Ivory in Ancient Egypt

Ivory in Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

An Ivory Comb discovered at Abydos and dating to the 1st Dynasty reign of Djet

Ivory is a useful material for carving reliefs or statuary, or cut up into thin sheets as inlays or veneer, and the ancient Egyptians used it for all of these purposes. It is a dense, fine grained material obtained from the teeth (tusks) of both elephants and hippopotamus. As a less valuable substitute for ivory, bone was widely available and used for many of the same purposes. Note that other types of tusks, such as those of boar or walrus are not known from ancient Egypt.

Worked ivory is known from the very earliest periods of Egyptian history, including the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods. Sites such as Hierakonpolis have produced some notable finds, mostly made from that of hippopotamus tusks, though some elephants as well. Hippopotamus were a dangerous and feared animal and their herds were hunted, it seems, for various reasons from the earliest of times. They were a danger to the population as well as to crops in Egypt.

An ivory label discovered at Naqada and dating from the 1st Dynasty reign of Aha

Elephants, on the other hand, had apparently disappeared from Egypt by the historical period. Nevertheless, some elephant ivory was brought into Egypt from Nubia, while a smaller portion was imported from Asia. Populations of both elephants and hippopotami survived in western Asia into the Late Bronze Age.

However, as ecological factors affected the northerly range of the elephant, ivory from elephants increasingly came from the more southerly regions, most probably from African savannas between the Nile and the Atbara Rivers. The use of elephant ivory increased over time, as the hippopotamus population decreased in Egypt. The use of elephant ivory probably reached its peak during the late 18th Dynasty, most likely during the reign of Amenhotep III, though its use is richly and well documented in the Amarna Letters dating to his son.

Ivory headrest from the Tomb of Tutankhamun

It became, we believe, one of the most significant exports of Upper Nubia during the New Kingdom, though none of the extant documents quantify the trade.

By the Third Intermediate Period, far less ivory seems to have been imported and used in Egyptian art work for the remainder of ancient Egyptian history, which is somewhat surprising considering the import of elephants during the Ptolemaic Period. Though some examples do exist, this may have resulted from a change in burial practices, or even simply that much of the material did not survive, considering that a number of sources during the Ptolemaic Period indicate that ivory was lavishly used.

A Chest of Tutankhamun inlaid with stained ivory

The Ptolemies acquired both ivory and live elephants both from the Kushite kingdom of Meroe and from India. Ivory was worked in much the same way as wood. Harpoon tips were made in Egypt from ivory as early as 4,500 BC. Small objects, such as game pieces, cosmetic spoons, elements of furniture such as the bull legs typical of Early Dynastic periods Graves and parts of statuettes were all carved in the round from solid pieces of ivory. A number of ivory seals also exist from Egypt's early Dynastic period, and comprise some of the most important items found in 1st Dynasty royal and private tombs. Some larger objects of solid elephant ivory have survived, such as the headrest from the tomb of Tutankhamun in the form of the god Shu.

A Mirror with Ivory inlays

Mostly though, tusks appear to have been split into thin panels that were then used as veneer or for inlays. Some surviving examples of these are decorated with carved, low reliefs, and some have been stained, usually either in blue or red. The lower canines of hippopotamus were used, in their natural shape, though split and stripped of their enamel, as musical clappers or as wands. The incisors of hippopotamus, which are straighter, were well suited for their use as kohl tubes and as mirror handles. Other items made of ivory include combs, bracelets, knife handles and even writing tablets.

An Ivory Cosmetics Spoon in the form of an Isis Knot and dating to the Predynastic Period

Regrettably, today Egypt harbors one of Africa's largest domestic ivory markets, though it is less thriving than a few years ago. Note that almost all of the ivory used in this trade is obtained from illegal sources, mostly from the Sudan. As of 2005, the most active Egyptian ivory market was actually in the Khan el-Khalili, Egypt's most famous tourist bazaar. Though the Egyptian government has been commended for reducing the market, items are still available, but most (if not all) of it may not legally be exported from Egypt, and almost certainly cannot be imported into western nations. Note, however, that most bone is not illegal, and in fact, some of it may even be passed off as ivory in these markets.