Ming Dynasty Carving: Mammoth Tusk

By Michelle Railey


Do you know what irritates me? When a beautiful piece of artwork is displayed without any acknowledgement for the culture or time which created it.

Such is the case with this carved mammoth tusk at Treasure Island, Las Vegas.

As it turns out, this is a piece dating to the Ming Dynasty Chinese culture (14th – 17th centuries). The sign on display with this astounding treasure is more concerned with the wooly mammoth, which is totally great, of course, but humans carved a million tiny ivory humans onto this tusk. They carved elephants and fish and pagodas, lilies, umbrellas, and then a million more little warriors.

Sure, the 30,000 year-old Wooly Mammoth contributed a tusk and it is lustrous and large and amazing. But real human hands over roughly a hundred years carved all the tiny figures on this tusk (without messing up, mind you, can you imagine the stress?). Real human hands. They were Chinese. And this piece is amazing. So why, dear Treasure Island in Las Vegas where this is exhibited, did I have to scour the Internet to find out who made this?

Treasure Island is owned by investor and mogul Phil Ruffin and has been since 2009. The tusk is his, and presumably, so was the choice to label it with the what and not the who.

Treasure Island (TI, as they call themselves) is a mixed bag: the remnants of Buccaneer Bay and pirate ships, a Neptune sculpture that is beyond, and this extraordinary mammoth tusk carving on display (weirdly, being ignored by people hitting neon buttons on machines which took much less time to program than this tusk required to be carved). Treasure Island: three steps forward, two steps back. The TI theme (non-theme) is uninteresting and generic; the remnants of an exciting fake-Caribbean theme tease the visitor: this might have been cool; it’s almost cool.

But inside, if there is not much to consider, there is this magnificent tusk, carved with hundreds of bare-chested, miniscule warriors. It’s incredible. The mammoth tusk, uncarved, would be worth looking at, but these carvings? Can you imagine the dexterity, the patience, the skill which went into this?

It makes me sad that the slot machines had more people hovering, but I’m very grateful that this tusk is still on display for free in a public space. Go and look at it. It’s at Treasure Island, Las Vegas. And while the sign does not tell you so, the carving is Chinese and dates to the Ming Dynasty.

Maybe someday they’ll get another sign. That would be good. (Dear Mr. Ruffin…).


One thought on “Ming Dynasty Carving: Mammoth Tusk

  1. I asked the cashier what the value of the carved tusk was, She advised it’s in the 7 figures…(10 mil+)
    It’s one of my favorite pieces to look at in Vegas and I’m happy it’s available to enjoy free of charge, protected only by a thin glass…

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