The Borradaile oliphant

Byzantine, 11th century AD
From southern Italy

A sounding horn carved from an elephant tusk

The use of the term oliphant derives from the medieval epic, The Song of Roland, in which the hero had a sounding horn called 'Olifant' (the Old French word for elephant). Elephants tusks carved for this purpose were made in both Arabic and Byzantine workshops.

This example is carved with rows of interlocking medallions whose pattern resembles a richly-woven textile. An animal is displayed in each circle (winged griffins, heraldic eagles, lions, peacocks and snakes can all be seen). The medallions around the rim are closely spaced with leafy fronds between the circles, while those on the main body of the horn are arranged more loosely with bosses representing grapes in the diamond-shaped interstices.

The overall design of this horn has close parallels in Arabic horns, but the plastic treatment of the animals is quite different from Islamic carving traditions. Motifs such as peacocks drinking from chalices, the dragon-headed snakes and the bands of guilloche are also of western inspiration. A carver familiar with both Byzantine and Arabic traditions may well have been working somewhere in southern Italy in the late eleventh century when Sicily was under the control of the Fatimid dynasty.

Compare this with the Clephane horn, also in The British Museum, with its realistic scenes of the Hippodrome in Constantinople, drawn from Late Antique sources.

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The Borradaile oliphant

  • View from other side

    View from other side


More information


G. Sievernich and H. Budde (eds.), Europa und der Orient 800-1900 (Gutersloh, Bertelsmann Lexikon Verlag, 1989)


Length: 54.880 cm

Museum number

M&ME 1923,12-5,3


Bequeathed by Charles Borradaile


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