Kayaker finds Roman glass, pottery off Kent coast

July 18th, 2019

In a new addition to the annals of random people finding ancient artifacts, a sea kayaker has discovered pieces of Roman glass, pottery and tile off the coast of Ramsgate, Kent. The kayaker was in shallow water at low tide and with the clear day, he was able to just reach in and pick up the objects including a beautiful cobalt blue glass vase that looks like it could have been made yesterday, large pieces of high-end Samian ware pottery and a roof tile with a human fingerprint smudged on the surface.

Mark Dunkley, a marine listing adviser with Historic England, said it was the sort of find which just did not happen in the UK. “It is the rarity of the material and the quality of the material that is really significant. In my experience this stuff just does not exist in an underwater context anywhere around Britain. It is a really significant find.”

The style of the artifacts dates them to the end of the first or beginning of the second century, a period when this area had two important Roman forts guarding the Wantsum Channel, a strait used by the Romans as a major trade route linking the English Channel and the Thames estuary.

While it’s possible these objects could have washed to shore from an ancient shipwreck, it’s just as possible that they were discarded or buried along the shoreline but what was dry land then has now eroded into the coastline. Archaeologists from Historic England planned to explore the find site on Wednesday but the tides made it impossible. The revised plan is to investigate the location in August when the tides are more quiescent.

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Prehistoric treasures found in Hungarian cave

July 17th, 2019

Precious artifacts and bones dating to the Bronze Age have been discovered in the Baradla dripstone cave in northeast Hungary. A team of archaeologists from Eötvös Loránd University has been excavating the cave for four years. Lajos Sándor, a metal detector hobbyist working with the team, was scanning part of the excavation path, an area he’d scanned many times before, when he unexpectedly got a strong signal from behind the rocks. The archaeologists excavated the spot with their special wooden tools and unearthed bronze artifacts, ceramics, human and animal bones from two periods: the Bükk culture from ca. 5000 B.C., and the Bronze Age Kyjatice culture from ca. 1200 B.C.

The Bükk culture artifacts are pottery fragments with ornate geometric decorations. They abstract patterns and yellow, red, white and black paint distinguish them from the kind of ceramics made by more local peoples. The Bükk were great travelers who came to the northeastern hills from the Hungarian Great Plains, bringing their crafts and well-developed agricultural knowledge.

From the latter period is a distinctive grouping is of 59 decorated bronze pieces, most of the disc-shaped, some sparrow-tail shaped. They were found in a hollow near an underground stream covered with a stack of rocks.  The way they were piled suggests they may have been mounted on a garment that was folded up and covered with the rock stack. If it existed, the garment has rotted to nothingness over the millennia; not even small traces of it were found.

The animal bones were found heaped up in piles indicating ritual feasting and/or sacrifices took place in the Baradla cave. The human remains are thought to date to the Neolithic era.

These all point to the Baradla cave having been a sacred place thousands of years ago. [Lead archaeologist Dr. Gábor] Szabó said:

“These days, the cave walls are covered in black soot, but back then they were glowing white, it had to be a beautiful space. Even today, smelling the air of the Baradla cave, you feel that it is a mystical place. It is an astounding interior.”

Szabó thinks that similarly to Stonehenge, the Baradla cave must have been an ancient holy place where communities arrived even from far-away lands to witness the rituals performed there.

“This place could have functioned as a destination for pilgrimages. Sacrifices were made, sacred places were established, there were initiation rituals – the quality ceramics, the piles of animal bones, remains of food materials serve as proof for that.”

The find is all the more remarkable because the cave has been picked over by looters since the 1700s and has been studied and excavated by researchers for 150 years.  Today Hungary’s most famous stalactite cave, thousands of tourists tramp through it every day. The treasure was secured by the cave’s mineral output, covered by 8-12 inches of limestone, and by its conversion into a tourist site as the thick limestone was paved with a layer of concrete. The two combined to keep the treasure out of view of looters for centuries.

