Agatha Christie’s ivory from Iraq

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What is it?

This exquisitely carved ivory plaque from the ancient Assyrian site of Nimrud, near Mosul in Iraq, is one of several inlays that once adorned the back of a wooden chair or couch. Measuring 26cm × 12cm, the plaque features a woman in a long, Syrian-style dress with loose, beaded sleeves and a girdle knotted at the waist. She sits in profile on a padded, tasselled chair over a decorative winged sphinx. Her feet rest on a footstool, and her arms reach to a lotus blossom, partly recreated in wax. We do not know who the woman represents – possibly a goddess, a priestess, or a queen.

Where was it found, and when?

Hundreds of inlays were discovered at Nimrud, mostly carved by Phoenician craftsmen in the late 8th century BC. Around this time, Phoenicia fell within the expanding borders of the Assyrian empire, whose kings boasted of bringing booty back to their capital at Nimrud, including luxurious ivory furnishings.

A century later, the Assyrian armies were eclipsed by their enemies in Babylon. Following King Nebuchadnezzar’s attack on Nimrud in 614 BC, Assyrian officials stored the treasured booty within a palace-arsenal known as Fort Shalmaneser. These goods included several ivory-inlaid chairs, stacked in rows. Nebuchadnezzar attacked again in 612 BC, destroying the city completely.

In 1957, Max Mallowan commenced excavations at Fort Shalmaneser for the British School of Archaeology in Iraq. In one of the most spectacular discoveries of his career, Mallowan uncovered the long-lost repository. Although the wooden chairs had decayed, he found their ivory inlays aligned as panels left exactly where the chairs had been stacked over 2,500 years before.

Why does it matter?

Despite their delicate appearance, these ivory furnishings were potent symbols of power and prestige. They signalled the wealth of the Phoenicians who commissioned them, the glory of the Assyrians who captured them, and the might of the Babylonians who reduced Nimrud to the ruins in which they were found. Yet today the Nimrud ivories are more commonly associated with the writer Agatha Christie.

Christie married Mallowan in 1930, after they had met on a dig at Ur, and accompanied her husband on all his excavations after that. In the early years at Nimrud, she was charged with cleaning the ivory inlays as they came out of the ground, describing in her autobiography how her face cream was ‘more useful than anything else for gently coaxing the dust out of the crevices’. The ivories were, perhaps, even better burnished by Christie’s celebrity, as Mallowan used his wife’s profile to attract sponsorship for the dig.

In 2015, Nimrud was devastated once again, this time by so-called Islamic State using bulldozers and dynamite. The Nimrud ivories have thus taken on a different symbolism in the modern world, reflecting the fragility of Iraq’s remarkable heritage that is treasured by most of its citizens but betrayed by an ignorant few.

See for yourself

The ‘Seated Lady’ ivory plaque is on display at the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney. Entrance is free.
Website: sydney.edu.au/museums/collections/nicholson.shtml

Text: Jamie Fraser
Image: NM59.3, Nicholson Museum, the University of Sydney

This article appeared in issue 86 of Current World Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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