Ivories from Lydia

Elspeth R.M. Dusinberre


As when some Maionian woman or Karian with purple

colours ivory, to make it a cheek piece for horses;

it lies away in an inner room, and many a rider

longs to have it, but it is laid up to be a king's treasure,

two things, to be the beauty of the horse, the pride of the horseman....

Homer, Iliad 4:142–145, trans. R. Lattimore

Ivory was a luxury material used extensively in ancient Mesopotamia and, as far as we can tell, Anatolia, Greece, and the Black Sea area. It is perhaps significant that Homer mentions Maionian (that is, Lydian) women as exemplars of the art of coloring ivory: its value, both in real terms and in its signaling of status, is obvious.

Ivory came from various sources in antiquity, including hippo teeth and elephant tusks; the elephants might be Indian or African.1 Ivory from elephant tusks might be straightened and unrolled along its laminations to provide a thin, flat strip that could then be carved or engraved and colored in the manner described in the Iliad above.2 It might also be carved into rounded statuettes, relief panels, or many other shapes.3 It served very often as an ornament on furniture, or to embellish horse trappings or human caparisons.4 The tools used to carve ivories included saws, chisels, drills of various sizes, punches of different shapes and sizes, fine-tipped tools for incision, and polishing agents (perhaps sands of varying degrees of fineness, followed by a smooth stone or piece of bone or leather for final burnishing).

Ivories at Sardis

The ivories found at Sardis demonstrate use of this luxury material in a variety of contexts.

An ivory stag, perhaps an ornamental attachment to a horse's trappings, was excavated from archaic Lydian levels at Sardis in 1994 (No. 53; Figs. 1, 2, 3).5 This delicately carved piece (its antlers unfortunately broken off) demonstrates the expertise of ivory workers rendering animals for a Lydian clientele in the early sixth century. Also from archaic Lydian levels come two bone or ivory chapes, or decorative ends to scabbards (Nos. 54, 55, Figs. 4, 5). These are both carved in the “animal style” known from Scythian art; it is tempting to associate them with the Cimmerian invasion attested in literary sources, but as one of them is unfinished it may instead be a local product.6 One of the interesting things about this group of ivories is its association with masculine display, indeed in the case of the chapes with overtly military masculine display.

Various fragments of ivory have been excavated from tombs at Sardis over the years, in sizes ranging from slivered bits to complete cylinders of ivory that seem to have functioned as furniture inlays or perhaps as handles for knives or other implements.7 The only other significant ivory excavated from Sardis so far is a small head apparently dating to the Achaemenid Persian period, perhaps from a female chryselephantine statuette (No. 52). Each cheek is inscribed with a crescent shape; a third crescent is inscribed below the lower lip. The figurine wears large circular earrings with radiating ribs (Fig. 6).8

  • Fig. 1

    Ivory Stag from Sardis, found under a pavement of the 7th C. BC (No. 53) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 2

    Ivory Stag from Sardis, found under a pavement of the 7th C. BC (No. 53) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 3

    Ivory Stag from Sardis, found under a pavement of the 7th c BC (No. 53) (drawing) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 4

    “Animal Style” chapes from Sardis (Nos. 54, 55) (Photograph by Crawford H. Greenewalt, jr.)

  • Fig. 5

    “Animal Style” chape from Sardis (No. 55), watercolor (Watercolor by Crawford H. Greenewalt, jr.)

  • Fig. 6

    Ivory head found outside a tomb at Sardis (No. 52) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

Ivories in Lydia

Although relatively few ivories have been found at Sardis itself, the close connections between certain ivories found in Phrygia and metalwork found in Lydia suggest Lydia may have been the place of manufacture for those luxury items. They certainly give a sense of the sort of things that might have been used at Sardis during the time of the Lydian Kingdom and the Achaemenid Empire.9

Perhaps the most notable of these is a carved ivory plaque found at Kerkenes Dağ, a vast fortified urban site in the mountains of central Anatolia (Fig. 7).10 Test excavations in 1996 exposed an ivory furniture panel carved in relief, with gilding and amber insets. The partially preserved relief shows a frieze of five animals, alternating male and female, framed at top with a bead-and-reel and at bottom with a meander.11 The Kerkenes ivory probably decorated a wooden stretcher from the back of a magnificent straight-backed chair or throne (a backed chair with arms). The technique, style, and iconography of the panel suggest a complex system of traditions informing its inspiration and production, with comparative material for various features emerging from the Scythian Caucasus and central Asia, Iran, and Greater Mesopotamia, and the spheres of central and western Anatolia and the Levant. Ultimately, I have proposed a Lydian or western Anatolian technical tradition for its production, one that is richly informed by a representational tradition of deep resonance in Iran, Mesopotamia, and Transcaucasia.12 Its discovery at Kerkenes highlights issues of luxury production and gift exchange in the sociopolitically fluid environment across western and central Asia in the early first millennium.

The small but rich collection of sources for considering ivory production and use in Lydia during the time of the Lydian Kingdom and the subsequent Achaemenid period demonstrate the artistic virtuosity of ivory carvers, the fluid transmission of ideas between artists working in various media (including precious metals as well as ivory), and the extent to which ivories might themselves travel across Anatolia.

