Largest Ancient Ivory Factory Discovered In Pakistan
When vast quantities of discarded ivory fragments were unearthed at the ancient port city of Bhanbhore, they revealed what would be the largest ivory production facility found in the ancient world.
Discarded Pieces of Tusk Indicate Massive Industry
Archaeologists were re-excavating the 2,100-year-old port city of Bhanbhore in Pakistan ’s Sindh province when they discovered over 40 kilograms (almost 90 pounds) of discarded ivory shards from workshops dating to about 800 AD. They believed it to be evidence of the largest-ever ivory carving spot and industry in the Islamic period, and what was discovered is only what the ancient ivory artisans had dumped.
The excavations were part of a joint project of the Sindh government’s Department of Culture and Antiquities and the Italian Foreign Ministry, led by professor emeritus Valeria Piacentini of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan, with Simone Mantellini and Agnese Fusaro, an archaeologist and ceramics specialist, respectively, at of the University of Bologna. Archaeologist Mantellini told reporters at Haaretz that what the excavators had recovered was essentially only the “waste coming out of a carpentry workshop,” indicating incalculable tonnage of ivory materials were exported from the site.
Some of the 40 kilograms ivory waste found at the Bhanbhore site. (Muhammad Qaseem Saeed/ Sindh Cultural Dept)
Largest Ivory Factory Found from the Ancient World
Bhanbhore was founded about 65 kilometers (40 miles) east of Karachi at the mouth of the Indus River in the first century BC during the Scytho-Parthian period and the settlement was expanded greatly throughout the Hindu-Buddhist period and the Muslim period before the ancient city collapsed in the late 12th or early 13th century. This once major port and commercial hub in the ancient world, with trading connections around the Indian Ocean and the Far East, was defended by a large fortified citadel measuring around 14,000 square meters area.
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Port of Banbhore. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Excavations at Bhanbhore first began in 1928 before the subcontinent’s partition into Pakistan and India in 1947, and the Pakistani archaeologist, Fazal Ahmed Khan, re-excavated the site between 1958 to 1965. Now, the new discoveries made in Trench 9 are being described as “the largest ivory workshop discovered in the world,” says Mantellini, who thinks the ivory dumps indicate a “massive industry of carving elephant tusks” in the Islamic-period.
Furthermore, this settlement is thought by some archaeologists to have been the traditional starting point of Islam in Sindh during the Early Medieval period, which in AD 711 was conquered by Arab forces under the command of Muhammad bin Qasim.
Furthermore, the archaeologists said no similar such ivory deposit or workshop has ever been discovered on the Indian subcontinent making this discovery “unique”.
Islamic ivory from Spain, AD 966. (Louvre Museum / Public domain)
Signs of Import and Export
From the Indus Valley to the ancient Roman world, ivory was a prized luxury item and archaeologist Mantellini thinks that elephant tusks production may have been a “central pillar” of the region’s prosperity and that ample evidence was found suggesting the settlement enjoyed far-reaching trade for its ivory jewelry, which was made from raw ivory that was probably procured in India. Huge amounts of pottery were also discovered in Bhanbhore dating to the late 12th or early 13th centuries, about which Fusaro told Haaretz most was “coarse ware,” but they also discovered more elaborate decorated water pots, some of which had pouring spouts.
Made locally, Fusaro said “redware” pottery was found at the site that continues to be used today and that the “grayware” discovered exhibited a higher production standard than the redware. Grayware, according to Fusaro, requires the maker to have near-perfect control of the atmosphere and temperature during the firing process in the kiln and that the surfaces of the Grayware pottery had been burnished to make them shine. Other pottery had been imported from India, Iraq and Iran: dated to between the 10th and 11th centuries and the archaeologists said the finest pieces had come from China.
Italian and Pakistan archaeologists visit ancient Bhanbhore city on February 8, 2020 where the ivory factory has been discovered. (Image: Consulate General of Italy Karachi)
The End of the Bhanbhore Buchers
Evidence suggests that Bhanbhore was destroyed sometime around AD 280 by an earthquake and another again by another major seismic event in the late Islamic period and seems to have entered into its final decline in the late 12th century, evident in that the locals started fixing broken pottery, which according to Fusaro indicates “trading had dried up.”
The final nail in the coffin came when a drought caused the Indus River to change course and Bhanbhore found itself situated on a silted creek which was ultimately abandoned and nobody lives there today. But every story has winners and losers, for in deepest India, after 1200 years of having been slaughtered for their tusks, ‘the elephants’ must have been for chuffed that the “Bhanbhore butchers” had stopped their barbaric trade. It didn’t last long though…
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Reemergence of the Elephants Haters?
The brutalizing of animals in Pakistan, as with other places in the world, hasn’t yet been eradicated, according to a 2016 a report in APNews telling the alarming story of a local and international animal rights organization in Pakistan launching a campaign after zookeepers were caught “starving and beating” an elephant. An online petition gained over 280,000 signatures and protests were held outside the zoo and this successful campaign attracted international attention from animal rights groups and celebrities, including the singer Cher who called for the elephant to be moved to a more humane facility.
However, the origins of elephant torture didn’t begin at Bhanbhore, for before this settlement was even founded the North African elephant and the Syrian elephant ( Elephas maximus asurus), a subspecies of the extant Asian elephant that itself became extinct shortly after Hannibal invaded Italy in the 2nd century BC, were all wiped out, so that elites in Greek and Roman societies could wear fancy items of jewelry to show off their material wealth.
It appears that the extinction of almost all ancient elephant species, folks, is the true cost of roads, aqueducts, bridges, wine and fruit orgies.
Top image: Aerial View of Banbhore, where the largest ancient ivory workshop has been found. Source: Engr.aly / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Ashley Cowie