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The Seuso Roman silver: on display at last

This summer’s exciting news is that the magnificent Seuso Treasure has finally gone on public display, at the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. We have waited a long time for this. The Treasure (14 stunning pieces of late imperial Roman silver) has had an unsteady and sordid career, passed from hand to hand like an expensive courtesan whose origins are obscure and best not investigated too closely. After many decades, Hungary--who always stoutly maintained her claim to the trove--has redeemed it from its demi-monde existence and placed it on show as a magnificent piece of Pannonian patrimony.

 

The 14 pieces are as follows: four huge platters, variously decorated; a washbasin; five large ewers; two elaborate situlae (water buckets); an embossed amphora and a conical-lidded casket for perfumed unguents. They were almost certainly not made as a single set (dating from the 4th–5th centuries, there is a range of about five decades between the oldest and the youngest pieces) and they include items worked in vastly different styles. The elegant, strigilated washbasin and two ewers with incised geometric designs, for example, which are assigned by some scholars to a “Western” workshop, are stylistically worlds away from the jug and amphora with Dionysiac scenes of frenzied maenads and inebriated satyrs, punched out in a sort of bubbling, varicose repoussé that seems opulently “Eastern”.

 

Though Hungary's ownership is no longer contested, the exact findspot of the Treasure remains unclear. In the 1970s a young man called József Sümegh stumbled on a Roman hoard packed into a wide copper cauldron in the vicinity of the village of Polgárdi, east of Lake Balaton. Sümegh did not live long to enjoy his find. He died in mysterious circumstances at the age of just 24 and the treasure vanished. What is most likely is that this is it, although the trail of the pieces when they cropped up on the art market was for decades deliberately obfuscated by dealers, smugglers, heisters and crooks. The Getty Museum was at one stage interested in purchasing the silver, but pulled out because its provenance documents turned out to be forgeries. By the time it ended up in the hands of Lord Northampton in England, it numbered 14 pieces, perhaps vastly fewer than had originally been stashed away, hurriedly and in panic, by a Roman family clinging to the coat-tails of their civilisation as it fled before the barbarian invasions of Central Europe. After long and intricate negotiations, Hungary finally succeeded in repatriating the Treasure in two tranches, in 2014 and 2017. The money that they gave for it (tens of millions of euros) was paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for long years of care and custody of the silver by others. This summer it went on permanent public display.

 

Why the "Seuso" Treasure? It was customary for the owners of valuable Roman pieces to scratch their names on them. Seuso, however, is mentioned in a dedication incorporated into the design of the large Hunting Plate: a huge salver with a decorated rim and a central roundel filled with a busy scene. In the middle are figures dining under a canopy. Around them are scenes of hunting and fishing. Above a band showing water teeming with fish is the word “PELSO”, the Roman name for Lake Balaton. The whole design is of silver gilt with the details picked out in niello (a black-coloured alloy of sulphur with copper and lead). Circling the roundel is the following inscription: H[A]EC SEVSO TIBI DVRENT PER SAECULA MVLTA POSTERIS VT PROSINT VASCVLA DIGNA TVIS ("May these, O Seuso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily"). Small vessels these are certainly not: the total weight of the pieces is a whopping 68.5kg. It has been suggested that some of the silver came from a set that was presented to Seuso as a wedding gift (one of the picnickers on the Hunting Plate is a woman sporting a hairstyle in the manner of Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus). Anything smaller that may have belonged to such a set, however—cups, spoons, toothpicks—has not come to light.

Detail of the Hunting Plate, with the word PELSO bottom left.

Stylistically and in terms of subject matter there are a number of parallels. The Hunting Plate shows similarities to the Cesena Plate in Italy (for an image, see here). The scenes of hunting, with animals being chased into nets, slaves butchering them, and a family seated on a stibadium (curved couch) under an awning slung between trees, feasting and feeding titbits to a dog while their horses are tethered in the background, is identical in many details to the 4th-century mosaic floor of the Sala della Piccola Caccia in the Villa del Casale in Sicily. One way in which it differs is in the absence of a scene of sacrifice to Diana, which might be significant. Between the first and the last words of the Seuso inscription, encircled in a laurel wreath, is a tiny Chi Rho. Seuso might have been a Christian. Nothing otherwise is known of him. From his name he would seem to have been a Celt and from the scenes depicted on his tableware, we can surmise that he was a landowner and keen hunter who lived a gracious life in one of the fine villas that existed in Pannonia. A veteran general, perhaps, grown wealthy from service to an empire into whose culture and lifestyle he was fully assimilated. The heterogeneous nature of the hoard suggests that he might have received rich gifts as rewards for his service.

