Late Roman, Early Byzantine, Coptic
2 1/8 × 1 1/2 × 3/16 in. (5.4 × 3.8 × 0.5 cm)
0.5 oz. (13 g)
Bequest of David P. Harris ('46), 2020
Purchased by David P. Harris from Julia Schottlander (Tetragon) in London on May 25, 1991. Said to come from the collection of Videan(?), a French journalist in the Indochina Wars.
Bottom left broken off and jagged. Possible slight decay of bone on sides. Deep, small hole on the right back side. Many light, surface scratches on the back and some on the front.
Portia Gharai (’26), October 2023
This bone fragment features a lightly carved figure that takes up almost the entire panel. They are abstractly carved, making in unclear what they wear or who they represent. The figure looks to the left side and is shown slightly off center, swaying towards the left. It has a downcast look, staring down to the left at something off the plane, possibly something held in its left hand. Curved lines at the top of its head could possibly be hair or a crown/wreath. Carved lines surround the figure. One curved line juts out from the figure’s back, possibly meaning the figure has wings or wears willowing fabric. There are two other straight lines around the figure, which could be showing clothing. The bottom part of the figure's body has been cut off because of damage to the panel. It is broken off in jagged lines, and the figure's left hand is partially missing. The figure is lightly carved around its main body, making it hard to discern if it is a man or woman. While the lines surrounding it are more deeply carved, the artist creates a sense of movement and mobility through using curved lines and off centering the figure.
Bone carving was a very popular art form in Ancient Egypt from around the 3rd to 7th century, during the Late Roman, Early Byzantine, and Coptic periods. Bone was cheaper to attain than ivory, and more widely available. Bone carving could be made from most animals that were slaughtered or died, including goats, sheep, cattle, and camels. Bone carvers would have also been more commonplace and possibly less skilled than many ivory carvers, who would work for higher class people (Cutler 1985, 20–21). Bone would often be carved using different tools, which we cannot be sure of what they were, but they might have used objects like hand chisels, fretsaws, and gauges (Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. "Ivory Carving."). Popular motifs carved in bone were usually mythical figures or dancers. This figure could possibly be winged, and thus associated with Victory or Putto. The figure may also be a dancer for Dionysus, because of how the figure sways and the lines that surround it, alluding to ribbons carried by many images of dancers.
Bone carvings such as this were usually attached to furniture and boxes (Randall 1985, 107). When affixed to funerary beds, they would promote safe passage into the afterlife; when carved onto medicine boxes, they could promote health (cf. "Medicine Box with Hygieia," Dumbarton Oaks Museum, BZ.1948.15). Bone carvings were often painted with varying colors, unlike ivory carvings, which used colored waxes (Randall 1985, 88). Through curved and straight lines, that show movement and possible mythological motifs, this bone fragment is meant to represent either a mythological dancer or a mythological figure to be placed on objects to display a meaning to the owner.
Cutler, Anthony. 1985. The Craft of Ivory: Sources, Techniques, and Uses in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 200-1400. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Library and Collection.
Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. "Ivory Carving." https://www.britannica.com/art/ivory-carving. Accessed October 18, 2023.
Randall, Richard H. 1985. Masterpieces of Ivory from the Walters Art Gallery. New York: Hudson Hills Press.
Portia Gharai (’26)