Ivory, which is similar in appearance to a bone, comes from the teeth and tusks of elephants, pigs, hippos, mammoths etc. It has been used by man from the earliest times in history for cultural, religious and secular objects. According to Gardner, Kleiner and Mamiya, carved ivories were familiar sites in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia where they were manufactured and coveted throughout the ancient world (241). Ivory has been popular as far back as the late antiquity and early medieval period chiefly because of its attractive color. It is smooth and has a translucent appearance which makes it very easy to curve and paint on.
Various cultures in the early to late middle stages associated it with prestige and it was considered symbolic and magical. This can be attributed to its exotic origin and Roman generals were known to display it in triumphant processions before their people after war. Ivory cannot be melted down and it can survive for long periods without disintegrating which would explain some of the grandiose statues that are still in existence to date. Ivory was also highly valued in the early to late middle ages due to the fact that only highly skilled artisans were capable of working with it.
Due to the ivory tusks being extremely hard and irregular in shape, they required special tools by the workers to break down the big blocks. They used tools such as chisels, saws and gravers (Gardner, Kleiner and Mamiya, 241). Ivory was initially used for such purposes as making body adornments such as jewellery, beads, pendants, household objects, offerings and gifts. Such was the usage of ivory that later on when it was widely available, a great range of liturgical and secular objects such as caskets, tabernacles, statuettes, knife handles, buttons etc were produced.
The Greco-Romans also used ivory to make ornaments, furniture, chests, cabinets and coffers which were elaborately curved. In conclusion, as civilizations developed and with it advancement in the level of knowledge and skills, ivory was used in even more expressive art forms of the period. It graduated to being ideal for anatomical models, scientific instruments, medals etc. Presently, its use worldwide is limited as conservationists seek to protect elephants whose numbers have greatly diminished.