During the early first millennium B.C., ivory carving was one of the major luxury arts that flourished throughout the ancient Near East. Elephant tusks were carved into small decorative objects such as cosmetic boxes and plaques used to adorn wooden furniture. Gold foil, paint, and semiprecious stone and glass inlay embellishments enlivened these magnificent works of art. Based on certain stylistic, formal, and technical characteristics also visible in other media, scholars have distinguished several coherent style groups of ivory carving that belong to different regional traditions including Assyrian, Phoenician, North Syrian and South Syrian (the latter also known as Intermediate).
Several ivories in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection are from the Aramaean town of Arslan Tash, ancient Hadatu, in northern Syria just east of the Euphrates River, close to the modern Turkish border. French archaeological excavations at the site in 1928 revealed city walls and gates in addition to a palace and temple that were built when the Neo-Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III (744-721 B.C.) turned the town into a provincial capital and military outpost. During the excavations, over one hundred ivory furniture inlays that can be attributed to the South Syrian and Phoenician styles were found in a building near the palace. One piece bears a dedicatory inscription in Aramaic to King Hazael, mentioned in the Bible, who ruled Damascus during the second half of the 9th century (ca. 843-806 B.C.), suggesting that this collection of ivory furniture inlays could have been taken by the Assyrian state as tribute or booty from Damascus. The Arslan Tash ivories share an amalgamation of Egyptianizing motifs typical of the Phoenician style and forms characteristic of North Syrian art that may indicate a South Syrian or Damascene origin of this group. Today, these ivories are housed in museums in Paris, Aleppo, Jerusalem, Karlsruhe, and Hamburg, as well as The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This plaque is carved in the openwork technique and depicts two winged sphinxes. The plaque can be attributed to the South Syrian style, characterized by a combination of Egyptianizing elements found in the Phoenician tradition and North Syrian forms. Phoenician features include the recumbent creature’s short, Egyptian-style wig, wesekh broad collar, and a lotus flower beneath the front paw. North Syrian in style are the full, oval face, large eyes, round ears, small mouth with slight smile, and receding chin, along with sharply cut, layered wing feathers. The seated sphinx at left wears a tightly fitted cap that may indicate it is male, while the other sphinx’s wig is a type more frequently associated with females. This plaque is a rare example of carved ivory that has retained small areas of gold foil, seen on sections of the wig and collar of the recumbent sphinx and the wing feathers of its seated counterpart. Mortises cut into the back of the plaque indicate that it may have been made to receive pegs for insertion into a piece of furniture. There are two West Semitic letters inscribed into the roughened reverse of the plaque, probably as a guide for the assembly of the piece of furniture to which it originally belonged.