Art of carving ivory for ornamental or useful purposes, practiced from prehistoric to modern times. The ivory most frequently used is obtained from elephant tusks, but other types of ivory or substitute materials include the tusks, teeth, horns, and bones of the narwhal, walrus, and other animals, as well as vegetable ivory and synthetic ivories.
Traders started to buy African ivory, all along the East and West coasts of Africa. Until 1300 AD, people in the Byzantine Empire who wanted African ivory traded with the African kingdom of Aksum, so that Aksum stayed a Christian kingdom until the 1300's AD. The riches of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia poured into the city's warehouses, to be either sold or transformed by local artists into works of art in byzantine. One of the most sought after products was ivory, the majority of which arrived via Egypt from sources in East Africa.
Ivory carving flourished under the Byzantine Empire, particularly in the 5th and 6th centuries and from the 10th to the 13th century. Christian figures, symbols, and scenes were the subjects most often depicted on ivory book covers, icons, boxes, shrines, crosiers, crucifixes, door panels, and thrones. A masterpiece of Byzantine ivory is the Throne of Maximilian (6th cent., Ravenna Cathedral). Most Byzantine carvings, however, were in the form of a diptych (made up of two matching parts, such as an altarpiece).
The Byzantine Empire also had an important ivory-carving tradition. The Córdoban ivories were sent out as diplomatic gifts, and it is likely that ivories similar to the previous example were sent as gifts to the Byzantine emperor. They must have been appreciated in Constantinople: while most Byzantine ivories feature religious or mythological subjects. Some of the most emblematic objects for which ivory was employed during the Byzantine period were consular diptychs, pyxides, icons (either as single panels or configured into diptychs or triptychs), and finally caskets made for either secular or religious purposes.
Although the supply of ivory arriving in Byzantium was constant between the fourth and the sixth centuries, there were fluctuations in its availability, and it seems to have been quite scarce between the seventh and ninth centuries. This dearth may have been caused by the Arab conquest of Byzantine territories in North Africa, Syria, and Palestine, which interrupted trade relations, or it may have been a consequence of the overhunting of elephants.
Although a majority of the Byzantine art was of grand scale and accomplished by a troupe of traveling artisans, there were some individuals who worked from their homes producing the highly prized objects of ivory and metalwork; such as religious relics, devotional panels and even a series of ivory caskets.
The only sculpture which developed was limited mostly to small ivory book covers. The use of rich materials such as gold and ivory reflected the degree of wealth that was common during this period, while the choice of subject matters and mediums used attested to the sophistication of the Byzantine Society as well as highlighting the skills of the artists.