 

More personal details are entirely lacking but it is tempting to speculate. The strapline of the Hungarian National Museum's Seuso exhibit is "Wealth, Erudition, Power". Certainly, Seuso must have been wealthy and with that wealth would have come a certain degree of power. But how erudite was he? How deep did his Romanisation go? Petronius, in his Satyricon (1st century AD), the famous send-up of a vulgar, nouveau riche banquet, puts the following words into the mouth of Trimalchio, the host:

 

“I absolutely love silver. I’ve got about a hundred wine cups showing how Cassandra killed her sons—the boys are depicted lying dead in the most lifelike way. Then there’s a bowl my patron left me with a scene of Daedalus shutting Niobe into the Trojan Horse. And there are some goblets with the fights between Hermeros and Petraites. All of good heavy make. I wouldn’t sell my connoisseurship at any price.”

 

Cultivated Roman readers would have snobbishly tittered at the malapropisms. Trimalchio has no connoisseurship; he is an uneducated ex-slave, a parvenu from some further corner of the Empire posing as a man well versed in the culture of the native elite. He muddles Cassandra with Medea, Niobe with Pasiphaë and the Trojan Horse with Daedalus’ wooden cow. We have no idea whether Seuso’s grasp of Graeco-Roman myth was as hazy as this. But what the Petronius extract does suggest is that it was normal for possessors of fine works of art to make a show of knowing what they had. The pictorial world of ancient Rome was extraordinarily uniform. From Britannia to the Balkans and beyond people would have seen the same scenes depicted in exactly the same way, in sculpture, pottery, metalwork, painting and mosaic. “I’ve got two exquisite silver-gilt pails with the story of Hippolytus and Phaedra,” Seuso might have boasted, “And a gorgeous platter showing Meleager having just dispatched the Calydonian Boar.” It is a signal of Rome’s remarkable achievement in co-opting and homogenising so many diffuse civilisations that all of Seuso's dinner guests would have known what he was talking about—or at least felt it necessary to pretend they did. It is also an extraordinary privilege to be able to admire those objects now, tangible vestiges of provincial pomp, of days of laughter and conviviality in some long-gone lacustrine willow grove.

 

The Seuso Treasure, on display at the Hungarian National Museum. For more details and good-quality images, see their website (at present in Hungarian only). The Museum has also produced an excellent booklet about the Treasure, in English and several other languages.

Good news from Florence

Antique bronze head of a horse, once owned by Lorenzo the Magnificent.

It is well known that the famous Medici and Lorraine collections are housed in various museums in Florence, not just in the Uffizi and Pitti galleries (recently re-united under one director). The scientific collections are in the Museo Galileo, the musical instruments in the Galleria dell’Accademia, the Renaissance sculpture in the Bargello, the wax models in the Museo della Specola, etc., and the archeological material in the Museo Archeologico. But it is also a fact that all these ‘satellite’ museums are usually overlooked by visitors to the city, since it is the paintings that everyone seems to want to see (or at least that is what they are told by the tourist agencies).

 

It is therefore rare to encounter more than a handful of visitors in the Archaeological Museum (except when school parties are taken there). In fact throughout the many decades since the Arno Flood of 1966, when the entire ‘Museo Topografico’ of Etruscan finds from Tuscany was destroyed, it has had a rather neglected feel. But the exciting news is that with its new Director Mario Iozzo, under the umbrella of the ‘Polo Museale Toscana’, which since 2015 has been in the capable hands of Dr Stefano Casciu, the Museum has suddenly been spruced up and work is underway to open more exhibition space so that the works in the deposits can at last be seen.

 

Throughout the museum the display has begun to be renovated, with new stands for the pottery (and in some cases slowly moving circular bases so that you can stand still to see all the painted sides of certain vases). The garden, visible from many of the windows, is now beautifully kept with the fountain working again (but sadly still only open on Saturday mornings). The corridor with the Medici collection of precious antique gems and cameos is not yet regularly on view.

