Nimrud Ivory Panel of Lotuses

Nimrud Ivory Panel of Lotuses

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Ivory panel of a lioness devouring a boy, Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud, Phoenician.

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Temples in Palmyra

In May 2015, the terrorist group ISIS captured Palmyra, an ancient city in Syria that holds many archaeological ruins. Over the next eight months, ISIS plundered and destroyed a number of archaeological sites, including ancient temples dedicated to the gods Baalshamin and Bel.

The temples date back around 2,000 years and featured several massive, finely decorated columns. At the time the temples were in use, Palmyra was under Roman control. The city was becoming a hub for trade, bringing the city great wealth.

Warriors Across the Ancient World

This post is part of a series of image posts Ancient History et cetera will be putting together each month. Today’s post concerns ancient warriors!

Ancient warfare was vastly different from how it is conducted today the vanquished could be certain that slavery or execution awaited them. Initially, ancient armies were made up of infantry units who would engage enemy forces on the field with spears, shields, some form of body armour and a helmet. In time, armies developed to include shock troops, peltasts and include strategies like the formation known as the phalanx.

The hoplite is the Greek solider most are familiar with. His complete suit of armour was a long spear, short sword, and circular bronze shield he was further protected, if he could afford it, by a bronze helmet, bronze breastplate, greaves for the legs and finally, ankle guards.

The Aztecs engaged in warfare (yaoyotl) to acquire territory, resources, quash rebellions, and to collect sacrificial victims to honour their gods. Warfare was a fundamental part of Aztec culture and all males were expected to participate. Eagle knights were a special class of infantry soldier in the Aztec army and one of the two leading military orders in their society.

The Assyrian war machine was one of the most efficient military forces in the ancient world. The secret to its success was a professionally trained standing army, use of iron weapons, advanced engineering skills and most importantly a complete ruthlessness, which proclaimed the power of ancient Assyria across the Near East.

The Roman army was usually commanded by a consul. Roman commanders generally preferred an aggressive and full-frontal attack, and they had many strategies to break enemy lines such as the tortoise, the wedge, skirmishing formation, repel cavalry and the orb.


Very little furniture survives from ancient Mesopotamia, principally because climatic conditions are not conducive to the preservation of wood. What is known has been learned principally from reliefs and cylinder seals. Furniture mounts of bronze and ivory have been excavated, however, and fragments of furniture were uncovered in the royal tombs at the city of Ur, in ancient Sumer. In quality of craftsmanship and decoration, Mesopotamian furniture was comparable to that of Egypt.

The mud-brick houses of the Sumerian and Old Babylonian periods in the Tigris-Euphrates valley resembled their modern counterparts in their rectangular outline and the groupings of rooms about a central court, which was either roofed or open. In most houses, decoration probably was confined to a wide black or dark-coloured skirting painted in diluted pitch with a band of some lighter colour above. Door frames were sometimes painted red, probably as a protection against evil influences, and where doors were used they may have been of palm wood. The poorer houses were simply whitewashed.

In the most elaborate Assyrian palaces the main decorative features were panels of alabaster and limestone carved in relief, the principal subjects being hunting, ceremonial, and war, as in the palace of the warrior king Sargon II at Khorsabad (705 bc ). Panels and friezes of ceramic tiles in vivid colours decorated the walls inside and out, and it is evident that this brilliance of colour was a feature of much Assyrian and Babylonian decoration (see photograph ). Carved stone slabs were used as flooring, with typical Mesopotamian rosette and palmette (stylized palm leaf) borders. Occasionally, Egyptian lotus motifs also appear.

Vigorous and warlike figures characterize both Assyrian and Babylonian work, and the standard of execution was extremely high. Naturalistic detail was often engraved on the surface of the figures and animals, which themselves were in relief. After the Persian conquest (539–331 bc ) this vigour declined. The palaces built by the Persian kings Darius and Xerxes I at Persepolis show a lighter use of animal figures. Glazed and enamelled tiles were used on the walls, while timber roof beams and ceilings were painted in vivid colours.

Nimrud Ivory Panel of Lotuses - History

An understanding of the means by which a carved ivory statuette, box, or plaque comes into being is normally not considered integral to its aesthetic appreciation or the comprehension of its intellectual content. Yet for the productions of many cultures such larger knowledge can be shown to be of central importance. If the aim of our studies is the fullest possible awareness of an object’s achievement and effect, then both the nature of the material and the ways in which it was worked are essential parts of the equipment that retrospectively needs to be brought to bear on it. Such information not only can elucidate its origins and history, including its occasional reworking, but also can be instrumental in the identification of modern forgeries.

On the many occasions when they involve organic substances, investigations in material culture present an opportunity to remove some of the mysteries (and the mystification) that surround the study of historical objects. Particularly when the materials in question are substances such as fine woods and ivory, prized in the Middle Ages and no less today, inquiries of this sort offer sets of constants that, if duly recognized, allow us to understand the nature of these materials, the ways in which they were worked, and the reasons why they were esteemed.

