Although in the 14th century, ivory and bone was frequently used as inlaid decoration for complicated compositions on woodwork, whole objects made entirely of the materials are very rare. This box fits neatly into a group of ivory containers, mostly pyxes decorated in openwork. Most of those known are of cylindrical form with flat-lids and the majority are decorated with an analogous repetitive pattern very similar to that on our casket. All but one of the pyxes have a central band with a dense openwork geometrical lattice of four-petalled rosettes separated by small stepped crosses. The pyxes generally also have bands of thuluth above and below on ring punched ground with remains of black inlay.
Objects formed of this technique are commonly attributed to either 14th century Nasrid Spain or Mamluk Egypt, with some debate as to which centre is more likely. This has been fully discussed in an paper by Stefano Carboni ('Cylindrical Ivory Boxes with Openwork Decoration: Mamluk, Nasrid or Something Else?', Journal of the David Collection, Copenhagen, 2005, Vol. 2.2, p. 215-25) and in a publication by Angel Galan y Galindo (Marfiles medievales des Islam, Cordoba, 2005, p. 154-72). Whether they be Nasrid or Mamluk, these ivory objects represent an isolated artistic achievement. As Nasrid, there is no established chronological development in sculpted ivory between the Caliphal and Nasrid periods that would anticipate their manufacture. As Mamluk they would represent the only group of three dimensional carved ivory objects made in Egypt in the post-Fatimid period (Carboni, op.cit., p.215).
There are plausible arguments for both attributions. One of the boxes, whose only known owner was Baron Edmund de Rothschild, was illustrated by Gaston Migeon in 1903. The inscribed band around its lid clearly bears the name 'Al-Malik al-Salih', identified by Migeon as al-Malik al-Salih Salah al-Din Salih, the young Mamluk who reigned between 1351 and 54 AD. There is no reason to doubt the Mamluk origin of that box (Stefano Carboni, op. cit., p. 216). Eugène Chartraire remarked that the openwork was suggestive of the effect of Egyptian mashrabiyyas (Eugène Chartraire, le Trésor de la Cathédrale de Sens, Paris, 1931, quoted in Carboni, op.cit., p.222). Although little 14th century Mamluk mashrabiyya survives, that which does shares a similar aesthetic (Esin Atil, Renaissance of Islam, Art of the Mamluks, exhibition catalogue, Washington D.C., 1921, no.100, pp.202-03).
A Nasrid attribution has been proposed for other boxes, mostly on the basis of the presence of the Nasrid motto - la ghalib illa allah 'there is no Victor but God' - in the inscriptions around the body. See for instance a pyx in the Al-Sabah Collection (Giovanni Curatola, Art from the Islamic Civilization from the Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, exhibition catalogue, Milan, 2010, no.93, p.117). That two of the pyxides were at one point in Spanish church treasuries further supports this theory (one apparently disappeared from the Treasury of the early 13th century Cathedral of Toledo after 1936, the other belongs to the Cabildo Metropolitano, Zaragoza and is deposited in the Treasury of the 12th century Cathedral of La Seo).
At the end of his paper, Carboni concludes that there is a group that must be attributed to Egypt on the basis of their similarity to the piece made of al-Malik al-Salih. He identifies within the corpus a derivative sub-group of three objects possibly made in Spain following their appreciation of the costly and rare Egyptian boxes that are likely to have travelled west at a time when the Nasrids were looking to the Mamluks as potential saviors and often sought their assistance through diplomatic missions and exchanges of letters (Carboni, op.cit., p.223). It seems most likely that our box relates to the group that Carboni attributes to Egypt - which he suggests were all made in the same workshop. The openwork relates most closely to those of that group, which is generally more regular than that on the Spanish examples.
Only two other boxes of the same form worked in this technique are known. One is in the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art in Athens, attributed to Egypt (Ibn Khaldun, The Mediterranean in the 14th century, Rise and Fall of Empires, exhibition catalogue, Seville, 2006, p.169). The other is in the Louvre, donated by Mme. Nicholas Landau, in 1982, and attributed to Egypt or Spain (inv.no. MAO684; published Galindo, op.cit., no.08011, p.166). In her description of the Benaki casket, Mina Moraitou suggests that a casket of this form was probably intended to hold precious items such as jewellery or aromatic substances, fashionable at court. This seems like a plausible function for an object whose rarity suggests that it was conceived as a luxury work of art.
This box has been examined by specialists at the Natural History Museum, who confirm that the material is bone rather than ivory.