Furniture plaque carved in relief with a cow suckling a calf


Not on view

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 rectangular plaque, carved in low relief, depicts a cow suckling her calf and is bordered by a thin band on the upper and lower edges. The scene is framed by vegetation that terminates in incised fronds, which stem from twisting stalks near the cow’s chest. The thick locks of hair are detailed with incised lines and two large, curved horns rest against the upper body in low relief. She turns and lowers her head, accented by a now lost inlaid eye, licking the tail of the calf she suckles. The plaque exhibits characteristics of the South Syrian style: the cow’s large body that presses up against the frame and the stylized vegetation draw upon North Syrian forms and combine with flowing lines characteristic of the Phoenician tradition. The theme of a cow suckling a calf is commonly associated with fertility. Two mortises cut into the roughened back of the plaque suggest that it may have received pegs for insertion into a piece of furniture. The absence of vertical frame elements indicates that it was perhaps placed side by side with similar plaques in a continuous frieze on the piece of furniture to which it originally belonged.

Furniture plaque carved in relief with a cow suckling a calf, Ivory, Assyrian

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