Animal and human bones will be subjected to isotope analysis and radiocarbon dating. The cave’s constant temperature of 53.6ºF is cool enough for good preservation of bone, so there’s a chance researchers might be able to extract viable DNA as well. The bronze and pottery artifacts will be taken to the Hungarian National Museum for conservation and eventual display.

This season’s archaeological excavation will continue through August and the team will return for the last dig next year. After that, the cave will be developed into a treatment center for people with respiratory conditions. It’s not clear to me how this asthma cave scheme will be pulled off, as the cool temperatures and 100% humidity make it unlivable for people today just as it was for people 7,000 years ago, but that’s the plan.

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11th c. wall found under Moravian castle

July 16th, 2019

Archaeologists excavating Břeclav Castle in Moravia, Czech Republic, have discovered a section of timber and clay wall from the original castle built in the 11th century by Břetislav, Duke of Bohemia. Preliminary dating results have found the wall dates to 1041, a period when Břetislav expanded his territory with incursions into Moravia and built a network of defensive forts. Břeclav, located on the Thaya River a stone’s throw from the borders of modern-day Austria and Slovakia, was a strategically significant spot for a castle. 

Archaeologist Miroslav Dejmal of the Archaia Brno organization, who is conducting the research emphasized the importance of the find, saying that walls dating back to the 11th century are extremely rare. 

“What you see here are the remnants of a wall made of clay and wood. These are the foundations, because the upper part was obviously destroyed by a fire, as you can see from this soft charcoal.”

The original wall, which was hidden for centuries under a thick layer of clay, is estimated to have been around 8 metres high and parts of it are now being analysed. Preliminary results suggest that the wall is nearly a thousand years old and dates back to the first mention of the town in written records. 

The town began as the castle. Duke Břetislav built the castle for defense of the border and as an administrative center for the region. In the 13th century the castle was acquired by Queen Constance of Hungary who added an imposing stone tower. During the Hussite Wars that followed the first Defenestration of Prague, the protestant Hussite forces were garrisoned in the castle from 1426 until the conclusion of hostilities in 1433. The market town of Břeclav, which had grown under the shadow of the castle, was destroyed during the wars of the 15th century. The townspeople fled to the castle for safety and lived to rebuild the town even closer to the castle that had saved them.

In the first half of the 16th century, Břeclav Castle was bought by the House of Žerotín. They rebuilt the castle in Renaissance style to function as a manor house but they had barely a century to enjoy it before it was confiscated by the crown after the Žerotíns were involved in an uprising. The next owner was the House of Liechtenstein who bought it in 1638. Between the wars with the Ottoman Empire and Thirty Years’ War, the Liechtensteins never really lived in the castle. Finally in the early 19th century they decided to put their own stamp on it and rebuilt the castle in the style of a romantic faux ruin. 

The castle is now being rebuilt yet again. This new construction aims to return it to the Renaissance style of the Žerotín days. The discovery of the medieval wall won’t change the reconstruction plans, but it will delay them as authorities decide how best to preserve (and take advantage of) the find. 

The spokesman for Břeclav City Hall, Jiří Holobrádek, says the find has generated great interest among the locals, but it is early days yet to say how and in what way the remnants of this medieval wall will be preserved. 

“It is too soon to say how we will proceed. Much depends on the outcome of the expert analysis that has only just started and we will obviously heed the advice of historians and archaeologists. However, given the importance of the discovery, it would be good to find a way to present it to the public.”

It’s going to be a tricky thing. Removing it presents major preservation challenges as the wood once exposed begins to decay. Keep it in situ will require careful planning to prevent it from being damaged by construction right above it. The archaeological team is scanning the wall and will create a 3D model of it. That will help determine how best to proceed.

 

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Villa of the Papyri

July 15th, 2019

The Getty Villa in Malibu, built to house oil billionaire J. Paul Getty’s extensive collection of antiquities, is a replica of the Villa dei Papyri, a huge, ultra-luxurious home discovered in Herculaneum in the 18th century. The collection has only grown in size and quality since the Getty Villa was completed in 1974, and the museum has hosted a myriad world-class exhibitions of artifacts on loan from all over the world. Only an exhibition dedicated to the model for the Getty Villa was lacking, and there has never been an exhibition dedicated solely to the Villa dei Papyri exhibition anywhere.

