An Ivory Timeline: from Mammoths to Pharaohs
Around 40,000 years ago, someone took a fragment of a mammoth’s tusk and carved a small mammoth from it – one of the earliest known pieces of art made from ivory. Roughly an inch high and one-and-a-half inches in length, it’s unmistakably a mammoth, complete with trunk, tail and a high domed head. Twelve thousand years after the carving was discarded in a cave in Germany, a band of Paleolithic people dug three shallow graves into permafrost near present-day Moscow. Thousands of tiny ivory beads adorned each skeleton, each bead laboriously made with stone tools.
The earliest carved portrait of a human face dates from around 23,000 years ago. Discovered in a cave in France, it too was crafted from mammoth ivory. Named the Venus of Brassempouy for the village near where it was found, the small ivory figurine has a forehead, eyes, brows, nose, but no mouth. The top and sides of her head depict braided hair. It was unearthed in 1894 with numerous other figurines made of stone. Other late Stone Age “Venus” figures, with their bulging torsos and small heads devoid of detail were found in sites that range from the Pyrenees to Siberia. Ongoing excavations and reconstructions of ivory carvings from the “Stone Age” include ivory birds, lions, horses, and several lion-headed humans, all made by stone tools.
At first, there was quite enough ivory simply lying around on the ground to satisfy the needs of man. Ice Age huts discovered in the Ukraine used mammoth skulls as foundations and shoulder blades as walls. Tusks held down hides draped over the rooflines. One hut had 35 such weights. The age of individual bones used in the construction of these huts spanned more than 10,000 years, an indication of the amount of ivory to be found at hand. When new sites are found, they are collapsed inward upon themselves; shelters reduced to reliquaries of bone.
Early Egyptian pyramids had already been built before the last of the mammoths died. As pharaohs consolidated their kingdoms, elephant ivory (the material closest to hand) was one of the valued items of tribute sent down the Nile by conquered states. Not only did Tutankhamen have an ivory headrest in his tomb, he also had ivory statuettes of concubines to accompany him in his afterlife. Game boards were entombed in his royal suite, to also allay boredom in eternity. Made of solid ivory, the boards were fitted with carved-out drawers to hold gaming pieces.
Egyptians carved ivory into veneers, reliefs, statuary, jewelry, arrow points, small furniture, combs, spoons, the handles of weapons, scarabs, amulets, coffin lids, and used as inlays on toilet caskets (cosmetic boxes) containing such items as eye shadow pots, mirrors and perfume jars, some also made of ivory. Cleopatra, who presided over the last of the Pharaonic dynasties, quite possibly participated in banquets while lying on a bronze couch inlaid with glass and ivory described as being in her palace in Alexandria. The palace was also described as having ivory-paneled entrance halls. Re-discovered in 2012 beneath the Mediterranean Sea, the royal quarters are relatively intact, having slid under water during cataclysmic earthquakes and tsunamis in the fourth and eighth centuries. Excavations have just begun of its treasures.
To Egypt’s north, no one society dominated the eastern Mediterranean trade. However, around 1,000 BC, the Phoenicians, in what is now modern-day Lebanon and Syria, had an efficient maritime network that supplied King Solomon with the ivory he needed to build his ivory throne in his temple at Jerusalem. Described in 1 Kings 10 of the Bible, it was “a great throne of ivory,” covered with the finest gold. The throne also included rubies, sapphires, emeralds and other precious stones.
In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus traveled to the Egyptian city of Elephantine, located at the first cataract of the Nile, and reported that elephants could still be hunted to the west, in Libya. Also in the fifth century BC, Greeks saw the construction of two immense ivory-covered statues, one of Athena at the Parthenon and the other of Zeus, at Olympia. Erected around 432 BC, both were made of “chryselephantine:” clothes and scepters of gold, faces, bare arms, shoulders, and torsos covered in ivory. Zeus, sitting on his throne, was thirty-nine feet tall, the height of a four-story building. Because ivory dries out once it is separated from the creature who bore it, Zeus and Athena were constantly anointed with olive oil, which collected into a gleaming surrounding pool.
The statue of Zeus was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Carried off to Constantinople in 394 AD, it was destroyed by fire in 462 AD. By the Middle Ages all chryselephantine statues had been stripped of their valuable materials and demolished. Only the hole remains at the Parthenon that held Athena’s central wooden support.
By the third century BC, Rome replaced Greece as the center of the ancient world. Romans used more ivory than any other civilization until the 1880s. For their marble statues they inserted ivory into chiseled, empty eyes. Birdcages, scroll holders, currency, cameos, candleholders, dolls, boxes, and statuettes of gladiators were all made of ivory. Caligula built an ivory manger for his horse. Immense consular diptychs (two ivory panels joined by a hinge) carved with the image of the governing consul served as the sign of his office.
The Roman demand for ivory caused North Africa’s last wild elephants to vanish around the 2nd century AD, about the time that the last Mediterranean cedars and oaks were felled.
Land that once supported elephants now barely supports goats.