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Ancient Ivory, Hershel Shanks, BAR 11:05, Sep-Oct 1985.

Egyptian religious and magical symbolism influenced the Phoenician carvers of this panelThe Story of Wealth, Decadence and Beauty

The interplay between archaeology and the Bible is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in the subject of ivory. The Bible helps us to understand the archaeological artifacts, and the archaeological artifacts help us to understand the Bible.

In the Bible, we are told of King Solomon’s ivory throne (1 Kings 10-18; 2 Chronicles 9-17) and of King Ahab who built an entire house of ivory (1 Kings 22-39). At times, ivory was used as we might use money, for barter, tribute or exchange (Ezekiel 27-15). We learn of the precious ivories brought back from three year voyages by Solomon’s ships plying a trade route between Tarshish and Ophir, ports of uncertain location (1 Kings 10-22; 2 Chronicles 9-21). And we also learn of ivory as a symbol of wealth and decadence- Amos inveighs against Israel lolling on its ivory beds (Amos 6-4). He prophesies in the name of the Lord that the house of ivory will perish and be demolished (Amos 3-15). The beauty of ivory was universally recognized- In the Song of Songs, the lover whose stature is as majestic as Lebanon, stately as the cedars, has a belly like a polished ivory tablet (Song of Songs 5-14); his beloved has a neck like an ivory tower (Song of Songs 7-4).

The amount of ivory recovered from the ancient world is truly astounding. From a study of these ancient artifacts, we can learn about ivory procurement and trade, about economic and social conditions reflected in its use, about the world of the ivory craftsmen and about the artistic, religious and symbolic aspects of the pictures delicately carved in the precious substance. Ivory artifacts that have survived the millennia are reliable teachers of all these subjects.

Ivory was fashioned into works of art as early as the late Paleolithic age (50,000–12,000 B.C.). From the Chalcolithic period to the present, the ivory craftsmen and artists have never stopped.
In the ancient Near East, ivory was used to make and ornament dagger handles, knives and scabbards. Seals were made of ivory. There were cosmetic spoons, mirrors and combs, unguent bowls, trinket boxes, caskets and fans. Ivory enhanced royal thrones and ornamented both beds and chairs. Ivory inlays decorated temples.

The beauty of its color and the warmth of its texture made it especially appropriate for statuettes. The ancient artist fully appreciated its mysterious resemblance to human flesh. Gods, fertility figurines, dancers, beautiful women, kings and slaves were all portrayed in ivory.

Because of its scarcity, ivory became a symbol of status in the ancient world. It also sometimes served as a medium of tribute and exchange, as we know from the Bible.

Ivory artifacts of the finest quality have been found at sites throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East—from Egypt and Greece to Iran, Afghanistan, India, and beyond. Ivory hoards are naturally less frequently uncovered, but still the number exceeds ten.

Strangely enough, until now, the modern scholarly world has not produced a thorough survey of ancient ivories. An excellent pioneering effort was made many years ago by an American scholar, G. F. Kunz, in a work entitled Ivory and the Elephant (New York, 1926). Now Richard D. Barnett has written a brilliant new monograph on the subject, which he modestly describes as “at best a mere sketch, an outline of a great subject.”a No one is better qualified than Barnett to undertake such a work. A retired keeper of the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum, London, Dr. Barnett is author of numerous scholarly works on various aspects of archaeology and art history in the ancient Near East. In addition, in 1956 he published the catalogue of the British Museum collection of ivories from Nimrud.

The earliest ivory artifacts from Palestine come from two small sites, Bir Abu Matar and Bir es-Safadi, near Beer-Sheva, and were excavated by the French archaeologist Jean Perrot in the 1950s. At Safadi, Perrot actually found an ivory workshop complete with a workbench, an elephant tusk, three awls with bone handles, and an artifact that is probably a bow-drill. Carbon-14 dating procedures established dates in the late Chalcolithic period (3320 B.C., plus or minus 300 years).

Included in the hoard at Safadi was a figure of a beautiful and somewhat mysterious—unfortunately headless—female nude, apparently in an advanced state of pregnancy, with a large circular aperture in place of her navel. Her hands rest on her hips, and her legs are slightly flexed, as if moving; her pubic hairs are marked by drill holes, originally inlaid with some substance. The figure is highly polished and curiously lifelike. In addition, the site also yielded a remarkable, highly stylized male statuette, whose eyes and beard (marked with a row of drill holes) were originally inlaid with some substance. He is nude and holds his hands stiffly at his hips.

