Ivory carving in the Bronze Age : the evidence of the Linear B texts and archaeology

Cox, Kathleen A., 1965-
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Among the most numerous and most beautiful surviving art works from the Mycenaean period are the objects of carved ivory. Such pieces are decorated with typically Mycenaean motifs such as rosettes, helmeted warriors, spirals, and sea-shells; objects take the form of combs, mirror-handles, toilette-boxes and statuettes. The majority of these surviving ivories, however, are carved silhouettes and panels which were very likely used as inlays and moldings for wooden furniture; the furniture itself has largely disappeared, as the climate and environment of Greece hinder the preservation of wooden objects. We are left with only a glimpse in extant wall painting and minor arts of the expensive objects which ivory and other precious materials adorned. Ivory dated to the Mycenaean period has been found in a worked and unworked state at many sites on the Greek mainland. This ivory yields important information concerning Mycenaean trade contacts, and testifies to the wealth and social organization of these palatial centers. From the material remains alone, we can draw only a few conclusions about the uses and working of ivory in the Mycenaean period, and about the role of ivory craftsmen in the palatial economy. However, the Linear B texts found at the palaces at Pylos, Knossos, Mycenae and Tiryns offer valuable and unbiased information concerning the industries in which ivory was used and the way in which it was viewed by the administration. The 2 tablets describe furniture decorated with carved ivory and other precious materials, and give inventories of the weapons and chariots which it decorated. Technical terms in the texts correspond to the methods of carving and inlay deduced from extant ivories, and we discover the Mycenaean names for the varied patterns incised on the pieces. It is also possible to discern scribal 'book-keeping' methods: that is, how Mycenaean accountants kept track of this valuable material. In this paper I shall analyze the references to the term for ivory in the Linear B texts and the contexts in which the term appears. At the same time I shall study the archaeological evidence for ivory-working, in order to form larger conclusions concerning the craft of ivory-carving in the Mycenaean period.