The openwork ivory plaque in the Bible Lands Museum is a masterpiece of ivory carving. The stylistic features are typically Phoenician of the ninth century B.C.E.: elongated slender figures; symmetrical composition; and clear Egyptian elements.

As in Egyptian paintings, the face is depicted in profile. This is typical of Phoenician ivories, whereas faces in contemporaneous Syrian ivories are shown frontally.

The Egyptian elements include the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, the Egyptian wig, the Uraeus, or snake, on the wig over the forehead (seen in profile), the rounded shoulder depicting the Egyptian pectoral in profile, and the lotus thicket that provides the setting.

Judging from other examples, we can assume that the figure was matched by a second one, with the two figures facing one another. Between these two figures rested a schematized palm tree symbolizing abundance.

This plaque was originally part of a larger construction made of two or more plaques of this size probably inlaid into pieces of elegant furniture as part of a larger scene. The plaque was cut vertically from the central section of an elephant’s tusk.

Composite creatures similar to this one have been found in almost all first-millennium ivory collections—in Arslan Tash, Nimrud, Khorsabad, Samaria and Salamis. The Egyptian elements reflect the cultural connections between Egypt and these areas on the Mediterranean coast, as well as inland. Egyptian influence can be perceived as early as the third millennium B.C.E.

Originally, the human-headed sphinx represented the Egyptian pharaoh, as in the famous Giza sphinx from the reign of Khephren (2520–2494 B.C.E.). Similar composite creatures, but winged and feminine, appear in wall-paintings at the palace of Zimri-lim at Mari (18th-century B.C.E.) and in ivory carvings from Acemhuyuk in Anatolia from the 19th or 18th century B.C.E. Toward the end of the second millennium, a wingless female sphinx appears in Egypt beside the male pharaoh sphinx—for example, Queen Tiy, consort of Amenhotep III (1391–1354 B.C.E.) is depicted in this way on a carnelian gem. Perhaps, as a result of cultural contacts with Western Asia, the sphinx was returned to its Egyptian homeland in female form.

In Egypt, both male and female sphinxes symbolized royalty. Elsewhere the composite figures were protective beings, often symmetrically flanking a figure or object that was to be guarded. In the 18th-century B.C.E. wall-painting from Zimri-lim’s palace at Mari, mentioned above, winged sphinxes, together with other fantastic animals, flank the goddess Ishtar and the king. This artistic convention, portraying two winged sphinxes in a heraldic composition, became popular all over the Near East, from Anatolia to ancient Israel. Examples may be seen in the female sphinxes flanking the gate at Alaca Huyuk in Anatolia, as well as in the creatures decorating the tenth-century B.C.E. cult stands from Taanach.d Winged creatures flanking a throne have been found on a 13th-century ivory from Megiddo, as well as on the sarcophagus of Ahiram from Lebanon, dating to the end of the second millennium B.C.E.

Based on stylistic criteria, the plaque can probably be dated to the eighth century B.C.E., the heyday of Phoenician ivory carving. In style and various details, it recalls ivory plaques from the Syrian site of Arslan Tash, the ancient Aramean city of Hadatu. As the provenance of the plaque is unknown, we can only guess its history: Was it sent as a gift by a Syrian or Phoenician prince to the royal court in Assyria? Or was it a tribute collected by an Assyrian king during one of his campaigns to the region? Perhaps the plaque was nothing but booty taken by an unknown Assyrian soldier, who could not resist its charm.