 

While work is going on, however (until March 2019), visitors can see a delightful exhibition, “The Art of Giving”, in the first hall. It documents recent donations including a huge collection of beautiful ceramics from burial sites and sanctuaries on the Ionian coast of southern Italy (the area known in antiquity as Magna Graecia). Many of the vases have scenes where the protagonists are exchanging gifts, making the title of the exhibition doubly meaningful. There is also a ceramic cup dating from the 6th century BC which has been recomposed using the missing piece which had found its way to the Akademisches Kunstmuseum in Bonn (in exchange, a fragment of another vase was given to the Bonn Museum so that it, too, could be reunited with the fragments they own). There are also some Roman marbles on view which have recently entered the collection (the sarcophagus with pairs of griffins between incense-burners is especially interesting).

 

In the permanent collection, the first room on the first floor is now used to exhibit the sensational Mater Matuta, an Etruscan masterpiece (c. 450 BC) showing a seated female god with a child on her lap. This is one of the treasures of the museum but has not been on show for decades. The famous bronze Chimera also has a room to itself, shared with a very beautiful bronze head of a youth found in Fiesole.

 

The Minerva, on the floor above, is now displayed without her right arm since it has been proved to have been an addition made by Francesco Carradori in 1784-5 in a mistaken restoration (the ‘modern’ arm is displayed close by, together with a cast of the statue as restored in the 18th century). The wonderful Arringatore is currently on exhibition in Karlsruhe but will be back here on 17th June. The bronze Horse’s Head (which belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent and was restored in 2015) and the Roman portrait bronzes are all on show (in the past these were often in rooms kept locked). The famous François Vase, a huge Attic krater, has been given a room of its own with multi-media touch screens explaining all the details. The famous incident when a frustrated custodian seized his stool and smashed it is recorded by the presence of the stool itself (the vase was thankfully able to be restored, piece by piece). And for the first time, two more pieces of exquisite Attic pottery are displayed nearby, suggesting that they might have been part of the original hoard of artefacts found in the same tomb, placed there to accompany the deceased on his way to the underworld.

 

Further innovations are the scale model of the Chimaera at the entrance which can be felt by the visually impaired and stroked by young visitors, and a showcase before the ticket office displaying just three exquisite examples of the museum’s holdings to whet visitors’ appetites. One comes away with the feeling that at last the Museum is being well looked after and that there will be many exciting new developments there in the near future.

In this Florentine season of what has been termed ‘overtourism’, a visit to this Museum is highly recommended not only for the treasures it contains, but also for its peaceful atmosphere.

 

by Alta Macadam, author of Blue Guide Florence

The Zeugma Mosaics Saga

Visitors to southeast Turkey will be familiar with the ‘Gipsy Girl’, the portrait of a young lady (actually a maenad, one of the frenzied followers of Dionysus) exhibited amid tight security at the Gaziantep Museum. The image—featured on the cover of Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey—is now so ubiquitous (second only to the Nemrut Dağ) that it has become the logo for ‘Archaeology in Turkey’; unfortunately in the process the archaeological context of the find has been overlooked. The image was uncovered in 1998–9 during the tail end of rescue excavations when work on the dam was completed and water levels were rising. We know that it came from a villa, one of the many in Zeugma, and on stylistic grounds it is dated to the 2nd century AD. Soon, however, visitors will be able to admire the piece in a context of sorts.

Back in the early 1960s, the villa floor had been unofficially excavated, at which time the mosaic floor was hacked into twelve convenient, portable sections and sold on the international art market. The items found a new home at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which paid $35,000 for them. Fifty years on, an agreement has been reached and the pieces will be repatriated.

Included among them is another female figure, a young lady with a frightening—or firghtened—look on her plump face and a lot of foliage in her hair. In this case the mosaicist did not reach the heights of the haunted look that has made the ‘Gipsy Girl’ so famous. On the other hand the birds are delightful and the theatre masks (if they are theatre masks) may offer a clue to understanding the composition.

In due course the pieces will be displayed at the Gaziantep Museum and one hopes that all 13 of them will be exhibited together on the floor, not hanging incongruously on the wall, in an atmosphere of less intrusive security and together with a plan of the villa.

By Paola Pugsley. Paola is the author of Blue Guide Southeastern Turkey. Her latest volume, Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum, was published earlier this year.

Re-interpreting the Trojan Horse

Detail from the 7th-century BG Mykonos Pithos (photo: Wikicommons).

