Successful campaign brings ancient Iraqi Ivories to British Museum

  • 7 March 2011

The British Museum today announced a major archaeological acquisition. Following a six month campaign to raise £1.7million, the museum has secured the Nimrud Ivories, the finest collection of carved, decorative ivories excavated in the Middle East.

Some of these precious pieces of elephant ivory are nearly 3,000 years old and were excavated from Nimrud in modern day Iraq in the mid 20th century.

The majority of the £1.7m was raised with the support of the British Museum Friends, the museum’s membership scheme, which engaged support from over 1,800 individuals. We gave £200,000 towards this important purchase, alongside funding from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF).

The objects represent an important addition to the museum’s Middle East collection and form its largest acquisition since the Second World War.

They were excavated by the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, now the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (BISI), between 1949 and 1963, during what was arguably the most important British archaeological venture ever undertaken in the Middle East. It was led by Sir Max Mallowan, one of the UK's most celebrated archaeologists. His wife, Agatha Christie, was also part of the excavation team and wrote several of her novels while in Nimrud. In accordance with the practice at the time, the ivories were given to BISI as part of their share of the finds. Since 1963 the ivories have been in storage and not accessible to the public.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “This collection of ancient ivories is truly inspiring. They’re the fruit of many years of painstaking excavation, research and conservation, and it’s only right that they should now be housed in a public collection for everyone to admire and learn from. The Art Fund’s core purpose is to help bring inspiring works, such as these, to the public and we’re fully behind this major acquisition for the British Museum.”

The collection includes nearly 1,000 numbered items, as well as a further 5,000 fragments or unnumbered pieces. Dating from the 9th to 7th centuries BC, these beautifully carved ivories were mostly made in Syrian and Phoenician cities near the Mediterranean coast and were brought to Assyria in ancient times as booty or tribute. They formed the decorative elements of furniture, containers, chariots and horse trappings, many originally covered with gold foil and inlaid with stones. Many are carved with intricate decorations depicting human and animal figures as well as floral and geometric motifs.

John Curtis, Keeper of the Middle East collections at the British Museum, said: “These ivories tell us a great deal about the art and history of the Middle East in the early 1st millennium BC, and now they will be available for everybody to see and study. I am hugely grateful to BISI, the British Museum Friends, the Art Fund and the NHMF, for enabling us to purchase this collection”.

The funding will cover the value of one third of the collection of ivories. BISI has very generously agreed to give another third to the British Museum’s collection as a gift. Some of the pieces will be on permanent display in the museum. Others will be available for travelling exhibitions. A collection of about 65 choice pieces, which forms the final third of the collection, remains in the possession of BISI and it is hoped that in the future these can be returned to Iraq.

See further images and information on the Nimrud Ivories via Art Saved