Blog Post #71: Connecting Humans, Animals, and Things: Work Animal Objects in the Greek World with Adam DiBattista

Our blogs posts this month explore the modern constructions of “East” and “West”: how these influenced the study of the ancient Mediterranean, and how the ancient Mediterranean was used in turn to further entrench these constructs. Authors take a range of approaches for evaluating how we deal with the persistence of “East” and “West”, interrogating the ways in which we study and understand the materials, motifs, and people who moved around this ancient world.

What topic do you study? 
I study the creation and use of objects made from the durable remains of animal bodies (i.e., bone, antler, and ivory) found in the ancient Greek world. My particular focus is on a period between the Bronze Age and the Classical Period (ca. 1000-500 BCE), a time when the Greek world underwent major social, political, and religious change. At the end of the 8th century BCE, worked animal objects became a widespread form of dedication at sanctuaries across Greece. Craftspeople used animal materials, both exotic and quotidian, to create new forms of material culture that were ultimately offered to a deity within a sanctuary. Dedicated worked animal objects took on different forms, some seemingly emphasizing the organic nature of the animal material. Hundreds of bone shafts were dedicated at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta (Figure 1), and I believe that the value of these objects was a result of the fact that they came from a once-living animal.

My research tries to understand what worked animal objects meant in the context of dedication and how they reflect relationships between humans and non-humans. I am also interested in how a material like ivory can shed light on processes that affected the whole of the Mediterranean, such as intercultural trade and the extinction of elephant populations in Southwest Asia.

A dedicated bone shaft from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta. It is a pale colour, with a crack down the centre and a small hole in the middle of the surface.
Figure 1: (Open Access) Bone offering from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number: 24.195.181.

I am fascinated by this topic because the tradition of creating objects out of animal bodies is nearly universal across cultures and time periods. I think that it is a defining trait of humanity! Bone tools found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa have helped to push back the date for “behavioral modernity” in humans to around 70,000 years before the present. As early as the Paleolithic period, craftspeople were creating masterpieces in mammoth ivory like Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (Figure 2). Even in the relatively modern times (18th century), the development of the Atlantic whaling industry led to development of a distinct form of folk art known as scrimshaw. These materials are more than just a medium for craft production, they are parts of animal bodies that have been meaningfully transformed into something that reflects human concerns, but is not fully separated from the natural world. While animal objects in ancient Greece are my main research topic, I believe the questions I am asking can be applied to many different cultures and time periods.

A lion-man is carved from mammoth ivory. It is light brown in colour. It stands upright.
Figure 2: Lion-man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (~35,000 years old). Image by Dagmar Hollmann / Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 4.0.

What sources or data do you use? 
As my work is highly focused on materials, most of the data I use comes from archaeological excavations. Much of my research is based on archaeological assemblages that were excavated several decades ago. I have been fortunate to analyze objects from the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, the Archaic Artemision at Ephesos, and the Kameiros well on Rhodes, which were housed in the collections of the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, and the Fitzwilliam Museum. When studying worked animal objects, I try to determine the specific material, the techniques craftspeople used to create them, and how they were used. 

My research is also based on material from the Ancient Methone Archaeological Project (AMAP), an excavation that I have been involved with since 2015. Methone is a site in northern Greece located on the Thermaic Gulf occupied from the end of the Neolithic (ca. 5000 BCE) until its destruction by Philip II of Macedon in 354 BCE. The site provided evidence for several industrial activities, including the production of several types of worked animal objects (e.g., tools, jewelry, flute fragments). Excavations at Methone resulted in hundreds of pieces of production waste, including many fragments of elephant ivory. The Methone material originated from wild and domesticated animals, offering insight into the methods of acquiring the raw materials (e.g., hunting, trading, husbandry, and butchery).  

