Ivory found in Kyiv in 12th century originated from Greenland - study

Fragments of walrus tusks unearthed in 2007 were traced back to Greenland, indicating that trading routes in the Middle Ages were more advanced than previously thought.

 Walrus (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Walrus
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Nine fragments of walrus ivory from as early as the 12th century that were found in a 2007 archaeological dig in Kyiv were found to have originated in Greenland, indicating that pan-European trading routes in the middle ages were more developed than previously thought, a new study found.

The study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal "Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences" on April 6, used a number of advanced scientific methods in order to verify that the ivory fragments were indeed from Greenland, which at the time was the main source of walrus ivory.

The fragments were found in a routine pre-construction dig in Kyiv in 2007, along with a large number of other Nordic objects dating from between the 10th and 13th centuries.

“Walrus ivory was a very popular raw material in Europe in the Middle Ages. It was used to create the most exquisite objects in church art, but gradually also finer versions of everyday objects like game pieces and knife handles,” James Barrett, an archaeologist and professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) University Museum, said to the Norwegian SciTech news outlet.

“Walrus ivory was a very popular raw material in Europe in the Middle Ages. It was used to create the most exquisite objects in church art, but gradually also finer versions of everyday objects like game pieces and knife handles.”

James Barrett, archaeologist and professor at NTNU University Museum

But the researchers did not know that tusks could have come from as far as Greenland to Kyiv and further, and previously believed that eastern-European walrus ivory came from the Barents Sea, north of Norway.

An ivory statue in the image of a woman (credit: CLARA AMIT, COURTESY OF THE ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)An ivory statue in the image of a woman (credit: CLARA AMIT, COURTESY OF THE ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)

They used three different methods in order to ascertain the fragments' source. 

The first was the examination of archaeological DNA from the bones, which showed that five of the nine fragments had genetic signatures that indicated with near certainty that they were from the Greenland area.

Next, the researchers performed an analysis of the bones' isotopes, which can indicate geographical origins based on differing variations. The analysis was inconclusive in that it pointed toward both Greenland and Iceland as the bones' source, but helped the researchers rule out the Barents Sea for seven out of the nine fragments.  

Finally, the researchers analyzed how the tusks were processed, and found that they initially were sold while still attached to the walrus' muzzle. The muzzles were extremely heavy and therefore at least six were "thinned" by locals before being exported - in a fashion that was known to have been done particularly in Greenland.

Put together, the researchers ascertained with near certainty that the ivory had originated in Greenland and had traversed as far as Kyiv, which at the time was an important trading hub, and perhaps even further into what today are the Middle East and Asia.

This showed that global trading networks had a much longer history than what people imagined, the researchers concluded.