Combining Human and Animal Forms

Bird-Headed Deity
Artist Not Known, Calah, Iraq
About 885 BCE

Students will use visual observation skills to carefully examine the Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity limestone relief and explore the movement, sounds, and traits of different animals. They will first explore these aspects in humans and birds of prey, as seen in the limestone relief, and will then do the same with “animals” they create from two or more animals. This lesson enables children to draw upon previous knowledge and imagination in order to act out the movement, sounds, and other traits of the animals they create.

Intended Age Group
Early childhood (ages 3-5)
Standards Area
Visual Arts
Lesson Length
One 35 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • identify at least three details in the limestone relief;
  • list what two animals were combined to portray the deity in the relief;
  • use scissors to cut out images;
  • glue/paste images they cut out onto another piece of paper; and
  • act out the movement, sounds, and at least one other trait of an animal they create.


  1. Display the Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity limestone relief. Ask children to observe the fine details in the relief (e.g., feathers, bird’s beak, and muscles). Ask what two animals make up the deity. Talk about what birds do and what humans do. Act out movements and sounds of both. What might a bird-headed human do differently? Act out these behaviors.
  2. Have children cut out images of two to three (no more) different animals, and then cut the animals into various sections (e.g., head, torso, arm, etc.). Glue the sections of the animals together to create a new animal. Ask children to name the animal.
  3. Together in a group, ask the children to talk about and demonstrate the following for their animals: How would they move? What sounds would they make? What would they eat and how? Remember there are no right or wrong answers. The goal is to get children to use previous knowledge and imagination to come up with their answers.
  4. You can have the children move like and make the sounds of some of the favorite animals made by their classmates.


  • Pictures of different animals, either from magazines or other print/Internet sources
  • One pair of scissors for each student
  • One glue stick for each student
  • Blank paper on which students will glue cut-out images
  • Newspaper or other material to cover work area
  • About the Art section on the Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity limestone relief
  • One color copy of the Assyrian Bird-Headed Deity limestone relief, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
  • Optional: Magnifying glasses (if the class already has them) to observe details in the photocopies


CO Standards
  • Visual Arts
    • Invent and Discover to Create
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Envision and Critique to Reflect
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
21st Century Skills
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy

Bird-Headed Deity

About 885 BCE
About the Artist

This stone carving comes from the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II, who ruled over the kingdom of Assyria in today’s Iraq. The creation of a sculptured palace generally happened only once during a king’s reign, if at all. The king took close interest in the palace and had some indirect role in choosing the subjects of the decorations. However, the general design was placed in the hands of a committee of senior officials. Within this committee, at least one official was experienced in magic, and he made sure that the magical figures on the walls (like this bird-headed deity) were placed for maximum protection. First, the stone panels were installed into the brick palace walls, and then a team of carvers would work on creating the low-relief sculpture. One person would draw or incise the main outline of the image, and the final cutting and polishing would be done by an army of artisans. Because the carvings were influenced by wall paintings, they were often painted as well.

What Inspired It

Magicians placed protective deities throughout the king’s palace, wherever they were thought to be most effective. Bird-headed deities often stood at doorways, protecting the palace from evil spirits. Magic was an essential part of religion and daily life in ancient Assyria and was used in everything from medicine to architecture. Kings served as high priests and had ceremonial responsibilities. Icons throughout the castle, including relief carvings like this one, affirmed Ashurnasirpal’s authority as high priest and King of Assyria. Many carvings in Ashurnasirpal’s palace also tell of the importance of war during his reign.



Elaborate tassels are attached to the patterned edge of the figure’s cloak. A cloak with tassels was standard wear for kings during this time, but not for ordinary humans.

Low Relief

The sculpture is carved in low relief, also called bas relief, meaning that the carving projects very little from the background.

Arm Muscles

Heavy muscles are a convention of Assyrian carving and are seen throughout the palace.

Grain of Stone

The stone has a very distinctive, curvy pattern. When stones were cut from the quarry, consecutive sections went to a given room. By paying attention to the grain of the stone, we are able to identify which carvings came from the same room.

Half Man, Half Bird

The deity is a magical combination of eagle and man, with the head, feathers, and beak of an eagle, and the muscle and flesh of a man. These qualities are integrated to make a convincing and powerful creature.

Right Hand

The deity holds what looks like either a pinecone or the flower of a date palm in his right hand. Because date palms require cross-fertilization by hand, a suggestion has been made that perhaps the deity is fertilizing a sacred tree. The sacred tree, not seen here, is a common motif in Assyrian art. It is identified by ornamental leaves and curling tendrils. It symbolizes vegetal health and fertility, and is usually attended by human-headed or bird-headed deities. In other places, the pinecone is held up over people or doorways that need magical protection. Although scholars are not positive about what is happening here, it does seem to be an important ritual gesture.

Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.