The carved ivory in Pompeii was found in a place far from its place of production.
In 1938, an excavation at the ancient Roman city of Pompeii revealed a small carved ivory of Indian origin. Pompeii, located near the southern Italian city of Naples, was buried under nearly twenty feet of ash and pumice following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius almost two thousand years ago. The date of Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 C.E. provides the latest possible year that this carved ivory from India arrived in Pompeii. How did this ivory travel thousands of miles from India to Pompeii? And what does it mean about cultural connections in the ancient world?
The carved ivory portrays three female figures standing on a pedestal. The principal and largest of the three figures is carved in the round. She wears a thick necklace with a pendant, bangles, anklets, and a jeweled girdle and stands with her left leg crossed over her right. Her hair and a headdress frame deeply carved eyes and a soft face, and she turns her head to direct a smile toward an unknown object (possibly an earring) that she holds in the palm of her left hand. She bends her right arm at the elbow behind her head and places this hand on her braided hair. Extending out from the left side of her head is a horizontal, tapered protrusion that is articulated in the same fashion as her headdress.
The two smaller figures who flank the principal figure are understood as attendants. In South Asian art, there is a tradition of emphasizing the importance of a central figure in relation to surrounding and less important figures—a compositional strategy known as hieratic scale. These figures, who are only half as tall as the central figure, also have bangled and braceleted arms and legs. The attendants hold objects that have not been satisfactorily identified, although scholars have suggested that they may be toiletries or jewelry.
The three figures share similar iconography, but the principal figure occupies the most space and is afforded greater detail than the attendant figures. The three figures were carved from a single piece of ivory, and the skillful arrangement of the attendants lends balance to the posed stance of the principal figure.
Three important details are not immediately discernible. At the top of the central figure’s head is a bored hole that extends down toward her navel, and beneath the pedestal upon which the figures stand is a symbol that has been identified, potentially, as an artist’s mark.1 In addition, it comes as a bit of a surprise that the top of the head of the statuette is only partially complete, with an area left completely uncarved, in this otherwise carefully incised ivory. Why would the artist do this? Is it possible that while the ivory was carved to be seen from most sides, this was a detail that was never meant to be seen? Could the opening at the top of the head indicate that the figure was once attached by a dowel to something else? Could the symbol beneath the pedestal have been just one among others that were carved into the various components of a larger object?
Finding Meaning in Context and Function
Early scholars including Amadeo Maiuri—the archaeologist in Pompeii who discovered the object—and art historian Mirella Levi D’Ancona initially proposed that the figure represented a goddess.2 Subsequent scholarship, including by Maiuri who had labeled the figure after the Hindu goddess “Lakshmi,” amended this interpretation of the figure as a goddess by focusing more closely on the iconography of the carved ivory. In particular, they noted the carved figure’s similarity to yakshis (female fertility figures) in early Buddhist sites such as Bharhut and Sanchi in India.
A comparison between the carved ivory in Pompeii and the yakshis in stupa 1 at Sanchi, reveal close commonalities in their jeweled adornment, their poses of one leg crossed over the other, and even their garlanded hair. Paintings and sculptures of yakshis in religious architecture and in the secular context were associated with protection and good luck in South Asia. While the parallels between the ivory in Pompeii and the yakshi at Sanchi indicate the popularity of this type of female figure in ancient Indian art, it should be emphasized that their iconography does not automatically imply a sacred or religious affiliation for the ivory in Pompeii.
The carved ivory was found in a large and wealthy home, suggesting appreciation for imported luxury goods. The ivory was excavated from the home’s interior courtyard in a busy part of Pompeii. Ivory was a luxury import in ancient Roman cities and was in such high-demand that the author Pliny (who incidentally died during the eruption of Vesuvius) observed the following in around 77 C.E.:
The tusk alone is of ivory: otherwise even in these animals too the skeleton forming the framework of the body is common bone; albeit recently owing to our poverty even the bones have begun to be cut into layers, inasmuch as an ample supply of tusks is now rarely obtained except from India, all the rest in our world having succumbed to luxury.3
The Pompeii Ivory was initially thought of as a standalone figure that was perhaps the handle of a mirror (remember the bored hole at the top of the principal figure’s head?). However, the archaeologist Elisabeth During Caspers suggested another possibility in which the carved ivory was just one of a set of three, perhaps four, caryatids that functioned as legs for a small table or stool. In this scenario, now commonly accepted among scholars, the bored hole would have served to affix the flat-top of the furnishing and the unfinished portion of the Pompeii Ivory’s head would have been covered from above.
What Other Carved Ivories Tell Us
The discovery, in Begram (Afghanistan), of hundreds of ivory plaques and standalone ivory figures that date to the 2nd century or earlier has shown that ivory, and in particular ivory furniture, was a popular commodity in the early centuries of the common era.4 Carved plaques, such as the example from Begram above showing women and dancers, were fastened to the backs and sides of chairs, stools, and even small storage chests and are the remnants of furniture that has long since disintegrated. Some of these ivory fragments feature artist marks, similar to the mark found on the carved ivory found in Pompeii.
