Wooly Mammoth Ivory

Wooly mammoth tusk ivory is one of the ‘fossilized’ or ‘mineralized’ ivories that have been the foundation of my artwork for over 30 years. This ancient ivory has been buried in permafrost (permanently frozen ground) and preserved since the end of the last ice age when the mammoths went extinct. The term ‘fossilized’ is confusing for some because it is confused with petrified, where the organic material is completely replaced by minerals. Though ancient, wooly mammoth ivory is not petrified. Because the tusks were buried in frozen ground they are preserved so that even though they are approximately 10,000 to 120,000 years old they are still the original organic material. The ivory can take on coloration from minerals that leech into the tusks while buried.

Wooly mammoth ivory is a vertebrate fossil and cannot legally be collected from public lands. The mammoth ivory that I use is a by-product of placer gold mining in Alaska and the Yukon. Mining companies move many tons of permafrost earth every year to reach the layer of gravel where gold is found, and uncover mammoth tusks and many broken pieces of tusks every year. Because the miners own the mineral rights to their claims they are allowed to sell the ivory legally. The tusks that the miners find are not significant to paleontologists because they are not located with the rest of the skeleton, having been moved away from their original burial site by floods and erosion.

I love wooly mammoth ivory as a medium for carving, turned vessels, and jewelry because of its consistency and beauty. Fossil ivory is the perfect hardness for sculpting because while it is soft enough to carve with hand tools and shape with files it is also hard enough to take a polish like a stone without any kind of lacquer finish. Wooly mammoth ivory is also the only ivory that is world-wide legal: it requires no paperwork or permitting to import or export to any country in the world because it is from a long-extinct animal. The wonderful variety of colors available in the mammoth ivory, and the fact that you cannot tell until you begin to work a piece what colors are present, make each ivory sculpture a surprise and delight for me and I hope for others.