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Ivory in the Aegean Bronze Age: Elephant Tusk or Hippopotamus Ivory?*

  • O.H. Krzyszkowska

A new approach to Aegean ivory working, described in this article, demonstrates that in addition to elephant tusk, carvers made use of hippopotamus ivory throughout the Bronze Age. A brief introduction describes the background to the present study and the methods adopted here. The characteristics of elephant ivory and hippopotamus ivory are summarised and examples are given which show how morphological or structural features visible in finished objects enable us to identify the kind of ivory present. The central section presents a range of objects identified, during recent research, as made from hippopotamus ivory. These include prepalatial seals, inlays ranging in date from MMI toLH IIIB, certain Mycenaean plaques and warrior heads. Frequently it is possible to determine how these objects were made, less often why hippopotamus tusk was used. The final sections discuss the question of ivory sources and attempt to draw together the various strands of evidence for ivory working in the Aegean Bronze Age.

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page 209 note 1 Poursat Cat; Poursat IvMyc.

page 209 note 2 The majority of pre-palatial ‘ivory’ seals are found in CMS II 1 with a few examples in other volumes of the CMS series. There are few studies pertaining to ‘ivory’ seals per se but they account for some 20% of the seals considered by Yule, Paul, Early Cretan Seals: a study of chronology (Mainz, 1981).Infra nn. 3, 28.

page 210 note 3 Krzyszkowska, O.H., ‘Wealth and prosperity in pre-palatial Crete’, Minoan Society (ed. Krzyszkowska, and Nixon, ) (Bristol 1983) 163170; id., ‘Early Cretan seals: new evidence for the use of bone, ivory and boar's tusk’, CMS Beiheft 3 (in press).

page 210 note 4 Krzyszkowska, O.H., ‘Ivory from hippopotamus tusk in the Aegean Bronze Age’, Antiquity 58 (1984) 123125 pl. XIIIa.

page 210 note 5 Persson, A.W., The new tombs at Dendra near Midea (Lund 1942) 145–46.

page 210 note 6 O.H. Krzyszkowska, Ivory and related minerals: an illustrated guide (Institute of Classical Studies Handbook) (in preparation).

page 210 note 7 I have also drawn on experience gained in studying ivories from the Citadel House (Mycenae) and Tiryns, and accordingly thank the excavators, Lord William Taylour and Professor Klaus Kilian.

page 211 note 8 The approach described here is based on that which I have developed over a number of years for dealing with ivory and related materials. The descriptions of ivory and tusks are also drawn chiefly from my own observations. Although I believe both details and approach to be substantially correct, modifications might be required in future. Information was also culled from various, often conflicting, sources. Caubet and Poplin (274–277) now provide brief but reliable descriptions of hippopotamus and elephant tusks as an introduction to their account of ivory use at Ugarit. The pictures published by Penniman in 1952 remain an indispensible guide to the appearance of ivory but his short commentary is essentially descriptive rather than explanatory. The standard work on the microscopic structure of hippopotamus and elephant dentine remains SirOwen, Richard, Odontography: or a treatise on the comparative anatomy of teeth (London 1840), but is not much help in macroscopic studies of ivory objects and makes no mention of the ‘commissure', inner dentine or ‘heartline’.

page 211 note 9 Properly, ‘ivory' means elephant dentine alone, but it is commonly applied to that of sperm whale, walrus and hippopotamus. Here, when I use the term ‘ivory’ I refer to the substance dentine (‘ivory’ beneath the enamel) or the raw material in carving where it is neither necessary nor practical to be more precise; otherwise ‘elephant ivory’ and ‘hippopotamus ivory’ are used.

page 211 note 10 Caubet and Poplin (273–274) also found that the naked eye sufficed. Low magnifications facilitate comparisons with Penniman's pictures (mostly X3). The seals discussed below were examined under higher magnifications with the CMS microscope. On the whole this provided supplementary information regarding structure rather than the primary means of identification.

page 212 note 11 For dentine formation see Sikes, S.A.K., The natural history of the African elephant (London 1971) 8185.

page 212 note 12 These will be discussed in Well Built Mycenae: the ivories (in preparation).

page 212 note 13 Penniman, pl. I and II.

page 213 note 14 Sikes op. cit. (n.11) 83–84; Penniman 13, pl. I; Owen op. cit. (n.8) 640.

page 213 note 15 Baer, al., ‘The effect of high temperature on ivory’, Studies in Conservation 16 (1971) 18; id., ‘The effect of long-term heating on ivorv’. International Institute of Conservation-American Group Bulletin. 12.1 (1971) 55–59.

