Nimrud ivories

Nimrud ivories

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The Nimrud ivories are carved ivory plaques and figures dating from the 9th to the 7th centuries BC that were excavated from the Assyria
Assyria was a Semitic Akkadian kingdom, extant as a nation state from the mid–23rd century BC to 608 BC centred on the Upper Tigris river, in northern Mesopotamia , that came to rule regional empires a number of times through history. It was named for its original capital, the ancient city of Assur...

n city of Nimrud
Nimrud is an ancient Assyrian city located south of Nineveh on the river Tigris in modern Ninawa Governorate Iraq. In ancient times the city was called Kalḫu. The Arabs called the city Nimrud after the Biblical Nimrod, a legendary hunting hero .The city covered an area of around . Ruins of the city...

 (in modern Ninawa
Ninawa Governorate
Ninawa is a governorate in northern Iraq, and the Arabic name for the biblical city of Nineveh in Assyria. It has an area of and an estimated population of 2,453,000 people in 2003. Its chief city and provincial capital is Mosul, which lies across the Tigris river from the ruins of ancient...

 in Iraq
Iraq ; officially the Republic of Iraq is a country in Western Asia spanning most of the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range, the eastern part of the Syrian Desert and the northern part of the Arabian Desert....

) during the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of the ivories were taken to the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 and were deposited in (though not owned by) the British Museum
British Museum
The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...

. In 2011, the Museum acquired most of the British-held ivories through a donation and purchase and is to put a selection on view. It is intended that the remainder will be returned to Iraq. A significant number of ivories were already held by Iraqi institutions but many have been lost or damaged through war and looting.

The ivories mostly originated outside Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia is a toponym for the area of the Tigris–Euphrates river system, largely corresponding to modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran.Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer and the...

 and are thought to have been made in the Levant
The Levant or ) is the geographic region and culture zone of the "eastern Mediterranean littoral between Anatolia and Egypt" . The Levant includes most of modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and sometimes parts of Turkey and Iraq, and corresponds roughly to the...

 and Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

. They are carved with motifs typical of those regions and were used to decorate high-status items of furniture or transportation. The ivories would have originally been decorated with gold leaf or semi-precious stones, which were stripped from them at some point before their final burial. Many were found at the bottom of wells, having apparently been dumped there during a period of war or unrest.

Layard (1845)

The first group of ivories was excavated from the site of the palace of Shalmaneser III
Shalmaneser III
Shalmaneser III was king of Assyria , and son of the previous ruler, Ashurnasirpal II....

 (ruled 859–824 BC) at the Assyrian capital of Nimrud. The palace was rediscovered in 1845 by Austin Henry Layard, on the very first day of his excavations; on the second day, he made the first discovery of ivories.

Loftus (1854–1855)

More ivories were found during William Kennett Loftus's excavations in 1854–1855. They were found in a group of buildings labelled the "South-East Palace" or "Burnt Palace"; Loftus described the circumstances of the discovery in a letter to the Journal of Sacred Literature in February 1855:

Mallowan (1949–1963)

Further discoveries were made between 1949 and 1963 by a team from the British School of Archaeology in Iraq led by the archaeologist Max Mallowan
Max Mallowan
Sir Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan, CBE was a prominent British archaeologist, specialising in ancient Middle Eastern history, and the second husband of Dame Agatha Christie.-Life and work:...

. Mallowan found thousands of ivories, many of which were discovered at the bottom of wells into which they had apparently been thrown when the city was sacked, either in the turmoil that followed the death of Sargon II
Sargon II
Sargon II was an Assyrian king. Sargon II became co-regent with Shalmaneser V in 722 BC, and became the sole ruler of the kingdom of Assyria in 722 BC after the death of Shalmaneser V. It is not clear whether he was the son of Tiglath-Pileser III or a usurper unrelated to the royal family...

 in 705 BC or when Nineveh fell and was destroyed in 612 BC. Mallowan's wife was the famous British crime novelist, Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie
Dame Agatha Christie DBE was a British crime writer of novels, short stories, and plays. She also wrote romances under the name Mary Westmacott, but she is best remembered for her 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections , and her successful West End plays.According to...

 (1890–1976), who was fascinated with archaeology, and who accompanied her husband on the Nimrud excavations. Christie helped photograph and preserve many of the ivories found during the excavations, explaining in her autobiography that she cleaned the ivories using a fine knitting needle
Knitting needle
A knitting needle or knitting pin is a tool in hand-knitting to produce knitted fabrics. They generally have a long shaft and taper at their end, but they are not nearly as sharp as sewing needles. Their purpose is two-fold...

, an orange stick and a pot of face cream.

The collection of ivories uncovered by Mallowan were divided between Iraq and Britain, where they remained at the British School of Archaeology in Iraq (later to become the British Institute for the Study of Iraq) until 1987. They were then put in storage at the British Museum until 2011, but were not put on display. Many of the Iraqi-held ivories have been lost or damaged. Following the Iraq War 2003 the National Museum of Iraq
National Museum of Iraq
The National Museum of Iraq is a museum located in Baghdad, Iraq. It contains precious relics from Mesopotamian civilization.-Foundation:...

 in Baghdad
Baghdad is the capital of Iraq, as well as the coterminous Baghdad Governorate. The population of Baghdad in 2011 is approximately 7,216,040...

 was looted, and many of the ivories kept there were damaged or stolen. Other ivories that were stored in a bank vault in Baghdad were damaged by water when the building was shelled.

