Science and Heritage Programme

Researching Ivory: Integrating scientific analyses, historical data, artefact studies and conservation needs.

Department of Archaeology, University of York

Principal Investigator - Dr Paul Lane (University of York)
Co Investigator - Ms Sonia O’Connor (University of Bradford)


Elephant Molar

Public and private museums throughout the UK hold objects in their collections made wholly or partly of 'ivory' (i.e. catalogued as ivory but not necessarily authenticated as such). There are many kinds of 'ivory', however, and exactly what proportion is made from non-elephant ivory is not clear, for two related reasons. First, identification of the materials may be problematic if manufacture has obliterated the original shape. Second, in many cases no attempt has been made to identify the type of ivory used for particular objects. Few texts on the identification of ivories have been written with cultural objects in mind, particularly the need for an essentially non-destructive approach. Even those with experience of handling different types of ivory can find it impossible to determine the precise nature of the raw material used for a particular object. As a result, museum catalogues and accession registers often simply record that an object is made of 'ivory' (or has elements made from ivory), without specifying what kind was used. Additionally, these visual criteria cannot address the geographical origin or date of the ivory. Even where the function, shape, style of working or decoration of a piece may be indicative of a particular period or region this may not reflect the origin of the ivory itself. (There may also be fraud: carving a contemporary tusk in an earlier style from a particular culture).

Consequently copies, fakes and forgeries are difficult to detect, and the actual range of ivory types and their relative significance as a raw material being favoured by artisans and craft-workers at particular times in the past is poorly understood. This in turn has a number of other implications for scholarly understanding of related issues. These include, reconstructions of the scale, direction and organisation of the trade in different types of ivory during different periods in the past; what this can tell us of Britain's links with other parts of the globe from prehistory onwards; the organisation of different systems of ivory production and the changing nature of the specific 'chaînes opératoires' for different types of ivory; and variations in the economic, aesthetic, social and material values ascribed to different types of ivory. The misidentification of ivory objects, or their unsubstantiated attribution to a particular species, may also have implications for their long term conservation, care and/or repair as ivories of different types, prepared and worked by different methods and in different states of preservation will respond differently to particular environmental conditions. Clearly, it is essential that our ability to determine the origins, authenticity and date of ivory objects and working residues is substantially enhanced.

One solution to these generic difficulties is to use various additional techniques of scientific analysis (e.g. radiocarbon dating, DNA & stable isotope analysis, and various methods of spectroscopy and X-Ray fluorescence analysis). Because of their different training and interests, many curators are unfamiliar with the strengths and weaknesses of these methods, what type of information they will provide, under what conditions they can be expected to produce reliable results and whether they entail any form of destructive analysis. By creating a research network where these are discussed and explained in clear English, by preparing a set of agreed protocols to be followed by researchers, and a decision tree for use by curators, and publishing these online with an annotated bibliography, it is expected that the research cluster will greatly enhance awareness and understanding of the research potential of the different kinds of ivory held in UK museums, and facilitate and improve future research on these materials irrespective of their date or origin. Ultimately, the aim is to produce a similar set of protocols and guidelines for items made from other types of animal tissue.


Workshop 1

23rd April 2009

Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool

Link to workshop programme and summary

Workshop 2

9th June 2009

Horniman Museum, London

Link to workshop programme and summary


Researching Ivory Cluster