When is a horse not a horse? Nowhere in the Iliad is it mentioned that the Greeks brought the ten-year siege to a successful conclusion by tricking the Trojans into towing into their city a large wooden horse in which sufficient Greek warriors had been hidden to create havoc and set fire to the town. Nevertheless, the Trojan Horse lives on as an established fact. Visitors to the site are provided with one to climb into—with improbably large windows (excellent for photo opportunities). There is another one in Çanakkale by the harbour. It was made for the 2004 movie and is beginning to show its age.

 

Artistic representations of the famous artefact are known from the 8/7th century BC. The tale does appear in the Odyssey, as well as in a couple of later Greek tragedies and then again in Virgil at the end of the 1st millennium BC. By then, doubts were being voiced. In his Natural History (7:202), Pliny the Elder clearly speaks of a battering ram and he is echoed later on by Pausanias (23:8–10). Battering rams and other siege engines were known in the Middle East from the 2nd millennium BC, although there is no evidence that they were ever used by the Mycenaeans. The Hittites did in the 17th century BC. Excavators have identified, in the relevant level of Troy VII (the Troy of the Trojan War), a stretch of wall damaged and hastily repaired. Battering rams could have a skeleton crew hidden under a cover of skins, ready to jump into the breach and scale the wall. So was the Trojan Horse in fact a Trojan ram? In the Homeric story, though, we get much more than just a sense of brute force. It is a tale of ruse and deceit, in which the Trojans are shown as hopelessly gullible victims of an inescapable fate. This has led to theories that involve no battering rams or huge siege engines, but simply the smuggling of warriors into the besieged city by trickery. At the siege of Joppa (now Jaffa) in the 15th century BC, the Egyptians managed to smuggle soldiers in in pithoi, huge clay jars supposedly full of grain (the same trick used by Ali Baba and his 40 thieves). But this does not explain the idea of the horse. Animal-shaped vessels are certainly common in Bronze-Age Anatolia, where they were used for libations. Sometimes they are on wheels. The late Bronze Age relief at the Alaca Hüyük entrance gate (the original is in the Museum of Civilisations in Ankara) shows a horse on wheels with a spout on its back. Unfortunately, neither its size nor its purpose are clear. It remains to be seen whether the Trojan Horse was a real object or a poetic invention conflating various traditions.

 

Extract from Paola Pugsley's Blue Guide Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum, to be published this spring.

Aegean Turkey: Troy to Bodrum

When Freya Stark was in this area in the early autumn of 1952, she was on a quest (the very word she used in the title of the book detailing her adventures: Ionia: A Quest). Armed with her Classics, she was looking for the material reality underpinning the narratives of the likes of Herodotus and Pindar. As far as she was concerned, she was in Ionia (the other component of the title), sometimes in Aeolia, occasionally in Caria. She never doubted that she, like the antiquarian travellers before her, was in an extension of ancient. Her experience remains unique: travelling as a woman, a foreigner and on her own, she aroused curiosity and a sort of protective sympathy. She had a novelty value that made her feel occasionally like an animal in a zoo but which at times secured VIP treatment from the local poeple. Archaeologically was not ready for her (hence her disparaging comments on the state of the theatre at Pergamon). Transportation was not easy; the crossing of the Meander Delta, some 8km wide, entailed the use of a lorry, a tractor, a ferry and an overnight stay. She came across only one visitor on the same quest as hers, and yet she toured 55 sites.

Sixty years on, things have changed in many respects. For a start, today you will not be alone, probably not even in the depths of winter (the climate on the coast can be benign and Turkish pensioners use timeshares for a week in the sun when the tourists are away). And in the high season, tourists come not in units but in millions. Despite the efforts of the Turkish government to rebalance and diversify tourism away from the Aegean and Mediterranean and direct it more to the interior (set out in a document detailing the strategy for 2023, the centenary of the Republic), it may prove difficult to persuade holiday-makers to eschew the beaches. As far as archaeology is concerned, the region has been made ready for mass consumption. When I was here in 1969, it was still possible to photograph, not far from the main road, a couple of marble Ionian columns topped with an architrave. They stood sprouting from an overgrown field like an improbable weed. Now archaeological remains have either been obliterated by development, neglect, stone robbing or ploughing or they are fenced off, restored, reconstructed and signposted. They come with a bekçi (custodian), an entry ticket and a visitor centre. Bodrum and İzmir have major airports, which means you can bypass Istanbul altogether, and the roads have improved enormously—though the topography still makes for some interesting driving. Crossing the Meander, at any rate, is no longer a challenge.