It is more than appropriate, therefore, that the first one of its kind would debut at the Getty Villa. Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri runs through October 28th and features a breathtakingly beautiful assemblage of statuary in bronze and marble, frescoes, engravings and artifacts from the villa or associated with its study.

The Villa dei Papyri was discovered by well-diggers quite by accident in 1750. It was excavated by Karl Jakob Weber, a Swiss military engineer who was charged by Charles III of Naples with the first organized excavations of Pompeii and Stabiae as well as Herculaneum. In keeping with his education a an architect and engineer, Weber took a systematic approach to excavation, as opposed to previous diggers who were there to score treasure and gave not a single rat’s ass about the archaeological contexts in which the artifacts they plundered had been found. They used tunnels to break through walls and floors, cleaned out whatever they could and bored into the next space. Weber also had to use tunnels as the ancient city was buried under 100 feet of volcanic ash turned to solid rock and there was a modern city on top of it, but he was cautious and deliberate about it, following the architectural layout of the spaces to minimize damage and maximize understanding of the full scope of the massive villa.

He was also an excellent artist, as luck would have it, and Weber’s drawings of the finds were included in the multi-volume folio of illustrations, Le Antichità di Ercolano, which was a huge hit in mid-18th century Europe and directly influenced the revival of Greco-Roman motifs in the decorative arts.

Weber’s floor plan of the Villa dei Papyri, its accuracy confirmed by more recent excavations even as they expanded into previously undiscovered areas, published in Le Antichità was used by architectural firm Langdon and Wilson to create the Getty Villa in Malibu. The unknown details and additional spaces for the museum were based on fully excavated Roman structures from Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae.

“The Villa dei Papiri is one of the most luxurious private residences of the ancient classical world ever discovered and one which had an important role in the early history of archeology. Especially important are its unique collection of ancient bronze statuary and antiquity’s only surviving library of papyrus scrolls, which provide an unprecedented insight into the philosophical interests of its aristocratic Roman occupant – none other than the father-in-law of Julius Caesar,” says Timothy Potts, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “Among the most impressive of these finds is a rare bronze sculpture of a drunken satyr, which, as part of a collaborative conservation project with the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (MANN), is undergoing analysis and conservation treatment in our conservation studios before going on display in the exhibition.”

Potts adds, “For several decades, we have worked closely with Italian colleagues and institutions in conserving, protecting, researching and celebrating Italy’s extraordinary cultural heritage. We are delighted now to be collaborating with MANN, the Parco Archeologico di Ercolano (PA-Erco), and the Biblioteca Nazionale “Vittorio Emanuele” di Napoli (BNN) in organizing this exhibition. We have had several successful collaborative conservation projects with MANN over the past few years including, most recently, their monumental funerary vessel (krater) from Altamura in 2018, and three of their splendid bronzes: the Ephebe (Youth) in 2009, the Apollo Saettante in 2011, and the over-life-size sculpture of Tiberius in 2013.”

This video provides a fascinating glimpse into the conservation of the Drunken Satyr. At the end you see a view of the underside which was torn apart by the volcanic impact. It’s amazing how well the bronze survived when you see how Vesuvius battered it.

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Vividly colored medieval fresco found in Aventine church

July 14th, 2019

A medieval fresco has been rediscovered behind a wall in the Basilica of Saints Boniface and Alexis in Rome. It is an excellent state of preservation, the colors of its original polychrome paint still vividly saturated. The fresco dates to the mid-12th century and depicts two holy figures believed to be Saint Alexis and Christ the Pilgrim in the top section and an angel in front of a be-columned structure on the bottom. It is three feet wide and 13 feet high. There may be more of it, possibly a section at large as the one visible now, hidden by the wall.

The fresco was found by art historian Claudia Viggiani who spent years hunting it down. Her quest began when she found a 1965 letter from an official of Rome’s public works to the Lazio monuments superintendency mentioning a fresco “in excellent condition” had been found during consolidation work on a bell tower. The letter did not note the name of the church. Viggiani doggedly pursued the case until she located the church on the Aventine and the fresco in the interspace behind a small door.

