Since time immemorial, ivory has been an emblem of opulence. To whit: the Old Testament, where Ahab's "house of ivory" exemplified the height of luxurious living. Amos condemned the affluent who "recline on beds of ivory," and Ezekiel mourned Tyre's lost beauty where even the benches boasted ivory craftsmanship. Solomon's royal throne, made of ivory, is considered a testament to the skill of Phoenician artisans. It's not all envy of the exotic, though: there's also Homer's "Gate of Ivory," through which misleading dreams emerged.
Ivory is a versatile material that has fueled art, trade, and mythology across cultures. Recently, I found myself contemplating which natural resources might be found in a newly terraformed environment teeming with endangered-on-Earth species but no humans (until now, dun dun dun...). This led me down a fascinating rabbit hole (🕳️🐇) of ivory-related knowledge. Apparently, ivory shavings and fragments are known as schidai. Who knew? (Not rhetorical, btw: if you knew about this, let me know in the comments. I have follow-up questions.)
Anyway, I wound up delving deep into the intricacies of ivory, baleen, bone, and even human teeth, particularly the distinctions between dentin and enamel. I also uncovered unique properties of ivory derived from elephants, narwhals, hippos, and walruses, (but not boars!) and how their dental environments give rise to their distinct characteristics.
As mom to a preschooler who has read a stupendous number of books about the importance of dental hygiene (ugh, now when I say things like that it makes me feel like a LLM), I also found it delightful to learn more about how different animals vary in their susceptibility to cavities and teeth discoloration. For additional about unusual teeth and methods of oral hygiene, check out my overview of dentition; it's a fascinating topic.
Human teeth, like ivory, are composed of dentin and enamel. However, the ratio of dentin to enamel in human teeth is lower than in ivory, making teeth harder and more resistant to wear. Additionally, the color of human teeth is generally more yellowish compared to ivory. Similarly, boar tusks are not considered ivory in the traditional sense, as they are made of enamel and dentin like our teeth, even though they were also used to create things like decorative helmets, a process that might have taken as many as fifty boars worth of materials.
Bone is a living tissue that makes up the skeletal structure of vertebrates. It is composed of a collagen matrix and minerals, primarily calcium phosphate. Unlike ivory, bone is more porous and lacks the smooth, glossy surface characteristic of ivory. Bones used regularly as tools do develop a polished sheen, but it's a totally different material... despite attempts by modern traders to pass it off to tourists as authentic ivory.
Baleen is the comb-like keratin-based structure that blue whales and humpbacks use to filter plankton from the water. Before plastics, it was popular because when soaked in hot water it becomes flexible enough to be bent, and retain its shape when cooled. Baleen comes in a variety of colors (black, grey, green, cream) and was popular for making baskets, corsets, tea trays, and sword handles. While ivory has a smooth, dense, and glossy surface, baleen is more fibrous and flexible, and looks a bit like a horse's tail hair. It is neither bone nor dentin; keratin is the material that helps form hair, nails, and skin.
Ivory, unlike bone, is composed primarily of dentin, a dense, calcified tissue that lies beneath the enamel in teeth. Dentin is harder than bone more flexible and softer than enamel, and its microscopic structure gives ivory its unique, smooth appearance. In contrast, enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, providing a durable and protective outer layer for teeth.
Most ivory-producing animals -- like most animals, especially sharks since their teeth are literally covered in a flouride shell -- avoid cavities by dint of a low-sugar diet. Elephants and hippos mostly eat plants; narwhals eat fish, squid, and shrimp; walruses eat mollusks and other invertebrates.
It's in the likelihood of discoloration that they tend to differ.
Narwhal tusks are continuously growing, shedding the outer layers, and renewing their surface, which helps avoid discolorations. Walrus tusks have a unique marbled appearance, which can mask minor changes in color, whereas elephant and hippo ivory gets discolored due to the mineral content in their diet, as well as natural aging and exposure to the elements.
