The Story of Global Ivory in the Pre-Modern Era

Global Ivory

Global Ivory

Project Overview: 

How is this “Story” different from other parts of MappaMundi?

A curated collection of ivory objects.

Each object has a story to tell—its “biography”.

Taken together, all the ivory objects represent a mosaic of impressions and scholarship about the culture of the pre-modern world.

You, the audience, will craft the penultimate story of Global Ivory.

How is this “Story” a “Biography” (a Telling)?

Where did the object come from? Its origin—an animal in the wild, nautical creature or jungle denizen? Is it perhaps vegetal?

How do we come to know it? Is it an archaeological artifact, rescued from the soil, exhumed from a tomb?

How does it come to our attention? Coveted and hidden away or displayed by a private collector—royal patron or provincial merchant? Brigand?

What is its form? How was the artifact made? Is it “manufactured” in some replicative process? Or is it “precious”, one-of-a-kind?

What was the object’s destination? How was it used differently as it passed from region to region, country to country?

What was this object taken to “mean”?  What did it symbolize for those who touched it, who held it, coveted it? Those who tell the story of this artifact?

This is the “biography” of the object, not unlike the story we all tell of our origins, our “coming- into-being” and—our eventual end. For all things have an ultimate resting place. This is not to account for the imagination, which extends the story of our objects far beyond what may have been conceived of as purpose and meaning. Since our ivory artifacts are diverse—salt-cellar to netsuke to reliquary to votive object—and since they come from all parts of the pre-modern world, together they make up make up a complex, multi-layered and coruscating collection of stories of origin, journey, use and making (manufacture).

Ivory Gaming Piece from Al-Baleed, Arabian Peninsula (Oman), a link to China and India as long ago as 800 CE and perhaps much earlier (Zarins and Newton 2016).

Ivory Gaming Piece (parallelepiped) from Burrian (Orkney Islands, Scotland). Compare with 1.

The famous 1539 Carta Marina pictures a “rosmarus piscus” coming ashore on the coast of Finnmark, near present-day Tromsø in northern Norway (That’s “walrus” in plain English.).

When it was up for sale, it was said that "the institution to acquire [the Bury St. Edmunds Cross] can consider itself the most fortunate in the world." (James J. Rorimer, Director, Metropolitan Museum of Art) The Cloisters prevailed. You can see this 12th-century walrus-ivory masterpiece there.

Extraordinary objects can be fashioned from ivory by master carvers. In the pre-modern era, a market developed. In the late 1400s, Portuguese ships transported most of the ivory to Europe.

This African elephant clearly exhibits the marks of a long life, rendered to perfection by artist Jennifer Kearney

Nearly 200 years ago, a hoard was uncovered on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis containing 78 medieval chess pieces made from walrus tusks and whale teeth (1150-1200 CE)

The Walrus Hunt. (After C. F. Hall, Life Among the Esquimaux [1864].)

Virgin and Child (with Two Angels) from Saint-Denis. 1250–75. French (Paris). Note how the statuette conforms to the curvature of the tusk.

An oliphant from the collection of Sheikh Sa’ud (inv. No. IV.11.1998.KU).

The Story of Ivory & MappaMundi

 The focus of the MappaMundi project is the so-called "pre-modern era” (500 CE—1500 CE). Our interest is world-wide, hence a kind of subheading—‘The Global Middle Ages”. The project brings together scholars from a variety of disciplines and specialties. In the present instance, collaborating colleagues have a special interest and a unique, sometimes idiosyncratic “take” on ivory—all aspects of the material—its identification, origin and manufacture, how it traveled across the world, and its importance culturally as well as economically. Conservation is of especial interest, since the artifact originates in the death of a creature or excision from a plant.

An engaging, original manner of approaching the topic—“Global Ivory”—invites colleagues from diverse disciplines to contribute short occasional pieces (250–500 words; more, as needed) on discrete aspects of the larger subject. We take objects as so many “windows” on the Global Middle Ages. These pieces might be generic or theoretical—ways of approaching or conceptualizing the subject of study. But more often than not, these short, compelling narratives focus on one object alone that epitomizes something important about ivory in this time-frame. Taken together, the papers constitute a mosaic of impressions and appreciations of ivory (“stories”) as an important building block in the fashioning of the global culture of the pre-modern period.

 We take inspiration from the world of archaeology (and media). Material Engagement Theory (MET) provides a most congenial discipline that focuses our collaborative research.

The “Global Ivory Team” will collaboratively author a collection of essays about diverse pre- modern objects crafted in ivory or similar substances—hippo, walrus, sperm whale teeth, narwhal, tagua nut, horn, shells, antler. To date, the “Global Ivory Team” hails from Europe, the Levant, Arabia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Colleagues’ specialties include narratology and other literary models, archaeology, museum studies and curation, and conservation.

Methodology is important as we approach an area of study that is undertheorized. Filip Vukosavović, Chief Curator of BibleLands Museum Jerusalem and a member of the Global Ivory Team has crafted a centerpiece for the Global Ivory endeavor. He writes on “narrative” and how, as we tell the story of artifacts, “culture” springs to life.

The ivory trade, as it may have occurred in the pre-modern era, is difficult to trace. Two members of the Global Ivory Team (Zarins and Newton) have nonetheless done just that— archaeological evidence documents exchange in ivory artifacts between ancient China and the Arab Peninsula. A nascent exchange network—amazing!

Other Global Ivory Team Members—Stephanie Hornbeck and Rachael Arenstein—are conservators who specialize in the identification and preservation of ivory and like substances. As their expertise proves applicable, they will contribute essays that will undergird and provide perspective on our collaborative study. Their specialties are complementary, contributing to a multi- vocal narrative that emerges as different essays are taken in tandem and that undoubtedly will occur to our audience as they encounter and apprehend the work offered herein.

 Our collaborative effort is ongoing. Expect surprises that delight.


Project Team: 


Rick Hauser
Visiting Research Fellow
Department of Asian Languages & Literatures
University of Minnesota
Research Associate, IIMAS
International Institute for Mesopotamian Area Studies

Rachael Arenstein
Conservator, Bible Lands Museum

Martha Chaiklin
Independent scholar

Stephanie Hornbeck
Director of Conservation
Caryatid-Conservation Services

Luisa Nardini
Associate Professor of Musicology
University of Texas

Lynne S. Newton
Curator (recent) of Maritime History
National Museum of Qatar
Doha, Qatar

Else Roesdahl
Professor emerita, Medieval Archaeology
University of Aarhus

Filip Vukosavović
Chief Curator National Maritime Museum

Juris Zarins
Office of the Advisor to His Majesty the Sultan
For Cultural Affairs
Sultanate of Oman