What is ivory? Does ivory come from elephants?
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What is Ivory?

elephant

Ivory is the same thing as elephant tusks. People used to kill elephants in India and Africa and cut off their tusks, and carve the tusks into beads or small statues. Sometimes they sold the tusks to Egypt, Greece, Rome, or China for wine or silk or glass beads. Because ivory had to travel a long way to get to China or Europe, things made of ivory were very expensive. Most things made of ivory have to be pretty small, smaller than an elephant tusk. Often ivory statuettes are curved to fit the curve of the tusk.

Bactrian ivory statuette
Ivory statuette from
Afghanistan, curved
to fit the tusk

But when people wanted to make big statues out of ivory, they sliced the tusk into thin sheets, and then pinned the sheets of ivory to a wooden statue, to make an ivory statue.

(Today it is illegal in all countries to kill elephants for ivory).

ivory carving of artemis
Ivory carving of the Greek goddess Artemis
done during the Roman Empire,
now in the Cluny museum in Paris

At first most European and Asian artists used Asian ivory, from Indian elephants. But then they realized that African ivory, from African elephants, was easier to carve. Then traders started to buy African ivory, all along the East and West coasts of Africa. Until 1300 AD, people in the Byzantine empire who wanted African ivory traded with the African kingdom of Aksum, so that Aksum stayed a Christian kingdom until the 1300s AD.

Ancient and medieval ivories were usually painted in bright colors, to make them look more like real things. Today the paint has faded, so we see the ivories in their natural colors.

Bibliography and further reading:

Elephants, Ivory, And Hunters, by Tony Sanchez-Arino (2004).

Elephant: The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture, by Doran Ross (1995).

Ivory in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic Period, edited by J. Lesley Fitton (1993). Each chapter by a different specialist in ancient ivory.

Ancient Africa
Ancient Art
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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