The most well-known kind of ivory is probably harvested from the tusks of African and Asian elephants. It's dense, creamy, and smooth, with mesmerizing Schreger lines, with diamond or V-shaped cross-hatchings that emerge upon carving.
Then there's narwhal ivory, spiraled tusks of the male narwhal, rivaling even the finest of elephant ivory in density and translucence. Narwhal tusks are the stuff of unicorn dreams, quite literally, as they have been associated with the fabled creature's horns in European folklore. These oceanic delights have a spiral groove, making it a perfect baseline for representations of rainbows and unicorns. On rare occasions, narwhal males develop two long tusks, but the rest of the time only one of their two teeth grows into the long horn.
As for the unsung hero of the ivory world, which I didn't even know existed: hippopotamus ivory. Sourced from the formidable canines and incisors of the terrifyingly aggressive, territorial hippo, this ivory boasts an even denser composition than its elephant counterpart. With its fine, uniform texture and a light hue that deepens with age, hippopotamus ivory stands as a paragon of resilience and longevity... even if scientists don't really understand why it was used by the Aegeans in lieu of elephant tusks.
Lastly (as far as I know): walrus ivory. The marbled appearance mentioned above owes its charm to the secondary dentin deposits called odontoblasts. Denser than elephant ivory and tinged with a subtle yellow hue that in teeth would be low-class but in a novel you can probably compare to gold or something, walruses are the province of the frozen north.
The oldest known ornate jewelry made by humans in Eurasia is a carved mammoth ivory pendant over 42,000 years old. The oldest known animal-shaped sculpture, by contrast, is a lion-headed, human-bodied figurine carved from mammoth ivory over 30,000 years ago in Germany.
So it's not exactly surprising that ivory was valued for creating jewelry in ancient cultures, given its beauty, texture, and durability. It was a popular choice for necklaces, bracelets, pendants, and earrings because it was stable and long-lasting, unlike metals that corrode and wood that decays. Its uniqueness made it more luxurious than obsidian and stone. In Mesopotamia, ivory was made into beads, pendants, and hair ornaments, while ancient Egypt fashioned it into amulets, bracelets, and combs. Ivory's rarity (and presumably the method of obtaining it from large & often dangerous animals) led it to symbolize wealth and status, setting it apart from more common materials like stone and wood... into which it was commonly inlaid to create prestige items, for example by the Egyptians & Phoenicians.
Still, it's not just a pretty face, no matter what this article's preview image may imply.
Ivory was a valuable resource for crafting tools in ancient civilizations, including knives, spear tips, and arrowheads. Although stone, obsidian, and metals were common, ivory's strength and flexibility made it unique. Higher-ranking individuals or ceremonial purposes were associated with prestigious ivory tools. Ivory was also used for practical purposes in ancient China, where it was carved into seals and brush holders, and in ancient Rome, where it was used to create styluses for writing on wax tablets. Mesopotamian wax tablets were constructed out of hinged boards made of wood or ivory. The sunken part of each "page" was filled with a layer of beeswax and ochre paste that was easier to write on than pure wax. Ivory's toughness and crack resistance made it more durable than wood and some stones, although it's not as strong as metal or obsidian.
Also, a bunch of ancient board games and pastimes utilized ivory for game pieces due to its workability and beauty. The game of Senet in ancient Egypt and Xiangqi in ancient China used ivory pieces that were ornate and intricately carved, showcasing artisans' skill. Ivory distinguished game pieces from those made of more common materials like stone, wood, or clay and conveyed prestige and luxury. Ivory was also used for crafting game pieces in ancient India's chaturanga and in ancient Rome's dice and game tokens. The natural allure of ivory elevated these game pieces beyond those made of wood, stone, or metal, showcasing their creators' artistic skill.
