A Dialogue In Ivory:
Thoughts on sixteenth century Afro-Portuguese salt cellars in the British Museum

Hannah Lee


Standing side by side in a case at the British Museum in London are four extraordinary pieces of ivory: two salt cellars, a piece believed to be the middle section of another, and a hunting horn. Although somewhat dwarfed by the walls of glass which surround them, their visual impact is undiminished. Their power to impress the viewer lies not in their stature, but in the complex and intricate manner in which they have been carved. Figures, animals and objects, whilst depicted with bold clear lines and strong shapes, are detailed with a delicacy that surely has provoked wonder in generations of museum visitors since the pieces entered the collection in the second half of the nineteenth century. Their home within the museum is the Sainsbury African galleries, three rooms that attempt with limited space to document the culture and history of several thousand years of a vast and diverse continent.



Carved ivory salt-cellar, in three parts, Elephant Ivory, Sixteenth Century, Benin, British Museum, London, Museum no. Af1878,1101.48.a-c, Image © British Museum


However these particular pieces of ivory complicate categorization still further, for they document not only the history of one culture but of two – and the interaction between them. It is for this reason that I believe they make a fitting case study for the re-opening of the column Objects in Translation.

All four pieces were made during the sixteenth century in the Kingdom of Benin in West Africa, and along with numerous pieces like them, they represent some of the earliest objects to be brought back to European shores by the globetrotting Portuguese. Susan Vogel cites the records of import duties paid at Lisbon for the year 1504-05 which demonstrate that on eighteen occasions during this year alone, sailors and merchants paid taxes on ivory spoons and saleiros (salt cellars) on their return from voyages along the West African Coast.[1]

That these pieces were made with a Portuguese market in mind is evident partly from the attire of the human figures that form the main body of both the salt cellars. In addition to their long beards, the Christian crosses around their necks and the long swords they wear by their sides mark them as undoubtedly European. The raised detailing on the clothing would suggest elaborate and expensive fabrics to a European audience. Scholars Ezio Bassani and William Fagg, whose work remains the chief authority on these ivories, have concluded that in many instances African craftsmen must have been working from drawings or prints provided specifically by European clients.[2] Despite this evidence of specific communications detailing design requirements however, Rita Costa Gomes argues that the ivory carvers would sometimes leave their own subtle marks within the iconography, which can be interpreted as tongue-in-cheek hints at their real opinion of their Portuguese customers. Juxtaposing the carved European figures next to animals such as serpents, dogs and crocodiles can all be read as symbolic jokes at the European’s expense.[3]  The designs reveal that both customer and craftsmen appear to have a voice.

However, whilst a dialogue concerning specific designs that stretched over thousands of miles makes for a fascinating study of the early communications between these cultures, it does not appear to be the case for two of the salt cellars in the British Museum collection. Both the complete salt cellar and the middle section appear to have been carved to almost exactly the same design, suggesting the production of multiples. It is this repetition in design and suggestion of mass production which is perhaps more revealing about the reality of the relationship between the Kingdom of Benin and the Portuguese than the objects which demonstrate unique commissions. Not only does it highlight the demand for such pieces in Europe, but it could also be argued that it suggests recognition by the Court of Benin of the most efficient manner in which they could ensure that their dealings with the Portuguese remained a profitable relationship.  Indeed the material that these objects are made from reveals that it must have been a significant decision for the Oba (or king) of Benin to enter into this trade relationship. Ivory was held to great value in Benin and was usually reserved only for the creation of objects of high significance such as carved altar tusks, which were commissioned by each new Oba to honour the memories of his ancestors who ruled before him. Allowing this medium to be used to create objects for the Portuguese therefore was no small matter.

Carved middle section of ivory saltcellar, Elephant Ivory, Sixteenth Century, Benin, British Museum, London, Af1879,0701.1, Image © British Museum

Carved middle section of ivory saltcellar, Elephant Ivory, Sixteenth Century, Benin, British Museum, London, Museum no. Af1879,0701.1, Image © British Museum


Collectively this group of ivories is described by the British Museum online database as some of the first examples of ‘tourist art’. However whilst there can be no doubt that such items seem likely to have embodied to their expectant Portuguese commissioners the qualities of a souvenir, the term ‘tourist’ seems somewhat misplaced when describing the early navigators and their presence on, and intentions for the West African Coast during this period. To the rich Portuguese who would have acquired them, objects such as these salt cellars would have held a multiplicity of values. It somewhat belittles a group of objects which held potent significances on both sides, and trivializes this complex early dialogue.

Many historians highlight the value ivories would have held as exotic luxuries, displayed in prominent positions on a table to impress dinner guests with their hosts dealings in the navigations which were building Portugal’s European power and prestige. Yet they surely would also have been valued by their owners for the manner in which they demonstrated their patronage and appreciation of great skill – with exotic African heritage as an added bonus.

The salt cellar as an object was during this period often heralded by European craftsmen, such as the sculptor and goldsmith Benevuto Cellini, as the perfect medium for a masterpiece- through which a craftsman might demonstrate his superior skills. Used at a meal, the incredible detail of these ivory salt cellars could be appreciated with the hands as well as the eyes as guests lifted off the lid, although one can imagine the candlelight would have added to the visual effect bringing the already characterful faces of the figures to life.

So much more can be said about these ivories, and indeed so much more has been said by numerous historians. Whilst some have analysed their aesthetics, attempting to place them within a canon of either African or European art, others have highlighted one of the darker sides of their history and their arrival in European collections alongside hundreds of other artifacts, after the looting of Benin City by a British punitive expedition led by Sir Harry Rawson in 1897. By taking them back to the historical moment of their creation however, these salt cellars reveal much about the early interactions between two groups and the dialogues which occurred between them, whilst demonstrating how a singular object can be seen to transform when one considers the variety of values invested within it by different groups and individuals.


[1] Susan Vogel, ‘Introduction: Africa and the Renaissance’, in Ezio Bassani and William Fagg, Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory, The Centre for African Art and Prestel-Verlag, (New York, 1988), p.13

[2] Ezio Bassani and William Fagg, Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory, The Centre for African Art and Prestel-Verlag, (New York, 1988), p.103

[3] Rita Costa-Gomes, ‘In and Out of Africa: Iberian Courts and the Afro-Portuguese Olifant of the late 1400s’, in Contact and Exchange in later Medieval Europe: Essays in Honour of Malcolm Vale, Eds. Hannah Skoda, Patrick Lantschner and R.L.J Shaw, The Boydell Press (Woodbridge,2012) p.168


Hannah Lee –

Hannah did her BA in History at Oxford University where she specialized in cultural history of the Renaissance. Her research interests include the material histories of trade and currency and gender. She is currently working on a dissertation which focuses on the material portrayal of Africans by Europeans in sculpture and jewellery.


© Hannah Lee, 2013. All Rights Reserved.



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