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A Luxurious Desire: Ancient Near Eastern Ivory Carvings

Openwork plaque with a striding sphinx, 9th-8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Eastern world

A Luxurious Desire: Ancient Near Eastern Ivory Carvings

The allure of ivory, a lustrous material that when polished gleams and glows, exuding warmth and a mysterious beauty. Near Eastern ivory carvings are eerily seductive and hauntingly beautiful. Imagine the thrill of finding such exquisite artifacts. These forgotten treasures once adorned furniture, decorated walls, rooms, chariots, and horse bridles or embellished personal luxury items. Here is a peek into their tumultuous past.

Sculpture of a man with an oryx, a monkey, and leopard skin, 8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Sculpture of a man with an oryx, a monkey, and leopard skin, ivory carving, 8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Ancient Assyrian Empire

Since the majority of Near Eastern ivory carvings where discovered at ancient Assyrian sites, here is a brief history of the Assyrian Empire. Assyria was a kingdom located in northern Mesopotamia where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flowed. The ancient kingdom spanned over four present-day countries: northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey, western Syria, and Iran.

The Assyrian Empire was extremely powerful and controlled a vast area that stretched all the way to the Mediterranean. The Assyrians had a reputation for being great warriors; they were the first to use chariots and were fiercely intimidating with their deadly, iron weapons. Their greatest cities were Ashur, Nineveh, and Nimrud. Ashur was their first capital city and also the name of their most important God

The Neo-Assyrian Period was the last great era the Assyrians ruled. It was during this period that many of the exceptional ivory carvings were created between the 9th-7th century BCE. It was also during this time that the Assyrians re-expanded their empire and controlled the greatest amount of land throughout their entire history. 

Incised horse frontlet carved into the shape of a flowering volute, palmette tree, 9th-8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Incised horse frontlet carved into the shape of a flowering volute, palmette tree, ivory carving, 9th-8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Near Eastern Ivory Carving Traditions

Most of the ivory carvings discovered at ancient Assyrian sites were carved from elephant tusks sourced from Syrian elephants until the animal became extinct sometime between the 8th and 7th century BCE. Ivory was then imported from Egypt and other parts of Africa.

In the ancient Near East, ivory carving was a valuable industry and it is likely that every major city center had ivory workshops, including those specializing in creating luxury items for royalty and the elite. Ivory was an easy to carve, organic material that endured over time. Ivory carving traditions were found in the regions of the ancient Near East and each culture possessed its own styles and techniques.

Cloisonne furniture plaque with two griffins in a floral landscape, 8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Cloisonne furniture plaque with two griffins in a floral landscape, ivory carving, 8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Assyrian Ivory Carvings

Assyrian ivory artisans employed a range of techniques. One in particular was the use of silhouette figures incised onto thin pieces of ivory. They carved two-dimensional, flat images that were less extravagant than artisans from other regions. Assyrian ivory carvings were stylistic, decorative, and figurative. They were known for their low relief modeled narrative scenes and animal friezes with openwork panels.

Head of a female figure blackened by fire, 8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Head of a female figure blackened by fire, ivory carving, 8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

North/South Syrian and Intermediate Ivory Carvings

North Syrian ivory artisans carved in a high relief style and opted for more round-faced figures with gigantic eyes and their hair in ringlets. They often portrayed contest scenes and were more influenced by the Phoenician style rather than the Egyptian. The South Syrian/Intermediate artisans are considered by some scholars to be a hybrid of North Syrian and Phoenician styles. 

Furniture plaque carved in high relief with two Egyptianizing figures flanking a volute tree, ivory carving, 9th-8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Furniture plaque carved in high relief with two Egyptianizing figures flanking a volute tree, ivory carving, 9th-8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Phoenician Ivory Carvings

Phoenician artisans excelled at carving ivory. They were experts of ornamental crafts and specialized in decorative objects. Their ivory carvings were traded throughout the near east and Mediterranean regions. Phoenician ivories drew largely from Egyptian art styles and they also employed a strong use of color. Their ivories were carved in high relief with open work designs and poised figures. Many of their designs were marked with Phoenician letters on the back side, likely to act as a guide for assembling certain objects.

