Furniture plaque carved in high relief with two Egyptianizing figures flanking a volute tree

Period: Neo-Assyrian

Date: ca. 9th–8th century B.C.

Geography: Mesopotamia, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu)

Culture: Assyrian

Medium: Ivory

Dimensions: H. 4 7/8 x W. 3 1/16 x Th. 7/16 in. (12.4 x 7.7 x 1.1 cm)

Classification: Ivory/Bone-Reliefs-Inscribed

Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1962

Accession Number: 62.269.3


This rectangular plaque is carved in high relief with several features in the round and depicts two male figures flanking a stylized tree with voluted palmette branches emerging from its base. It was found with four other ivory plaques with similar imagery 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. Because of its skillful carving technique, symmetrical composition, and abundance of Egyptian forms, this piece has been attributed to the Phoenician style. A winged sun disc crowns and spans the length of the scene, above which emerge ten frontally facing uraei (mythical, fire-spitting serpents) set in a row, each crowned by sun discs. The Egyptianizing figures wear pschent crowns (the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt), beards, and wesekh broad collars with pendant droplets. They are clad in long, elaborately incised, pleated skirts that cover short, shendyt kilts tied with belts embroidered with a central chevron-patterned panel and two uraei projecting from either side, framed by decorative flaps. In their lowered hands, both figures hold a Phoenician-type spouted ewer and touch ram-headed scepters crowned by sun discs, held in their upraised hands, to the upper volute of the central tree. Two dowel holes, drilled deeply into either side of the sun disc, would have aided in securing this plaque to a frame by means of dowels, likely as part of a piece of furniture. The West Semitic letters Tav and Bet are inscribed into the reverse. Known as fitter’s marks, they would have served as guides to aid the craftsperson in the piece-by-piece assembly of the piece of furniture to which this plaque originally belonged.

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.