Sultan Palace Merv

The other exceptional ivory pieces found at Gonur have not equivalents in Indus Valley ivory production but closely connected to the artistic traditions of Central Asia and of Margiana

A few ivory discs, 6- 7 cm in diameter, 1 cm thick, found in funerary contexts at Gonur Depe. They have recurring motifs shallowly carved on both sides. Two of them bear a scorpion on one side and a schematic composition of heart-shaped pipal leaf motifs on the other. These motifs recur frequently at Gonur Depe on metal, stone seals and were also used in the composition of polychrome mosaics. The heart-shaped pipal (Ficus religiosa or sacred fig) leaf motif almost certainly originated in the Indus Valley and become soon part of the decorative tradition in Margiana. The representations of scorpions are found in the greater Indus Valley only on bone and ivory button seal from Early Harappan site of Rehman Dheri, in northern Baluchistan, in a level dated 3200-3000 BC.

Other ivory discs of a comparable size have dot-in-circles motifs drilled on both sides in concentric series and along the edge. Considering their size and the rules of the game, which provide for the simultaneous presence of more than one piece on the board, these discs probably were not used with the standardized type of gaming boards found at Gonur Depe that have smaller playing squares (5 cm). Their purpose use is still unproved, although they might have been part of ritual paraphernalia or have been used in association with larger gaming sets made of perishable materials.

A broken ivory handle was carefully carved to form two interwoven snakes. It closely resembles the handle of a metal knife. The sculptural representation of a winding snake made from ivory was found under the right shoulder of a male buried in the Royal Necropolis at Gonur North. In Bronze Age Margiana, winding snake was a very common motif, which is found represented on ceramic containers, gold jewelry, metal and stone seals, bronze ceremonial axes and polychrome mosaics

Three long and slightly curved ivory plaques perforated at one end, 20-25 cm long, 4 cm high, and a maximum thickness 0.8-1 cm, whose shape apparently follows the natural curvature and diameter of the tusk. These plaques, two of which are entire and one is broken into several pieces, are decorated on the obverse while the reverse was flattened and left unpolished. They were decorated with the same pattern of five rectangular segments separated by three transverse lines, each of the lateral segment containing roughly carved saltire crosses formed by intersecting bundle of lines (five lines in the two segments at each extremity and three lines in the two median segments), and a lozenge-shaped grid in the central segment. This decorative scheme evokes that carved on the fourth side of the stick-dice found at Gonur Depe and Altyn Depe, but the shape of these enigmatic objects would have prevented their use as dice or fortune sticks. Four identical perforated ivory plaques found also in Gonur, decorated with a continuous motif of dot-in-cercles arranged in a zid-zag pattern, suggesting a specific use for these objects distinct from that of dice and counters.

The decoration of these ivory plaques, including both segmented and zig-zag patterns, recall the motifs carved on four long animal bone sticks found at Altyn Depe, the actual function still not defined. A morphological comparison with later ivory pieces found at Fort Shalmanaser at Numrud, in northwestern Iraq, suggests that the ivory plaques found at Gonur North might have been possibly used to decorate architectural elements or pieces of furniture.

The available data of the detailed study of ivory objects found at Gonur Depe show the significant functional, morphological and stylistic separation between this collection and the contemporaneous production of ivory objects in the greater Indus Valley. The process of ivory objects production might be as outlined, based on the available data:

  • Before any work done, a sketch of the finished item was made; in some workshops it was also customary to make a model in clay or wax.
  • Having chosen a seasoned tusk, any enamel remaining was usually removed by abrasion; sometimes it was removed by heating it and flaking it off with a chisel.
  • The appropriate size for the design was calculated and cut from the tusk using a saw; it was important to work out exactly how to cut the ivory so as to make the best use of the precious material and waste as little as possible
  • The design was drawn on the surface of the piece, which was then roughly shaped using saws and chisels.
  • It was customary to moisten the surface of the ivory to make it a little softer and less brittle; Various chisels, gouges, files, burins were used for carving, finer tools were used for fine work, eventually down to a sharp needle if necessary.
  • The objects were polished using a variety of abrasive materials, including leather, seal or sharkskin, rough fish scales and chalk to give the final shine.
  • Polished ivory artifacts could be eventually incised or etched with thin lines to create designs or emphasize specific features.
  • Finished objects in ivory could be bleached using a mixture of urine and lime.
  • In special case, the creamy color of ivory could be altered by heating, smoking or staining with liquids or by applying pigments.
  • The objects were dampened in water to provide them with their original moisture content that might have been lost or altered and then greased to maintain it.

Not all these manufacturing stages and technical actions were adopted in the production of the ivory objects found at Gonur Depe. Even though the presence of traces of dark substances withing the motifs that were drilled and incised on a few dice and plaquettes might suggest that they were originally filled with pigments, there is no evidence for bleaching and the general quality of the carving did not require the skills and finer tools used during later historical and modern periods for manufacturing pieces in-th-round or with an accentuated undercutting. Even so, their production still require an elevated level of technical virtuosity and close acquaintance with the raw material and with its preparation for the carving.

The study of the ivory collection found at Gonur Depe site proves that most of the objects were probably manufactured in Central Asia according to the local artistic tradition and did not just arrived as finished objects from Indus Valley sites. Almost all ivories finds at Gonur Depe show a marked degree of functional and stylistic separation from the contemporaneous ivory production in the Indus Civilization.

A few ivory objects may have occasionally arrived in Central Asia from the greater Indus Valley as finished items. However, considering the sources of elephant ivory available for Gonur Depe, the discovery on the site of the large unworked section of an elephant tusk, and the evidence for reworking of ivory objects at Gonur Depe and possibly also at other sites of Oxus Civilization Basin. It seems more likely that tusks of Asian elephants were traded to Central Asia, whole or in sections, by merchants who might have provided also the skilled craftsmanship necessary to transform them into finished objects. The  highly specialized skills and expertise required to carve ivory objects comparable to the ones found at Gonur Depe suggest that they were manufactured by local wood carvers or most likely by Indus-trained ivory carvers.

Some textual sources allow considering also the possible presence in Central Asia of Indus-trained itinerant ivory carvers. In fact, the high economic and ideological value that ivory objects acquired during the Bronze Age when exhibited outside the Indus Valley may have led to the establishment of specific socioeconomic and technical networks for the manufacturing and trade of these prized objects across Middle Asia.