Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Small Etruscan bronzes

 The Etruscans had a strong tradition of working in bronze from very early times, and their small bronzes were widely exported. Ancient sources reveal accounts of large numbers of statues sent to Rome after their conquest.  According to Pliny, the Romans looted 2,000 bronze statues from the city of Volsinii alone after capturing it.

The Etruscans excelled in portraying humans. In the 7th century BCE they started depicting human heads on canopic urns and when they started burying their dead in the late 6th century BCE they began portraying full figures on terracotta sarcophagi and funerary urns, often reclining as if at the funeral banquet.

Apart from cast bronze, the Etruscans were also skilled at the engraving of cast pieces with complex linear images, whose lines were filled with a white material to highlight them.  This technique was used primarily on mirrors and cistae. Sadly, few pieces survive with the defining filling still intact.

Image: Bronze statuette of a youth, late 5th century BCE, Etruscan, thought to be from Veii. This exquisite statue depicts a nude young man with hands raised in the ancient prayer gesture. The facial features, hair, and musculature are all precisely and accurately modeled. The stance and even the hairstyle with long wavy locks parted at the center owe much to Greek sculptures by Polykleitos, especially his Doryphoros and Diadoumenos. However, the slightly almond-shaped eyes reflect a hint of the Etruscan origin.  Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Alectryomancy and the sacred rooster

Since antiquity, the rooster has been, and still is, a sacred animal in some cultures and deeply embedded within various religious belief systems and religious worship. In ancient Babylon the rooster was considered the bird form of the True Shepherd of Anu and was considered the ordained herald of the gods. Nergal, a deity whose name meant "dunghill cock" or fighting cock, was worshipped by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, and Persians.  The term "Persian bird" was given to the cock by the Greeks after Persian contact "because of his great importance and his religious use among the Persians." This stems from the sacred nature of the cock, attested to in the texts of Zoroastrianism,  during the legendary Kayanian Period from about 2000 BCE to about 700 BCE. 

Perhaps because of their ancient association as a divine messenger, roosters played an important role in both Etruscan and Roman religion.  Observing a rooster's willingness to eat grain kernels as a means to divine the omens for battle, marriage, or some other important action, known as alectryomancy, was frequently practiced. The Etruscans, established an elaborate ritual of alectryomancy using a hen to find answers for life's most pressing problems. The process involved a circle, which was divided into twenty parts to represent the Etruscan alphabet and each sector was sprinkled with corn. The bird is placed at the middle and the sequence of its pecking was recorded.  Roman rituals, building upon the practices of the Etruscans, were conducted with such an extraordinary level of organization that they are considered unparalleled among ancient civilizations.  A rare form of alectryomancy practiced by the Romans included divination by a cock-stone, a crystal-colored stone found in a rooster's crop that was considered to have magical powers.

The cockerel was already of symbolic importance in Gaul at the time of the invasion of Julius Caesar and was associated with the god Lugus, a Celtic deity who the Romans believed to be equivalent to Mercury.  Of the six Celtic gods identified by Caesar as those worshipped in Gaul, Caesar thought Lugus was the most revered, describing him as patron of trade and commerce, protector of travelers, and the inventor of all the arts. Lugus' (Mercury's) importance is supported by the more than 400 inscriptions referencing him in Roman Gaul and Britain. However, Unlike the Roman Mercury, who is typically a youth, Gaulish Mercury is occasionally also represented as an old man.

Closeup of a Roman opus vermiculatum mosaic depicting two cocks who confront each other in combat before a table displaying the winner's prizes: the purse (a moneybag) flanked by a caduceus and a palm of victory at NAM Naples courtesy of Carole Raddato. 

.  A mosaic of a slave with two roosters from Pompeii 1st century BCE - 1st century CE at the NAM Naples courtesy of Wikimedia contributor Amphipolis.  

Mosaic of a cockfight from Pompeii (Casa del Labirinto, VI.11.10) in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko. 

Children Watching A Cockfight, Greek, Amisos, Asia Minor, 2nd century - 1st century BCE, Terracotta, that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
Terracotta statuette of a boy and a rooster, Greek, Asia Minor, Pontus 2nd century BCE that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Roman mosaic of a colorful cockerl that I photographed at the Terme di Diocleziano venue of the National Musem of Rome

Etruscan askos in the form of a rooster, 4th century BCE, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York courtesy of the museum.

