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Elephant Tusk

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Artifact Description

Elephant tusks are a dominant characteristic of site 35F’s cargo. Nine tusks are visible on the surface of the southern half of the site, perhaps indicative of storage in the bows. Further examples appear to be buried in shallow sediments. Two tusks were recovered for analysis in 2006. Both displayed heavy iron oxide staining and exhibited surface pitting. One example proved to be 69cm long, 4.8cm wide at its hollow base and 3cm wide at its tip. A second example is 65cm long with a maximum diameter of 6cm. A third tusk examined in June 2008 was far larger: 1.45m long, 8.0cm wide at its base and weighed 24kg. Following examination, all three elephant tusks were returned to the shipwreck site.

 The procurement of West African elephant tusks was a highly lucrative commercial pursuit for European traders from the early 16th century onwards – third most profitable after gold and slaves. Ivory from African elephants was considered to be of far finer quality than the Asian elephant because of its superior hardness, pale blonde transparency and ability to be more finely polished. African elephant tusks can measure up to 2m in length, with diameters of 9-11cm and weigh up to 90kg, while tusks of Asian elephants are smaller and lighter. The best African ivory derived from Gaboon, Mozambique and Zanzibar.

The mass exploitation of ivory from Africa dates back to the Roman period, and in the second half of the 13th century Marco Polo remarked while travelling in East Africa that “They have elephants in plenty and drive a brisk trade in tusks.” During the period of Portugal’s domination of West African commerce in the 16th century, 30,000lbs of ivory passed through the port of Sofala annually. Between 1634-64, the Dutch imported an average of 40,000lbs of tusks each year through the Geoctroyeerde Westindische Compagnie. More broadly, Dutch and English shipping records reveal that at least 2,500 tons of ivory – over quarter of a million tusks – left West Africa between 1699 and 1725.

 Either through direct import from West Africa, or alternatively through an established system of re-export, elephant tusks were thus an exotic, rare and expensive medium for the artistic and functional manufacture of combs, knife handles, sewing articles, keys for clavichords, syringes and myriad decorative objects.  Specialist carving centers were established in Germany and Dieppe in France in the early 1600s. Amongst the early British manufacturers were Nathaniel Bowers & Son of London who launched their business as ivory comb makers in 1685 and whose descendants were still in business in the 1960s.

As well as representing the Westernmost cargo containing elephant tusks, site 35F has also yielded amongst the largest examples discovered underwater. This suggests that the wreck at site 35F contained a high-status cargo.


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