The Burney Relief – London, England - Atlas Obscura
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London, England

The Burney Relief

This bewitching Babylonian goddess haunts a hallway of the British Museum. 

You’ll find this arresting artifact in the British Museum. It’s tough to know for sure, due to the absence of any records, but it is believed the Burney Relief (also dubbed the “Queen of the Night”) was found in an excavation of ancient Babylonian ruins in Southern Iraq in the early 1920s.

After her discovery, she came into the possession of a Syrian antiquities dealer who deposited her at the British Museum. The museum initially refused to purchase the artifact, due to doubts of its authenticity.

The tablet then passed through the hands of several art collectors (including Sidney Burney, for whom the tablet is named) over the decades until the 1980s. Advances in the scientific analysis of antiquities convinced most archeologists that the Queen of the Night was in fact an authentic ancient Babylonian artifact. She was then placed in the British Museum on loan, and in 2003 the museum purchased the tablet in celebration of its 250th anniversary.

The deity portrayed on the Burney Relief has been the subject of fierce scholarly debate for over 50 years. During the 20th century, a number of scholars suggested that she was none other than the baby-stealing demon “Lilitu” known in the Torah and the Bible as “Lilith.”

However, in light of recent research, this theory appears to be extremely unlikely and has largely been discredited, leaving her true identity narrowed down to one of two goddesses, Ishtar or Ereshkigal. Ishtar was a Babylonian goddess associated with a number of aspects of life including love, sex, beauty, lust, fertility, war and the pursuit of political power. Ereshkigal was Ishtar’s elder sister of Ishtar and the goddess of “Kur,” the Mesopotamian underworld.

Know Before You Go

The Queen of the Night can be seen in room 56 of the British Museum in the "Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC" gallery. The British Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Fridays. Entrance is free.

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