page 213 note 16 For hippopotamus dentition see: Cornwall, I.W., Bones for the archaeologist (London 1956) fig. 26; Caubet and Poplin fig. 1, p.274. For seals, upper canines might also serve but this requires confirmation. I am most grateful to Mr Edwin Haydon for providing me with two such tusks for my collection.

page 213 note 17 Owen op. cit. (n.8) 567; SirTomes, Charles, A manual of dental anatomy (8th ed.London 1923) 459.

page 213 note 18 Dealers also make a distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ elephant ivory. Ritchie, C.I.A., Ivory Carving (London 1969) 126127.

page 213 note 19 L. 0.20 m., W. 0.035 m., Th. 0.026 m. Now cut at the proximal end, originally it would have been longer and heavier. For tusk size see Laws, R.M., ‘Dentition and ageing of the hippopotamus’, East African Wildlife Journal 6 (1968) 1952 esp. 38–39.

page 213 note 20 Caubet and Poplin fig. 11 p. 281.

page 213 note 21 Compare Penniman pls, I, II, VI, VII.

page 214 note 22 Laws op. cit. (n. 19) 38–39. The large lower canine (Plate 26a, below) measures L. 0.58 m. along its outer curve and W. 0.066 m., Th. 0.050 m. at mid-tusk. It weighs 1.5 kg. I should like to thank Dr Laws for this specimen and for discussing the problems of hippopotamus ivory with me. The small lower canines (Plates 26a, above; 26b, c, 27c) each weigh about 0.35 kg. and measure: L. 0.34 m. (outer curve), W. max. 0.039 m., Th. 0.026 m. (mid-tusk). These and the incisors (Plate 25) were bought in 1986 from Friedlein and Co. Ltd., Ivory Merchants (Dunmow, Essex). Their Mr N. Baker kindly sectioned the tusks to my requirements.

page 214 note 23 Poplin, F., ‘Deux cas particuliers de débitage par usure’, Premier Colloque international sur l'industrie de l'os dans la préhistoire (ed. Camps-Fabrer, H.) (Aix-en-Provence 1974) 8592 esp. 85–89, figs, 1–6.

page 214 note 24 Penniman pl. VI.

page 214 note 25 Caubet and Poplin 279–281, 299, fig. 4; and infra Appendix I.

page 214 note 26 Penniman pl. VI. Penniman uses the terms ‘outer dentine’ and ‘inner dentine’ and they are retained here for convenience. Sometimes they are called ‘primary dentine’ and ‘secondary (that is to say, more recently formed) dentine’, respectively.

page 215 note 27 Caubet and Poplin 278.

page 216 note 28 This discussion summarises my recent article ‘Early Cretan Seals’ (n.3) in which I demonstrate that certain ‘shape classes’ which Yule (op. cit. n.2) defines as occurring in ivory, are found instead in bone, boar's tusk or other materials altogether. For an earlier account see my article in Minoan Society (n.3) although there I wrongly assumed that ivory seals were made from elephant tusk. The new findings on hippopotamus ivory are based examination of selected seals in Herakleion (1987) after suspicions were raised during work on the Mitsotakis Collection in 1986 with Drs Ingo Pini and Walter Müller of the CMS. My belief that hippopotamus ivory was the principal kind of ivory used for seals tallies with recent observations made by Dr Pini.

page 217 note 29 Mallia: Nécropoles I (EtCret 7) (Paris 1945) 57, pl. LXVIII. 1.; Sondages au sud-ouest du palais (EtCret 20) (Paris 1975) 131–133 pl. XL; Quartier Mu II (EtCret 26) (Paris 1980) 143–146 (materials identified by a faunal expert, R. Jullien). Infra n.34.

page 217 note 30 ADelt 28 Chron (1973) 588–589; AJA 83 (1979) 161, n. 59.

page 219 note 31 It was this collection above all which prompted me to investigate the use of hippopotamus ivory since on a number of occasions I had been unable to reconcile the appearance of the inlays with my knowledge of elephant ivory.

page 219 note 32 As an appendix to M.S.F. Hood and R.D.G. Evely, The House of the Ivories, Knossos (in preparation).

page 220 note 33 Within this general approach, variations are entirely possible. Naturally this proviso applies to other manufacture methods suggested in this article since the precise order in which operations were performed can rarely be identified with complete certainty. For instance, Dr Evely has suggested an alternative method for inlay strip manufacture: (1) preparation of incisor; (2) sectioning of rectangular block; (3) slicing off individual inlays.

