Ivory Carvings

Excavations in the eastern portion of the acropolis of Mycenae revealed a substantial structure, (Fig. 1, U) which contained hundreds of scraps of ivory, gold leaf, and other precious commodities, obviously comprising the quarters and workshops of the palace artisans, who produced many of the ivory figurines and plaques, gold jewelry, and carved gems found throughout the Aegean, and the East Mediterranean. (1) Ivory, probably from Syria, first appeared in Greece as tiny ornaments applied to other objects in the Shaft Graves at the beginning of the Late Helladic Period. By the late Eighteenth Dynasty, the Mycenaean craftsmen were fashioning ivory sculptures and inlay plaques with intricate patterns and subjects, such as hunting scenes, combats with real and mythical beasts, warriors, heraldic and religious motifs, etc., which spread across the Aegean and Near East. They and their Syrian counterparts freely exchanged their creations, in the process mingling Eastern and Western decorative elements to form an international style.(2)

By the end of the Mycenaean Age, the importation of raw and finished ivory from the East, and its carving in the Aegean, apparently ceased, “making its first re-appearance” in Greece some 600 years after the Shaft Grave Period.(3) Greek artisans resumed the fashioning of intricate carved ivories in the eighth century,(4) with the motifs very reminiscent of Mycenaean work some five hundred years earlier.

Ivory carving is an extremely delicate craft, which only a small guild of artisans practised, passing the technique from master to apprentice, and probably from father to son; Greece itself had a centuries-long gap in production, despite the close similarities of the later ivories to the Mycenaean ones; the Levant was the ancient source of the raw material as well as a center for ivory carving in antiquity; and the Levantine ivories of both the second and the first millennium B.C. displayed distinctive Mycenaean motifs. For all those reasons, students of ancient ivories looked to the East as the region which carried on the artistic tradition over the centuries when it had vanished from Greece. They believed, as did those who postulated the return of Mycenaean ceramic decoration from seventh-century Phoenicia, that thirteenth-century Mycenaean ivories influenced the Levantine artisans, who continued to fashion similar works without interruption until, centuries later, they sent the influence back to Greece.(5)

Those who look to the Orient as the place that preserved the artistic tradition meet the same difficulty there as they found for Greece, since from 1200-900 B.C., both places have “a sudden gap . . . in which no ivories are known. ” (6) Across those three centuries, one cannot detect any links to connect the ninth-eighth-century creations to the very similar examples of the fourteenth-thirteenth centuries, which were “now quite extinct,” both in the Aegean and in the Near East. “Unlikely though it may seem . . . this is yet the case.” (7) Despite that gap, numerous authorities have long noted the close resemblence of the later group to the centuries-earlier one.(8) There are some cases (e.g., at Delos) where ivories from eighth-century contexts look Mycenaean in style, so that scholars proclaim them to be 500-year-old heirlooms,(9) and other cases which have sparked scholarly debates on whether the ivories stem from the thirteenth century or the eighth.(10) Still there is a perplexing gap.

In order to bridge the gap, M. Mallowan recently suggested that the Levantine artists turned from ivory to media such as textiles and wood—all examples have long since perished—to keep the tradition alive.(11) If one accepts that theory for the Levant, one can as readily apply it to Greece, in order to sustain the art there, without requiring a hypothetical Oriental interlude. The disadvantages of that idea are that it is completely unprovable, and, for the Levant, at least, where there was a native supply of the raw material, it provides no reason why the artisans stopped carving ivory, or how they managed to resume the art so skillfully, with motifs scarcely, if at all, changed from those of the earlier period, immediately after the break. Also recently, D. Harden observed that the two chronologically distinct sets of ivories are “closely akin in style” with “little or no gap in artistic tradition.” With no stylistic break, the centuries-long gap in time troubled him. Whatever the effects of hypothetical invaders in Greece, or of raids on the Syrian coast, he could find no explanation for the art to cease in Phoenicia or further inland. He therefore concluded that, for the Levant, “there should not be such a hiatus in the evidence.” (12)

Much to everyone’s consternation, both the Aegean and the Orient presently have a very long “hiatus,” which “should not” exist (in the latter region, at least), dividing two sets of very similar Aegeo-Levantine ivory carvings. H. Kantor, who chronicled many of these similarities, but also saw the gap that separated them, considered “the problem of the relationship” of the two displaced sets of material to be of “predominant importance.” (13) Yet that problem remains unresolved.(14)

