Walrus Hunting and the Ivory Trade in Early Iceland
By Elizabeth Pierce
Archaeologia Islandica, Vol. 7 (2009)
Abstract: This paper examines the hunting and use of walrus ivory in Iceland from the period of settlement to the Middle Ages. Atlantic walrus rarely have been seen and are only occasionally mentioned in written sources in Iceland, but place-name sand skeletal finds prove that the animals have lived on its shores. Although over-shadowed by the ivory output of Greenland in the Norse Period, several finds of walrus tusks and ivory objects in Iceland demonstrate that the animals were hunted and their ivory possibly worked in Iceland. The use of walrus ivory in Iceland’s past cannot be overlooked: Future research into settlement period sites should field further evidence of the nature of the ivory trade in medieval Iceland.
Introduction: Walrus have been a rare sight on Icelandic shores through the centuries, but evidence tells us they have by no means been absent. Written sources mention place-names associated with walrus and the occasional killing of the animals. Walrus skulls and tusks have been dredged from Icelandic harbours and found along ancient shorelines. Ivory objects possibly carved from material obtained on Icelandic shores have occasionally been found, and recent archaeological excavations have added to that collection. However, the role of walrus in the early and medieval Icelandic economy is not clear: While walrus ivory was not a large-scale industry in medieval Iceland like it was in Greenland, the hunting of walrus and working of ivory in Iceland cannot be overlooked.
Walrus ivory was used for both religious and secular prestige goods in the medieval period. Ivory was valued for carving because of its colour and texture, and it was the most common raw material taken from exotic animals in medieval Europe. Although elephant tusks were preferred for carving, the increasing availability of walrus ivory made it a popular craft material in England and western Europe starting around AD 1000.