Aeolia, Ionia and ancient migration
The idea that the east coast of the Aegean was systematically colonised by mainland Greeks, i.e. by would-be colonists under the leadership of a hero, is deeply engrained. Travellers, including Freya Stark, and archaeologists working on location, have all taken it as a fact. The ancient sources, albeit with a number of variants, agree that the Aeolians, a few years after the Trojan War, set out from Thessaly (or was it Boeotia?) under the leadership of Orestes, son of Agamemnon, to settle in Lesbos and on the coast north of the Gulf of İzmir. Four generations later the Ionians, fleeing the invading Dorians, occupied the coast south of İzmir as well as the islands of Chios and Samos. They had strong support in Athens and the enterprise was eventually presented as an Athenian triumph. Each ethnic group was organised into a federation of twelve cities. The Aeolian League had its seat at the Temple of Apollo at Gryneum; and the Ionian League had theirs at the Temple of Poseidon on the Mykale peninsula.

All this accorded well with the colonial attitudes of the late 19th century, when excavations began. After the Bronze Age, it was reckoned, progress could only have come from the West. However, as archaeological research continued, the evidence to back up this narrative failed to materialise. There is no trace in the Archaic material of a single dominant group either north or south of İzmir; no trace of new arrivals; no changes in the pottery.

Archaeologically speaking, an Iron-Age Greek migration into western Asia remains invisible. A re-evaluation of the sources was thus long overdue. It is interesting that Homer (7th century BC), who was well placed in İzmir, at the supposed junction of the two ethnicities, has nothing to say on the matter. No Aeolia, no migrations. The information comes later, and the later it is, the more detailed and complete. Strabo, in the 1st century of our era, gives the fullest account. On the ground, however, archaeology for the 7th century BC shows a very reduced Greek presence on the coast, with Phrygians and Lydians dominant in the hinterland. The leagues, it has been suggested, were not an expression of 'being Greek' but a way to cope with the patchwork of diverse ethnic groups that had occupied the space left by the demise of the Hittite Empire. About the same time, the expansionist policy of Miletus, up the coast and into the Black Sea, encouraged Athens to do likewise and set up a colony at Sigeum in the Troad, as close as possible to Troy, which was taking off as a cult centre celebrating Homeric heroes. Identities were being established with the assistance of made-up genealogies; new identities were forged as a reaction. The climax came with the Persian Wars at the end of the 5th century BC, when Athens was able to establish its primacy. It is then that Ionia (Aeolia had by then faded) looked west for leadership and the migration myth was crystallised. In the Hellenistic period Troy, Priene, Pergamon and Sardis all organised games in imitation of the Athenian Panathenaica. Architectural styles converge and Athens emerges as the mother of them all. The triumph of Ionia lives on today in the Turkish word for Greece. Yunanistan.

Aegean Turkey: From Troy to Bodrum, by Paola Pugsley, is the latest in the series of updated chapters from Blue Guide Turkey. It will be published in spring 2018.

A people who changed history

Silver belt ornament with twin horse heads (7th century)

The exhibition currently running in Pavia near Milan (Longobardi. Un popolo che cambia la storia) has been given a good amount of publicity in Italy since it is the first time artefacts produced in the period when the Lombards dominated the Italian peninsula have been collected together from many different institutions. More than 300 works have been lent by upwards of 80 museums and institutions, and some of the artefacts are displayed for the first time. You can see the exhibition in Pavia, in the Castello Visconteo, until 3rd December; then it travels to Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 21st Dec–25th March); then to the Hermitage (spring 2018). The show is spectacular, featuring Lombard gold jewellery found in tombs and the bas- reliefs sculpted for early Christian churches, beautifully displayed in the vaults of the huge castle which was built in 1360 by Galeazzo II  Visconti. Pavia was the capital of the Goths under Theodoric but is particularly famous for the subsequent period, when for two centuries from 572 it was capital of the kingdom of the Lombards. The kings established their residence in a palace here from 626 onwards and the reign of Liutprando (712–44) has been recognised as the most important period for the arts.

The sub-title of the exhibition, ‘a people who changed history’ underlines the result of recent scholarship which gives greater importance to the few centuries following the conquest of Italy by the ‘bearded barbarians’ known as the Lombards in 568. They adopted the Arian faith in the 7th century and by the 8th century they had occupied some two thirds of Italian territory. Their presence in Italy was subsequently marked by the spread of Catholicism.

