BMCR 2005.08.41

Carving as Craft: Palatine East and the Greco-Roman Bone and Ivory Carving Tradition

Archer St. Clair, Carving as craft : Palatine east and the Greco-Roman bone and ivory carving tradition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. xii, 228 pages : illustrations ; 29 cm. ISBN 0801872618 $89.95.

This book is largely an illustrated catalogue of 648 representative pieces selected from more than 1500 bone and ivory artifacts that were excavated on the northeast slope of the Palatine Hill, immediately southwest of the Arch of Constantine, between 1989 and 1994 under the joint sponsorship of the American Academy in Rome and the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma. The finds, which derive from two trenches of fill dumped in the vicinity of a late antique domus and dating principally to the first and second centuries A.D. and mid-third through fifth centuries A.D., constitute the largest and most varied cache of worked bone and ivory from the western Mediterranean. They are also the first traces of ivory working in Rome itself, for the assemblage includes workshop debris as well as finished objects. There are furniture ornaments (veneers for couches and boxes), jewelry elements, pins, needles, combs, spoons, handles and other implements, dolls, dice, gaming pieces, letters of the alphabet, and a whistle. The detailed catalogue (pp. 57-198 including figures and plates) is preceded by four short introductory chapters treating (1) the physical properties of bone and ivory; (2) the ancient literary evidence for their use; (3) an overview of the material remains from other Greek and Roman sites; and (4) an analysis of the material remains from the Palatine East excavations.

Throughout this book, St. Clair, who coauthored the useful catalogue of a 1989 exhibition of medieval sculpture in ivory, bone, and horn,1 strives to bridge the gap in modern perceptions between ivory (predominantly from elephants) and bone (mostly from cattle). The former is widely considered to have been an exotic luxury, the latter a cheap, locally available substitute. St. Clair emphasizes the physical properties of bone (particularly its greater strength, but also specific morphological qualities) that make it superior to ivory for some uses, and stresses the fact that evidence from the Palatine and elsewhere indicates that it was worked by the same craftsmen, at the same time, using the same techniques as ivory. She disputes the notion — also propagated by some ancient authors — that bone was employed when ivory could not be had. Rather, she traces the closely related popularity of both materials, and suggests that “[c]ontrary to the popular picture of bone as a poor substitute for ivory, pressed into service only when the latter was unavailable, increased production of bone objects corresponds with those periods when ivory was both popular and readily available to those who could afford it …. the fashion for ivory … appears to have stimulated a flourishing bone industry in the same classes of objects …. [In Late Antiquity] the flourishing of the bone industry corresponds to a period when the fashion for ivory was at a peak, a readily available if expensive commodity and a highly visible symbol of official or elite status”(16). Indeed, ivory’s premier status is clear from the fact that it was often used for implements, such as combs and pins, that were better suited to bone, on account of its greater strength. The ready availability of bone, moreover, meant that it rarely merited the notice of ancient authors, whose writings preserve numerous references to ivory. Still, there is little doubt that the Greeks and Romans, like modern scholars, not infrequently confused the materials, and St. Clair suggests that many ancient references to ivory might well be misidentifications. Her second chapter provides a convenient survey of ancient authors’ discussions of bone and ivory artifacts of all kinds, as well as ivory-workers, but she largely overlooks epigraphic sources as well as ancient discussions of symbolic value.2

St. Clair begins her survey of material remains in the Greco-Roman world (Chapter 3) in Archaic Greece, lamenting that “although scattered remains testify to the use of wood in most classes of objects, too few examples survive to allow us to analyze its relative importance” (15). This is unfortunate in a book that comes to focus so heavily on technique, for in addition to limited references to a single (now lost) wooden statuette and pyxides and writing tablets from much later periods, she might have directed readers to the wealth of information about the wooden furniture of Greeks and Romans and that of their neighbors.3 The great virtue of this study, however, is St. Clair’s insistence that bone and ivory carving be viewed together, for, as she notes, “material remains suggest that in many cases the two materials were used interchangeably, often in combination with one another, and that the same artists worked indifferently in both materials, probably together rather than in independent workshops” (18). (Yet the “indifferently” here seems to contradict her insistence elsewhere that carvers valued specific properties of each material.) St. Clair provides brief overviews of the ivory and bone finds from Sparta, the Workshop of Pheidias at Olympia, and other sites, and rightly observes that the quality of execution varies. Still, some will take issue with her statements that the best bone examples rival the finest works in ivory, whether in Archaic Sparta or Hellenistic Italy (22, 31).