If, for example, we look at a handsome baseball bat, made before the day when white ash was largely replaced by maple and aluminum, we can see that its concentric grain radiates across its full width of 7 cm and descends as a series of arcs that extend almost to the handle, nearly 103 cm away, at which point the grain again becomes more splayed (fig. 1). There are many differences between various woods and elephant tusks—in rarity, hardness, and the fact that the growth patterns of ivory are not expressions of annual increments—but the optical and tactile resemblances between these mediums enable us, in an age when (for good reason) ivory is becoming an ever less familiar substance, to appreciate its commonalities with the more widely diffused materials. Thus, before turning to ivories of the tenth century that, with their twentieth-century derivatives, are the main subject of this paper, we can recognize analogies between the grain of the baseball bat and that displayed on the back of the Christ child on his mother’s lap in a Gothic statuette now in Toronto, and even more dramatically on the grain of her left sleeve (fig. 2). 1

Fig. 2. Virgin and child statuette, side view, early 14th century. Ivory, 10 3/4 x 4 1/8 in. (27.3 x 10.5 cm). Toronto, Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Lowden and Cherry, Medieval Ivories, no. 14.

These areas of visual emphasis are markedly more pronounced than those on the statuette when seen from the front (fig. 3), and this difference is surely no accident, for their selection by the sculptor corresponds with the manner of perception demanded of the viewer.

Fig. 3. Frontal view of fig. 2.

He or she is tacitly enjoined by the artist to turn the object around in order to read the narrative extension of the group as, on the back of the throne, it displays Herod’s order to massacre the innocents, a soldier plunging his knife into the back of a child, and the desperate plea of a woman as she tugs at the murderer’s tunic.

This sequence works of course by antithesis with the statuette when viewed in its “normal” position: the gaze of the Virgin at her son, who returns her smile even as he reaches playfully toward her neckline. Only the demonic beast beneath her foot alludes to the consequences and circumstances of this sacred conversation. There is more, however, to this image than the physiognomical demonstration of a loving exchange. Anyone toward the middle of the thirteenth century who knew the form of a carved tusk (and there were many more then than there are today) would have been aware that the zone inhabited by the demon on which Mary treads, and indeed the entire width of the statuette at its base, occupied the broadest part of the tusk. This proximal end was severed close to the point where it entered the elephant’s jaw and contains a hollow pulp cavity. The latter, in turn, is succeeded by the much narrower nerve canal leading to the distal end (the zone furthest from the jaw), 2 where the ivory is often damaged and frequently, and in many instances, excised by the carver (see fig. 3 fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Madonna and Child, 1250–60. Ivory, partially gilded, 16¼ x 5 x 3¾ in. (41 x 12.4 x 9.6 cm). Inv. OA57. Paris, Musée du Louvre. Photo: Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY.

But more important, and more evident to the sentient viewer, was the sculptor’s exploitation of the tusk’s natural curvature in order to evoke the Virgin’s inclination toward her son. Almost the entire length of the animal’s defense was used, although separate sections of material were employed to depict Mary’s right forearm and hand (and possibly those of Christ’s left), now lost but with their original situation marked by the surviving fragment of a dowel. That the full width of the tusk at this level was used is indicated by the almost vertical striations, akin in appearance to the sapwood of a sawn tree, on the sleeve of the Virgin’s right arm (see fig. 2). These represent the outermost layer of workable ivory, and occur just below the husk, an unusable carapace shown being stripped with an adze in a miniature in an eleventh-century Byzantine manuscript in Venice (fig. 5). 3

Fig. 5. Craftsman stripping a tusk, Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, cod. Gr. Z479, fol. 36r.

Once this bark has been removed, a sectioned and split tusk would offer on either side of the pulp cavity and the nerve canal dentine appropriate to the preparation of plaques. To these we can now turn, all the while looking for physical hints that can not only tell us about the craftsman’s techniques but also provide otherwise unknowable information concerning the material’s availability.

The best clue in this regard is the extent to which ivory of less than the highest grade was used, be it on plaques that on their reverses show traces of the pulp cavity, “ghosts” of the nerve canal, or, most common of all, the longitudinal striations that I have just mentioned. The shortage of high-quality dentine appears even in some of the finest Byzantine plaques where skill in workmanship was not thwarted by the lack of material of the highest order. Indeed, the former could go a fair way toward overcoming the latter, a proposition exemplified by the superb openwork plaque in the Victoria and Albert Museum depicting John the Baptist, the protomartyr Stephen, and two apostles (fig. 6).

Fig. 6. John the Baptist, Stephen the Protomartyr, and two apostles plaque, mid- to late-10th century. Ivory. London, Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. 215-1866. Photo: After Williamson, Medieval Ivory Carvings no. 24.

Between its striated vertical borders an almost diaphanous sheet of ivory (considerably thinner than the plaque’s varying thickness of 5 to 7 mm at its frame) supports a gossamer network of half-length portraits connected by delicate foliage, the constituent elements of which are themselves attenuated and pierced. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that parts of this interstitial tissue have broken off. Scarcely thicker than this leafy filigree is the central medallion, cracked, as is evident on the reverse, on either side of the nerve canal (fig. 7). Despite these injuries, the piece as a whole has recently and justly been described as “a masterpiece of technical virtuosity.” 4

Fig. 7. Reverse of fig. 6.