Terracotta skos (flask with a spout) in the form of a cock, Italic 2nd half of the 3rd century BCE at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Askoi shaped like animals were commonly used as lamp fillers; the oil was introduced into the askos via the small inlet off to the side, and was then poured out through a tiny hole under the beak into the lamp in a smooth and controlled stream. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Animal mummies of the Ptolemaic and Roman Period

The earliest signs of non-human animal mummies are dated to the Badarian Predynastic Period (5500–4000 BCE), before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt. It is likely that animal mummies did not exist earlier because of the cost of mummification.  Although some animal mummies indicate only minimal treatment,  recent radiological studies by archaeologists indicate that animal mummification may have more closely followed human mummification than was originally thought. The presence of fats, oils, beeswax, sugar gum, petroleum bitumen, and coniferous cedar resins in animal mummies shows that the chemicals used to embalm animals were similar to those used on humans.

Instead of worshipping every animal of a particular species, a few animal cults would select one specific animal, chosen because of its special markings, to be the totem of the particular god. Each sacred animal was pampered and cared for until its death, when elaborate burial proceedings took place. The animal was then mummified as a sign of respect to the god. Then a new symbolic animal was chosen. These animal cults reached the pinnacle of popularity during the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods.

Image: Rhinoceros beetle sarcophagus, 664–30 BCE, Ptolemaic Period, Egypt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This rather sinister horned creature seems to represent the rhinoceros beetle, Oryctes nascicarnis, which is native to the Mediterranean region. The small bronze sarcophagus that it guards once held a beetle mummy, though not necessarily of the same species. In embalming beetles, as in all animal mummification, the Egyptians of the Late Period and Ptolemaic and Roman times gave tangible form to their belief that all animals, large and small were incarnations of the divine. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

To me the timing seems a little ironic since so many animals from Africa were hunted, some species to extinction, to provide fodder for Roman games. That hardly seems like treating animals as manifestations of the divine.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Byzantine Temple Pendants

 Temple pendants are thought to have hung near the temple or cheek, suspended from the wearer’s hair or headdress. The pendant’s hollow interior probably held a piece of perfumed cloth. A small stick would have been used to guide the cloth in and out of the pendant.

When Kievan Rus, a powerful new state to the north of the Byzantine Empire, accepted Christianity as its official religion in 988, the aristocracy also adopted the manners and dress of the Byzantine court. Local artists soon produced their own versions of Constatinopolitan fashions. Temple pendants of precious metals worked in cloisonné enamel or niello are local variants of the more intricately detailed works made for the Byzantine court. As in Byzantium, temple pendants may have been worn next to the face by both the men and the women of Rus. The works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art were perhaps buried by their owners when the Mongol armies under Batu Khan sacked Kiev in 1240.

In her paper "Temple Pendants' in Medieval Rus': How Were They Worn?", Ntalija Ristovska points out that  excavated burials with the precise location of ornaments on the body revealed by oxide staining on the skeleton, have shown that up to 12 rings were worn entangled in the hair at each side of the head, either in a cluster at the level of the temples or ears or arranged in a single row in the area between the forehead and the shoulders.  In some cases ornaments were secured by plaits or twisted sections of hair which ran from the temples to the back of the head.  Other examples revealed that one of more rings were threaded through leather and textile straps hanging from a headband or hat.  She also observes that combinations of different ornament types on each side of the head was common.

To read more about these ornaments and see drawings of excavated examples being worn check out her paper:

Temple Pendant and Stick ca. 1080–1150 CE Byzantine courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Temple Pendant and Stick ca. 1080–1150 CE Byzantine courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 Temple Pendant with Two Birds Flanking a Tree of Life courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

An historical reenactor wearing temple pendants courtesy of Pinterest.

Two Sirens flanking a Tree of Life ca. 1000–1200 CE from Kievan Rus courtesy of the 
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Roman cavalry masks

 According to Arrian of Nicomedia, a Roman provincial governor and a close friend of Hadrian, face mask helmets were used in cavalry parades and sporting mock battles called “hippika gymnasia“.  Both men and horses wore elaborate suites of equipment on these occasions, often in the guise of Greeks and Amazons. Parades or tournaments played an important part in maintaining unit morale and fighting effectiveness. They took place on a parade ground situated outside a fort and involved the cavalry practising manoeuvring and the handling of weapons such as javelins and spears (Fields, Nic; Hook, Adam. Roman auxiliary cavalryman: AD 14-193).

Calvary helmets were made from a variety of metals and alloys, often from gold-coloured alloys or iron covered with tin. They were decorated with embossed reliefs and engravings depicting the war god Mars and other divine and semi-divine figures associated with the military.

To see a fascinating selection of these masks and read more about them check out:

Image: Face mask of a cavalry helmet, second century, from Durnomagus (Dormagen), Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn (Germany) courtesy of Carole Raddato.