Openwork furniture plaque with lion


Not on view

This ivory plaque was found in a storage room in Fort Shalmaneser, a royal building at Nimrud that was used to store booty and tribute collected by the Assyrians while on military campaign. It depicts a snarling lion with hindquarters raised, head turned back over his shoulder, framed on three sides with a simple border decorated by two parallel vertical lines. The lion is carved in the openwork technique, in which the background is cut away and remaining elements are carved in the round. The eye was drilled for the insertion of an inlay, now missing. The piece is heavily damaged and parts of the frame and the lion’s lower legs have been restored in wax. A tenon projects from the top edge of the frame and would have been inserted into a slot in a separate frame, probably as part of a piece of furniture. Two drill holes in the tenon indicate that once inserted, the plaque was locked in place by driving pegs through the holes to fix it to the frame. Carved ivory pieces such as this were widely used in the production of elite furniture and luxury objects during the early first millennium B.C., and could be overlaid with gold foil or inlaid to create a dazzling effect of gleaming surfaces and bright colors.

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 furniture plaque with lion, Ivory, Assyrian

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