The Role of Ivory in Human Civilization


Both the endangered Asian and African elephants are now listed in Appendix I of the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This is because they are severely overhunted as a result of illegal ivory trade. Ivory comes from the tusks of elephants.

Remaining Asian elephants now lived in small numbers in Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Sumatra. Their population is between 29,000 and 44,000. The African elephant population is now 600,000 down from 1.2 million in the 1970s. The ivory business started way back before it has sustainably increased in 1970s and up to now causing the decimation of thousands of elephants.

Elephants are economically valuable because of their ivory and skin. That being learned by humans thousands of years ago caused the exploitation of their specie in the years after.

Archeological excavation in the eastern portion of the acropolis of Mycenae showed revealed a significant structure that contained hundreds of scraps of ivory, gold leaf, and other items showing the workshops of the palace artisans who carved gems and tools throughout the Aegean and the East Mediterranean.

Historians estimate that ivory first appeared in Greece as small decorations put onto other objects at the Shaft Grave in beginning of the Late Helladic Period. By the late Eighteenth Dynasty, the Mycenaean craftsmen were carving ivory sculptures and inlay tablets with intricate patterns and subjects, which they freely exchanged across Eastern and Western states. The importation of raw and finished ivory from the East had ceased by the end of the Mycenaean Age. It reappeared later in Greece some 600 years after the Shaft Grave Period.

Ivory carving is the ornamentation of ivory by using sharp cutting tools, either mechanically or manually. Compared to woodcarving, it is an extremely delicate craft. Hence, there was only a small guild of artisans who passed the technique either from master to apprentice or from father to son. This also explained the gap in production both in Eastern and Western countries.

Even Greece, despite having close similarities to Myceneans ivories, had a centuries-long gap in production. Only the East, which many craftsmen believed, carried on the artistic tradition over the centuries. However, even Eastern countries also experienced difficulty in sustaining the tradition to the next generation. There was also a gap in production from 1200 B.C. to 900 B.C.

The problem for experts now is how to identify ninth-eight-century creations from fourteenth-thirteenth ones for their close resemblance. Many experts have tried to bridge the gap such as M. Mallowans suggestion on the Levantine artists, D. Hardens explanation about no gap in artistic tradition, and A. S. Murrays disbelief in Dark Age. But still, every theory resulted to another problem and later disturbs different fields of expertise such as modern archaeology, history, and philology.

A notable ivory carving is the Throne of Maximianus. The cathedra of Maximianus, bishop of Ravenna, was constructed completely of ivory panels. They believed these panels were carved in Constantinopole and shipped to Ravenna. The structure was composed of ornamental floral panels framing different figured panels, including the complex monogram of the bishop.

Today, ivory production has remained for most East Asian traditional art despite near-extinction of both African and Asian elephants.


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