the site left significant gaps in the physical and historical record. Research continues today on reconstructing the relationships between the panels and recreating the decorative program of the palace. Below, using Google Maps software you can explore just how widespread are the collections which today house reliefs from Nimrud.

Data set by Ruth A. Horry built from the research in Klaudia Englund's Nimrud und seine Funde: Der Weg der Reliefs in die Museen und Sammlungen, Orient-Archäologie Band 12, Rahden/Westf.: Verlag Marie Leidorf, 2003,


This virtual version of Assyria to America showcases the work of Sean P. Burrus (Andrew W. Mellon Post-doctoral Fellow) and Professor Jim Higginbotham (Curator for the Ancient Collection, Department of Classics), curators of the exhibition. It also draws upon the contributions of Brooke Wrubel ’21, who provided substantial assistance with research, the production of the timeline, and the development of labels. This project thus reflects the important role of academic art museums in fostering learning, research, and creativity among students. Finally, this web resource has benefitted from Barbara N. Porter’s Assyrian Bas-Reliefs at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (Brunswick, 1989).

The online exhibition was designed by David Francis in Bowdoin Academic Technology, in collaboration with staff at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. It was created using the following technologies: Cascade content management system (CMS); Fancybox, a JavaScript lightbox library for highlighting media with callouts; Google Maps API, Google's JavaScript based tool for incorporating maps into digital presentations; WebRTIViewer, an HTML5-WebGL viewer for high resolution RTI images (PTM and HSH) and standard images (JPEG, PNG and TIF); OpenSeadragon, an open-source, web-based viewer for high-resolution zoomable images, implemented in pure JavaScript; Timeline, an open-source tool that enables building of visually rich, interactive timelines; Smithsonian's Voyager Explorer, a browser-based tool for viewing 3D content.

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art further expresses its appreciation to the many colleagues whose hard work is reflected in this exhibition and its electronic counterpart, including Suzanne Bergeron, Leslie Bird, Sean Burrus, Jim Higginbotham, Jo Hluska, Elizabeth Humphrey ’14, Laura Latman, José Ribas, Laura Sprague; staff in the College’s Academic Technology group, including David Francis, David Israel, and Paul Benham; and BCMA intern Brooke Wrubel ’21 for her many important contributions to this project. Critical support for the Assyrian Collection at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is provided by the Yadgar Family Endowment. Finally, we are grateful for the generous support for this exhibition provided by the Stevens L. Frost Endowment Fund and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment Fund.