Head of a male or female figure


Not on view

This piece is carved in the round from a section of elephant tusk and could represent the head of a male or a female figure. It was found with several other fragmentary statuettes in a storeroom at Fort Shalmaneser, a royal building at Nimrud that was probably used to store tribute and booty collected by the Assyrians while on military campaign. Two rectangular mortises cut into the flat reverse of the face suggest that this piece was originally part of a composite statuette made of various materials and painted or overlaid with gold foil. It was probably attached to another piece made out of wood or ivory that comprised the upper part and back of the head. The neck is curved, perhaps to fit into the collar of the joining chest. The soft modeling and inlays that once filled the deeply cut eyes and eyebrows are characteristic of Phoenician artistry. The headdress is tied by knots at intervals and preserves some of its original inlay of Egyptian blue, a vibrant pigment made of silica, lime, copper, and alkali.

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.

Head of a male or female figure, Ivory, Egyptian Blue, Assyrian

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