Restorer Susanna Sarmati has been working to stabilize the fresco since its discovery.

Dating back to the mid-12th century, the painting has a polychrome frame that restorer Sarmati said was of “exceptional sophistication” and that it is difficult to “find ones that are so complete”. She pointed at the original brushstrokes on the wall, which can still be distinguished. Though other medieval frescoes exist in Rome, “their state of conservation despite restoration, is mediocre. This one, however,” she said, “which was never touched is almost perfect.”

In the medieval church, the fresco was prominently located on the counter-facade. Its significance lived on even as the church was extensively rebuilt: it was walled in, but not destroyed or painted over. It’s likely that the part of the fresco with the saint’s face remained visible through a crack on the nave.

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Oldest Christian document from Roman Egypt identified in Basel

July 13th, 2019

A researcher at the University of Basel has identified the oldest Christian document from Roman Egypt in the papyrus collection of the University of Basel. Accounts of Christian life from this early period are sparse and tend to lean towards extreme situations like ascetics renouncing the wiles of society or bursts of persecution. This letter paints a far more quotidian picture of a Christian family living in the small urbs along the Nile in the desert of central Egypt, and it turns out they lived a lot like their non-Christian neighbors did.

The papyrus P.Bas. 2.43 has been in the possession of the University of Basel for over 100 years. It is a letter from a man named Arrianus to his brother Paulus. The document stands out from the mass of preserved letters of Greco-Roman Egypt by its concluding greeting formula: After reporting on day-to-day family matters and asking for the best fish sauce as a souvenir, the letter writer uses the last line to express his wish that his brother will prosper “in the Lord.” The author uses the abbreviated form of the Christian phrase “I pray that you fare well ‘in the Lord’.”

“The use of this abbreviation – known as a nomen sacrum in this context – leaves no doubt about the Christian beliefs of the letter writer,” says Sabine Huebner, Professor of Ancient History at the University of Basel. “It is an exclusively Christian formula that we are familiar with from New Testament manuscripts.” The name of the brother is also revealing, Huebner goes on to explain: “Paulus was an extremely rare name at that time and we may deduce that the parents mentioned in the letter were Christians and had named their son after the apostle as early as 200 AD.”

Huebner has narrowed down the letter’s date to around 230 A.D., making it 40-50 years older than the previous earliest-known Christian letter, and traced its origin to Theadelphia in the Faiyum area of Egypt. It was part of the Heroninus archive, a collection of more than 1,000 papyri from the 3rd century pertaining to the administration of an agricultural estate in the area. The largest single papyrus archive from Roman times, it was split up and sold in the early 20th century and is now scattered through several institutions.

Here is the translation of the full letter:

“Greetings, my lord, my incomparable brother Paulus. I, Arrianus, salute you, praying that all is as well as possible in your life.

[Since] Menibios was going to you, I thought it necessary to salute you as well as our lord father. Now, I remind you about the gymnasiarchy1, so that we are not troubled here. For Heracleides would be unable to take care of it: he has been named to the city council. Find thus an opportunity that you buy the two [–] arouras2.

But send me the fish liver sauce3 too, whichever you think is good. Our lady mother is well and salutes you as well as your wives and sweetest children and our brothers and all our people. Salute our brothers [-]genes and Xydes. All our people salute you.

I pray that you fare well in the Lord.”

1 A gymnasiarch was the supervisor overseeing the gymnasium, a position of great significance particularly in the training of athletes for prestigious competitions, and developing into a wider role in municipal affairs of the metropolis of Roman Egypt. Prominent individuals vied to serve a term of one year or more during which they would have to give freely of their time and money. It was like the urban praetor role in Rome; the more sumptuous their contributions, the greater the title and the greater the honor.  If a gymnasiarch died before the term was up, his son would take over and serve it out. A court case (its records survive in papyrus fragments) in 155-6 A.D. attests to the importance of the office, how it conferred life-long, inheritable status, and how people could buy their place in the gymnasiarch rota from the heirs of a deceased one.