This particular slice of dentine is too thin to manifest the imbricated arcs of grain seized upon for their “modeling potential” by sculptors as far apart chronologically and geographically as Syria-Phoenicia in the eighth century BCE and Constantinople in the reign of Justinian I. On a famous ancient Near Eastern plaque in the British Museum, these ellipses serve to suggest the muscular structure of the lioness’s flanks, while the mass of the shoulder of its prey is conveyed by the whorl exposed by the sculptor at this point (fig. 8).

Fig. 8. Lioness and black man plaque, 8th century BCE. Ivory, 4 1/4 x 4 1/4 x 1 in. (10.35 x 10.2 x 2.45 cm). London, British Museum, WAA 127142. Photo: After R. D. Barnett, A Catalogue of the Nimrud Ivories (London, 1957), no. 0.1).

To the lay eye such processes in ivory seem to appear at random, but to the skilled workman, accustomed to producing panels from sections of tusk, they would have been fairly predictable lying, as they do on the lioness plaque, on the same plane. Thus, working from a mental scheme or a preliminary sketch, he could plan to take advantage of them. Perhaps the most impressive example of this sort of calculus is the Archangel plaque in the same museum (fig. 9).

Fig. 9. Archangel plaque, mid-6th century. Ivory, 17 x 5 3/4 x 1/2 in. (42.8 x 14.3 x 0.9 cm). London, British Museum, inv. P&E, OA 9999. Photo: Museum.

Removing material plane by plane, the carver came upon processes that could be used, first, to suggest the spherical volume of the orb in the archangel’s right hand, then the rotundity of the cheeks before arriving at material the structure of which could be used to denote the tendons of the neck (fig. 10).

Fig. 10. Detail of fig. 9.

All these features, and others on the ivory, were heightened by polishing, the final phase in the craftsman’s handiwork. But an even more cogent example of this stage is the already-mentioned Baptist plaque on which the luminosity of the figures’ hair and foreheads is emphasized by burnishing these areas, as well as the clothes they wear, in contrast to the less reflective surrounding ground. The implication is that the saints glow with an inner light, a metaphysical idea well grounded in Byzantine thought, and a notion that would have been subverted had the figures been daubed with color instead of the occasionally noticeable, and limited, gilding of halos and some red-painted inscriptions. 5

Far less disputable as a sign of an ivory’s antiquity than the extent of its coloration is the fact of its historical abrasion. Although only slightly more than half as hard as marble, and considerably less than that of hard stones and gems, 6 ivory is among the hardest organic materials known. Nonetheless, as a result of touching or other sorts of human use, it will be worn down over time and thus incrementally lose the sharp forms imposed on it by an experienced sculptor. (In a moment we shall look at the forms achieved by a less than skilled carver.) The differential effects of wear are beautifully exemplified by an ivory medicine box at Dumbarton Oaks on the underside of which the figures have lost some of their former definition, and variously so in proportion to the object’s contact with a surface on which it was laid, or the palm of a hand that held it (fig. 11). 7

Fig. 11. Medicine box (underside), second half of 4th–5th century. Ivory, 6 x 3 1/2 in. (15.2 x 8.9 cm). Washington, Dumbarton Oaks, inv. BZ.1947.8. Photo: After G. Bühl, Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), p. 53.

The amount of rubbing they have undergone is obviously more than that of the figures on the lid, which, although they inhabit an external surface of the box, are to some extent protected by the projecting molded pull that rises above them (fig. 12). Of course we do not know how long this object continued to be handled—it could well have become a container for knickknacks long after its imagery ceased to have immediate meaning for its users—but the patterns of wear that it displays were surely arrested after it acquired “collectible” status and entered the glassy prison of some museum.

Fig. 12. Medicine Box lid (see fig. 11).

Changing iconographic significance may well be a factor in determining the stages in an ivory’s biography. Thus the abraded faces and emblems of office of the consul Justin on the leaves of his diptych of 540 are consistent with those of the emperor and empress in the medallions above him (fig. 13) it is clear that the latter have at some point also been recarved. 8

Fig. 13. Consular diptych of Justin, 540. Ivory. Berlin, Staatliche Museum für Spätantike und Byzantinische Kunst, inv. 636. Photo: After A. Effenberger, ed., Spätantike und Byzantinische Kunst (Berlin, 1992), no. 52.

Even more obvious is the reworking of the images of Christ between the sovereigns. Given sensibilities toward nuances in the representation of God, it is hardly likely that on one leaf his nimbus would originally have contained a cross (fig. 14) that is missing from the other.

Fig. 14. Detail of fig. 13, front leaf.

As the painted inscriptions on the back of the diptych show, the object eventually entered into liturgical use. This could have been as late as the Carolingian era tentatively suggested by Delbrueck, 9 but critical adjustment of the divine likeness smacks much more of sixth- or early seventh-century theological concerns than those of the ninth.