page 221 note 34 Box 1878 (Evans' Unknown Provenance). Stratigraphical Museum, Knossos. I am grateful to the Managing Committee of the British School at Athens for permission to study this material. A brief account of how bone inlays can be made is given by R. Jullien: ‘L'industrie de l'os chezles Minoëns de Malia (1800 B.C.), Premier Colloque internationale sur l'industrie de l'os dans la préhistoire (ed. Camps-Fabrer, H.) (Aix-en-Provence 1974) 105106.

page 221 note 35 Poursat Cat no. 490. Of the selection of strips from NM 2224 and 2225 illustrated on his pl. LI, all are hippopotamus ivory except the two broadest strips (middle of picture, second from left and second from right). Two more inlays included under NM 2225 are made from hippopotamus ivory: a finely executed pentagon and a T-shaped inlay (Poursat Cat pl. LI centre), the latter splitting on the commissure. The cut-out inlays with incised decoration also included under NM 2224 and 2225 all seem to be elephant ivory.

page 221 note 36 Similar marks occur on the Royal Road ‘D plaques’ (Plate 27g) but not on the strips.

page 222 note 37 Karo, Georg, Die Schachtgräber von Mykenai (Muinich 19301933) 154. Taf. LXXI.

page 223 note 38 Sakellariou 148–149. Rosette E2330– 2α (not ill.); tri-curved arch E2330–90α pl. 47 (upper example) ( = Poursat Cat no. 260/2330d pl. XXII); lilies E2330–13α (pl. 47) ( = Poursat Cat no. 260/2330a pl. XXII), E2330–13β (not ill.); sacral ivy E2330–18 (not ill.).

page 223 note 39 Symeonoglou, S., Kadmeia I (SIMA 35) (Göteborg 1973) 5960 figs. 255–258; Poursat Cat nos. 87–116; nos. 160–184 (esp. nos. 109, 176 – each over 100 examples).

page 224 note 40 Poursat Cat. no. 30, pl. II.

page 224 note 41 Sakellariou 150–151 pls. 49–50. Sakellariou is surely right in suggesting that the small fragment (Plate 29e) which she mentions under E2403–1 belongs somehow to the oval plaque. Fragments E2403–3β and 3γ join (Plate 29d = Sakellariou pl. 49 third and second from bottom left). Fragments E2403–4α and 4β (pl. 49 bottom left) may be bone. For 2403–1 see also Poursat Cat no. 293, pl. XXVII. A strip or plaque fragment decorated with concentric circles (Ti LXI 36/80 III) was found in the recent excavations at Tiryns: it too is hippopotamus ivory.

page 226 note 42 Sakellariou 98, pl. 22. E2468, E2469 = Poursat Cat nos. 288, 289, pl. XXVII. A third head (E2470, Sakellariou pl. 23 = Poursat Cat no. 270 pl. XXVII) was considered to be too poorly preserved to merit inspection but it could be hippopotamus ivory also. The head NM 2469 is now joined to its ‘backing-plaque’ by means of a plastic rivet and was not detached for this study.

page 226 note 43 Much of the osteological evidence has been collected by Reese, D.S. ‘Hippopotamus and Elephant Teeth from Kition’ in Karageorghis, V., Excavations at Kition V. Pt 2. (Nicosia 1985) 391409 esp. pp. 394–401. For a discussion of the evidence and lists of the specimens from Ugarit see Caubet and Poplin 292–298.

page 226 note 44 See Caubet and Poplin 294–297 for an especially thorough treatment of the words for ‘ivory’ and ‘elephant’ in Near Eastern texts and an attempt to find an ancient word for hippopotamus.

page 226 note 45 Caubet and Poplin, passim and 298–301.

page 226 note 46 North Africa (Libya and Mauretania) are said to have supported elephant populations but Aegean trade with these areas is not documented. Scullard, H.H., The Elephant in the Greek and Roman world (Cambridge 1974) 26, attributes the elephant's extinction to increased aridity during I–IV Dynasties. Barnett, R.D., Ancient ivories in the middle east (Qedem 14) (Jerusalem 1982) 18 n.30. cites an expedition by Harkhuf, governor of Elephantine, to procure tusks and other precious materials.

page 227 note 47 Barnett, (op. cit. n.46) 6, 19, fig. 2; Caubet and Poplin 298 n.26.

