Near-Eastern Bronze Sword Hilt
Culture: Near-Eastern, Assyrian
Period: 8th 7th Century B.C.
Dimensions: L: 20 cm
Acquired on the European art market in 1998, from H. Korban.
Complete hilt with minor breaks; bronze surface in excellent condition, largely gold-colored with brown areas (especially on the pommel) and small traces of blackish green patina. Blade now lost.
This sword hilt was made by using bronze sheets hammered over a matrix, or in repoussé work, and mounted on a previously modeled core of a blackish brown friable material (wood?), which is nevertheless still visible inside the metal. The hilt is composed of three elements: a) the pommel, with its square section though rounded at the top, decorated with plant motifs (large rosette surrounded by a wreath of palmettes) and four identical metopes; in each, the symbol of the winged solar disc is carved in relief; use of this symbol was widespread in Assyrian monuments, including in the large reliefs that adorned the walls of the palaces, where it was most often associated with the figure of the king (fighting, ritual, initiation scenes, etc.); its meaning remains hypothetical, some scholars claiming that the winged solar discrepresents the god Assur, the patron deity of the city of Ashur, while others would rather relate it to the Mesopotamian sun god (Shamash/Utu); b) the grip, including different overlapping elements, on which thick rings alternate with narrower features, and a sphere with vertical grooves; c) the element for the wedging of the blade, decorated with two lion heads merging into each other at the level of the lower jaws; the blade thus appeared to emerge directly from the wide open mouths of the two big cats (see n. 7, 14, 18); in Near Eastern cultures, lions were a symbol of power and strength and were therefore used to characterize mostly warrior kings and deities associated with war.
The manufacturing technique and artistic quality of this object are excellent, equaling those of the best Assyrian productions; one should note in particular the balance and the proportions of the entire piece, and especially the remarkable rendering of the lions, with their threatening mouths and rich anatomical details, finely engraved or modeled (flame-shaped incisions indicating the mane, finely modeled head and cheeks, engravings marking the jowls, skin folds, eye area, etc.). Perfectly preserved Assyrian swords are extremely rare and no close parallels can currently be suggested for this piece, which may nonetheless be compared to the weapons worn by the kings, dignitaries and warriors on the high reliefs of Assyrian palaces, often provided with very sophisticated hilts (see in particular the sword of the king or the prince on a relief from Nineveh, now in Berlin, depicting a lion hunt). Given its light weight and very careful execution, this hilt might have been part of a parade, ceremonial or ritual weapon, rather than of a sword used as a weapon of war.
On this type of sword in iconography, see:
ALBENDA O., The Palace of Sargon, King of Assyria, Paris, 1986, pl. 143.
BARNETT R.D., Assyrian Sculpture, London, 1975, no. 67 (relief from Sennacherib’s palace, Nineveh, warriors).
MEYER R.M., Altorientalische Denkmäler im Vorderasiatischen Museum zu Berlin, Leipzig, 1965, p. 31, pl. 164 (relief of Ashurbanipal from Nineveh, the king or the prince on a lion hunt).
STROMMENGER E., L’arte della Mesopotamia, dal 5000 a.C. ad Alessandro Magno, Florence, 1963, p. 140, no. 224 (relief from Khorsabad Palace, sword of King Sargon II, late 8th century B.C.).