Whatever the occasion on which parts of the Justin were reworked, the physical traces of this procedure are unmistakable. Ivory is an unforgiving material and later interventions, no matter whether they involve inscriptions, figures, or their attributes and settings, are almost always recognizable. As against arrant, modern forgeries—a topic to which I shall come—the modification of otherwise perfectly authentic ancient pieces normally stands out. From the viewpoint of the connoisseur intent on detecting fakes this datum confers obvious benefit it also has the advantage, as they say in Texas, of being true. Similar results, of course, may be obtained through carbon-14 testing, but this is both a destructive and an expensive process to which curators are understandably unwilling to subject objects in their care. 10 But we do not always need science to tell us that something is awry. A case in point is an ivory that has been in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg at least since 1925 when the great curator Leonid Matsulevich put it into storage as a forgery (fig. 15).

Fig. 15. Chairete and Anastasis diptych leaf, late 19th or early 20th century. Ivory, 9 x 4½ x 4½ in. (22.5 x 11.5 x 11.5 cm). Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum, inv. Ω1473. Photo: Museum.

It was discovered there by the present curator and introduced to the West in The Glory of Byzantium show at the Metropolitan Museum. In the catalogue entry, the author of which was the same curator, it was argued that the plaque, which depicts the Chairete (the Appearance of Christ to the Marys) and the Anastasis (the Resurrection), was an icon closely related to a diptych leaf in Dresden (fig. 16), first published in 1853. 11

Fig. 16. Chairete and Anastasis diptych leaf, mid-10th century. Ivory, 9 x 4¾ x 4 in. (22.7 x 11.8 x 10 cm). Dresden, Grünes Gewölbe. Photo: Museum.

I looked at it for hours in the vitrine and came to the conclusion that it is a fake, an opinion later confirmed by hands-on study in Saint Petersburg. What was already evident in the showcase in New York was that the hinge cuttings for its attachment to another leaf are set into the front of the frame—a solecism unknown in Byzantium—rather than in its side, as on the Dresden piece.

But there is more to the problem than this technical departure. Immediately obvious is the difference between the softness of the carving and inscription on the Hermitage version 12 and their counterparts in Dresden, where both the folds of cloth and the lettering are razor-sharp. Finally and most decisively, the back of the plaque in Saint Petersburg is smooth, creamy, and devoid of the cross on the reverse of the authentic piece (fig. 17).

Fig. 17. Reverse of fig. 16.

Now, there is no a priori reason why one ivory cannot manifest the same iconography, and even similar physical attitudes and attributes, as another. But if it is a product of the same “workshop,” as the catalogue entry insists—refusing to countenance the fact that Byzantine ivories were carved by one pair of human hands rather than by the abstract conceptual entity called a workshop 13 —then why is there no trace of the image on the obverse? On the authentic leaf the risen Christ looms like a specter above the prostrate Marys through the ground of material sawn so finely that it is never more than 3 mm thick. Having had the piece in my hands, I offered my reading to the authorities in Saint Petersburg and presented them again in 2006 at the International Byzantine Congress in London. There has been no answer from the Hermitage. The rest is, as they say, (art) history.

It might be supposed that forgeries are created not always to make money but to demonstrate their makers’ pride in rivaling the masters of antiquity. That most often this is not so is suggested by the frequency with which they come on the market. 14 Nonetheless, it must be recognized that not all copies are, or at least were, intended to be what are too sweepingly called “fakes.” First, copies were made for some aristocrats and financiers who wished to amplify their collections without descending to the hurly-burly of the art market. 15 These are no more (and no less) fakes than the copy of the red damask wall-covering that J. Pierpont Morgan had made for the study of his library at Madison Avenue and Thirty-sixth Street in Manhattan, drawing on a hanging in the Roman villa of the fifteenth-century banker Agostino Chigi. More broadly, in Victorian Britain “improvement”—that is, the edification of a larger audience through the display of facsimiles—was a widespread impulse. In storage in the Metropolitan Museum is a version of the Baptist plaque that we have examined (see fig. 6), a copy (made without piercing or pupils in the eyes and in apparent ignorance of Greek) that Paul Williamson has suggested was based on a plaster cast (fig. 18). 16 Indeed, in a handbook on such “fictile ivories” published three years after another such derivative entered the V&A, a cast of just this sort is listed. 17

Fig. 18. Five saints plaque, late-19th century(?). Ivory. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, inv. 04.25, gift of Edward A. Penniman. Photo: E. Maurer, Fakes and Forgeries (Minneapolis: Institute of the Arts, 1973), no. 45.

The making of fakes, like these more innocent versions, is a special sort of copying—replicas that aspire to the status of clones. A clone, however, depends on getting the basic zoology right, and on this score at least one example with which I am familiar fails miserably. An ivory Pantokrator shown to me by a dealer (fig. 19) is, on its face, a less than appalling copy of a plaque formerly in the Botkin collection and now in the Hermitage (fig. 20).

Fig. 19. Christ Pantokrator plaque, late-19th century(?). Ivory, 5 x 4½ x ¼ in. (12.6 x 11 x 0.7 cm). Art Market.

Fig. 20. Christ Pantokrator plaque, mid-10th century. Ivory, 5 x 4½ x ¼ in. (12.8 x 11.1 x 0.7 cm). Saint Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum, inv. Ω302. Photo: Museum.