That difficulty, of “predominant importance” today, did not trouble excavators at the turn of the century. A. S. Murray, then Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, unearthed and published a number of Mycenaean Age ivory carvings at Enkomi on Cyprus. Observing the same close resemblances to ninth-seventh-century ivory and stone reliefs that still impress (and disturb) scholars today, he assigned his ivories, along with everything else he found at Enkomi, to that period. He did not believe in a Dark Age, and judged that the entire Mycenaean Age belonged that late, rather than five hundred years earlier.(15) As Velikovsky has recorded above (“The Scandal of Encomi”), other authorities, such as Arthur Evans, implicitly trusting in the dates furnished by Egyptologists for New Kingdom pharaohs, some of whose exports were also at Enkomi, blasted Murray and the British Museum as well. They pushed back his dates by five hundred years,(16) in the process creating two similar, but chronologically disjointed groups of ivory carvings. The ensuing problem not only disturbs modern archaeologists and art historians but, once again, the philologists as well, since Homer’s mention of furniture inlaid with carved ivory plaques strikes some classicists as a thirteenth-century memory preserved by epic poetry, while others view it as a reference to the material again becoming common in the poet’s own day, five hundred years later.(17) The result of Egyptian chronology’s triumph today are two epochs of ivory carving, showing similarities five hundred years apart, with a three-hundred-year break in the evidence, no way to bridge or even explain the gap, and a great many authorities who confess their bewilderment at the state of affairs which now confronts them.


  1. G. Mylonas, Mycenae and the Mycenaean Age, (Princeton, 1966), p. 73.

  2. E. Vermeule, Greece in the Bronze Age (Chicago, 1972), pp. 218-221; H. Kantor, “Syro-Palestinian Ivories,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 15 (1956), pp. 169-174; idem, “Ivory Carving in the Mycenaean Period,” Archaeology 13 (1960), pp. 14-25; J.-Cl. Pursat, Les Ivoires Myceniens, etc. (Paris, 1977).

  3. Snodgrass, (1971), p. 248.

  4. R. Barnett, “Early Greek and Oriental Ivories,” Journal of Hellenic Studies, 68 (1948), pp. 2-3, 13-14, 24; J. N. Coldstream, Greek Geometric Pottery (London, 1968), p. 360.

  5. Coldstream, loc. cit.; Barnett, loc. cit.; idem, “Nimrud Ivories and the Art of the Phoenicians,” Iraq, 2 (1935), pp. 195-196; idem, “Phoenician and Syrian Ivory Carving,” PEFQ, (1939), pp. 11, 13-15; J. W. & G. M. Crowfoot, Early Ivories from Samaria (London, 1938), pp. 36-37; Kantor, (1956), pp. 169-174, (1960), p. 24; H. W. Catling, Cypriote Bronzework in the Mycenaean World [Oxford, 1964], p. 302; M. Mallowan, Nimrud and Its Remains II (London, 1966), pp. 480, 586; M. Robertson, A History of Greek Art I (New York, 1975), p. 32; I. Winter, “Phoenician and North Syrian Ivory Carving, etc.,” Iraq, 38 (1976), pp. 9-11.

  6. Kantor, ibid. (1956), p. 171.

  7. Ibid., p. 174.

  8. Cf. n. 5 above and n. 15 below.

  9. Kantor, (1956), p. 170; Webster, (1964), pp. 28, 111, 139, 170.

  10. Kantor, ibid., p. 156 and cf. ns. 15-16 below.

  11. Mallowan, (1966), p. 480.

  12. D. Harden, The Phoenicians (New York, 1962), p. 184.

  13. Kantor, (1956), p. 171.

  14. Very recently, see Winter, (1976), pp. 9-11.

  15. Murray, Excavations in Cyprus (London, 1900), pp. 4-41. For ivories, specifically: pp. 10-14.

  16. c A. Evans, “Mycenaean Cyprus as Illustrated in the British Museum Excavations,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 30 (1900), pp. 199-200. The heated, and, at times, vicious attacks which Murray’s publication generated form a very instructive chapter in the history of scholarly attitudes towards chronology, which I hope to document in greater detail at a later date.
  17. For Mycenaean times, see T. Webster, “Polity and Society,” pp. 460-461, and F. Stubbings, “Crafts and Industries,” p. 533, both in Wace-Stubbings, (1962). A Companion to Homer (London, 1962). For the eighth century, see V. Karageorghis, “Homerica from Salamis (Cyprus)” in Europa: Studien. . . Ernst Grumach (Berlin, 1967), pp. 168-170, and O. Dickinson, “Archaeological Facts and Greek Traditions,” Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of the University of Birmingham, 12.2 [1973-4], p. 43.