Ivory Salt Cellar, What Can You Tell Us About The Past?

My love for cooking has always been in the outcome of the food, the way it tastes and its presentation. Rarely though, do I find myself actually observing the various utensils that I use. Spending all this time at home, I have discovered a new interest in these items I find around my kitchen. My mother has a stone mortar and pestle that I have always been fascinated by. The oblong shape of the pestle and the weight of the deep bowl are such distinct features that separate them from our everyday sights. The texture, at first glance, appears to be Asian but upon further research, this tool for grinding herbs and spices has been used by the Aztecs, the Egyptians, the ancient Greeks as well as the Indians, just to name a few. 


Pots and pans, another basic tool for cooking, where do they come from? Forks and spoons, have we always used them? My curiosity in looking at our everyday lives through an anthropological lens, led me to going on a virtual tour of the British Museum where, trust my luck, I came across an ivory salt cellar from 1520. 


Artefacts as simple as a salt cellar have nuanced and complex stories. According to the British Museum, carved ivory salt cellars, are among the first recorded artefacts traded from the west coast of Africa to Europe in the fifteenth century. The nature of this trade comes from the Portuguese who found great talent in the craftsmanship

Image Courtesy of the British Museum

of the Sapi people from Sierra Leone. The salt cellars are known to be rich in figurative imagery. They are full of Biblical references and religious scenes which one can infer came from European prints or drawings circulating  around

 the West African region during the time. These salt cellars are so unique because they are entwined with African themes while at the same time highlighting the indirect influences of the western world. Contemporary sources tell us that these ivory carvings and salt cellars had such an impression that they travelled to Italy where Duke Cosimo I de Medici of Florence owned a collection as did the grand dukes of Saxony and the Tyrol. During the 15th century, salt was a rare commodity and therefore frightfully expensive in Europe. The mere act of being able to display your salt in such a spectacular piece of tableware was a symbol of wealth and prestige amongst Portuguese aristocracy and later, the rest of Europe.

From mortar and pestle to salt cellar, these are all items all of us own. We visit these museums to compare the culture and the way of life back then to the world we live in today. While the salt cellars, or salt shakers, as we call them today, are still household items we use, they are commercially produced because of the rapid availability of salt in our everyday lives. It is an item we use but the value of it, for many of us, is not the same as the eminence it held back then. It is so important to study items like these because in some way, it satisfies our need to know, to understand and to reflect on where we have come from and possibly our own human nature. 


Something as simple as a piece of tableware can shape our understanding of trade and religion in the world before our time. What do the items in our very own household depict of our lives? 


As an enthusiast in all things archaeology and anthropology, I urge you all to have a look at the virtual museum tours available here: 12 Museums From Around the World That You Can Visit Virtually | Travel + Leisure and maybe you too will discover something new about the items in your kitchen! 

Written By:

Mariam Eapen


To view the salt cellar mentioned in this article, go to: https://britishmuseum.withgoogle.com/object/ivory-salt-cellar