Many details of this exemplar were caught and replicated by the carver of the new version: the relation of the upper contour of Christ’s hair to the upright of the cross above him, and the curious double process in the auricle of his left ear. But he betrayed himself by enlarging Christ’s eyes and particularly in his desire to make the gospel book more convincingly plastic than it is in the original. The absence of the nerve canal and the narrower horizontal span of the cross that characterize the Botkin ivory are not in themselves errors. Variants of this sort are to be found on similar Christ ivories in both Cambridge and Paris 18 Its undoing is instead a matter of technique, rather than of imagery or form. The carving is done across the grain, a procedure which, because it makes the sculptor’s task much harder, was eschewed by virtually every Byzantine ivory worker. 19 The date stamped on the lower left border does not necessarily denote when the plaque was manufactured, but it is probably not far distant from that occasion.

In the end, then, we can return to the relatively neglected material aspects of carving in and around the two centuries specified in the title of this paper. Many, though not all, of the considerations that have occupied us above are subsumed in the final pair of ivories I wish to discuss, if only because the very absurdity of one version allows absolute certainty in determining that it is a poorly understood counterfeit of the other. In 2007 (and perhaps to this day) there existed in a private collection in Stuttgart a plaque measuring 8.6 x 4 cm and, at its maximum, 0.8 mm thick (fig. 21).

Fig. 21. Ascension of Christ plaque, late 20th century. Ivory, 3½ x 1¾ x ½ in. (8.6 x 4 x 0.8 cm). Stuttgart, private collection. Photo: Author.

It purports to depict the Ascension, an intention made clear by its overall iconography and the inscription, ingeniously appropriated even while it inverts the order of Christ’s words of comfort to the apostles before he proceeds to Gethsemane. Generally in both these respects the icon follows the design of the tenth-century lid of a box that, ironically, is also in Stuttgart (fig. 22). 20

Fig. 22. Box with Ascension of Christ, early 10th century. Ivory, 6¼ x 3 3/8 x ½ in. (16.2 x 8.8 x 1.27 cm). Stuttgart, Württembergisches Landesmuseum. Photo: Author.

An initial glance at the two objects suggests that they are remarkably similar. But closer scrutiny reveals the considerable differences between them. First, the area of the box lid (16.2 x 8.8 cm) is almost exactly twice as large as the icon—a circumstance that could suggest that it is a product of the copying device known as a pointing machine, in use since at least the sixteenth century. Such an apparatus, however, would not allow the conversion of a seated Christ, as on the museum’s ivory, into a standing figure, and would not explain why the Lord is shown frontally instead of turning his head slightly to the side as in most Byzantine representations of the biblical event. No less obvious is the absence of the book and the quite different disposition of Christ’s left arm. Each of these divagations from the normal iconography of the Ascension suggests that the plaque is instead based upon some version of the Last Judgment.

Whatever the source, it is clear that for the uppermost third of the plaque the carver did not draw directly on the box in the Landesmuseum. But in the larger portion there are also deviations. Acting like many another modern forger, the sculptor sought to improve upon his model by restoring parts that had broken off, notably the trunks of several of the trees and the forearms of the apostles in the lower right corner who now look as if they are about to embrace or engage in a boxing match. 21 Between the “Last Judgment” zone above and the more Ascension-like scene below occurs the first of several technical departures from the museum’s box lid. The inscription, painstakingly carved in relief, that rises from the ground in the tenth-century ivory now appears on a projecting block that made the modern carver’s work less arduous. And although he was aware that the backs of many ivories, as we have seen, display the concentric ellipses that I have noted above (or a trace of the nerve canal), 22 he relinquished any attempt to render the foliate border that separates the top of the box lid from its sides. Instead, he produced a simple molding that rises above recessed flanges on three sides of the plaque. On the outside of the uppermost molding (and therefore invisible in the photograph) there are incised what could be three (modern) Greek letters (deltas?) or parts of a zigzag pattern. I know of no equivalent on any ivory. In retrospect, the absence of a frame is less heinous an offense than is the pulpy, largely undifferentiated form of the figures, carved, as is the Metropolitan’s copy of the Baptist plaque at the V&A, from a slender and therefore bowed section of tusk. From a Byzantine craftsman’s point of view, to spend time working such material would have been nonsensical, like many of the forgeries we have considered. “Nonsense,” it has been observed, “is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship.” 23

Anthony Cutler is Evan Pugh Professor of Art History at Penn State. He is one of the United States’ foremost Late Antique and Byzantine specialists and an international authority on ivory carving. Currently, he is working on larger problems of exchange between Byzantium and early Islam. He was recently elected Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University for 2011–12.

