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Nimrud ivories

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Stone relief slabs and archaeological finds have revealed Assyrian palace furniture to have mostly been made of wood. Chairs, tables and beds often had feet and arms of bronze -- sometimes in animal forms -- and backs adorned with carved ivory covered with gold foil.

The importance of luxury furniture embellished with ivory is evident in two sources: Assyrian soldiers were depicted carrying off furniture as booty, and the annals of the Assyrian kings recorded that Ashurnasirpal II (r 883-859 BC) received tables, beds, couches and chairs from various Syrian rulers and that Adad-nirari III (r 801-783 BC) exacted as tribute an inlaid and bejeweled ivory bed or couch from the king of Damascus.

Syrian-style ivories

It is thought that Syrian-style ivories were made primarily in the 9th and early 8th centuries BC. Many Nimrud ivories display techniques and themes known from several Syrian sites. Typical of Syrian-style ivories are,

  • figures with oval faces, large nose and eyes, small mouth and receding chin;

  • plants with a long wavy stem;

  • a winged sun-disc with pendant volute curls.

Nude female figures with elaborately curled tresses and wearing diadems, sculpted in the round either singly or in groups, are particularly striking examples of the Syrian style of ivory carving. A number of Syrian plaques show single figures in profile. Such plaques were juxtaposed in symmetrical compositions to form large furniture elements like chair backs.

Phoenician-style ivories

Most ivories carved in the Phoenician style were produced during the late 8th and 7th centuries BC. Because of close ties between Egypt and Phoenicia, the craftsmen who carved Phoenician-style ivories were strongly influenced by Egyptian art. Often, however, they used Egyptian motifs in entirely original compositions. The style is delicate and refined with careful attention to detail. These ivories were used primarily as furniture decoration. Some are solid plaques; others are openwork. Many were originally covered with gold leaf and inlaid with semiprecious stones or colored glass. Assyrian kings were famous for their thrones inlaid with ivory, gold, and gems.


Metropolitan Museum of Art informative plaques.