Horse blinker carved in relief with a wedjat eye
Not on view
This fragmentary, spade-shaped piece is carved in relief with a stylized eye. It 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. Originally bordered by a thin, raised strip of ivory, fragments of which are preserved along the upper and lower edges, the piece is broken at the flaring handle and the upper edge is abraded. The thick eyebrow is intricately woven into a braid and the eyelids are incised with short lines indicating the eyelashes. A tendril ornamented with two droplets curls under the eye. Certain details including the iris and pupil may have been added with paint that did not survive. In Egyptian art, the image of an eye with the curling tendril of a Horus falcon’s cheek is known as the wedjat. Egyptian features frequently appear on Phoenician style ivories such as this one.
Originally, this piece was probably used as a blinker to protect a horse’s right eye. Two drilled holes perforate the ivory at the upper and lower points of the blade, suggesting that it was fastened to another material, perhaps a textile or leather backing that has disintegrated. Although horses wearing equestrian bridle-harness ornaments are shown in Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs, it is not possible to know whether the ornaments in the reliefs were meant to represent work in ivory or in more durable materials such as bronze or iron. Ivory pieces like this one may have been used ceremonially, as votive dedications or as processional regalia, rather than in battle.
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.