 Understanding animal environments and identifying natural materials also draws on the disciplines from outside of archaeology. My work has greatly benefitted from groups that fight the illegal trade of exotic animal materials. In my future research, I hope to adapt some of the scientific methods of sourcing ivory used to study contemporary populations of elephants (IvoryID). Additionally, groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) have produced guides for distinguishing animal materials (Baker et al. 2020), helping me to better identify the materials that comprise objects from the ancient world.

How does your work shed light on real people in the past?  
Animal materials reflect webs of relationships among humans, animals, and things. Many worked animal objects in the Greek world were made from the bones of common domesticates like cattle or sheep/goats. These animals possessed distinct relationships with humans: people in the past were responsible for herding, as well as slaughtering, butchering, and cooking these animals. It is difficult to identify the first stage of worked animal object production, as the processes that turn a living animal into a piece of material culture are a result of both social forces and physical acts.

Objects made from the bodies of wild animals can also give indications about specific activities of humans. Multiple examples of worked antler objects from the Methone assemblage show signs of being shed, a natural process in which deer cast off their antler as a result hormonal changes in deer related to the mating season (Figure 3). These objects made from shed antler indicate that people deliberately collected this material (rather than hunting the deer). Harvesting antler on the landscape would have been a seasonal practice, indicating shared knowledge concerning the lives and habitats of deer.

Exotic materials can also connect humans and animals across continents. To acquire ivory, hunters in Africa or Southwest Asia had to kill an elephant and remove its tusks. Traders then brought the tusks across the Mediterranean, after which Greek craftspeople transformed the material into something worthy of dedication. As ivory objects would have been valuable and difficult to acquire, they were likely dedicated by elite members of society. The prestige and value of ivory objects raises questions about how the material, and the animal which provided it, was understood.

A deer antler lays on the ground surrounded by autumn leaves.
Figure 3: (Open Access photo from Flickr: A shed antler showing the flat surface of the base, photo by Sam Sheline.

Further Reading

Çakırlar, C. and S. Ikram. 2016. “‘When Elephants Battle, the Grass Suffers.’ Power, Ivory and the Syrian Elephant.” Levant 48(2): 167–83. 
Conneller, C. 2004. “Becoming Deer. Corporeal Transformations at Star Carr.” Archaeological Dialogues 11(1): 37–56 
Stubbings, J. 1940. “Ivories.” In: Perachora II: The Sanctuaries of Hera Akraia and Limenia; Excavations of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, 1930-1933. Pottery, Ivories, Scarabs, and Other Objects from the Votive Deposit of Hera Limenia, edited by T. Dunbabin. Oxford: Clarendon Press: 403–51.

Online Resources

Ancient Methone Archaeological Project: The Movie 
Baker, B. W., Jacobs, R. L., Mann, M.-J., Espinoza, E. O., & Grein, G. (2020). CITES Identification Guide for Ivory and Ivory substitutes (4th ed.). World Wildlife Fund Inc.  
Dawkins, R. 1929. “Objects in Carved Ivory and Bone.” In: The Sanctuary of Artemis Orthia at Sparta. Excavated and Described by Members of the British School at Athens, 1906–1910, edited by R. Dawkins. London: Macmillan & Company. 
International Council for Archaeozoology, Worked Bone Research Group 
New Bedford Whaling Museum: Scrimshaw

Adam DiBattista stands in an excavation pit. He smiles up at the person on the ground level taking the photo. He is wearing a blue sleeve-less jean shirt, black pants, runners, and a light green bandana. He has dark shoulder length hair pulled back, dark facial hair, and glasses.
Adam DiBattista

Adam DiBattista is currently the Hirsch Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. He completed his PhD at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA in 2020, after which he was a Visiting Research Scholar at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU. He has worked at several excavations in the Mediterranean and is currently involved in the publication of the results of the Ancient Methone Archaeological Project, where he has worked since 2015. He is currently working to revise and expand his dissertation (“Transformations of Animal Materials in Early Greece”) for publication. 

Published by Peopling the Past

A Digital Humanities initiative that hosts free, open-access resources for teaching and learning about real people in the ancient world and the people who study them.

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