During the early first millennium B.C., ivory carving was one of the major luxury arts that flourished throughout the ancient Near East. Elephant tusks were carved into small decorative objects such as cosmetic boxes and plaques used to adorn wooden furniture. Gold foil, paint, and semiprecious stone and glass inlay embellishments enlivened these magnificent works of art. Based on certain stylistic, formal, and technical characteristics also visible in other media, scholars have distinguished several coherent style groups of ivory carving that belong to different regional traditions including Assyrian, Phoenician, North Syrian and South Syrian (the latter also known as Intermediate).
Several ivories in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection are from the Aramaean town of Arslan Tash, ancient Hadatu, in northern Syria just east of the Euphrates River, close to the modern Turkish border. French archaeological excavations at the site in 1928 revealed city walls and gates in addition to a palace and temple that were built when the Neo-Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (744-721 B.C.) turned the town into a provincial capital and military outpost. During the excavations, over one hundred ivory furniture inlays that can be attributed to the South Syrian and Phoenician styles were found in a building near the palace. One piece bears a dedicatory inscription in Aramaic to King Hazael, mentioned in the Bible, who ruled Damascus during the second half of the 9th century (ca. 843-806 B.C.), suggesting that this collection of ivory furniture inlays could have been taken by the Assyrian state as tribute or booty from Damascus. The Arslan Tash ivories share an amalgamation of Egyptianizing motifs typical of the Phoenician style and forms characteristic of North Syrian art that may indicate a South Syrian or Damascene origin of this group. Today, these ivories are housed in museums in Paris, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Karlsruhe, and Hamburg, as well as The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This fragmentary plaque depicts a striding bull with its head slightly lowered and looking forward. It can be attributed to the South Syrian style, combining elements of North Syrian and Phoenician workmanship. The openwork technique is characteristic of the Phoenician style while the bull’s large, heavy body is a feature of the North Syrian style. The head is articulated by a wrinkled, incised snout and a once inlaid eye accentuated by raised, incised eyebrows. The neck is carved in creased rolls of skin and the dewlaps are carved in relief. The bull’s horn, legs and tail do not survive. Other openwork ivory plaques in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection with the same motif were found at the Neo-Assyrian capital of Nimrud (MMA 64.37.4; MMA 54.117.10).
Acquired by the Museum in 1957, purchased from Elie Borowski, New York.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1957. "Additions to the Collections." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 16 (2), Eighty-Seventh Annual Report of the Trustees for the Fiscal Year 1956-1957 (Oct., 1957), p. 67.