Openwork plaque with a hybrid tree


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Two sets of four curving, voluted branches grow upwards on this openwork plaque. This piece was found in a large storeroom at Fort Shalmaneser, a royal building at Nimrud that was probably used to store booty and tribute collected by the Assyrians while on military campaign. Bordered on the upper and lower edges by thin strips of ivory, each set of volutes emerges from a central stalk with down-turned volutes from which grow papyrus flowers. At the top, a six-petaled frond emerges from a chevron-patterned trunk. The details of each floral element are incised and the elegant forms are characteristic of Phoenician artistry. The absence of vertical frames suggests that plaques with this theme were probably placed side by side to form a continuous floral frieze. Two tenons preserved above the upper and below the lower edges suggest that this piece may have been fitted into a frame, likely as part of a piece of furniture. The two dowel holes that perforate the ivory, just below the upper border among the volutes, may have originally aided in the attachment of this piece to a frame by means of dowels. The West Semitic letter Heth is inscribed into the front of the tenon preserved below the lower edge of the ivory. Known as a fitter’s mark, this inscription would have served as a guide to aid the craftsperson in the piece-by-piece assembly of the piece of furniture to which this plaque originally belonged. Another ivory plaque found at Nimrud with similar imagery is also in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection (MMA 59.107.8).

Built by the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II, the palaces and storerooms of Nimrud housed thousands of pieces of carved ivory. Most of the ivories served as furniture inlays or small precious objects such as boxes. While some of them were carved in the same style as the large Assyrian reliefs lining the walls of the Northwest Palace, the majority of the ivories display images and styles related to the arts of North Syria and the Phoenician city-states. Phoenician style ivories are distinguished by their use of imagery related to Egyptian art, such as sphinxes and figures wearing pharaonic crowns, and the use of elaborate carving techniques such as openwork and colored glass inlay. North Syrian style ivories tend to depict stockier figures in more dynamic compositions, carved as solid plaques with fewer added decorative elements. However, some pieces do not fit easily into any of these three styles. Most of the ivories were probably collected by the Assyrian kings as tribute from vassal states, and as booty from conquered enemies, while some may have been manufactured in workshops at Nimrud. The ivory tusks that provided the raw material for these objects were almost certainly from African elephants, imported from lands south of Egypt, although elephants did inhabit several river valleys in Syria until they were hunted to extinction by the end of the eighth century B.C.

Openwork plaque with a hybrid tree, Ivory, Assyrian

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