  1. 1. John Lowden and John Cherry, Medieval Ivories and Works of Art: The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto: Skylet Publishing, 2008), 46–49, no. 14.
  2. 2. Commenting on this statuette in an earlier online version of this article, I charged John Lowden with mistakenly suggesting that the end of the nerve canal occurs at the Virgin’s chest rather than the tip of the tusk. Sarah Guérin, who has since studied the ivory outside the case, tells me that Lowden is indeed correct. This phenomenon would appear to be a freak of nature, unparalleled in my experience. I retract my statement, apologize to Prof. Lowden, and thank Dr. Guérin for the correction. One advantage of this form of publishing is that it enables this sort of Wiki scholarship.
  3. 3. For further discussion, see Anthony Cutler, The Craft of Ivory: Sources, Techniques, and Uses in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 200–1400 (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1985), 38.
  4. 4. Paul Williamson, Medieval Ivory Carvings: Early Christian to Romanesque (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2010), 108–11, no. 24, to whom I am grateful for additional information concerning the plaque’s thickness.
  5. 5. As suggested of many other plaques and boxes by Carolyn L. Connor, The Color of Ivory: Polychromy on Byzantine Ivories (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998). On this ongoing question, see the review by Anthony Cutler,, and more recently by Carolyn L. Connor, “Color of Late Antique and Byzantine Ivories: Problems and Challenges of Conservation,” in Spätantike und byzantinische Elfenbeinbildwerke im Diskurs, ed. Gudrun Bühl, Anthony Cutler, and Arne Effenberger (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2008), 31–36.
  6. 6. See Mohs’s scale of hardness, available at: and
  7. 7. Following Kurt Weitzmann, John Hanson, in Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections, ed. Gudrun Bühl (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 2008), 52–53, identifies the figures as Dionysos, a maenad, and a satyr, the first of these being associated with death and resurrection, and thus (vaguely) appropriate to a medicine box, and that on the lid as a tychē (“good fortune”). Hanson does not remark on their relative wear patterns.
  8. 8. This was first observed by David H. Wright, “Shrapnel from the Blockbusters,” University Publishing 11 (Spring 1981): 23. More specifically, one notices that, beyond the Christ images discussed below, the crowns, necklaces, and jeweled collars of Theodora are of quite different types.
  9. 9. Richard Delbrueck, Die Consulardiptychen und verwandte Denkmäler (Berlin and Leipzig: De Gruyter, 1929), 153.
  10. 10. For an honorable and rare exception see Paul Williamson, “On the Date of the Symmachi Panel and the So-Called Grado Chair Ivories,” in Through a Glass Brightly: Studies in Byzantine and Medieval Art and Architecture Presented to David Buckton, ed. Chris Entwistle (Oxford: Oxbow, 2003), 47–50, and idem, “Radiocarbon Dating of Selected Ivories,” in Williamson, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 454–55. There are obvious limitations to the utility of carbon-14 dating. Apart from the fact that such analysis yields only an approximate date for the death of the elephant, rather than for that when its tusk was carved, it is worth noting that not all modern restorers employ recent materials. In the course of the twentieth century craftsmen at Pompeii used ancient human femurs to make replacement hinges for ancient furniture. See Estelle Lazer, Restoring Pompeii (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2009), 104–5 and fig. 5.2.
  11. 11. Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom, eds., The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Period A.D. 843–1261 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995), 147–48, no. 93 (Vera Zalesskaya).
  12. 12. Carvings in walrus ivory and bone sometimes show a similar mushiness. See the detail photos in Williamson, Medieval Ivory Carvings, 454, 456. Underlying my analytical method generally is a principle akin to that of Giovanni Morelli: I attend to features apparently unconsidered by the craftsman, thus producing effects that are meaningful not because they are intended but because they are not.
  13. 13. For a critique of the notion of ivory workshops on Byzantium, see Anthony Cutler, The Hand of the Master: Craftsmanship, Ivory, and Society in Byzantium (9th–11th centuries) (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), 66–73.
  14. 14. On average I receive via the Internet one set of images every six weeks from some sanguine dealer or collector.
  15. 15. For two such collectors see Anthony Cutler, “Nineteenth-Century Versions of the Veroli Casket,” in Entwistle, Through a Glass Brightly, 198–209.
  16. 16. See note 4 above. On the object itself see Fakes and Forgeries (Minneapolis, Minn.: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1973), no. 45.
  17. 17. John O. Westwood, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Ivories in the South Kensington Museum (London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1876, 85), no. 189.
  18. 18. Cutler, Hand of the Master, 108–9, figs. 117, 118.
  19. 19. For two of the very few examples of this approach, see ibid., 15, 83, and figs. 9, 86.
  20. 20. On this box see, most recently, Anthony Cutler, “Mistaken Novelty: Problems of Ivory Carving in the Christian East (12th and 13th Centuries),” Biuletyn Historii Sztuki 70 (2008): 271–75.
  21. 21. Similarly, the third apostle from the left in the lower row has been endowed with what looks like a bundle of firewood (the epistles of Paul?).
  22. 22. Some forgers now seem to pay attention to the form of the reverses of ivories, usually ignored in photographs and descriptions in older catalogues. I published a number of these in The Hand of the Master (1994), which leads me to believe that the Stuttgart plaque may be a forgery of quite recent vintage.
  23. 23. The words of Saul Lieberman commenting on the work of Gershom Sholem. See Jacob Neusner, Neusner on Judaism: Religion and Theology (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005), 91 note 9.

Fig. 1. Baseball bat, c. 1930. White ash, 41 7/8 x 2½ in. (106.6 x 6.35 cm). Private collection. Photo: Author.

