The model dog that became a cat

Small models of dogs are one of many types of protective figurines TT  found at Nimrud, which were used in Assyria to prevent evil and sickness from entering a building and plaguing its occupants. The bronze dog figurine shown in Image 1 was excavated in 1951-2 by the British School of Archaeology in Iraq and is now held in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge. It is one of six dog models found down a well in the North West Palace of king Assurnasirpal II. In the 60 years after its discovery and separation from the other models, this dog has acquired a new identity as a cat, due to its distinctly feline appearance.

Bronze figurine of four-legged animal, which appears very cat-like but probably represents a dog

Image 1: A cat or a dog? This Assyrian bronze figurine of a four-legged animal was discovered with five dog figurines down a well in the Northwest palace of king Assurnasirpal II PGP  in 1952 and is now in Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. MAA 1956.5 (ND 2183). Photo: BSAI/BISI.

Found down a palace well

Image 2: Photograph taken during 1950s excavations of Courtyard 80 of the Northwest Palace, Nimrud. The well in Room NN is the rearmost of the two wells, visible behind the group of men. View large image. Photo: BSAI/BISI.

Six bronze TT  figurines of dogs were discovered by excavators from the the British School of Archaeology in Iraq TT  (BSAI), led by Sir Max Mallowan PGP , during excavations of the Northwest Palace in 1951-2. Mallowan's team came across a deep well in the corner of Room NN (Image 2), which was filled with sludge that Mallowan described as being "the consistency of plaster of Paris" (1). No electric pumps were available to dig out the well so the workmen had to scoop out the water and sludge by hand, aided only by heavy-duty winching equipment borrowed from the Iraq Petroleum Company. It was difficult and dangerous work as the well bottom repeatedly filled up with water, as Mallowan himself later recounted:

"[T]he deeper we went and the more we cleared the well, the faster the water came in as the man at the bottom scooped the sludge into the bucket. Indeed, during the last stages of this operation the rapid inflow compelled us to start at midnight, and by the light of hurricane lamps to draw water continuously for six hours until dawn. From then until sunset the men were drawing up one oil-drum full of sludge followed by 40 gallons of water in alternative succession. By this method we managed to extract all of the sludge from the well." (2)

Mallowan's team cleared the well to a depth of around 25 metres and remarkable number of objects were found. The sludge had provided ideal conditions for preserving materials that would otherwise have decayed, such as fragments of Assyrian rope and wooden well equipment that had accidentally fallen in. Other objects appeared to have been deliberately thrown down the well in antiquity, by invaders ransacking the building. Among them were fragments of carved ivory furniture TT , shell ornaments, pieces of horse harnesses, and six bronze figurines of dogs, each about the size of a human thumb. The dogs were given the excavation numbers ND 2182-ND 2186, ND 2214. Another bronze dog (ND 3209) was discovered in an unstratified TT  context, in a rubbish dump "along the acropolis TT  wall", and a fragmentary clay dog (ND 5304) in a dump at Ninurta's temple.

"Don't think, bite!" – Assyrian protective figurines of dogs

The findspots TT  of the dog figurines alone do not give many clues as to their purpose. Wider evidence from Assyria though suggests that the dogs had a ritual TT  function. They were one of several types of figurines that guarded against evil entering buildings and plaguing the inhabitants within (3). Protective figurines were placed under doorways, in building thresholds, or in corners – all places where evil spirits and disease lurked. A ritual against evil that involves protective figurines of dogs is known from a cuneiform TT  tablet TT  from the city of Assur PGP , written in the reign of king Assurbanipal PGP . To prevent evil from crossing the threshold of a building, the instructions prescribe burying two sets of five model dogs underneath a doorway (4).

