While artifacts made of ivory fill the shelves and storage rooms of museum collections across the world, ever more stringent legal measures restricting or banning the ivory trade have turned these objects into troublesome treasures. Ivory is a biological material derived from the tusks and teeth of several extant and extinct animals. The physical and aesthetic properties of elephantine ivory in relation to its use and symbolic significance shaped the material cultures of classed whiteness at the turn of the twentieth century. Ivory from elephant tusks displays a characteristic macroscopic motif known as the Schreger pattern, which is often used by conservators and forensic researchers as an identifying characteristic. First described by German odontologist Bernhard Schreger in 1800, this pattern of crossing dark and bright lines is attributed to an optical phenomenon of light refraction. By proposing a refractive reading of ivory, this article explores the role of animal-derived materials in the construction of human identities. This method of analysis allows the properties of ivory—luster, brilliance, whiteness, and toughness—to be seen as agentive material properties that historically co-produced human racial and classed ideals. Analyzing nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sources in dental anatomy, ivory commerce, and technical microscopy permits an unraveling of this animal material’s ties to specific colonial regimes of trade and resource extraction, and its technical role in precursors to materials science. This paper is part of a special issue entitled “Making Animal Materials in Time,” edited by Laurence Douny and Lisa Onaga.

You do not currently have access to this content.