  • Fig. 7

    Ivory plaque from Kerkenes Dağ (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)


  • 1At this time, it is impossible to distinguish different sources of ivory (i.e. from African versus Indian elephants, or various subspecies) on the basis of visual analysis. Geographical convenience might seem to suggest that the Sardian ivories are carved of African ivory (obtained via trade from Africa to the Levant and thence eastward) rather than of Indian ivory (obtained via overland routes). But there is enough evidence of widespread contact across the Asian continent that we should resist assumptions on this matter. For the characteristics of different ivories, see Brown 1975. Lafontaine and Wood 1982, distinguish between African and Indian ivories, although their conclusions cannot be replicated with reference to other ivory samples. Greep 1987 and Minney 1991 both summarize and discuss the characteristics of different elephant ivories in objects they have conserved. I am indebted to S.A. Korolnik for pointing me to these references. Current attempts to use DNA in distinguishing African and Indian ivories may prove of interest.
  • 2Ancient recipes exist for softening and straightening ivory. In the second half of the first century CE, Pausanias (5.12) wrote that “the horn of both oxen and elephants can be by the action of fire made straight from curved and can in fact be turned into any shape”; and Theophilus (De diversis artibus 3.93) recommended heating ivory in wine or vinegar or anointing it with oil over a fire and then wrapping it in leather to soften ivory enough to straighten it. For an excellent recent discussion specifically about ancient Greek practices of straightening and otherwise moulding the original shape of an ivory tusk before carving it, see Lapatin 1997 and Lapatin 2001. For examples of carved ivory strips, see, e.g. the decorations on the kline from the Kerameikos in Athens, see Knigge 1976. Engraved and colored ivory strips are beautifully represented by those from Kertch; I am indebted to J.L. Fitton of the British Museum for showing me the Kertch ivories in March 1998.
  • 3The variety is too vast to demonstrate here, but even the quickest of glances at publications of the ivories from the Assyrian palaces at Nimrud gives an inkling of the range. See, e.g. Mallowan 1966 and Herrmann 1986, Herrmann 1992, and Herrmann 1996.
  • 4Couches, beds, and chairs are known to have been embellished with a variety of materials, including ivory and amber; textual evidence suggests that couches were sometimes embellished in gold and silver as well. Ivory-inlaid examples have been found at Gordion and Cypriote Salamis, while others made of wood and decorated with amber and ivory have been found in Greece. For Gordion, see, e.g. Körte and Körte 1904, 110 and Knigge 1976, 63; for Salamis, see Karageorghis 1973, Barnett 1982, 49–50, and Herrmann 1986, 35–36. Some stretchers excavated at Nimrud with ivory-inlaid friezes seem, by their dimensions, to have come from couches: one measuring about 100 cm. long by 8.2 cm high (Mallowan 1966, 534, fig. 452; Simpson 1993, 572); another measuring 110 cm long by 4.4 cm high (Mallowan 1966,, 512–513, figs. 416–417; Simpson 1993, 572). Again, the Nimrud ivories provide good examples of furniture; or, for a more recent version, see the inlaid couch from Vergina (Andronicos 1984). For an ivory hairpin, see, e.g. the ivory pin or spindle whorl decorated with a ram's head, found at Gordion in Tumulus B. Tumulus B was originally dated to ca. 630 due to our understanding at the time of the chronology of the so-called Samian lekythoi, which were found in the tomb along with the ivory pin or spindle whorl. Recent developments force a down-dating of the lekythoi and, hence, also the tomb to ca. 580 (DeVries, personal communication 2002). The ivory is accessioned as TumB No. 7 (now in Ankara). It was found on the floor of the tomb outside the coffin, at the head end (Kohler 1995, 9–24, figs. 3–9, and pl. 9 A–C). For an ivory horse frontlet, also from Gordion, see DeVries et al. 2003, fig. 3.
  • 5Greenewalt and Rautman 1998, 493–494, fig. 19.
  • 6Strabo 1.3.21, 13.4.8, 14.1.40.
  • 7A worked ivory fragment, BI62.009, was excavated from Tomb BT 62.4 ( Hanfmann 1963, 57–59; McLauchlin 1985, 179–182; and Ratte 2011, 77-80); six ivory cylinders and various ivory fragments were excavated from Tomb 381 ( Butler 1922, 144; Curtis 1925; and McLauchlin 1985, 226–227).
  • 8Found in Tomb S1; see Butler 1922, 140–141, 162–164; Curtis 1925; and McLauchlin 1985, 235–236.
  • 9The ivories of Ephesus are, of course, well known, and were originally published in Hogarth 1908. See also Bammer 1984. The ivories from the tumuli at Bayındır, in Lycia, which date between the ninth and the fifth centuries and show tremendous links between southwestern Turkey and Phrygia, are published in Özgen and Özgen 1988, and Özgen 1994. That there were interactions between central Anatolia and the southwest is made clear by the presence of Phrygian graffiti on silver and bronze vessels from one of the Bayındır tumuli (Varınlıoğlu 1992).
  • 10For Kerkenes, see Summers 2007a, and Summers 2007b, Summers and Summers 2007, and associated bibliography; see also the project homepage at http://www.kerkenes.metu.edu.tr/.
  • 11For this plaque, see Dusinberre 2002.
  • 12See ibid.