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Walruses, Whales and Narwhals

Maritime Ivories in Western Europe, 900-1500

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Publié le mardi 23 août 2016 par Céline Guilleux


Dans l'histoire de la sculpture sur ivoire, les mammifères marins ont souvent été éclipsés par l'éléphant, vu comme un ivoire plus noble dont le morse ou la baleine ne seraient que des succédanés. Mais cette vision historiographique n'est pas sans faiblesses. Non seulement la chasse au morse joua un rôle significatif dans l'expansion européenne vers l'Ouest, mais le commerce de ces ivoires s'étendit jusqu'au monde islamique voire à l'Extrême-Orient. Cette session du 52e International Congress on Medieval Studies, sponsorisée par le National Museum of Scotland, vise à étudier les ivoires maritimes sous tous leurs aspects, collecte du matériau brut, commerce, ateliers et valeur symbolique.


Date and place 

Session sponsored by the National Museum of Scotland

International Congress on Medieval Studies

May 11-14, 2017

Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan


In the history of medieval ivory carving, the maritime mammals are often eclipsed by the elephant.  Walrus tusks and whale bones are usually just seen as a poor substitute to the nobler African or Indian product, mostly used when trade disruptions created shortfalls.

But this historiographical view is not without shortcomings. Walrus hunting played a significant role in the first European explorations towards the west, to Iceland and Greenland. It also led to one of the first documented cases of overhunting with the disappearance of walruses from Iceland. And the trade went far. Just as the Islamic world played a role in providing Europe with elephant tusks, it coveted narwhal teeth and walrus tusks, which, much like the latter in the West, were used as an indicator of poison and possible antidote.

In Western Europe, as walrus ivory was not carved in the harvesting territories, trade was widespread. With evidence of active workshops as far south as Canterbury, and possibly even France (with a few scattered pieces attributed to artists of the Reims area), wide reaching trade routes were created, sometimes going both ways. This is demonstrated by the walrus ivory crozier found in the tomb of a 13th century bishop of Garðar (Greenland). On the contrary, it would seem that whale bone carving, found mainly in North-West Spain and England, was intimately linked with the main fishing zones; the Channel and the Bay of Biscay (where most of the whalers originated). As for the narwhal, although we know how coveted its tooth was, we are far less knowledgeable as to how it was collected. This is due to the animal habitat being far away from the zones used by medieval Basque whalers and remote even for the less expert Scandinavian ones.

As far as production is concerned, the maritime ivories are not limited only to the more prevalent chess pieces (sometimes mundane, sometimes of exceptional quality). Caskets (some of exceptional quality), reliquaries and liturgical instruments were also carved and circulated throughout Europe.

This session aims to gather papers addressing the variety of questions posed by the maritime ivories: how the raw material was collected, how it was traded, the workshops that carved them and their specific symbolic value in medieval treasuries.

Submission guidelines

To propose a paper, please send a 300 word abstract, C.V., and completed Congress Participant Information Form (available here) to

Xavier Dectot, Keeper of Art and Design, National Museums Scotland (

Deadline : September 15, 2017

The selection will be done by Xabier Dectot


  • Western Michigan University
    Kalamazoo, États-Unis (49008)


  • jeudi 15 septembre 2016


  • ivoire, morse, baleine, narval, Atlantique Nord, ivory, walrus, whale, narwhale, North Atlantic


  • Xavier Dectot
    courriel : x [dot] dectot [at] nms [dot] ac [dot] uk

Source de l'information

  • Xavier Dectot
    courriel : x [dot] dectot [at] nms [dot] ac [dot] uk

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