Although ivory carving traditions varied in style and technique, all regional ivory artisans were influenced by each other to some extent and often depicted similar motifs. Ivory carvings from all traditions were usually colored or gilded, but not all were inlaid with precious stones or colored glass.

Openwork furniture plaque with ram-headed sphinx, ivory carving,9th-8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Openwork furniture plaque with ram-headed sphinx, ivory carving,9th-8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Iconography of Ivory Carvings

The iconography of Near Eastern ivory carvings from the Neo-Assyrian Period was quite diverse. Male and female figures were represented, courtiers and tributaries were popular characters as well. The ivory carvings also depicted animals that included lions, cattle or deer and fantastical, winged creatures: sphinxes, griffins, and genies. Floral and decorative, geometric motifs were also part of artistic compositions.

Panel with a tree pattern, ivory and wood, 8th century BCE,Neo-Assyrian, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Panel with a tree pattern, ivory and wood, 8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Neo-Assyrian Ivory Collections

Although thousands of ivory carvings have been discovered at ancient Assyrian archaeological sites that include Nimrud and Khorsabad (both in Iraq) and Arslan Tash (Syria) the majority of these ivories came from elsewhere and were made by people from other cultures, primarily the Phoenicians. They were either looted, given as gifts, or imported as luxury goods from around the Mediterranean and Near East. It’s likely that the true origin of these ivories is Levantine.

In ancient Mesopotamia, ivory was associated with wealth, royalty, and luxury. A large majority of ivory carvings were small plaques that were used in elements of furniture decoration, wall décor, or used as altars. Furthermore personal objects such decorative cosmetic boxes and handles for daggers, fans, mirrors, or fly whisks were embellished with this ghostly material.

Head of a female figure with rosette diadems, ivory carving, 8th-7th century BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Head of a female figure with rosette diadems, ivory carving, 8th-7th century BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Nimrud Ivory Carvings

Out of all the ancient Assyrian sites, the largest bounty of ivory carvings was discovered at Kalhu, present-day Nimrud, in Iraq. Many of these ivories were first unearthed by Austen Henry Layard, a British archaeologist during the 19th century. Nearly a century later, a vast majority of ivory carvings were excavated by British professors of archaeology Max Mallowan and David Oates who worked the site from 1949-1963 together with the British School of Archaeology in Iraq. Many of these artifacts were discovered in the royal buildings at the palace of King Ashurnasipal II. Ivories were found in residential suites and storerooms with some discovered at the bottom of palace wells.

Openwork furniture plaque with a cow suckling a calf, ivory carving, 9th-8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Openwork furniture plaque with a cow suckling a calf, ivory carving, 9th-8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

At one of the most significant royal buildings, Fort Shalmaneser, the majority of ivory carvings found were furniture plaques. In some cases, ivories were found piled up in storerooms intended for burning while many were found already burnt and broken. Looters had already stripped many of the ivories of their precious gemstones or gilding; what they considered to be more valuable than the ivories themselves.

Openwork furniture plaque with a sculpture of a woman, fire singed ivory plaque, 8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period,Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.
Openwork furniture plaque with a sculpture of a woman, fire singed ivory plaque, 8th century BCE, Neo-Assyrian Period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, USA.

Near Eastern Ivory Carvings Today

There are several collections of Near Eastern ivory carvings found at various institutions around the world. The largest collection can be found at the British Museum with well over 6,000 ivories under protection. Other major ivory collections include the Sulaymaniyah Museum in Kurdistan Iraq, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Birmingham Museum and Gallery in England, and the Cleveland Art Museum in Ohio.

In recent years, a large number of Near Eastern ivory carvings were destroyed, along with other valuable artifacts, by the Islamic State (Isis) in an attempt to erase the history and memory of ancient native cultures in Iraq. These priceless ivories of the ancient Near East not only reflect the remarkable history and culture of antiquity. They provide us with a sense of wonder and appreciation for an art form that is highly controversial in today’s world.


To learn more about art of the ancient world:

Artist and Writer. Marga is fascinated and inspired by the ancient world, art history and archaeology. You can find more of her work here: www.margapatterson.com

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