Object: Ivory Figurine

Ivory Carving of Man
Ca. 1920s-1940s
Materials: Ivory and black teak wood

Ivory is a precious raw material that is used in many applications, including miniature statues and large intricate figures. Ivory comes from animals in the family Elephantidae and it is harvested from the tusks of this species. Ivory tusks are the only incisors that this species posses.  The object above is from southern India, and it may be a chess piece known as a rook. Three countries primarily contribute to the ivory industry: Japan, China, and India. Ivory carving dates back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, as well as prehistoric Inuit, even though they use walrus ivory. These traditions are usually carried on through the families and are considered to be ancient.

Ivory does not just come from elephants but various animals as well. Since 1973 an organization known as CITES, placed both the African and Asian Elephants on their list of various species that can no longer be killed for their ivory. Many ivory carvers and local shops were forced to close due to the ban of ivory trading. Substitutes of ivory sources are walrus, narwhal, hippopotamus, mastodon ivory, and cow bones have been used.  Mastodon ivory is considered to be the best substitute for elephant ivory. Mastodon Ivory, also known as fossil ivory can be found in Russia and Alaska. Most of the time when prehistoric animals die they turn to fossils, however, when the mastodons are frozen they do not fossilize. Instead, the ice protects animal from this process.  After the permafrost has melted away, ivory hunters and paleontologist can find and remove the ivory from its site.

Mastodon ivory has a natural earthy brown hue to its appearance, and it is easy to tell the difference from the whiter, Elephant ivory. An etching technique, also known as scrimshaw, brings our the color in the ivory. The tusk itself has a blue center, and after being heated, the exterior of the tusk changes to a turquoise color. Mammoths and mastodons differ in many ways biologically, but according to CITES these species are preferred over the killing of the present day elephants because retrieving raw materials poses no threat to the extinct species.  It is unknown, however, how much more mammoth and mastodon fossil ivory remain.

[Constance Clark-Lecona]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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