The Phoenicians, an ancient maritime civilization originating from the eastern Mediterranean that Americans almost never learn about in school, were heavily involved in the ivory trade. They established trade routes that connected Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, enabling them to acquire elephant ivory from African sources. Phoenician craftsmen were renowned for their skill in carving ivory into intricate sculptures, decorative furniture inlays, and luxury items. The export of these exquisite artifacts to other ancient civilizations fueled the demand for ivory and further expanded the Phoenician trade network.
As enterprising seafarers, the Phoenicians established colonies in northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, forging strong trade connections with the indigenous Iberian peoples. This relationship granted the Iberians access to valuable resources such as African elephant ivory, which was acquired and transported by the Phoenicians through their extensive trade networks. Valencina was a major node in the circulation of exotic materials such as ivory, amber, cinnabar or flint in Copper Age Iberia. In addition to smelting prodigious amounts of copper, Iberian artisans carved the ivory into elaborate sculptures, personal adornments, and votive offerings.
The ancient Kushite civilization, centered around the Nile River in what is now Sudan, had a strong connection to the ivory trade. As the Kingdom of Kush flourished between the 2500 BCE and CE 300, it served as a vital link between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean world. The region's abundant elephant populations provided a rich source of ivory, which the Kushites traded with other ancient civilizations, including Egypt and Rome. Ivory from Kush was highly prized for its quality, and it played a crucial role in the kingdom's prosperity and influence, although gold was Kush's most valued export.
Nonetheless, it was a war over ivory that probably brought about Kush's decline. In the 4th century, Kush attacked nearby Aksum, a mountain-bound trading center with a powerful navy. Aksum exported agricultural products, minerals, and precious materials like gems and ivory in trade for silk and spices from Asia... and responded with overwhelming force, sacking the imperial capital of Meroë. After that, the Aksumites stood at the center of a major maritime trading system linking the Roman Empire with India and controlled the Red Sea trade for many years.
In ancient India, the ivory trade played a significant role in the economy due to the abundance of elephant populations in the region. Indian artisans were renowned for their skill in ivory carving, and they produced various decorative items, sculptures, and jewelry that were highly sought after in other parts of the world. This demand for Indian ivory goods helped establish and strengthen trade connections with regions like the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
In China, the ivory trade also had an economic impact, as the demand for intricately carved ivory artifacts contributed to a thriving luxury goods market. Chinese craftsmen utilized both African and Asian elephant ivory, and their creations were valued for their exquisite craftsmanship and rarity. The demand for these luxury goods, including ivory, played a role in shaping Chinese trade connections, particularly with Southeast Asia and Africa.
While the ivory trade was significant in certain regions of Asia, it is important to note that it was just one of many goods traded along the Silk Road and other trade routes. The Silk Road, which connected China, India, Persia, and the Roman Empire, facilitated the exchange of a wide variety of goods such as silk, spices, precious metals, and gemstones, among others. Although the ivory trade played a role in the economies of some Asian countries, it was likely a minor part of the extensive trade networks that characterized the Silk Road... in much the same way that it was not as significant to Phoenician trade as dyes, glass, and metals.
Later on, the Vikings, active mostly from the 8th to 11th centuries, also played a significant role in the ivory trade. Their voyages brought them into contact with various sources of ivory, particularly walrus and narwhal tusks found in the Arctic regions. The Vikings valued these materials for their beauty, strength, rarity... and economic potential. Ivory probably traveled from Greenland to a Scandinavian trading hub, and then to Kyiv, where it could have been sent on to the Islamic world and Asia... at least until supplies of African ivory started to re-enter the market, at which point their goods were no longer so valuable. Personally, I suspect this kind of economic consideration is a big reason that Greenland started to fail as a colony.
I couldn't find much about the role of ivory in the pre-Colonial Americas, but if you know more, please let me know!
- Civilizations Thrive in Adverse Environments discusses the role of Aksum in the ivory trade.
- Here's more about the role of jewelry and glass in historical societies, and how the glass trade impacted history.
- You can also learn more about wax tablets, paints, and candles, and a variety of mythological cats.
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).