Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

The ancient Near Eastern empire of Assyria is commonly known to history as a power unswervingly committed to savagery, with no quarter given to conquest. Yet paradoxically, many of its astounding innovations in warfare and culture were derived from confronting the very powers opposing its advances.

Though the sub-Saharan kingdom of Nubia lay far from the borders of the Mesopotamian heartland of Assyria, its unique culture profoundly influenced the course of the last great phase of the empire’s history.

This delicately carved ivory relief came to light in the ruins of the Assyrian capital of Kalhu, now known as Nimrud. It was made between the midninth century B.C., when a new fortress was built by King Shalmaneser III, and the late eighth century B.C., when the transfer of the capital of Assyria to another location took place. Stylistically, however, a date closer to the departure of the court seems more likely.

The relief forms part of a vast assortment of small-scale works collectively known as the Nimrud ivories. Meticulous excavation carried out in the 1950s uncovered this figure, along with five others associated with it. Most were found in their original place in a shallow niche along the wall of a room facing one of the large courtyards of the fortress. The narrow space has been identified as part of the private quarters of the rab ekalli, or chamberlain of the palace.

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Originally, all of the figures were arranged in a single row along a base, walking to the right in single file. The whole ensemble was probably not more than 3 feet wide. Four of the reliefs depict black Africans, each accompanied by three exotic animals. The other two figures in the group seem to represent Asiatics—that is, one of any number of peoples native to the eastern Mediterranean region. In this case, the Nubian holds an oryx—a horned ruminant similar to the gazelle—by the horns with one hand. On his other arm is draped a leopard skin. A long-limbed monkey perches on his shoulder.

When first made, the relief induced a much different visual impression than the bare, monochrome effect seen here. Once, the eyes, jewelry and patterns of the skirt were enhanced by inlays of paste and colored glass, with paint and layers of gold foil applied over the body. Vandalized when Assyria ultimately fell to invading forces, then buried under mounds of debris, the carved form has been utterly stripped of these lively coloristic elements.

The figured reliefs are usually interpreted as emissaries bringing gifts of exotic fauna in obeisance to the Assyrian king. It may also be that these extremely popular works were exchanged between rulers as signs of mutual respect or alliance or simply acquired by trade. Made as generic expressions of political dominance, such sumptuous ivory reliefs were primarily export products destined for a great range of uses, such as for furniture decoration and elaborately worked thrones and as independent works like the tribute-bearing figures.

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Further insight into the encoding of the ivory reliefs as visual metaphors of power is provided by their place of manufacture. Most were produced within a loosely organized confederation of small, commercially oriented Phoenician city-states corresponding to modern Syria and Lebanon. A key part of the iconographical formulation of these Phoenician products lay in their imaginative derivation from readily accessible, time-honored models.

The paramount source remained the rich, long-standing artistic legacy of Egypt, replete with succinct, commanding imagery denoting the divine source of the ruling power and the homage due him by client states. Such Egyptianizing motives included the trope of the Nubian tribute bearer.

In addition to the obvious ethnic character of the black figure’s hair and facial features, an explicit reference to his Nubian homeland is found in the unique device of the double uraeus, or cobra-headed symbol exclusively adopted by the rulers of the contemporary kingdom of Napata. Once set in vivid color, it features prominently on the upper-left panel of the tribute bearer’s skirt.

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Preserving the everyday minutiae of empire as assiduously as the glory of its military campaigns, the rich body of surviving Assyrian archival material promises to shed greater light on a still-neglected facet of one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world. As exotically seductive as it may be, the palimpsest figure of the Nubian tribute bearer will surely yield to a much fuller sense of what his real-life counterparts had to bring to this faraway land. 

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.