Throughout the 2nd millennium BC, the walls of Mesopotamian palaces were painted with royal and divine figures and geometric motifs. Beginning with Ashurnasirpal II (883 – 859 BC), however, Assyrian kings established a new palatial design in which the interior walls were lined with large slabs of alabaster carved in relief and painted. The reliefs in the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Kalhu (modern Nimrud) were predominantly ritual scenes of the king, crown prince, servants, and supernatural protective beings including massive lamassu (winged human-headed bulls and lions). Some areas of the palace were decorated with narratives of the hunt, of battle, and of tribute processions composed in two registers divided by lines of cuneiform inscriptions.
When Sargon II (721 – 705 BC) built his new capital at Dur-Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad) the palace reliefs were carved with a similar range of ritual and narrative scenes, but the figures were executed in much larger scale and in higher reliefs than the earlier sculpture. The reliefs of Sargon II were also distinguished by patterned backgrounds representing terrain.
Later Assyrian rulers, particularly Sennacherib (circa 705 – 681 BC) and Ashurbanipal (reigned 669 – 631 BC) concentrated their building activities at the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. Their reliefs were almost exclusively narrative. A variety of techniques were used to indicate the depth of the visual field, and the overall design was transformed into a historical narrative through masses of detail and the addition of small captions to identity portions of the reliefs.