Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Openwork furniture plaque with a grazing oryx in a forest of fronds

ca. 9th–8th century B.C.
Mesopotamia, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu)
5 x 4.69 x 0.43 in. (12.7 x 11.91 x 1.09 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1958
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 406
This fragmentary, openwork plaque was found in Fort Shalmaneser, a royal building at Nimrud that was probably used to store tribute and booty collected by the Assyrians while on military campaign. An antelope with elongated, slightly curved horns strides to the right in a forest of stylized palm fronds, turning his head to nibble on a frond behind him. It seems to be an oryx, several species of which inhabited the deserts of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula until recently. The oryx is bordered on the left by three tall papyrus stalks and on the right by a volute tree with emerging palm fronds. A rectangular tenon that projects from the thin strip of ivory framing the plaque on the upper edge suggests that this piece was originally inserted into a frame, likely as part of a piece of wooden furniture.

While the openwork technique is commonly associated with Phoenician ivories, the highly stylized mane, musculature, and ribs are all rendered by shallow incisions, characteristic of North Syrian art. The rear haunches are decorated with a pattern resembling stylized flames. Similar patterns appear on the haunches of animals depicted on stone orthostat relief blocks from Tell Halaf in northern Syria, including two which are also in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection (MMA 43.135.3; 43.135.4). This shared decorative feature may have been borrowed by the stone carvers from the ivory workers, or vice versa. Because this plaque combines Phoenician and North Syrian carving techniques, it has been classified as South Syrian, a style that occupies an intermediate position between the two.

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.
1957, excavated by Max Mallowan, on behalf of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq; ceded in the division of finds to the British School of Archaeology in Iraq; acquired by the Museum in 1958, as a result of its financial contribution to the excavations.

“Archaeology: Exploring the Past,” The Junior Museum of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, September 22, 1962–June 30, 1966.

Illustrated London News. 1957. "Feasting Ladies, Men of Magic and a Doglike Lion—Beautiful and Enigmatic Ivories Newly Discovered in Nimrud's 'Fort Shalmaneser'." November 30, 1957, p. 935, fig. 4.

Wilkinson, Charles K. 1958. "Ancient Near Eastern Art." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 17 (2), Eighty-Eighth Annual Report of the Trustees for the Fiscal Year 1957-1958 (Oct., 1958), pp. 40-41.

Oates, David. 1959. "Fort Shalmaneser: An Interim Report." Iraq 21 (2), p. 102.

Wilkinson, Charles K. 1960. "Introduction." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 18 (8) Art of the Ancient Near East (Apr., 1960), p. 243, fig. 3.

Mallowan, Max E.L. 1966. Nimrud and Its Remains II. New York: Dodd, Mead, pp. 518-520, fig. 423.

Herrmann, Georgina. 1992. Ivories from Nimrud (1949-1963):The Small Collections from Fort Shalmaneser, fasc. V. London: British School of Archaeology in Iraq, no. 455, p. 125, pl. 92-3.
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