Carved Ivory Tusks

Tusk tells us about military command in Benin

This Yorkshire World Collections object was one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.


This elaborately carved elephant’s tusk was made in the late 19th Century, in Benin, West Africa. The tusk was made for a war commander called Ezomo Osarogiagbon. It was a treasured part of an ancestral altar, reflecting the power of the owner’s family.

The different figures carved onto the tusk represent different meanings in Benin society. For instance, the fish-legged figure represents status and power, and also the sea god Olokun. The mudfish represents peace, power and fertility, whilst the man on horseback represents a king from Benin’s past. Finally, the image of the man on his own represents a European trader, and the wealth foreign trade has brought to Benin. Perhaps this last image is a mixed blessing, however, as the Europeans also brought war to the country.

The tusk is carved from ivory, a hard material to carve and whose whiteness symbolizes purity. The elephant is a very strong animal representing the physical power of the commander. An ancestral altar often had a carved head topped with a headdress, the head representing the 'seat' of thought. This head would have a hole in the top into which the ivory tusk was inserted. Positioned in this way the tusk formed a link between the human world and the spirit world represented by the carvings on the tusk.

This tusk was taken by the British army when they invaded the country in 1897. Their reason for the invasion was the murder of members of a British trade delegation. The British brought back thousands of these symbolic objects.

Discussion Ideas:

  • This object is carved from ivory. Is this material still used? If not, why not?
  • Many objects from Benin were brought back to Britain. Is it right for soldiers to take objects out of a country in this way?
  • Sometimes countries want to take their objects back even though museums here have been taking great care of them. Is this right?
  • Why would a family have an 'ancestral altar'? Do we have anything similar in Britain?

Activity Idea:

  • Look at all the images of this resource and give names to the figures and animals you can identify from the carved ivory elephant's tusk.
  • Imagine you are a newspaper reporter in Benin and write an account of ivory smuggling recently uncovered by customs officials. Look at the Related Links at the bottom of the page for help
  • Use this Google map below to find which major river British invaders might have used to travel to Benin.




 
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