Dissertation: “Women of Ivory as Embodiments of Ideal Feminine Beauty in the Ancient Near East during the First Millennium BCE” (Harvard, 2008)

woman's hand holding a tiny broken sculpture of a lady
Dissertation research at the British Museum: a 9th to 8th century BCE Levantine ivory sculpture

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Harvard University, May 23, 2008 (GSAS, History of Art and Architecture)

© 2008 – Amy Rebecca Gansell. All rights reserved.

Committee:  Irene Winter, David Roxburgh, Jerrold Cooper


This thesis identifies and explores aspects of ideal feminine beauty embodied in first millennium BCE Levantine ivory sculptures of women.  A corpus of two hundred and ten works, which were examined firsthand, is the subject of interdisciplinary analysis.  In Part I, the ivory sculptures are studied through traditional visual and art historical methods.  Also, in order to add precision to visual observations and to reveal information not evident through visual investigation alone, a collaborative quantitative analysis of the figures’ characteristics, attributes, and proportions is pursued.

In Part II, with the aim of interpreting the meaning and cultural significance of the ivory sculptures and the ideal feminine beauty that they represented, comparative materials are introduced.  Archaeological, textual, and ethnoarchaeological evidence are presented as in-roads to the ancient visual record.  Comparative study illuminates cultural conceptions of beauty during the first millennium BCE and stimulates new ways of looking at and thinking about the ivories.

Overall, this thesis hopes to demonstrate the significance of representations of women (and living women themselves) in the ancient Near Eastern experience.  Most excavated Levantine ivory objects derive from northern Mesopotamian, Neo-Assyrian royal contexts, where they (and the women they depicted) were appreciated as attractive, if not exotic.  The idealized women represented in ivory would have played a unique and essential role in the visual experience of the court and are likely to have been compared to living queens.

Comparative records indicate that the beauty of the ivory women may have referred to human fertility, among other positively coded traits.  Mirroring the significance of the living queens, this thesis proposes that Levantine ivory sculptures of women displayed in Neo-Assyrian palaces may have contributed to an ideology of dynastic vitality and regeneration through the representation of ideal feminine beauty.