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 openwork plaque depicts a striding, winged, ram-headed sphinx, a fantastic creature drawn from Egyptian art that combines the head of a ram and the body of a lion. Ram-headed sphinxes were often depicted in the Nile Valley during the Third Intermediate Period, a time that coincided with Phoenician presence in the Levant. The slender proportions of this composite creature and its originally inlaid eye are typical of the Phoenician style, as are several elements drawn from Egyptian art including the pschent crown (the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt), the chevron-patterned apron hanging from the chest, and the projecting uraei (mythical, fire-spitting serpents). A stalk terminating in a palmette finial is placed behind the sphinx’s body. Wings with delicately articulated feathers, another feature of Phoenician artistry, emerge from under a curling lock of hair. The tenons preserved below the lower edge indicate that the plaque may have been fitted into a frame, likely as part of a piece of furniture. The original composition may have been symmetrical, a feature of Phoenician art, with an identical sphinx facing this one, both flanking a palmette tree.
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, p. 67.
Wilkinson, Charles K. 1960. "The First Millennium B.C." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 18, p. 263, fig. 24.
Fontan, Elisabeth. 2014. “Ivories of Arslan Tash.” In Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age, exh. cat. edited by Joan Aruz, Sarah B. Graff, and Yelena Rakic. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, fig. 3.50, p. 155.