Although a specific Roman workshop has not been identified architecturally, the Palatine excavations have brought to light finished, partially finished, and rough-cut objects, blanks, and discards, as well as debris from various stages of manufacture, all of which indicate the presence nearby of one or more bone- and ivory-working establishments active over many centuries. The proportion of surviving bone to ivory is approximately 9:1, which may, in part, be a result of bone’s greater durability — and the fact that expensive imported ivory was likely to be more fully utilized — but it probably also reflects the more prevalent use of the cheaper material. Traces of various tools are evident on the surviving artifacts, and St. Clair analyzes the remains to reconstruct craftsmen’s techniques with a variety of saws, drills, lathes, chisels, gauges, and knives. She also compares the products and techniques to those uncovered elsewhere in Italy and the Mediterranean.

The catalogue is organized by manufacturing processes, beginning with the preliminary cutting of joints to the creation of blanks of various shapes cut from longitudinal sections of long bones and tusks. This is followed by evidence of lathe-turning, drilling, scribing; the production of strips, veneers, and inlays; mounts and plaques; pins (with and without decorated heads); needles; ligulae, spatulae, and spoons; combs; rings and bracelets; articulated dolls; gaming pieces and counters; dice; letters of the alphabet; and a whistle. Within each category the finds are ordered chronologically, so far as possible. An appendix lists all of the material chronologically.

The large format of the book is attractive and the production values high. Drawings and photographs are clear and present useful alternate views of artifacts. The disposition of information on separate pages for catalogue entry, figure drawing, and photographic plate, however, is cumbersome and requires much page flipping. Typographical errors are minor and, so far as I noticed, limited to the backmatter. Other slips (e.g., Pausanias constantly misspelled “Pausanius,” or, on p. 33, the Temple of Olympian Zeus at Athens mis-cited as the Temple of Zeus at Olympia) are relatively few.

St. Clair deserves credit for sorting and cogently presenting this corpus of important, if rather scrappy material. Her emphasis on bone- over ivory-carving and the close interrelationship of the two likely presents ancient realities more accurately than either the bulk of modern scholarship hitherto or the writings of ancient authors. This book will serve classical and early medieval archaeologists, art historians, museum curators, conservators, and advanced students through both the large and important corpus of new excavation material it presents and the significant broad conclusions drawn from detailed analysis and comparison. While considerably stronger in its treatment of bone than ivory and Roman material than Greek, it is a very useful resource for further investigations.


1. A. St. Clair and E.P. McLachlan, eds., The Carver’s Art: Medieval Sculpture in Ivory, Bone, and Horn. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989.

2. See, e.g., D. Harris, The Treasures of the Parthenon and Erechtheion. Oxford: OUP, 1995; R. Hamilton, Treasure Map: A Guide to the Delian Inventories. Ann Arbor: UMP, 2000; K.D.S. Lapatin, Chryselephantine Statuary in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: OUP, 2001.

3. See, e.g., J. Liversedge, “Woodworking,” in D. Strong and D. Brown, eds, Roman Crafts. London: Duckworth, 1976, 155-66; G.M.A. Richter, The Furniture of the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans. London: Phaidon, 1966; G. Herrmann, ed., The Furniture of Western Asia, Ancient and Traditional. Mainz: von Zabern, 1996; P.R.S. Moorey, Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: The Archaeological Evidence. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1999; P.T. Nicholson and I. Shaw, eds., Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.