ISIS’ Destruction of 3,000-Year-Old Assyrian Site ‘Worse Than We Thought’

( – When U.S.-backed Iraqi forces pushed ISIS out of Nimrud last week, they found 70 percent of the 3,000-year-old Assyrian village razed and its 140-foot tall mud brick ziggurat, which is considered one of ancient Mesopotamia’s most spectacular structures, “reduced to a pile of dirt.”

“The destruction was worse than we thought,” Iraqi Ministry of Culture General Director Qais Hussein said, adding that “it’s a huge loss to Iraqi heritage” and to world history.

After two years of occupation by ISIS, much of Nimrud , including what is widely believed to be the world’s first library, has been destroyed, the Voice of America news agency reported.

The 2,900-year-old ziggurat was “bulldozed and pushed into the ancient bed of the Tigris River,” John Curtis, president of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, told the ArtNewspaper, calling it the “worst damage that ISIL has inflicted on Iraqi archaeology.”

National Geographic has published satellite photographs of the area, one showing the ziggurat on August 31 st , and another photo taken on October 2 nd after the structure had been bulldozed to the ground.

Last year, ISIS released video of its fighters using explosives and sledgehammers to smash ancient artifacts in Nimrud - including the lamassu’s, statues of winged creatures that guarded the palace of Ashurnasirpal II for three millennia - because the jihadist group believes that pre-Islamic art and architecture are idolatrous.

In March 2015, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director General Irina Bokova condemned the destruction of the world heritage site as a “war crime” and “another attack against the Iraqi people, reminding us that nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in the country: it targets human lives, minorities, and is marked by the systemic destruction of humanity’s ancient heritage.”

Nimrud, which is located about 20 miles south of Mosul, lay buried under sand until 1845, when British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard first began excavation of the ancient city, which was once the capital of an Assyrian empire that stretched from modern-day Egypt to Turkey. It is mentioned in the biblical Book of Genesis.

Over the years, bas-relief panels, carved ivories, and other antiquities dating back to 800 B.C. were unearthed from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II. In 1989, archaeologists discovered several underground tombs, including one believed to belong to Ashurnasirpal’s queen.

Nimrud is just one of many ancient archaeological sites that ISIS has destroyed or severely damaged since it began its takeover of large sections of Iraq and Syria in 2014.

However, many gold and ivory artifacts found at Nimrud are safely housed in museums around the world or stored in the vaults of the Central Bank of Baghdad.

Nimrud Ivory Panel of Lotuses - History

To shed light on the luxurious lifestyle of ancient civilizations in the Middle East, Hong Kong Museum of History presents an exhibition entitled &ldquoAn Age of Luxury: the Assyrians to Alexander&rdquo featuring around 210 exhibits from the British Museum, including metalwork, stone wall reliefs, ivory items, gems and jewellery.

A wall relief depicting the conquest and looting of an Elamite city by Assyrian soldiers

A fish-shaped perfumed oil flask made from a hammered sheet of gold

Objects offered at the exhibition are meticulously selected from the collections of the British Museum. Highlights include a wall relief that depicts the conquest and looting of an Elamite city by Assyrian soldiers, a fish-shaped perfumed oil flask made from a hammered sheet of gold, kohl bottles and pots, the Hellenistic jewellery item "Herakles knot", and decorative plaques carved in elephant ivory. Ancient counterfeited luxurious items will also be displayed. 。

A bull-headed drinking cup

The period from 900 to 300 BC was an age when such luxurious goods were made and traded from India to the Mediterranean. Mighty empires, the Assyrians, Babylonians and Achaemenids, created elites that demanded exotic, luxurious and opulent objects to display their social status. As a result, cheaper imitations of luxury goods were also created.

A bowl made by recreating ancient glass working techniques

The British Museum has launched the world tour of this blockbuster exhibition and it is open to the public in Hong Kong from 9 May to 3 September. Sponsored by The Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, the exhibition does not require additional admission fee so visitors only have to pay HK$10 for the entrance fee to the Hong Kong Museum of History.

Other highlighted exhibits

Flask for perfumed oil , 500 &ndash 400 BC|Takht-i Kuwad, Tajikistan

Wall Panel Relief , 645 &ndash 635 BC |North Palace, Nineveh, Iraq

Coin depicting Alexander the Great , 306 &ndash 281 BC |Pergamum, Turkey

Carved vessel , 700 &ndash 600 BC | Isis Tomb, Vulci, Italy

Decorative plaque, 900 &ndash 700 BC|Fort Shalmaneser, Nimrud, Iraq

An Age of Luxury: the Assyrians to Alexander

Period: 2018/5/9 - 9/3
Venue: Hong Kong Museum of History

Hong Kong Museum of History

Opening hours:
Monday to Wednesday, Friday | 10am - 6pm
Saturday, Sunday and public holidays | 10am - 7pm
(Closed on Tuesday, except public holidays)
Address: 100 Chatham Rd S, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong
Standard | HK$10
Group | HK$7 (20 or more standard tickets)
Concessionary | HK$5 (Full-time student/senior citizen/people with disabilities (and one accompanying carer)
Enquiries: (852) 2724 9042

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In northern Mesopotamia, the kingdom of Assyria developed as a powerful state. Between 900 and 620 BC it established itself as the world’s first extensive empire, unifying a region reaching from the Persian Gulf to Egypt. Nimrud was the empire’s first great capital city.