The Beer-Sheva people who produced these figurines were apparently the first, as Barnett remarks, “to have delighted fully in the resemblance of highly polished ivory to the seductive delicateness of human flesh, diversified with the ever-varied and fascinating play of light upon its surface. It is this quality that made ivory thereafter always felt to be appropriate for representation of the human, especially female, body.”

From this same period, a beautiful ivory vessel, absolutely plain but highly polished, was found in a cave (Nahal Mishmar) near the Dead Sea in the Judean wilderness.

From the Early Bronze Age (c. 3150–2200 B.C.) and the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2200–1550 B.C.), ivory objects have been found at Ai (et-Tell), Jericho and Beth Yerah. The artifacts include bulls’ heads, a comb and a dagger handle.

From the 18th century B.C., we have a small panel from Megiddo portraying a lion attacking a goat. At a site near Jaffa (el-Jisr), pieces of an inlay depicting human figures were found.

A stunning collection of nearly 300 ivory artifacts was recovered from a Late Bronze stratum at Megiddo, from the period just before the Israelites settled in Canaan. Recovered by the University of Chicago expedition to Megiddo in the 1930s, the collection includes pieces from Syria, Anatolia, Egypt and the Aegean area. The land of Canaan was becoming part of the international luxury market; this was especially true of an important administrative center like Megiddo. Barnett suggests that the Megiddo assemblage reflects the fact that the monopoly of ivory that the Egyptian Pharaohs apparently exercised was breaking down, and that ivory itself was becoming an important form of wealth. At Megiddo, the so-called “ivory rooms” (where the ivory was found) may have been part of the ruler’s treasury or bank. The collection includes decorated combs (displaying, for example, animals in combat and griffins), circular pyxides (containers for jewelry), a bowl held by a diving nude girl, mirror handles, fly whisks, fan stocks, some isolated heads, game boards, gaming pieces, a sundial and an incised panel showing a remarkable “triumph scene.” In this “triumph scene” is a finely executed line drawing of a victorious general in his chariot introducing nude Bedouin or Shasu prisoners to a half-divinized king seated on his sphinx throne. The king is being served out of animal-headed vessels by his priestess-queen and attendants. Barnett remarks that the nude prisoners are reminiscent of the Amalekite king Agag, who after being brought before King Saul, was “hewed to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal by the venerated prophet Samuel” (1 Samuel 15-33).

Another group of ivories from about 1200 B.C., not as extensive as the Megiddo assemblage, was found in the so-called Fosse Temple at Lachish. Tell el-Farah (South) also yielded some ivories from this period, including an elegantly drawn banquet scene.

The end of the Late Bronze Age saw the collapse of the old world order in the ancient Near East. An economic dark age ensued in Iron Age I, but the weakness of the superpowers—Egypt to the south, Assyria to the east, and the Hittites to the north—permitted the cities of Syria and Phoenician to flourish in the tenth, ninth and eighth centuries B.C. Syria and Phoenician appear to have had different schools of ivory at this time. Their origins are in dispute, but at least for the Phoenician school, it is clear that it had roots deep in the Bronze Age and in many respects continued Bronze Age traditions.

Solomon’s fabled throne of ivory and gold probably came from this Phoenician school. In Barnett’s view, it was probably made by Phoenician workmen since there is no evidence for a Judean ivory-working craft at this time. Contemporaneous Phoenicians, on the other hand, specialized in the manufacture of costly and luxurious furniture decorated with pagan symbolism—thrones, chairs, stools and beds.

In the ninth and eighth centuries B.C., ivory beds used in connection with pagan rituals must have been quite the fashion in Israel, for, as we have seen, they were scathingly denounced both by the prophet Amos (Amos 3-15; 6-4–6) and by the Psalmist (Psalms 45-8). Jonas Greenfield has recently explained that those beds were apparently used in the obscure marzeah ritual practiced by pagan social and religious banqueting fraternities. The marzeah, a memorial rite for the deceased, dedicated to a particular god and characterized by eating and drinking, seems to have been observed as early as the 14th century B.C. in Ugarit and as late as Roman times at Palmyra. It is apparently referred to in the Bible in Amos 6-4–6.

