1,500-year-old ivory pyx found in Austria

An excavation of a settlement from Late Antiquity in Irschen, southern Austria, has uncovered a rare carved ivory pyx (a small round container used to carry Communion wafers or holy relics) from the 6th century. There are only 40 examples of this type of pyx known to survive in the world, and this the first found in its original archaeological context in Austria.

In the Roman Empire, this area was part of the province of Noricum, but with the decline of the Western Empire, constant raids from barbarian tribes drove people out of the urbanized centers to seek safety in more remote, defensible positions. What is now Irschen was founded as a small settlement on the top of the Burgbichl hill in the 5th century. The summit can only be accessed from the north side as all the other sides are too steep to climb, which provided a natural defense against raids. The accessible north side was protected by a massive wall 4.6 feet wide. The settlement was abandoned around 610 A.D. after the nearby Battle of Aguntum in which Slavic forces clash against the local Germain Baiuvarii peoples. The Slavs won and the region was closed off from its Roman-era contact with the Mediterranean and Christianity as the new settlers had their own gods and would not be converted for centuries.

The memory of the settlement was lost, but there were topographical features that suggested the presence of a settlement on the summit. Archaeologists from the University of Innsbruck began excavating the hilltop in 2016 and soon found confirmation that it was indeed the site of a settlement from Late Antiquity. In the 2022 dig season, the team discovered a marble box measuring about 8 by 12 inches with a lid covering the top opening. It was unearthed under the altar in the side chapel of one of the two early Christian churches discovered on the hilltop. Inside the box were the fragmented remains of an ivory pyx intricately carved with Biblical figures.

The scenes include the hand of god delivering the laws to Moses on Mount Sinai and a man on a biga (a two-horsed chariot) being pulled up to heaven by a hand that emerges from the clouds. Archaeologists believe this is a depiction of the ascension of Christ. If so, this is the first known depiction of Christ ascending on a biga.

Since its discovery, the 1,500-year-old, very fragile ivory reliquary has been conserved at the University of Innsbruck. “Ivory, especially ivory stored on the ground like in the marble shrine, absorbs moisture from its surroundings and is very soft and easily damaged in this state. In addition, uncontrolled drying out can lead to shrinkage and cracks and thus to damage that can no longer be repaired,” says Ulrike Töchterle, head of the restoration workshop in Innsbruck. Over the past two years, she has now conserved the individual pieces of the ivory pyx to such an extent that they can be scientifically analysed. “Due to the very high humidity of 90 per cent in the marble shrine immediately after salvage, the risk of condensation and mould formation was very high, and the contents could not be allowed to dry out too quickly. This meant we had to ensure a very careful and prolonged drying process.” The larger parts are deformed, which is why the pyx can no longer be restored to its original state – however, the researchers are working on a 3D reconstruction.

While the archaeologists initially assumed that the remains of a saint – i.e. a relic in the classic sense of the word – were also found in the marble box, the layering of the fragments found in the shrine indicates that the ivory pyx was already broken in late antiquity and was buried in the altar. “The pyx was presumably also seen as sacred and was treated as such because it was in contact with a relic. The archaeological and art-historical significance of the pyx cannot be denied,” emphasises Gerald Grabherr.

Researchers are investigating the origin of the marble and of the ivory. Using stable isotope analysis, they should be able to discover where the elephant whose tusks were used came from. The metal hinges of the pyx and the adhesives used are also undergoing compositional analysis. Small fragments of wood inside the box are being examined to determine whether it was part of the pyx — a clasp, for example — of perhaps the holy relic it contained. 

This documentary video (in German with English captions) is a detailed overview of the historical context of the settlement and its excavation, including the discovery of conservation of the pyx.