page 227 note 48 Sidney, J., ‘The past and present distribution of some African ungulates’, Transactions of the Zoological Society of London 30 (1965) 1399 esp. 99 (hippopotamus extinct in the Delta by 1658 A.D., in Egypt as a whole within the last century).

page 227 note 49 Based on exhibited objects in several museums and inspection of Pre- and Proto-dynastic ivories in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. See also Caubet and Poplin 292.

page 227 note 50 Discussions with earlier references for both origins and extinction in Miller, R., ‘Elephants, ivory and charcoal: an ecological perspective’, BASOR 264 (1986) 2943; Caubet and Poplin 297–298.

page 227 note 51 Deraniyagala, P.E.P., Some extinct elephants, their relations and the two living species (Colombo 1955) 116117; Hooijer, D.A., ‘The Indian elephant at bronze age Ras Shamra-Ugarit’, Ugaritica 7 (Paris 1978) 187188.

page 227 note 52 Platon, N., Zakros (New York 1971) 245.

page 227 note 53 D.A. Hooijer, pers. comm. November 1985.

page 227 note 54 Caubet and Poplin 297.

page 228 note 55 Perrot, J., Archaeology 12 (1959) 815 p. 13. Some of the finished ivories are clearly from hippopotamus tusk: Barnett (op. cit. n.46) pls. 13–14.

page 228 note 56 Winter, I.J. ‘Ivory Carving’ in Ebla to Damascus: art and archaeology of ancient Syria (ed. Weiss, H.) (Washington D.C. 1985) 339346 pp. 340–341. Barnett (op. cit. n.46) 24–25, 28–29.

page 228 note 57 Caubet and Poplin 291.

page 228 note 58 ibid. 279, 290–291, 299 and infra Appendix I.

page 228 note 59 ibid. 291, 292–293, 299–300.

page 228 note 60 Supra n. 4. The ‘slip of ivory' from neolithic Knossos (BSA 59 [1964] 188 pl. 62, 1 no. 13) has been examined for me by Sheilagh Wall-Crowther. She identifies it, positively, as shell.

page 228 note 61 None has been handled but possible traces of the commissure were visible on HM 224, while the lamellae on HM 854 looked very like hippopotamus ivory. None of the figurines showed characteristic splitting of elephant ivory.

page 229 note 62 None of the chips seems to be hippopotamus ivory and there are certainly no signs of the distinctive enamel.

page 229 note 63 PM III 428–433; AR (1957) 22 pl. 2a; AR (1961–62) 27 fig. 40; PAE (1982) 521–528, pl. 266; The Times (9 June 1987). An arm from Chrysolakkos may be earlier: Mallia: Nécropoles I (EtCret 7) (Paris 1945) 58, pls. XXIII,a; LXVII,5 but Hood, S. in The arts in prehistoric Greece (Harmondsworth 1978) 119 suggests it should be dated to the early neopalatial period.

page 230 note 64 BSA 11 (1904–05) 284 fig. 14a; BSA 82 (1987) 142, pl.20f.

page 230 note 65 Bosanquct, R.C. and Dawkins, R.M., The unpublished objects from the Palaikastro excavations 1902–1906 (BSA Supp. I) (London 1923) 127 fig. 108.

page 230 note 66 HM 58: ASAtene 39 (1977) 97–98, fig. 64–65; HM 345: Alexiou, S., Ysterominoikoi taphoi limenos Knosou (Katsamba) (Athens 1967) 7375, pls. 30–33.

page 230 note 67 Platon, N. (op. cit. n. 52) 131, 148.

page 230 note 68 Barnett (op. cit. n. 46) 32–34 with references.

page 230 note 69 Level VII (18th century B.C.): Woolley, L., Alalakh (Oxford 1955) 102 pl. XVI.

page 230 note 70 The Kaş shipwreck might shed some light on this: Bass, G., AJA 90 (1986) 269296. A cut section of elephant tusk was found (p.283, ill. 18) and a hippopotamus incisor (ill. 19). Several lower canines have also been discovered (G. Bass, pers. comm. November 1986).

page 230 note 71 An ivory leg and a lid, probably imports, were found at Lerna: Banks, E.C., The early and middle helladic small objects from Lerna (University of Cincinnati PhD 1967) (University Microfilms, Ann Arbor) 479482. The ‘ivory' objects from Thebes, including the incised plaque (ADelt 30 Mel [1975] 80 pl. 37) are bone. For pommels from Graves Iota and Lambda: Poursat Cat nos. 234, 235).