The Phoenician school of ivory carving during this period is characterized by a strong subservience to and adoption of Egyptian artistic traditions, including canons of proportion, ideas of grace and symmetry, use of elegant human and animal figures, and smooth treatment of surfaces. The Egyptian cult of Isis had long been installed in the Phoenician city of Byblos. Egyptian religious motifs and symbolism are identifiable by a kind of syncretism with Astarte and other Phoenician goddesses. Thus the motifs of Isis, Horus and Osiris were used to convey the mysteries of Astarte, Baal and Eshmun.

Perhaps the best-known hoard of ivories from this period was found at Arslan Tash, near the Syria-Turkey border, 20 miles east of Carchemish. In a reception room of a palace belonging to an Assyrian provincial governor, more than a hundred finely carved ivory plaques were found. Dating to the eighth century B.C., the entire collection consisted of pieces of a suite of furniture, evidently a bed and a throne. Mostly the plaques bear representations of Phoenician religious subjects. The commonest themes include a variety of “sacred trees,” sometimes flanked by sphinxes; a winged snake (perhaps Eshmun) worshipped by men holding ram-headed scepters; and a cow and its calf, an allusion to the cult of Isis and her son Horus. This cult was practiced at Byblos where Isis was identified with Astarte and her son. This same cow and suckling calf motif was recently found in Sinai painted on a storage jar.b

The most famous motif from the Arslan Tash collection, however, is the “woman at the window.” Usually depicted wearing an Egyptian-style wig and a frontlet on her forehead, a woman looks straight ahead out of a window supported on small columns. She probably stands on the upper floor of a Phoenician palace. The portrait in ivory is an allusion to the cult of Astarte; the woman is either Astarte herself or her votaress appearing as a sacred prostitute. As Barnett remarks, Ahab’s wily Phoenician queen Jezebel may well have been bedecked like this—her hair dressed and her eyes decorated with kohl—as she looked out the window of her palace, hoping to ensnare the returning captain Jehu, who had just slain her son (2 Kings 9-30). Jezebel was eventually thrown out of the window and dogs devoured her flesh in fulfillment of Elijah’s prophecy (2 Kings 9-10, 2 Kings 9-36).

An important ivory find from the Iron Age comes from Ahab’s capital in Samaria where over 500 ivory fragments were found. The work is clearly non-Palestinian. It is tempting to conclude that these fragments formed part of the pagan cult materials that Jezebel introduced into Ahab’s court. However, there is a dispute over the date of the collection. Some scholars ascribe it to the ninth century B.C., when Ahab ruled; others prefer an eighth-century B.C. date.

The Bible speaks of Ahab’s “house of ivory” (1 Kings 22-39). Does this refer to the paneling of the walls or to the furnishings? To put the matter differently, did the ivory fragments found at Samaria decorate the walls of the building or the furniture? There is some evidence from Nimrud that a room in an Assyrian palace was, in fact, paneled with ivory veneer. Was this the case at Samaria? On the basis of the evidence at hand, it is difficult to tell.

Whether paneling for the wall or decoration for furniture, the houses of ivory—based on a highly sophisticated Phoenician ivory industry—were for the Hebrew prophets symbols of social oppression and injustice; the “ivory houses” were also evidence of participation in the barbarous pagan practices and heathen worship of Phoenicia. Based on the archaeological evidence, the prophets knew what they were talking about.

The story is not yet concluded. In 1963 Max Mallowan and David Oates discovered an enormous collection of ivories at Nimrud, a site famous for the ivories Austin Henry Layard and W. K. Loftus had found there in the 19th century and brought to the British Museum. The new collection, mostly still unpublished, includes hundreds of larger pieces and tens of thousands of fragments. The scholarly world eagerly awaits the publication of this new material.

While I have concentrated here on Palestine and the ivory finds most relevant to the Bible, Barnett’s survey extends geographically throughout the Near East, Greece and Rome and as far as India, and chronologically down to the establishment of Christianity in Rome in the fourth century A.D.
Barnett also discusses the ivory carver’s art and his raw materials. Almost all ivory comes from elephant tusks, although ivory is also known from mammoth tusks and from the hippopotamus, where it is taken from the teeth.

The elephant is the largest of the land mammals and survives today in two great genera, the African elephant and the Asian (or Indian) elephant. The Asian is the easier to tame and can be recognized by its high-humped back on which one can easily picture a maharaja riding. The African elephant has a slightly saddle-shaped back and huge ears—three times as large as the Asian elephant’s ears—which cover much of the animal’s shoulders.