Although an immensely ancient town dating back to 5500 BC, Nimrud was developed into an imperial centre by King Ashurnasirpal II from about 880 BC. The result was a walled city covering some 3.5 sq km, with a prominent “citadel” mound on which were erected enormous administrative and religious buildings. These structures included the palaces of several Assyrian kings as well as temples, including that of Nabu, the god of writing.

Indeed, it was scribal administration as much as military might that held the Assyrian empire together. These buildings were centres of learning, gathering knowledge into libraries. Information was written on clay tablets in the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia and thousands of such texts were discovered by archaeologists at the later Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Such was its importance and splendour that the city, known to the Assyrians as Kalhu, that it also appears in the Old Testament under the name Calah.

An example of cuneiform from the West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud. Image: pahudson via Flickr.

Astonishing carvings

The greatest of the buildings at Nimrud was undoubtedly the Palace of Ashurnasirpal. This was a huge mud brick structure with many rooms ranged around open courtyards. The walls of the most significant rooms were lined with huge slabs of gypsum carved in relief with images of the king hunting dangerous wild animals, defeating hostile people, and undertaking religious rituals. These were some of the earliest visual representations of historical narratives, carved with astonishing attention to detail.

Archaeologists call this building the North-West Palace. It was first excavated by the British explorer Austen Henry Layard between 1845 and 1851. Layard’s work was supported by the British government and the majority of his finds, including many examples of the carved stone panels and sculpted gate colossi, were transported to the British Museum. While examples of relief slabs were also sent to museums and institutions around the world, many were left where they were found and reburied.

Further excavations at Nimrud took place in the 1950s and 1960s by Max Mallowan, husband of the crime writer Agatha Christie. This work reconstructed the complex plans of the palace, and other buildings on the citadel.

Large parts of Ashurnasirpal’s palace were then investigated by Iraqi archaeologists during the 1970s and 1980s, and their work included the re-installation and repair of fallen stone reliefs, many with traces of the original paint that covered them. The winged bull statues that guard the entrances to the most important rooms and courtyards were also re-erected.

A winged human headed lion from Nimrud, now in the British Museum. Image: [email protected] at Wikimedia Commons.

This restoration project also revealed several tombs of Assyrian queens that lay below the floors in one area of the palace. The finds, which are now securely stored in Baghdad, were truly astonishing and included gold jewellery and crowns, bronze and gold bowls, and ivory vessels. The technical skill and aesthetic sense of the artisans responsible are unrivalled in the ancient world.

The reconstruction of the palace also allowed visitors, including regular parties of school children, to experience the buildings’ scale and beauty, as well as bringing scholars closer to understanding its role in the lives of the ancient Assyrians.

The merchant city

While Nimrud represents the glories of empire, Hatra reflects mercantile enterprise. The city flourished in the first two centuries AD as part of an extensive trade network that connected it with Palmyra and Petra. It was the centre of one of the region’s first Arab kingdoms and its massive walls withstood attacks by the armies of the Roman emperors Trajan and Septimius Severus. Behind the enclosing walls of the city were constructed architectural gems, including a number of spectacular temples erected on a massive platform. The compelling fusion of Greek and Mesopotamian art and architecture made it an especially beautiful place. Its importance was recognised in 1985 when Hatra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Iraqis are justifiably proud of this ancient heritage and its innovations and impact on the world. The intellectual and cultural achievements of Mesopotamia were shared with ancient Greece and then expanded by the scholars of Baghdad during the 8th to 13th centuries in a golden age of Islamic art and learning.

We are witnessing the destruction of this priceless legacy – and these stories mean that Libyan are now also fearing for their own rich heritage. The international community must act to support the government of Iraq in stopping further terrible violence against such unique and irreplaceable heritage that holds so much meaning for us all.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Paul Collins is a Curator for Ancient Near East at the Ashmolean Museum (University of Oxford).
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.

The merchant city

While Nimrud represents the glories of empire, Hatra reflects mercantile enterprise. The city flourished in the first two centuries AD as part of an extensive trade network that connected it with Palmyra and Petra. It was the centre of one of the region’s first Arab kingdoms and its massive walls withstood attacks by the armies of the Roman emperors Trajan and Septimius Severus. Behind the enclosing walls of the city were constructed architectural gems, including a number of spectacular temples erected on a massive platform. The compelling fusion of Greek and Mesopotamian art and architecture made it an especially beautiful place. Its importance was recognised in 1985 when Hatra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Iraqis are justifiably proud of this ancient heritage and its innovations and impact on the world. The intellectual and cultural achievements of Mesopotamia were shared with ancient Greece and then expanded by the scholars of Baghdad during the 8th to 13th centuries in a golden age of Islamic art and learning.

We are witnessing the destruction of this priceless legacy – and these stories mean that Libyan are now also fearing for their own rich heritage. The international community must act to support the government of Iraq in stopping further terrible violence against such unique and irreplaceable heritage that holds so much meaning for us all.


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