There has been growing interest in incorporating single-wall carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) as toughening agents in brittle ceramics. Here we have prepared dense Al(2)O(3)/SWNT composites using the spark-plasma sintering (SPS) method. Vickers (sharp) and Hertzian (blunt) indentation tests reveal that these composites are highly contact-damage resistant, as shown by the lack of crack formation. However, direct toughness measurements, using the single-edge V-notch beam method, show that these composites are as brittle as dense Al(2)O(3) (having a toughness of 3.22 MPa m(0.5)). This type of unusual mechanical behaviour was also observed in SPS-processed, dense Al(2)O(3)/graphite composites. We argue that the highly shear-deformable SWNTs or graphite heterogeneities in the composites help redistribute the stress field under indentation, imparting the composites with contact-damage resistance. These composites may find use in engineering and biomedical applications where contact loading is important.