There seems to be little doubt that a Syrian subspecies of the Asian elephant once roamed throughout much of Syria, as well as the marshes and river valleys of the Middle Euphrates and its tributaries. The Syrian elephant apparently became extinct for the same reason that many modern species of animals have become extinct in recent centuries; it simply was hunted to death. Beginning in about the ninth century B.C., the demand for ivory became almost insatiable. We know from ancient cuneiform texts that Assyrian kings from Tiglath-Pileser I in the 11th century B.C. to Ashurnasirpal II in the ninth century B.C. hunted the Syrian elephant. Ashurnasirpal says he shot them with a bow and arrow. The increasing demand for ivory led to increasing slaughter and ultimately to the extinction of the Syrian subspecies. Apparently the Assyrian aggression also led to the destruction of the Phoenician trade in this luxury item, which had been based largely on a local supply. The ivory supply from Africa and India was called upon to make up for the loss, but it did not suffice. In addition to the Syrian elephant, there may have been at least two other subspecies of the Asian elephant that were hunted to death. One lived in northwestern Assyria and another may have lived in Persia.

In the evolution of the species, the elephant’s two upper incisors became tusks; they are used for fighting, uprooting trees and, in general, for maneuvering objects. The African elephant’s tusks are larger than the Asian’s, sometimes reaching nearly 11 feet in length and weighing more than 140 pounds.

Experts can easily recognize the difference between African and Asian ivory. The former is more coveted. The African tusk is both harder and more brilliant. It also takes a finer polish. When newly cut, it is a translucent pale blond. When exposed to a strong light, it takes on a white, porcelaneous appearance and when worn against the skin, it looks light yellowish or even brownish.

The first ivory that the Hebrews and Canaanites encountered was from Africa. Of course, the same was true of Egypt. The Assyrians first became familiar with ivory as an article of commerce from India.

Where, however, was Ophir, from which King Solomon in partnership with Hiram of Tyre brought back not only ivory but also gold and silver, sandalwood, monkeys and peacocks (1 Kings 10-22, 2 Chronicles 9-21–22)? We know from the Bible it was a three-year expedition, and we are told that the expedition sailed from Elath. But we still do not know with certainty whether Ophir was in Africa or India, although the latter is more likely.

Once obtained, the ivory could be worked in a wide variety of techniques. It could be carved in the round, for example, as a statuette or a knife. Recently a tenth-century B.C. lion’s head was found in the Negev at Tel Masos. A bottle stopper in the shape of a goat’s head, dating from the ninth century B.C., was found at Tel Lachish.

Obviously, carving in the round limited the size of the object to the outer dimensions of the natural piece of ivory. In Phoenician and Syria an ingenious technique of attachment was developed in which pieces of ivory might be joined by means of a tongue and groove, thus permitting the creation of works larger than a natural ivory piece.

Ivory panels with pictures incised or carved in low or even high relief were created. A finely incised line would be filled with color, usually black, for contrast.

Openwork was another ivory carving technique. The craftsman would begin by drilling a hole with a bow-drill. The hole would then be enlarged and shaped with fine saws and blades. An Egyptian tomb scene preserves a picture of two ivory craftsmen drilling a hole with a bow-drill in an ivory bed. The openwork technique could, of course, be combined with carving in low or high relief.

Pieces of ivory could be used as inlays in other materials, such as wood. Or the ivory itself could be the bed for an inlay of glass, glass paste or even gemstones. In the Song of Songs (5-14) we read of ivory overlaid with sappir, sometimes translated sapphire, but more likely lapis lazuli. In either event, the reference is no doubt to inlay on ivory.

A cloisonné effect could be achieved by leaving partitions of ivory between each inlay of other material. A gum glue was used to secure the inlay.

Other techniques included gilding—that is, applying thin gold leaf to part of the ivory surface and securing it with some sort of colloid gum. The ivory itself could also be stained or colored.
Finally, on larger pieces, a technique known as veneering could be used. This consisted of applying very thin sheets of ivory to decorate larger objects, such as boxes or furniture. This technique could readily be combined with carving in low relief.

The world of ivory is a world of its own. Richard Barnett has brought it brilliantly to life in a monograph that is as finely detailed and highly polished as the lustrous artifacts he illustrates.

BAR wishes to thank Howard Hawkes for his assistance with the preparation of the text and captions for this article, as well as for helping to obtain some of the photographs.

a. Ancient Ivories in the Middle East (QEDEM Monographs of the Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Vol. 14 Jerusalem, 1982). (Available from BAS Discount Books.)

b. A photograph of this motif appeals in “Did Yahweh Have a Consort?” BAR 05-02, by Zeev Meshel.

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