- Museum number
Tapering sub-rectangular walrus ivory box with sliding lid. It is highly polished and has high relief carving on the lid and four sides, with glass inlays in the eyes of all creatures.
The base consists of two pieces connected in the middle by a dovetail joint fastened by numerous iron rivets. These originally also secured a metal band, now lost, around the external surface of the join. Other traces of missing metal fittings occur elsewhere: at the wider end, which is cut away to accommodate a closing device, and has four rivets set cornerwise for the attachment of a plate; at the narrow end where there is a deep slot on each side, with traces of riveting, and on the upper surface of the narrow end, where there is a drilled hole at each side of the lid recess, presumably to hold a plate or strip. The interior surfaces are heavily scored with tool-marks.
The narrow end and long sides are ornamented with plant and animal themes. Each long side has two rectangular decorative panels, set in a plain frame. Beginning at the wider end, these are, from left to right:
(a) A mounted warrior defending himself against dragons with a spear. The dragons have ribbed or beaded bodies and long sinuous tails; the rider's and horse's heads are broken away;
(b) A stumbling man, hand upraised, in a short tunic, savaged by two lions; at the right-hand end a bird bites downwards towards its extended claw;
(c) Two archers in short tunics aiming at two birds perched in the symmetrical branches of a slender tree with acanthus-like foliage;
(d) Two men in short tunics digging at the roots of a symmetrical tree with acanthus-like scrolls; the panel is damaged in the centre, but at the far right a bird pecks at an elaborate acanthus sprig.
The narrow end is carved in the form of an open-jawed lion with curling stylised mane. Head-to-head between his gaping teeth are two downward-biting crouching quadrupeds, their forelegs clasped across their necks.
The lid is slightly hollow at the back, and has a three-pronged, trapezoidal copper alloy plate riveted to the underside of the wider end, part of the box's closing mechanism. The decoration covers the entire external surface and is contained within plain borders. The principal field contains a symmetrical inhabited tree motif, consisting of a slender central stem with lateral acanthus fronds amongst which paired birds, lions and dragons struggle and bite. At the wider end is an open-jawed beast with short mane and staring eyes. Two dragons protrude from its toothless mouth, their ribbed bodies twisted backwards so that their heads confront the monster's, while with a hind-leg they clasp their own necks. The narrow end has a finger-hold for sliding the lid, which consists of a semicircular moulding carved at a declining angle and separated from the main panel by a plain band. A short rectangular projection at this end presumably engaged with the lost metal fittings from the narrow end of the base.
- Production date
Width: 2.20 - 3 centimetres (lid)
Width: 3.15 - 3.70 centimetres (base)
Height: 3.30 centimetres (base; max.)
Height: 1.30 centimetres (lid; max.)
Length: 23.20 centimetres (base)
Length: 22.70 centimetres (lid)
- Curator's comments
Webster et al 1984
The box's slender and elongated proportions have led to its general identification as a case for quill-pens; the wooden lid of a similar object found in Lund, Sweden (Copenhagen, Aarhus and York 1981-2, ‘The Vikings in England and their Danish Homeland’, no. K20), has been associated with the activities of Christian missionaries in Scandinavia.
The elaborate and lively decoration shows mature command of a range of stylistic models. The ornament of the lid with its elegant inhabited tree is unequivocally Anglo-Saxon; the spindly, ribbed foliage and stem with elongated trefoil junctions are particularly close to foliage decoration in the 'Winchcombe' Psalter of c. 1130-50 (Cambridge, University Library, MS Ff.1.23 (cat. 64)), for instance f. 4V, while the transversely banded angular fronds appear in the later tenth-century Bosworth Psalter (British Library, Additional MS 37517 (cat. 36)), e.g. f. 74. The creatures within the foliage also have numerous parallels in manuscripts of the first half of the eleventh century, as does the lion mask at the end of the lid, which is fully within the Anglo-Saxon tradition. The delicately modelled scenes of archery and agriculture on the base have similar foliage to the lid and display a lively animation and interest in genre scenes reminiscent of the decorated Anglo-Saxon calendars, such as the early eleventh-century British Library MS Cotton Julius A.VI (cat. 60). The other side of the base, however, clearly has a different stylistic inspiration. Though evidently by the same hand, its very different sense of scale, its assertive assymetry, interest in unconventional postures and its bold and simplified modelling of the human figures contrast strongly with the other panels, giving it a thoroughly proto-Romanesque flavour. Similar stylistic tendencies occur in manuscripts such as Æilfric's Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B.IV (cat. 157)) and the Troper and 'Hereford' Gospels (British Library, Cotton MS Caligula A.XIV (cat. 71) and Cambridge, Pembroke College, MS 302 (cat. 70)); these, like the 'Winchcombe' Psalter, are dated to the second quarter of the eleventh century, supporting a probable dating for the pen case in the middle of the century.
