What is Ivory? History of Ivory

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elephant with tusks: history of ivory

What is ivory? History of ivory: An elephant using her tusks

What is ivory?

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 traders 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.

Ivory statuette from Afghanistan, curved to fit the tusk

History of ivory: Ivory statuette from Afghanistan, curved to fit the tusk

How to make big statues out of ivory

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. The statue of Athena in the Parthenon in Greece, for example, was covered with gold and ivory.

(Today it is illegal in all countries to kill elephants for ivory. People sometimes kill elephants for ivory anyway, but you can help stop them by not buying anything made of ivory).

An Assyrian ivory from the 700s BC showing a Nubian man with an oryx, a monkey, and leopard skins, bringing them to the Assyrian king Assurnasirpal II

An Assyrian ivory from the 700s BC showing a Nubian man with an oryx, a monkey, and leopard skins, bringing them to the Assyrian king Assurnasirpal II

Asian or African ivory?

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.

Ivory was painted bright colors

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, but not the way the artists intended.

More about medieval art
More about African trade

Bibliography and further reading about ivory:

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
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By | 2018-02-09T23:58:29+00:00 May 19th, 2017|Africa, Art|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is Ivory? History of Ivory. Quatr.us Study Guides, May 19, 2017. Web. February 24, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
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, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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