Although there are no labels in English, the videos, multimedia supports and touchscreens which accompany the display are sufficient to explain the complicated history of this former nomadic tribe from beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. For some 50 years they settled in the former Roman province of Pannonia (present-day Hungary). The Lombard period in Italy saw a fragmentation of power into various dukedoms. Apart from Pavia, the most powerful were Spoleto (in Umbria), Cividale (in Friuli) and Benevento (in Campania). When Charlemagne arrived with the Franks and crowned himself King of the Lombards in Pavia in 774, the peninsula and the powers around the Mediterranean began to lose their importance while the Holy Roman Empire (only formally brought to an end in 1806 by Napoleon) became established north of the Alps.

Left-hand leaf of the 10th-century 'Rambona Diptych', showing the Crucifixion and the She-wolf of Rome nursing Romulus and Remus.

Amongst the most memorable exhibits are the gold jewellery, some worked with filigree, and especially the exquisite pieces from the Museo di Antichità in Turin, the Museo Civica in Tortona, and the Museo  Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. There are also two exceptional pieces, one in rock crystal and the other in light and porous sepiolite, known as ‘sea foam’. Larger jewels showing Byzantine influence, today preserved in museums as far apart as Cagliari and Potenza, are also displayed. There are two coloured-glass horns, one of which, in blue glass of the 6th or 7th century, was found in Ascoli Piceno (Marche) and is perfectly preserved. Finds from a rich 7th-century tomb unearthed beneath the church of Santa Giulia in Lucca include a shield with appliqués of Christian symbols (Daniel and his lions, and peacocks). Bronzes which once decorated horses’ bridles come from Molise; and a fascinating little bronze figure of a warrior (proudly displayed on its own) comes from Pavia’s own Museo Civico. The finest of the many Christian bas-reliefs are those from a church in Milan dating from the 7th century showing two lambs adoring a jewelled Cross, and one of a peacock made in the following century found in the monastery of San Salvatore in Brescia (and lent by the Museo della Città there). Among the later works is an exquisite 10th-century ivory diptych found in Macerata and commissioned by the first abbot of the monastery of Rambona (lent by the Vatican Museums): the scenes include a Crucifixion with the personifications of the sun and moon and the wolf nursing Romulus and Remus.

A last room (on the ground floor) proudly records the history of Pavia itself and how the town developed under the Lombards, and how this period of glory was remembered in succeeding centuries.

Visitors are then directed to a part of the Castello Visconteo that has recently been renovated to preserve the treasures from the Lombard period. Here one of the most memorable exhibits is a ‘camp’ saddle found in the bed of the Ticino river. Delicately made in bronze (with a restored leather seat) it could easily be folded up or erected in a hurry as the situation required—a unique find from the period.

The Musei Civici in the castello also include a large picture gallery with paintings from all periods and including some masterpieces by Antonello da Messina, Giovanni Bellini, Hugo van der Goes and many others.

Pavia, with its lovely paved and cobbled streets, is a delightful place to wander and its churches well worth visiting (and three of their crypts dating from the Lombard period are open specially during the exhibition period). If you stay the night, local trains every half hour from the station take you to Pavia’s most famous building, the Certosa di Pavia. Delicious pastries are to be had at Vigoni (Strada Nuova 110).

by Alta Macadam

The Scythians at the British Museum

“The Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia” is the title of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, London, running until 14th January. The show attempts to redeem from oblivion the culture and character of a people who strewed their path across the steppe with gold but who are otherwise little remembered and little understood.

The Scythians flourished in the 9th–3rd centuries BC. Their heartland was the Siberian steppe, but at their greatest extent they controlled territory and maintained trading links from north China to the Black Sea. They were never a single people, but a loose confederation of tribes, sharing certain customs and, it appears, speaking a language or languages with Iranian roots. They were herdsmen and hunters, nomadic and warlike, fighting both outsiders and each other over territory and livestock. They were superb horsemen. Their mounted archers, riding with saddles but without stirrups, struck fear into the hearts of Persians, Assyrians and Macedonians. And it appears that Scythian women rode as expertly—and fought as dauntlessly—as Scythian men. Scythian art is filled with representations of totem animals: deer, big cats, birds of prey. Chief of all these, though, was the horse. It was the horse that, in death, was caparisoned for the final great ride, to the world beyond, where it is presumed it would live again with its owner, roaming and grazing Elysian pastures. It is thanks to the Scythians' mastery of the horse and their skill with metal that they were able to rise to dominance.

