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Ivory Horn (Oliphant)

  • Accession Number:AKM809
  • Place:Southern Italy (mount: Great Britain)
  • Dimensions:Length 64 cm, height 34 cm
  • Date:11th–12th centuries (mount: early 17th century)
  • Materials and Technique:Carved ivory with silver mount

This rare carved ivory tusk is an exceptional example of the dissemination and exchange of visual culture across the eastern Mediterranean among the Fatimids (909–1171), the Byzantine Empire, and the Italian city-states. It is one of a few examples surviving in major museum collections that were carved in Sicily or southern Italy, with images derived from Fatimid court culture and iconographic style. Known as an oliphant, this tusk is decorated with a hunting scene with real and mythical animals running in file across its length. The first recorded use of the word oliphant is in the twelfth-century French epic La Chanson de Roland where the hero uses an oliphant as a sounding horn to warn Charlemagne’s army against the Muslim attack during the eighth-century Battle of Roncesvalles. Oliphants are also known as hunting horns and indeed hunting and animals are the predominant decorative themes on surviving oliphants. The exquisite carved decoration on this oliphant, and the silver mounts that were added in the seventeenth century, suggest it may have also served a ceremonial role.

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