Mammoth Ivory has been evocatively described as ‘the echoes of millions of years’. A precious relic of the past which has been incredibly well preserved in the coldest of tundra regions, this is a sought after material which has been valued and used for millennia. Its durability and softness make it uniquely suitable for being scrimshawed or carved to make precious works of art as well as practical objects for everyday life. Furthermore, this is a material without equal for centuries, and is as prized and in demand today as it was in the past.
What is Mammoth Ivory?
Ivory is a robust white material obtained from the tusks and teeth of animals, used in art or in the manufacturing of various types of objects. It mainly consists of dentine, which is one of the physical structures of tusks and teeth of any mammal (the chemical structure is the same regardless of the species of origin). Though the term ‘Ivory’ was traditionally used to indicate elephants’ tusks exclusively, nowadays it is used to describe any mammalian tusks or teeth which are large enough to be scrimshawed or carved.
Mammoth Ivory comes from the tusks (corresponding to the two upper incisors) of Woolly Mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius). These enormous mammals have been extinct for the past 10,000 years, and are now found in fossilised form in the northern regions of the world. Mammoth Ivory is, for this reason, also known as Fossil Ivory or Mastodon Ivory and has exceptional antique and historical value.
Characteristics of Mammoth Ivory
Mammoth Ivory is a gorgeous material, prized not only for its aesthetic value but also for its softness (ideal for carving), for its durability and its absence of splintering. This is not a solid material: it contains a series of minute tubes filled with wax-like liquid. This porous structure gives polished Ivory the warm lustre, glowing tone and unique texture for which it is so sought after.
Ivory gained stature as a luxury good early on, but the ease with which it can be carved also made it uniquely suited to a variety of uses. Today many of the objects which were for thousands of years made out of Ivory are now made out of plastic polymers or new materials created in the image of precious Ivory. As an example, Steinway only discontinued using Ivory piano keys in the early 1980s.
Where can Mammoth Ivory be found?
Mammoths were enormous tusked beasts which roamed the earth between 4,000 and 400,000 years ago. Isolated populations survived on St Paul Island (Alaska) until about 6,400 years ago and on Wrangel Island (Russia) until 4,000 years ago. Mammoth Ivory can now be harvested from the remains of these mammoths which lay well preserved under the permafrost layer in Alaska, Siberia, Canada, a few other regions in Russia and the higher regions in China.
It is thought that there are an estimated 150 million mammoths encased in the upper layers of permafrost in Siberia. A report in the Kenyan specialist journal Pachyderm published in 2010 focused on describing the dynamics of the annual mammoth tusk harvest. Every year, when the tundra melts from about mid-June until mid-September, hundreds of people scour northern Siberia in search of fossilised mammoth tusks. As foreigners are not allowed a permit to collect tusks in the fields, these are mainly Russian nationals. Some tusks will easily be spotted on the banks of rivers, while others will be found on the flat lands. It is thought that about 60 tonnes of Mammoth Ivory are exported from Russia mostly to China every year.
First discovery of Mammoth Ivory
Mammoth remains were known in Asia long before they were known to Europeans. In the 17th Century mammoth bones were unearthed by European explorers in the northern regions of America. The origins of the remains became a matter of long debate and were erroneously identified as belonging to legendary creatures that lived before the biblical flood of Noah. It wasn’t until 1796 that mammoths were correctly identified as belonging to an extinct species of elephant by the French zoologist Georges Cuvier.
Conservation issues concerning Ivory
The craft use of any kind of ivory is potentially controversial. Though trade in Ivory deriving from threatened species such as elephants is illegal, trade in Ivory from the tusks of extinct mammoths has occurred for the past 300 years and remains legal. However, because mammoths have been extinct for millennia, Fossil Ivory is non-replenishable, rare and costly.
How to tell Mammoth Ivory from Elephant Ivory
After the banning of Elephant Ivory in 1999, Mammoth Ivory became much in demand as an alternative medium. Elephant Ivory is thus generally illegal, while Mammoth Ivory is generally legal: this has created a practical forensic problem for law enforcement. How can you tell one from another?
The most effective and simple test is based on observing the natural grain lines in the tusks. These are called “Schreger” lines and will have different angles according to whether the tusks belonged to an elephant or to a woolly mammoth. Polished cross sections of tusks can be placed on the glass plate of a photocopier. After obtaining a photocopy of the cross section the Schreger angles can be marked and measured by using a pen or pencil, a ruler and a protractor. An enlargement of the copy can be useful as it can improve the image and facilitate the measurement.
Schreger lines can be divided into outer (which are easily seen and closest to the cementum) and inner (faintly discernable around the tusk nerve) Schreger lines. The intersections of these two types of Schreger lines form concave and convex angles (please note that only outer Schreger angles should be used in this test). Once these angles have been marked and measured, an angle average is calculated. An elephant sample will have averages above 100 degrees (obtuse), while extinct mammoths will have angle averages below 100 degrees (acute).
A further feature can be useful for identifying Mammoth Ivory: this will occasionally display brownish or blue-green coloured blemishes caused by an iron phosphate called ‘vivianite’, which Elephant Ivory will not display even if discoloured. An ultraviolet light source can be used to have the blemishes stand out, which will appear purple and velvet-like.
Caring for Mammoth Ivory
Mammoth or Fossil Ivory has exceptional quality and lustre, and it is also delicate and sensitive. For example, it responds to humidity and changes in temperature by expanding or contracting, which can cause it to split. This delicate material is acclimatized to the environment above ground for a number of years and is usually treated with mineral oil before being sold. It is recommended that mineral oil is rubbed on the Ivory twice a year in order to replenish its natural oils, Renaissance Wax can also be used to give it a protective polished shine.
Furthermore, Mammoth Ivory should be shielded from fluctuating temperature, harsh climatic conditions or dramatic changes in humidity. Also, the Ivory should not be exposed to direct sunlight, extreme heat or freezing temperatures and should not come into contact with either ink or water.
Ivory around the world and across history
Ivory is a versatile material which can be carved into a variety of shapes and objects. Archaeologists have recovered an endless array of practical tools carved out of Ivory, among these are spear tips, needles, buttons, buckles, combs, handles, billiard balls and piano keys. Examples of modern carved objects are jewellery, furniture inlays, netsukes and okimono. In the last thirty years, Ivory usage has also moved towards mass production of jewellery and trinkets for the global market.
Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations carved Ivory to make high value works of art, decorative boxes and precious religious objects. They also often used Ivory to create the white of the eyes of statues. It is thought that the high demand for Ivory in the Classical world actually caused the extinction of Syrian and North African elephant populations.
Ivory became increasingly available and sought after in Europe in the course of the Middle Ages. The most important centre of carving became Paris, which exported all over Europe. Combs, mirror-cases, boxes, needles and gaming pieces were among typical products, as well as small personal religious diptychs and triptychs.
In China, Ivory has long been utilised for millennia for the production of both art and utilitarian objects. The items Chinese craftsmen sculpted out of Ivory ranged from images of deities to sections of opium pipes. China exported said goods and artwork to western nations as early as the 1st Century BC, following the path of the Northern Silk Road. Nowadays, there is a high demand of Mammoth Ivory in China, where it is required not only by sculptors but also by traditional herbal medicine practitioners who will grind ivory pieces into dust to be used in their remedies.
In Southeast Asia, Buddhist cultures in countries including Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, traditionally harvested Ivory from domesticated elephants. The Ivory was then commonly carved into elaborate seals utilised as signets on documents and decrees or to create gorgeous airtight containers. While Muslim Malay people in countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, have long considered Ivory to be the material of choice for creating the handles of kris daggers.