In fact, some sets of dog figurines have been discovered buried under doorways in Assyrian buildings. One example is a group of five clay dogs found buried under a doorway in the North Palace at Nineveh PGP  during mid-19th century excavations, and now in the British Museum (Images 3 and 4) (5). These dog models closely match those described in the ritual text and thus strongly suggest that a version of the ritual was carried out in Assyria in the seventh century BCE. Each clay dog has traces of coloured pigment and is inscribed with a suitably powerful name:

Cats, on the other hand, never occur in Assyrian protective rituals, and have never been found as figurines. Omens portray them as wild animals, at best untameable ones, that wandered in and out of houses at will. Humans and cats lived in and around each other but did not engage directly. The modern technical term for this is commensalism. In other words, the inhabitants of Kalhu, even the king in his palace, could not rely on cats to guard a building, whether from mice or more supernatural forces.

Image 3: Five protective models of dogs found buried under a doorway in the North Palace, Nineveh; dating from c.645 BC. Each clay dog has traces of coloured pigment and is inscribed in cuneiform script with a suitably powerful name. From left to right: "Don't think, bite!" (BM 30003); "Catcher of the enemy" (BM 30002); "Biter of his foe!" (BM 30004); "Expeller of evil" (BM 30001); "Loud is his bark!" (BM 30005). View large image on British Museum website. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Image 4: Clay model of a dog inscribed with the name "Loud is his bark!" (dan rigiššu) in cuneiform script. One of a set of five protective dog models found buried under a doorway in the North Palace, Nineveh, to protect against evil, c.645 BC. BM 30005. View large image on British Museum website. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Dog ND 2183, from Nimrud to Cambridge

The six bronze dogs found at Nimrud were stored in the dig house TT  until the end of the 1952 excavation season TT , when the excavated objects were reviewed by officials from the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage TT  in a process called the 'division of finds' TT . During each season's division, the excavated artefacts were apportioned between the Iraqi authorities and the BSAI excavation. The model dogs were divided up, as was common for groups of similar objects at this time. Two dogs (ND 2184 and ND 2186) remained in Iraq and are now in the Iraq Museum, Baghdad PGP  and the other four were gifted to the BSAI excavation.

Three bronze figurines of standing dogs, though the central example looks very cat-like

Image 5: Three of the bronze figurines found down a well in Room NN of the Northwest Palace, photographed in 1953 before dispersal to museums. Left: ND 2185, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA; middle: ND 2183, MAA, Cambridge, England; right: ND 2182, now in the Australian Institute of Archaeology, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Australia. Photo: BSAI/BISI.

The four dogs allocated to the BSAI excavation were sent temporarily to London University's Institute of Archaeology TT , along with the rest of that season's finds. From London, Mallowan's team portioned out artefacts as gifts to the various institutions that had provided financial support for that year's dig. The dog models were all allocated to different museums that had made major monetary contributions. Dog ND 2183 (Image 5, middle) was gifted to the University of Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, as a result of the University's donation to the dig (6). One of its friends, dog ND 2214, stayed in the Institute of Archaeology's collection until 1984 when it was transferred to the British Museum. The other two dogs made further journeys across the world: dog ND 2185 (Image 5, left) was gifted to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the final dog, ND 2182 (Image 5, right), was given to the Australian Institute of Archaeology, Melbourne (now the Australian Institute of Archaeology at La Trobe University). ND 3209, the dog that was found in the dump, was gifted to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Map showing present-day locations of the model dogs from Nimrud

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» See table showing current museum locations of model dogs from Nimrud

The dog that became a cat

The figurine ND 2183 that was gifted to the University of Cambridge's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology does not look much like a dog compared with the other models, and instead is very cat-like in appearance. In Max Mallowan's 1952 season report of notable discoveries, he suggested that this model may indeed represent a cat rather than a dog: "Some of these beasts obviously represent the Assyrian breeds of dogs of the time, but at least one of them was feline in character" (7).

Yet Mallowan changed his mind about the animal's identity in later writings, or at least, appeared hesitant to decide one way or another. He discussed the "delightful group of small metal dogs" found at Nimrud in an article for the Illustrated London News (16 August 1952) about the excavation and included a photograph of three of the models, taken before their dispersal to museums. This photo features MAA's model in the middle of the group (Image 4), and the caption notes: "The centre figure is distinctly cat-like in pose, but the Assyrian custom was to bury dog effigies under the doorstep to scare away spirits or demons TT " (8). In this article, MAA's model was most likely a dog. Yet describing these "bronze statuettes of dogs" in his 1966 publication Nimrud and Its Remains, Mallowan hedged his bets, saying "ND 218[3], however, has a feline appearance" (9).