page 231 note 72 Karo (op. cit. n. 37) 109 (NM 491); 154–155 fig. 73 (NM 899).

page 231 note 73 Poursat Cat nos. 227, 237 (pl. XIX); nos. 206, 214 (pl. XVIII). For the incised handle (Poursat Cat no. 210): Karo (op. cit. n. 37) fig. 90 p. 200. The tiny fragments of strips (hippopotamus ivory) from Grave Omicron are included under NM 9570 (Poursat Cat 237).

page 231 note 74 Poursat IvMyc 166.

page 231 note 75 ibid. 43. For illustrations see Poursat Cat passim and esp. nos. 138–140, pl. XII (relief plaques); nos. 331–332, pl. XXXV (mirror handles); nos 448–450, pl XLVII (combs). IvMyc pl. I (pyxides).

page 232 note 76 For illustrations see Pourset Cat passim and esp. nos. 65–68, pl. V (shields); nos. 71–81, pl. VIII (columns); nos. 154–156, pl. XIII (shells).

page 233 note 1 Caubet and Poplin 299.

page 234 note 2 Sakellarakis, I.A., ‘Elephantinon ploion ek Mykinon’, AE (1971) 188233, pl. 38 (HM 120); pls. 34–35, 39–40, 46–47 (NM 9506).

page 234 note 3 Sakellarakis (op. cit. n.2) pl. 48–49.

page 234 note 4 Frodin, O. and Persson, A.W., Asine (Stockholm, 1938) 388, fig. 254 I examined this myself in April 1987. The neck (Nauplia Museum 1090 but housed in the Tiryns apotheke) was apparently a stray find at Mycenae in 1905 (Nauplia inventory). It will be published together with the Tiryns ivories in a forthcoming issue of AM.

* I am most grateful to the British Academy for a grant which enabled me to carry out research in Greece in 1987. Among people there who made this study possible I am especially indebted to Dr Hector Catling, Director of the British School at Athens; Dr Katie Demakopoulou, Ephor of the Prehistoric Collections in the National Museum, Athens; and Professor Iannis Sakellarakis, Ephor of Herakleion. Dr Costas Davaras kindly allowed me to examine his unpublished inlays from Gournia. I should also like to thank Mr Sinclair Hood, Dr Doniert Evely and the Managing Committee of the British School for permitting me to study ivories from the Royal Road in the Stratigraphical Museum, Knossos, on a number of occasions. Many people have helped, sometimes unwittingly, with their questions and comments. In particular, I would like to mention Dr Evely, Mrs Helen Hughes-Brock, and Dr Annie Caubet of the Département des Antiquités Orientales, Musée du Louvre, to whom I am especially grateful for showing me the ivories from Ugarit and sharing her findings with me prior to publication. I owe a special debt of gratitude to Dr Ingo Pini of the Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel in Marburg for his encouragement and practical help in matters relating to seals. Collaboration with him and his colleague Dr Walter Müller proved specially valuable in 1986 and 1987, and I am particularly grateful that I was able to use the CMS microscope on these occasions. I would also like to thank Professor Peter Warren and Dr Brian Cook for supporting this project. Dr Cook, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities in the British Museum, also kindly allowed me to study material in that collection.

Abbreviations in addition to those in standard use

Caubet and Poplin = Caubet, A., Poplin, F., ‘Les objets de matière dure animale: ètude du mateériau’, Ras Shamra-Ougarit III: Le centre de la ville (ed. Yon, M.) (Paris 1987) 273306.

CMS II 1 = Corpus der minoischen und mykenischen Siegel. Die Siegel der Vorpalastzeit (ed. Platon, N.) (Berlin 1969).

Penniman = Penniman, T.K., Pictures of Ivory and other Animal Teeth Bone and Antler (Pitt Rivers Occasional Paper on Technology 5) (Oxford 1952).

Poursat Cat = Poursat, J.-C., Catalogue des ivoires mycéniens du Musée National d'Athènes (Paris 1977)

Poursat IvMyc = Poursat, J.-C., Les ivoires mycéniens (Paris 1977).

Sakellariou = Xenaki-Sakellariou, A., Oi thalamotoi taphoi ton Mykinon (Paris 1985).

SMV = Stratigraphical Museum, Knossos (inventory number)

The photographs on Plates 24c and 24d are courtesy of the Mycenae Archive (Birmingham); those on Plates 25d, 25c, 26d and 26e kindly supplied from the CMS Archive (Marburg).

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