In March 2011, the British Museum purchased one third of the Mallowan ivories (comprising 1,000 complete ivories and 5,000 fragments) from the British Institute for the Study of Iraq for £1.17 million, following a public fundraising campaign that raised £750,000 in six months, and with the support of grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund
National Heritage Memorial Fund
The National Heritage Memorial Fund is a non-departmental public body set up under the National Heritage Act 1980 in memory of people who gave their lives for the United Kingdom....

 and the Art Fund. This is the second most expensive purchase by the British Museum since the end of the Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, second only in price to the Queen of the Night
Burney Relief
The Burney Relief is a Mesopotamian terracotta plaque in high relief of the Isin-Larsa- or Old-Babylonian period, depicting a winged, nude, goddess-like figure with bird's talons, flanked by owls, and perched upon supine lions. The relief is displayed in the British Museum in London, which has...

 which cost £1.5 million in 2003.

In addition to the purchase, the British Institute for the Study of Iraq has also donated another third of its collection to the British Museum in recognition of the storage of the collection by the museum over the previous 24 years. It is anticipated that the remaining third of the collection will be returned to Iraq sometime in the future. A selection of the ivories will be put on display at the British Museum from 14 March 2011.

Oates (1957–1963)

The largest single ivory find was made between 1957–1963 when a British School team led by David Oates discovered a room at the Nimrud palace that was dubbed the "ivory room", which had apparently served as the main storage centre for ivory objects amassed by the Assyrian kings. Subsequent excavations by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities unearthed still more ivories.

Other discoveries

In recent years excavations by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities have unearthed more ivories.


Ivories from Nimrud are held at a number of institutions across the world:
  • British Museum
    British Museum
    The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...

    , London, England: 6,000 pieces excavated by Malowan which were formerly held at the British Institute for the Study of Iraq; as well as a number of pieces from other excvations.
  • National Museum of Iraq
    National Museum of Iraq
    The National Museum of Iraq is a museum located in Baghdad, Iraq. It contains precious relics from Mesopotamian civilization.-Foundation:...

    , Baghdad, Iraq.
  • University of Melbourne
    University of Melbourne
    The University of Melbourne is a public university located in Melbourne, Victoria. Founded in 1853, it is the second oldest university in Australia and the oldest in Victoria...

    , Australia: 3 pieces excavated by Malowan.


The ivories comprise plaques decorated in relief with intricate carvings of sphinxes, lions, serpents, people, flowers and geometric motifs, as well as carvings of female heads and female figurines. They were carved in various locations across the Ancient Near East, including Egypt, modern Syria and Lebanon, with relatively few carved locally. The ivory used to make these objects would originally have been derived from Syrian Elephant
Syrian Elephant
The Syrian elephant is a proposed name for the westernmost population of the Asian Elephant which became extinct in ancient times...

s which were endemic in the Middle East in ancient times, but by the 8th century BC the Syrian Elephant had been hunted close to extinction, and ivory for later objects would have had to be imported from India.

The ivory plaques are thought to have been used to decorate chariots, furniture and horse trappings, and would originally have been covered in gold leaf or ornamented with semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli
Lapis lazuli
Lapis lazuli is a relatively rare semi-precious stone that has been prized since antiquity for its intense blue color....

. Some pieces still preserve remnants of gold leafing. Many were already centuries old when put in storage and may have fallen out of fashion by that time. The gold may have been removed from the ivories before they were put in storage, or it may have been taken by the Babylonians
Neo-Babylonian Empire
The Neo-Babylonian Empire or Second Babylonian Empire was a period of Mesopotamian history which began in 626 BC and ended in 539 BC. During the preceding three centuries, Babylonia had been ruled by their fellow Akkadian speakers and northern neighbours, Assyria. Throughout that time Babylonia...

 when they sacked and razed Nimrud in 612 BC.

Some of the ivories have Phoenician letters
Phoenician alphabet
The Phoenician alphabet, called by convention the Proto-Canaanite alphabet for inscriptions older than around 1050 BC, was a non-pictographic consonantal alphabet, or abjad. It was used for the writing of Phoenician, a Northern Semitic language, used by the civilization of Phoenicia...

 engraved on their back, which it is thought may have been used as guides to the assembly of pieces onto the furniture to which the ivories were attached. The presence of Phoenician letters on the ivories suggests that they were the product of Phoenicia
Phoenicia , was an ancient civilization in Canaan which covered most of the western, coastal part of the Fertile Crescent. Several major Phoenician cities were built on the coastline of the Mediterranean. It was an enterprising maritime trading culture that spread across the Mediterranean from 1550...

n craftsmen.

In addition to plaques, many small ivory carvings of female heads have been found at Nimrud, most only one or two inches in height, but a few over 5 inches tall. Many of these heads wear a flat cap which is very similar to the flat caps depicted on much earlier ivories from the Tel Megiddo site in modern Israel
The State of Israel is a parliamentary republic located in the Middle East, along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea...

. Another common carved form found at Nimrud comprises figurines of two naked females joined back to back, which are thought to have been used either as handles for fans or mirrors, or as a decorative element on furniture.

The plaques show a wide variety of themes, some of which exhibit a pure Assyrian style, and some of which show Egyptian influence, with engravings of Egyptian people or gods, and even Egyptian hieroglyphs
Egyptian hieroglyphs
Egyptian hieroglyphs were a formal writing system used by the ancient Egyptians that combined logographic and alphabetic elements. Egyptians used cursive hieroglyphs for religious literature on papyrus and wood...

. However, the Egyptian themes are often misconstrued, and the hieroglyphs do not form valid names, so they would seem to be debased imitations of Egyptian art.

A far greater number of ivories were found at Nimrud than at any other Assyrian site, and it is thought that they had been brought to Nimrud as booty or imported as luxury goods from cities on the Mediterranean coast. Some centuries later it seems that these objects fell out of fashion, and were put into storage.

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