On arrival in Cambridge in 1956, separated from its five doggy friends, figurine ND 2183 was even less easily identifiable as a dog. The artefact was described in MAA's accession register as a "bronze figurine of cat" (10). It was understood to be a cat for the next sixty or so years.

In 2013 MAA generously permitted the Nimrud Project to study their Nimrud artefacts, including the 'cat' figurine. Tracking down the other models and studying them as a group has shed new light on the MAA model. Considering this object alongside the other models found in the well, and in the wider context of Assyrian protective figurines, it is very unlikely to be a cat after all. After spending 60 years being a feline, this figurine has become understood as a dog once again.

Current museum locations of model dogs from Nimrud

Bronze dog figurines from the well in Room NN of Assurnasirpal II's Northwest Palace

Nimrud numberMuseumMuseum accession number
ND 2182Australian Institute of Archaeology, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Australia (formerly at the Australian Institute of Archaeology, Melbourne, Australia)
ND 2183Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge1956.5
ND 2184Iraq Museum, Baghdad, Iraq
ND 2185Metropolitan Museum, New York, USA54.117.23
ND 2186Iraq Museum, Baghdad, Iraq
ND 2214British Museum, London, England (formerly at the Institute of Archaeology, University of London)BM 140474

Dog figurines from other findspots

Nimrud number and materialFindspot TT MuseumMuseum accession number
ND 3209, bronze modelunstratified TT  context (rubbish dump along acropolis TT  wall)Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England1954A794
ND 5304, fragmentary clay modelunstratified TT  context (Ninurta temple, dump)Iraq Museum, Baghdad

Table of information on model dogs from BSAI TT  excavations at Nimrud, 1949-1963, compiled using data courtesy of Christopher Walker and a group of volunteers at the British Museum.

Many thanks to Imogen Gunn, Collections Manager for Archaeology at MAA, for generous assistance with this research.

Content last modified: 31 Dec 2015.
nimrud at oracc dot org


  1. Mallowan, M.E.L., 1952. "The Excavations at Nimrud (Kalḫu), 1952", Iraq 15, pp. 1-42 (PDF available via JSTOR for subscribers), p. 14. (Find in text ^)
  2. Mallowan, M.E.L. 1977. Mallowan's Memoirs, London: Collins, p. 123. (Find in text ^)
  3. Green, A. 1983. "Neo-Assyrian apotropaic figures: figurines, rituals and monumental art, with special reference to the figurines from the excavations of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq at Nimrud", Iraq 45, pp. 87-96 (PDF available via JSTOR for subscribers). (Find in text ^)
  4. Wiggermann, F.A.M., 1992. Mesopotamian protective spirits: the ritual texts, Groningen: Styx, pp. 15-16, KAR 298. (Find in text ^)
  5. Curtis, J.E. and J. E. Reade, 1995. Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum, London: British Museum Press, pp. 116-117. (Find in text ^)
  6. Annual report 1955-1956, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Archives, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge. (Find in text ^)
  7. Mallowan, M.E.L., 1952. "The Excavations at Nimrud (Kalḫu), 1952", Iraq 15, pp. 1-42 (PDF available via JSTOR for subscribers), p. 24. (Find in text ^)
  8. Mallowan, M.E.L., 1952. "Ivories of unsurpassed magnificence - the finest and largest from the ancient Near East - discovered in this season's excavations at Nimrud", Illustrated London News, 16 August 1952, p. 254. (Find in text ^)
  9. Mallowan, M.E.L., 1966. Nimrud and Its Remains, vols. I-II, London: Collins, p. 146. (Find in text ^)
  10. Accessions register volume 19 (1956-1967), Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Archives, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, p. 1. (Find in text ^)

Further reading

Ruth A. Horry

Ruth A. Horry, 'The model dog that became a cat', Nimrud: Materialities of Assyrian Knowledge Production, The Nimrud Project at, 2015 []

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