When you enter Room 7 of the British Museum, after passing through two colossal lamassus, you are taken through time to the North-West Palace of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BCE). This is the imperial palace of the King in Nimrud (ancient Kalhu or Biblical Calah; Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq), the capital city at the heart of the Assyrian Empire. Room 7 is a long hall “decorated” with alabaster-bas wall reliefs from that palace. After being neglected for more than 2500 years, British archaeologist Sir Henry Layard and his workmen unearthed the remains of the North-West Palace in 1845. Layard shipped many reliefs on the Apprentice and these large and heavy slabs reached the British Museum in January 1849. I will publish a series of articles about these reliefs, addressing their finer details, which are not easily recognised.
Ivory, with its ease of carving and exotic rarity, has been used to make art objects for millennia. True ivory actually refers to only the dentine of elephant tusks but it may also refer to the tusks and teeth of walrus, hippopotamus, narwhal and sperm whales, amongst others. The ancient world acquired its ivory either directly or through trade with Africa and India via the Levant, as attested by the Bronze Age Ulu Burun shipwreck which had ivory as part of its cargo.
In the modern day ivory is, of course, a strictly controlled commodity and its trade and use are illegal if taken from endangered species. In the ancient world, though, ivory could be carved alone or added to metals or wood and used as inlay. The Egyptians buried ivory objects with the dead, the Greeks used it for giant statues such as the Parthenon Athena, and the Romans even burnt it at funerals. Below are just some of the objects made from this precious and fragile material which have survived the centuries.
On October 4, 1961, the Sulaymaniyah Museum received several artifacts, part of the so-called “Nimrud Ivories.” The package was sent from the Iraqi Museum at Baghdad and authorized personnel delivered it. The accompanying documents were written in the Arabic language and very briefly and superficially describe each and every item. I was able to get access to the archives of these ivories at the archives department of the Sulaymaniyah Museum; no details of their excavation history, travel journey, reparation work, or exhibition are available. All these details can be found at the Iraqi Museum, of course.