 

The first room sets the tone for the show with an audio display of howling Siberian wind. As it whistles in your ears, you can admire the stunning gold belt plaque of the 4th–3rd century BC: a warrior, presumed deceased, lies in the lap of a woman, presumably a deity, under a tree in whose boughs he has slung his quiver of arrows. Beside him a groom holds two horses, their harness very carefully rendered. It is exquisite—and in Scythian terms, quite late. This type of narrative scene does not seem to emerge until about the 4th century and human representations before this seem to be rare. Instead we find examples of the so-called “animal style”: gold plaques fashioned in the form of stylised beasts: stags, vultures, panthers, often shown tortuously attacking each other, often inlaid with pieces of turquoise. Some of these plaques are quite large in size, designed to be worn on a belt around the waist. Others are smaller, for decorating bow cases or quivers or for use as bridle fittings. Others are tiny appliqué pieces that would have been attached en masse to articles of clothing.

 

These gold pieces were first revealed to the world in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great sent out exploration parties to Siberia in search of natural resources and trade routes. The pieces that were unearthed, from grave mounds, were all sent back to St Petersburg and drawings of all of them were made to serve as a record. It is from the Hermitage Museum that most of the pieces in the current exhibition have come.

 

A section of the finds in this exhibition were also preserved by ice. Water percolating into the tomb barrows, and afterwards freezing, has remained there ever since as a layer of permafrost. As the arid conditions in Egypt, so the freezing conditions in the Altai have preserved materials otherwise rare to find: human skin, leather, wood and textiles. There are pieces of clothing, horse apparel and tomb hangings made of wool, leather, squirrel fur, sable and felt. The women, presumably the high-born ones, had diamonds on the soles of their shoes, almost literally: a beautiful moccasin with a geometric decoration of pyrite lozenges on the sole is extraordinarily well preserved. The tomb remains of a Pazyryk chief from the Altai Mountains shows that these Scythians extensively tattooed their arms, legs and shoulders. It also shows how savage their battles could be. This man—not young, about 60 years old; and not short, about 176cm tall—died of axe blows to the head. Scythian warfare did not only take the form of mounted archery; they also fought hand to hand in close and bloody combat.

 

Which brings us to the question of what they looked like. This man was scalped, so the top of his head is missing. But as far as we can tell, the Pazyryk Scythians shaved their heads leaving only a tuft of hair at the crown. This applied equally to the women, who twisted this tuft into a tall topknot, threading it through a narrow, very tall conical headdress to form a sort of fountain pony tail. There is some debate as to whether the men wore facial hair. The gold belt plaque showing the dead warrior and his groom portrays both men with walrus moustaches. The Kul Olba cup (4th century), from the Black Sea (modern Ukraine), shows figures with flowing beards. There cannot have been a single type, or a single style. Fashions must have come and gone, as they do today, and different Scythian groups probably had different habits. The Pazyryk chieftain seems to have been clean shaven, but in death he was equipped with a false beard. Scholars speculate that it might have had a ritual function. False beards as divine appurtenances are not an anthropological oddity; they are known from ancient Egypt, for example.

 

The Scythians did not write anything down, which is frustrating, because we never hear them speaking for themselves. Instead, we hear from Herodotus, who encountered the Scythians of the Black Sea and wrote about their customs and behaviour. Some finds appear to bear out his accounts. He mentions their custom of inhaling the vapour of toasted hemp seeds at the funerals of their chiefs, and “howling with pleasure” as they did so. And sure enough, a hemp-smoking kit has been unearthed. Contact with Greece from the 8th century BC had an influence not only on their art but on their diet, as the traditional fermented mare’s milk was replaced with wine (a Greek kylix is one of the grave goods on display here), which they apparently drank undiluted, gaining a reputation for alcoholic excess. The famous Pazyryk rug, the world’s oldest known carpet, was found in a Scythian tomb, but in its design shows clear Persian influence. It would be fascinating to know who made it: a Scythian influenced by Persian forms? Or a Persian working to Scythian taste? The Scythians, at least in origin, were a nomadic people, and their goods are mostly portable. A round wooden table with lathe-turned legs reminds us of this: it is a collapsible table, which can be folded up and easily carried away. They took their art with them, and assimilated other styles and ideas as they went. But to what extent did they depend on settled peoples for manufacture?