Exhibitions: London, Victoria and Albert Museum 1974, ‘Ivory Carvings in Early Medieval England 700-1200’, no. 30; British Museum 1977, ‘Animals in Art’, London, no. 156; London, Hayward Gallery 1984, ‘English Romanesque Art 1066-1200’, Arts Council of Great Britain, no. 185.
Bibliography: Randall, R. 1962, An Eleventh Century Ivory Cross, ‘Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes’ 25, 169; Beckwith, J. 1972, ‘Ivory Carving in Early Medieval England’, London, no. 46 and refs, PLS 95-7; Gaborit-Chopin, D. 1978, ‘Ivoires du Moyen Age’, Fribourg, 107, 198, PL. 150; Bayle, M. 1982, La Sculpture a Lonlay l’Abbaye et dans ses prieués, ‘Bull. Arch du C.T.H.S.’ nouv. Ser. Fasc. 14A, 90-1, 94-5, fig. 18; Wilson, D.M. 1984, ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’, London, 160, 195-6, PL. 198.
Text taken from Zarnecki et al, 1984, cat. no. 185, see bibliography.
'The box has a sliding lid decreasing in size towards the end, a shape that reminds one of a pen-case although there is no evidence to support this. At the larger end it is undecorated but cuts show that a metal lock was fixed there. Under the lid three spring-like bronze fittings of the lock remains riveted to the ivory. Metal bands also covered the central join of the two pieces of ivory used to make the box.
The lid is decorated with a pair of beasts and birds placed symmetrically to each side of the central foliate stem, with a large mask at the end. The sides of the box are divided into three delicately-carved decorative panels in flat, plain frame, with the head of an open-mouthed monster with two small lions in his teeth at the smaller end. Three of these panels show hunting scenes, one with a mounted man with a lance attacking dragond, the second with a man mauled by two lions and the third with two archers aiming at birds in trees. The fourth panel shows two men digging to each side of a tree, with a large bird at the other end, the centre of this composition having been lost by damage.
Although there are strong reminiscences of Anglo-Saxon ornament - especially in the lid with its centrally-stemmed acanthus foliage and square-jawed birds and beasts - the much more solidly constructed figures, such as the man being attacked by lions, show really well-developed volumes foreshadowing the mature Romanesque style. A date towards the end of the 11th century may be the most acceptable.'
Beckwith, 1972, no. 46; Gaborit-Chopin, 1978, pp. 107, 198, no. 150
The case has been newly investigated by Renee Massarello, a postgraduate at the University of Toronto under Professor Jill Caskey. Massarello argues that the case's size, shape, and iconography suggest that it might be a case for a musical instrument, perhaps a bone whistle.
This research was presented in 2011 at the Kalamazoo 46th International Congress on Medieval Studies in the conference section Topics in Medieval Archaeology, under the title of "Hunting, Music, and the Contents of a Case". A copy of the paper was supplied by Renee Massarello and is filed in the object file.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
2018 - 2019 8 Jun - 20 Jan, Ottawa, Canadian Museum of History, Medieval Europe
2017 11 Jul – 22 Oct, Spain, CaixaForum Zaragoza, Medieval Europe.
2017 9 Mar – 18 Jun, Spain, CaixaForum Barcelona, Medieval Europe,
2016-2017 19 Oct – 5 Feb, Spain, CaixaForum Madrid, Medieval Europe,
2015-2016 11 Dec- 10 Apr, Australia, Brisbane, Queensland Museum, Medieval Europe, power and legacy.
1996 1 Jun-26 Aug, Newcastle upon Tyne, The Laing Art Gallery, 'Treasures from the Lost Kingdom of Northumbria'
1992 26 Dec-1993 14 Mar, Denmark, Copenhagen, Nationalmuseet, Vikings and Christians
1992 1 Sep-15 Nov, Germany, Berlin, Altes Museum, Wikinger, Waräger, Normannen. Die Skandinavier und Europa 800-1200
1992 1 Apr-20 Jul, France, Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Les Vikings... Les Scandinaves et l’Europe 800-1200
1984 5 Apr-8 Jul, London, Hayward Gallery, 'English Romanesque Art 1066-1200', cat. no. 185, p. 215, ill. p. 185
1977 London, BM, Animals in Art
1974 8 May-7 Jul, London, V&A, Ivory Carving in Early Modern England 700-1200, cat.30
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Found in the City of London, purchased from W. Darlow.
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number