Most ivory and bone containers are really wooden, covered with veneers of ivory. This craftsman chose the more extravagant option of carving the box with its six compartments out of a solid block of ivory, the rounded back following the contour of the outside of the tusk. The sliding lid with its figural relief is a separate piece. There are boxes of the same design and imagery in Switzerland (in the Cathedral Treasury at Chur and in the Church at Valeria) and a third on a larger scale with different imagery here at Dumbarton Oaks (accession no. BZ.1947.8). All of these have in common the distinctive scrolls at the top of the lid. They are all designed to accommodate locks (now missing), and most, like this one, have holes drilled into the top which may have been used to attach straps for carrying. The user apparently needed to ensure that the substances stored in the tiny compartments remained unmixed and safe.
The imagery on the lid, as on the lids on the examples in Switzerland, indicates what these substances may have been. The seated woman feeding a large snake out of a bowl in her left hand is Hygieia “Health”. She was one of the daughters, according to ancient Greek tradition, of Asklepios, the god of healing. The boxes, therefore, probably housed pharmaceuticals. Early Byzantine pharmacology relied on an elaborate classification of natural substances as warmer, cooler, dryer, or moister that had been codified by Galen in the 2nd century. Aetius of Amida, a sixth-century medical writer, catalogued 613 substances, mostly vegetable, but also animal and mineral; and described how their judicious combination would bring about cures. The use of Hygieia as the symbol of health is a long-lived vestige of an undying ancient mythology.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 104, no. 226.
J. Beckwith, Coptic Sculpture, 300-1300, Chapters in Art 37 (London, 1963), 12, fig. 24.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 78, no. 276.
K. Weitzmann, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, vol. 3, Ivories and Steatites (Washington, D.C., 1972), 22, no. 10, pl. X.
A. Cutler, The Craft of Ivory: Sources, Techniques, and Uses in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 200-1400, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 8 (Washington, D.C., 1985), 26, 52, 53, fig. 26.
C. Haas, Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict, Ancient Society and History (Baltimore, 1997), 114-115.
C. L. Connor, The Color of Ivory: Polychromy on Byzantine Ivories (Princeton, 1998), 86, no. 56.
I. Kalavrezou and A. E. Laiou, Byzantine Women and their World, exhibition catalogue, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University, October 25, 2002-April 28, 2003, (Cambridge and New Haven, 2003), 282, no. 164.
C. J. Hahn, "Metaphor and Meaning in Early Medieval Reliquaries," in Seeing the Invisible in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Papers from "Verbal and Pictorial Imaging: Representing and Accessing Experience of the Invisible, 400-1000": (Utrecht, 11-13 December 2003), Utrecht Studies in Medieval Literacy 14, ed. G. de Nie, K.F. Morrison and M. Mostert (Turnhout, Belgium, 2005), 239-63., esp. 241,242, fig. 1,2.
C. J. Hahn, Strange Beauty: Issues in the Making and Meaning of Reliquaries, 400-circa 1204 (University Park, Pa., 2012), 71.
Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, "The Craft of Ivory," Oct. 24, 1985 - Jan. 26, 1986.
Cambridge, Mass., Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University Art Museums, "Byzantine Women and Their World," Oct. 26, 2002 - Apr. 28, 2003.