7th-century gold plaque in the form of a stag, Hungarian National Museum.

The supremacy of the Scythians was waning by 200 BC, as other nomads moved in to replace them, or, as is probable in some cases, as they themselves settled down. They flashed brilliantly across the screen for a mere few hundred years. There is probably much of their culture left to find. And they are not entirely forgotten. In Hungary, for instance, the “Scythian gold stag” has mythical significance. There are two examples in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

 

This is a very enjoyable exhibition, tantalisingly suggestive. It answers fewer questions than it asks, which is always the best way, leaving you thinking long after you have left the museum.

 

Annabel Barber

The Seuso Saga

Together again under a single roof. In July 2017, the Hungarian government revealed that it had acquired the remaining seven pieces of the famous Seuso (or Sevso) Treasure. All fourteen known pieces of the hoard are now in Hungary, bringing to an end years of intricate negotiations. In 2014 the first seven items were secured from a private family foundation, along with the copper cauldron in which the hoard was found. Now the remaining pieces have been obtained from a second private trust for a total of 28 million euros, paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for many years of custodianship: the silver is regarded as Hungarian patrimony which, after many twistings and twinings, has duly returned home. For the story of the silver, its discovery and subsequent murky, star-crossed career, see here.

 

The silver has brought little luck to its owners thus far. One hopes that this may change. At the end of August 2017 the fourteen pieces embark on a national progress through Hungary before returning to Budapest to be placed on public display in the Hungarian National Museum.

 

The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that has enveloped the silver, along with sensational talk of a ‘Seuso curse’ have tended to deflect attention away from the beauty and craftsmanship of the articles themselves. This is a pity. The seven pieces belonging to the second Hungarian acquisition are, like the first seven, a mix of restrained engraved and moulded elegance (the ‘Western’ style) and exuberant, bubbling repoussé (the ‘Eastern’ style). They are as follows:

 

1: The ‘Animal Ewer’, decorated with engraved wild animals and slaves with whips (aimed at forcing animals to engage in bloody combat in the empire’s ampitheatres).

Detail from the Animal Ewer.

2: The ‘Dionysiac Amphora’, a globular vessel for wine, with handles in the shape of panthers (the god’s totem animal), its body embossed with a frenzied procession of satyrs and maenads and Dionysus himself, astride an enormous goat.

Dionysys and Pan: detail of the Dionysiac Amphora.

3, 4 and 5: The three silver-gilt vessels decorated with the story of Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra. One is a ewer, the other two are situlae, or water buckets. They were probably made as a set. The most charming scene is that of Hippolytus preparing to go hunting. The youth is shown heroically naked except for sandals and a cloak, with his dogs at his side, having received the love letter from his stepmother which he has cast to the ground.

Hippolytus with the rejected love letter falling to the ground between his feet.

6: The ‘Meleager Plate’, almost 70cm in diameter, with a central relief of the Calydonian Boar Hunt.

Central field of the Meleager Plate, showing the victor with the defeated boar slumped by his side.

7: The ‘Achilles Plate’, measuring 72cm across, with beautifully rendered reliefs of the life of Achilles. At the bottom is his birth, showing his mother on a bed attended by her waiting women, one of whom is washing the child while another pours water from a ewer not unlike those belonging to the Sevso hoard. At the top is the contest between Poseidon and Athena for hegemony over Athens. Athena is shown receiving the prize on one side while Poseidon slinks away on the other. In the centre is the famous scene of Achilles revealing his true identity. His mother Thetis had clad him in women’s attire to save him from having to take part in the Trojan war. Testosterone will out, however: on hearing the blare of the war trumpet, the hero instinctively reaches for spear and shield.

Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: the birth of Achilles.
Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: Athena receives the crown and palm of victory while Poseidon retreats.
Achilles hears the trumpet blast and seizes his spear and shield, causing consternation among the women. His manly leg is shown bursting from his chiton.

Excavations of the believed findspot of the hoard, between Székesfehérvár and Lake Balaton in western Hungary, are to be conducted. Whether this will reveal anything remains to be seen: if, preparatory to flight, the owners of the silver secreted it in an out-of-the-way place, intending to return for it later, a dig may yield little. On the other hand, the area is rich in Roman remains. Much may remain to be discovered.

 

Annabel Barber

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