Openwork furniture plaque with a striding, ram-headed sphinx
Not on view
A ram-headed sphinx, a fantastic creature drawn from Egyptian art that combines the head of a ram with the body of a winged lion, strides through a landscape of voluted palmettes in this rectangular openwork plaque. This piece was found 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. Ram-headed sphinxes were often depicted in Egyptian art during the time when this ivory was carved by Phoenician artisans. This suggests that Phoenicians, whose home cities were along the eastern Mediterranean coast, were aware of contemporary Egyptian art. The slender proportions of this composite creature’s leonine body are typical of Phoenician ivories, as are several elements drawn from Egyptian art including the pschent crown (the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt), the chevron-patterned apron hanging from the chest, the nemes cloth (a royal, pleated headdress), and the uraeus (a mythical, fire-spitting serpent) that projects from the apron. The plaque is framed on one side by a stylized palmette tree and on the other three by thin strips of ivory. A tenon preserved above the upper edge suggests that the plaque may have been fitted into a frame, likely as part of a piece of furniture. Three holes drilled into the plaque may have originally aided in the attachment of this piece to a frame by means of dowels. Difficult to see, they are visible at the curve of the uraeus, through the plant growing behind the right foreleg, and in the loops of the tail. Like many Phoenician works, the original composition may have been symmetrical, with an identical sphinx facing this one.
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.