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Transformations of Animal Materials in Early Greece


From the earliest periods of Greek history, bone, antler, ivory, and other materials were consistently created into objects for use within social practices, and archaeological evidence suggests that these objects took on new forms and functions during the Early Iron Age and early Archaic period (ca. 1100–600 BCE). Between the 11th and 8th centuries BCE, worked animal objects were sporadically used as grave goods, while by the 7th century, hundreds of such objects were dedicated at major sanctuaries across the Greek world, including at Sparta, Ephesus, and Thasos. In this dissertation, I ask how worked animal objects were created and understood during a period of great social change in the Greek world. Using perspectives from the environmental humanities, aimed at de-centering the human, as well as problematizing the nature-culture divide, I posit that worked animal objects acquired values rooted in their organic histories.

Within my dissertation, I examine how the larger patterns of ivory production in the Iron Age Mediterranean, as well as the exploitation of elephant populations in the Near East, impacted the development of ivory carving in the Greek world. The creation of these objects coincided with a return to long-distance trade after a period of disruption brought on by the instability at the end of the Bronze Age. While the Mycenaeans used foreign trade connections to maintain a tradition of ivory carving, archaeological evidence suggests that the availability of the material was limited between the start of the Early Iron Age (ca. 1100 BCE) and the 9th century BCE. With the increase of other worked animal object dedications in the 7th century, ivory objects took on a variety of new forms in Greek sanctuaries. By the end of the century, craftspeople were using ivory to create larger, more complex works (e.g., the chryselephantine statues at Delphi).

This dissertation also considers how worked animal objects were employed within Greek social contexts. By comparing finds from funerary and dedicatory contexts, I demonstrate that specific types of worked animal objects (e.g., ivory carvings of recumbent animals, circular seals, miniature double axes) were reserved for use in sanctuaries and employed across the Greek world. However, certain sanctuaries also show evidence for unique forms of worked animal object dedications which were not found at other sites (e.g., worked long bone shafts at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta, decorated bone shafts at the Kamiros well on Rhodes). I conclude that, within the venue of dedication, worked animal objects had a specific value rooted in the organic origins of the material.

Finally, using the site of ancient Methone as a case study, I examine the production practices used to create worked animal objects. Methone shows evidence for the production of worked animal materials (including ivory) dating to between the end of the 8th century/start of the 7th century and the 6th century, a period concurrent with the increase of dedications of such objects across the Greek world. I interpret these technical acts as a form of human-animal relationship, in which craftspeople are interacting with the organic qualities of the materials. Worked animal materials from Methone demonstrate that craftspeople used a diversity of wild and domesticated species to make a variety of objects.

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