Hannah Gwyther

From sea to sea. Working techniques and trade in organic luxuries from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean (1500-500 BCE)

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Using objects made from ivory and Tridacna shell this research explores the creation and trade of luxuries in the ancient eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

Start Date: October 2017
End Date: October 2021
Themes: The 'lives' of objects from their making, use, reception, loss, collection and later use and understanding. What objects can reveal about the social, cultural, religious, creative and political history of their makers, users, owners, depositors and collectors.
Research discipline: Archaeology, Scientific research
Location: Europe, Middle East
Staff member: Dr Alexandra Fletcher, Dr Caroline Cartwright
Departments: Middle East, Scientific Research
University and department: The University of Bristol, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology
University supervisor: Dr Tamar Hodos, Dr Joanna Bruck

What can scientific analyses of working techniques tell us about the trade in organic luxuries?

Can techniques of manufacture be related to place or patterns of trade?

Do organic luxury items just reflect socio-cultural identities from 1500-500 BCE, or do they play an active role in their creation?

About my research

Luxury objects made from organic materials were sourced and traded across the eastern Mediterranean littoral and Middle East in the Bronze and Iron Ages. This project will examine this trade’s apogee (1500-1100 BCE), collapse (1100-900 BCE) and revival (900-500 BCE).

The British Museum houses significant collections of organic luxuries, including over 3000 ivory artefacts from Nimrud (Iraq). Using the Museum’s collection the project will consider the methods of working ivory and shell, and the manipulation and exploitation of the raw materials. I will use techniques such as digital microscopy and scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to enhance understanding of the creation, circulation and use of such luxuries.


Cosmetic container made from a carved fluted clam shell From Sippar 700-600 BCE


Ivory furniture inlay from Nimrud 900-700 BCE


Ivory lion’s head from Sippar part of a dagger handle 750-550 BCE


Woman wearing a garland of flowers carved from ivory from Nimrud 900-700 BCE

Aims of my research

Luxury objects made from organic materials are often fragmented, degraded and lacking their original context of use. They therefore present a series of challenges in reconstructing mechanisms of ancient trade.

Using non-destructive analyses, this research aims to improve our understanding of the manufacturing techniques used on organic objects from the Mediterranean and Middle East. Through a consideration of the technical aspects and choices, the project will reconstruct the operational sequence or chaîne opératoire of the artefacts.

These results will be compared across the region, within a period of societal growth, collapse and re-growth (1500-500 BCE). It will inform on the debate about the role of luxury goods in competing cultures, and examine the significance of cross-cultural interactions in shaping past societies.