Ivory is a wonderful material: tactile, beautiful, workable into many different forms and the strongest in the animal kingdom. Unfortunately for the elephant, it has been highly prized, by virtue of its rarity and the difficulty of acquiring it, from the Palaeolithic to the present day – indeed the Syrian elephant was hunted to extinction. However, it was during the early first millennium bc – the ‘Age of Ivory’ – that literally thousands of carved ivories found their way to the Assyrian capital city of Kalhu, or modern Nimrud, in northern Iraq. The majority were not made there, in the heart of ancient Assyria, but arrived as gift, tribute or booty gathered by the Assyrian kings from the small neighbouring states of the ancient Middle Eastern world, with the ivory itself probably sourced from the African elephant.
The ivories were first discovered in the mid-nineteenth century by renowned Victorian traveller and adventurer Austen Henry Layard, but it was not until the mid-twentieth century that the extent of the treasure was realized by Max Mallowan, the husband of Agatha Christie. Thousands of extraordinary ivories have since been unearthed from the ruins of the ancient city’s extravagant palaces, temples and forts. In recent years, however, many have been destroyed or remain at risk following the invasion of Iraq and the sacking of the Iraq Museum, as well as in the ongoing conflict and destruction of cultural heritage in the region. As a result, the ivories preserved in these pages form a unique and unparalleled record of the otherwise lost art of the Middle East.