Like the ivory in Pompeii, one of the Begram ivory figurines stands with one leg crossed over the other. She is dressed in a translucent skirt and jeweled girdle, and she has ankleted feet and bangled arms. But her elaborate hair and the absence of attendants immediately signal different modes of representation for the female figure. The previously mentioned ivory plaque with dancers shows similar portrayals of women, but again with a different style.
Two other ivory objects, more similar in iconography and style to the carved ivory in Pompeii, have been found in Maharashtra in India.5 The discovery of the so-called Ter and Bhokardan ivories has helped to potentially locate the provenance of the Pompeii ivory in the Sātavāhana period and possibly the region—though the movement of artists is always, of course, a possibility. A horizontal protrusion and a hole in the Ter ivory further support Caspers’s theory that these carved ivories functioned as furniture supports. Mentions of the arrival of wine in the ports of north and south India in the Periplus of the Erythreaen Sea (1st century C.E.) and the discovery of Roman amphorae in places like Ter and Bhokardan offer evidence of trade between India and Rome and offer support for the stylistic and iconographic similarities of the three ivories.6
The discovery of ivory remnants of furniture in Begram, which was located on the ancient overland Silk Road, as well as in Pompeii, demonstrates the exchange in the early centuries of the first millennium. The Begram ivories were found alongside Indian, Greco-Roman, Roman-Alexandrian, and Chinese luxury goods. These objects included painted and enameled glassware, lacquer bowls, jeweled caskets, Hellenistic sculptures and vessels, and, as already mentioned, carved ivories.
While we do not know how the carved ivory arrived in Pompeii, that is, overland or over sea, it is worth noting that the anonymous writer of the Periplus credited the discovery of the patterns of the Southwest monsoons as a critical development in the increased efficiency and safety of maritime trade in the ancient world.7 Imports into Rome from India were so plentiful that the Muziris papyrus, a document dating to the 2nd century, references a cargo consignment valued at millions of sesterces (an ancient Roman monetary unit) aboard a ship traveling from Muziris (a port on the Malabar coast of southwestern India). In reference to the ships carrying cotton, diamonds, sapphires, pearls, aromatics, spices, and, ivory, Pliny, had lamented the resources drained by the Roman love for luxury a century earlier.
A “Conversation” Piece?
The carved ivory in Pompeii was found in a place far from its place of production and recent scholarship has suggested that if it was indeed a piece of furniture, it may have been a “conversation” piece, highlighting the cultural and social value to its owner.8 The other two or three legs of this theoretical piece of furniture have not been located, suggesting that the carving may have even been retained despite having been isolated. Whether it retained value for its owner as a piece of ivory, for its aesthetic quality, or for future up-cycling as part of a piece of new furniture, we cannot know. What we can know with certainty is that the ivory in Pompeii is a historic object of incalculable value, for its survival has ensured rare insight into a period when cultures, stories, and interests intersected, even two thousand years in the past.
- See Kasper Grønlund Evers, Worlds apart trading together: the organisation of long-distance trade between Rome and India in antiquity (Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing Ltd., 2017), p. 26 and footnote 179; Laura R. Weinstein, “The Indian figurine from Pompeii as an emblem of East-West trade in the Early Roman imperial era,” in Globalization and Transculturality from Antiquity to the Pre-Modern World, edited by Serena Autiero and Matthew Adam Cobb (New York: Routledge, 2022), pp. 194–95 (183–204).
- Mirella Levi D’Ancona, “An Indian Statuette from Pompeii.” Artibus Asiae 13, no. 3 (1950): pp. 166–180.
- Book VIII: IV, page 7. Pliny the Elder, Natural History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).
- Sanjyot Mehendale, “Begram: along ancient Central Asian and Indian trade routes,” Cahiers d’Asie centrale (1997): pp. 51–52 (46–74).
- The Ter and Bhokardan figurines, so named for their find-spots of Ter and Bhokardan, are remarkably congruent in style to the Ivory in Pompeii, although the Bhokardan ivory only survives as a partial fragment. Writing in 1971, Vidya Dehejia noted that the Ter ivory had an aperture in its head as well as the remains of what appeared to be a feature that was similar to the protrusion at the head of the Ivory in Pompeii. She also noted that both the Ter and Pompeii ivories had raised arms that reached for their earrings. Vidya Dehejia, Early Buddhist rock temples: a chronology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), p. 131; Also see Evers, referenced above, pp. 27–28.
- Sunil Gupta, David Williams, and David Peacock, “Dressel 2–4 Amphorae and Roman Trade with India: the evidence from Nevasa” South Asian Studies 17 (2001): pp. 7–18.
- As the maritime route connected Rome and India via the port of Alexandria, ship captains leaving Egypt learned to set sail just in time, usually in July, for the summer southwest monsoon winds to bring them to shore in western India by September. They had learned that an earlier departure risked hazardous conditions at sea and along the west coast of the Indian subcontinent. Similarly, ships left Indian ports with the arrival of the northeast monsoon, usually in December or January.
- Weinstein, “The Indian figurine from Pompeii as an emblem of East-West trade,” p. 194.
Originally published by Smarthistory, 01.12.2023, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.