Horse blinker carved in relief with a seated sphinx

Period: Neo-Assyrian

Date: ca. 8th century B.C.

Geography: Mesopotamia, Nimrud (ancient Kalhu)

Culture: Assyrian

Medium: Ivory

Dimensions: 4.13 x 7.32 in. (10.49 x 18.59 cm)

Classification: Ivory/Bone-Equestrian-Inscribed

Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1954

Accession Number: 54.117.1


Over two hundred ivory and gypsum alabaster equestrian bridle-harness ornaments have been found at Nimrud. This spade-shaped blinker or cheek-piece for a horse’s left eye was cut from a lengthwise section of elephant tusk. It was found in a well in the Northwest Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, where it was probably thrown when the palace was sacked, perhaps during the final defeat of Assyria at the end of the seventh century B.C. Its greenish color is a result of long exposure to well water or sludge. Four other ivory blinkers similar to this one were also found in wells in the palace and together four of these pieces form two complete sets. Although horses wearing equestrian bridle-harness ornaments are shown in Neo-Assyrian palace reliefs, it is not possible to know whether the ornaments in the reliefs were meant to represent work in ivory or in more durable materials such as bronze or iron. Ivory pieces like this one may have been used ceremonially, as votive dedications or as processional regalia, rather than in battle. The four dowel holes that perforate this piece at the tips of the flaring handle and the points of the blade suggest that it was fastened to another material, perhaps a textile or leather backing that has not survived. This blinker was carved in relief with details rendered by very fine, low relief incision and has been attributed to the Phoenician style because of its abundance of Egyptianizing imagery. Inside a thin, raised frame, a sphinx sits in profile wearing the nemes cloth (a royal, pleated headdress), a collar with pendant droplets, an apron, and is adorned by two uraei (mythical, fire-spitting serpents). One winged, sun disc-crowned uraeus is suspended from its chest and a second pierces the sphinx’s sun disc crown. An oval cartouche, supported by a papyrus blossom and crowned by a sun disc flanked by feathers, lies horizontally in the flaring handle and is inscribed with a serpent and footed triangle, two Egyptian hieroglyphs that have been fused together into one hieroglyphic sign.

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.