That was in the halcyon days of the Antonine dynasty, however. Things took a sharp 180 come the economic and military doldrums of the late Severan emperors. At the beginning of the 3rd century, trade slowed and money was so tight even among the city’s elite that people qualified for the role started working assiduously to avoid it. When he couldn’t dodge the expensive bullet, the new gymnasiarch served only one year and the expenses were shared by other incumbents to the office.

Against that backdrop of economic uncertainty and looming Crisis of the Third Century, I’m wondering if Arrianus is tossing his brother a bit of a hot potato when he tells him that side of the family can’t deal with this gymnasiarchy situation at the mo.  They seem to have been a locally notable family, incidentally, with two important offices (gymnasiarchy and city council) ongoing concurrently.

2 An aroura was a measure of arable land equal to a square of 100 Egyptian cubits.

3 I think this is the first time I’ve written about a letter in which somebody actually asks for garum to be sent! So many shipwrecks and residue-tested amphorae later, we get a glimpse of the demand behind the inexhaustible supply of brine-fermented mashed fish guts in the Roman world.

Huebner has published the letter in a monograph, Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament, now available for pre-order from Cambridge University Press.

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1st bull sacrifice found in Selinunte

July 12th, 2019

An excavation at the ancient Greek site of Selinus (modern-day Selinunte) in western Sicily has unearthed ancient votive sacrifices of bull horns and antlers. This is the first evidence of bull sacrifice discovered in Selinus whose acropolis is peppered with temples ranging in date from the earliest years of the city’s founding in the 7th century B.C. until its conquest by Carthage in the 4th century B.C.

An international team of archaeologists and students from New York University and University of Milan has been excavating the temple precinct for 13 seasons. This year’s dig expanded on three trenches along the sides of Temple R and Temple C. Built in the early and late-6th century B.C. respectively, R and C are among the oldest temples at the site, and the excavation focused on exploring the most ancient phases of the sanctuary when the temples were constructed.

Temple R libation altar. Photo courtesy the University of Milan.On the east side of Temple R, the archaeological mission unearthed the remains of the western wall of a cult structure with limestone foundations and a crude raised brick platform that dates to the last quarter of the 7th century B.C., predating construction of R. The square structure was approximately 15 feet long and included had two shrines. The discovery a votive deposit of red deer antler (Cervus Elaphus) just outside its perimeter indicates the building had a religious purpose. It appears to be the oldest cult building in the urban sanctuary of Selinunte. It was deliberately but carefully demolished when Temple R was built.

The excavation also revealed initial phases of construction of R, including two post holes, used to lift the stone blocks and a hollow libation altar in excellent condition. Most notably, the team unearthed a votive deposit of two bull horns (Bos Taurus) from a large adult animal. This is the first archaeological evidence for the sacrifice of bulls in the great urban sanctuary of Selinunte.

The trench between Temple R and Temple C has revealed the foundations of C, exposing how the slope of this side of the acropolis was artificially construction to support the monumental temple. This layers are well preserved and shed new light on how the temple was built, particularly the construction of the foundations and crepidoma (the platform on which the temple superstructure was built). Here archaeologists found additional votive deposits of exceptional quality made of gold, silver, ivory and one Egyptian faience falcon.

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Grave of 2nd king of Hungary may have been found

July 11th, 2019

Archaeologists believe they have discovered the grave of Peter I Orseolo, the second king of Hungary, in the crypt of the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul in Pécs, southwest Hungary. No remains were found in the tomb, likely because they were deliberately moved centuries later.

The team of archaeologists from the Janus Pannonius Museum were hoping to determine the location of the first cathedral built at the site in the 11th century. They discovered a wall under the crypt that was part of the original structure. The empty grave was found near it. As only the founders of churches were buried in the crypt in 11th century Hungary, the location suggests it was the burial of one of the founders.

The remains were carefully exhumed, not disturbed by later construction of haphazardly ditched. That indicates the remains belonged to someone of note, that they were removed with care for transfer to a new location. There are only two viable candidates: King Peter or Blessed Maurus, the second Bishop of Pécs. Maurus, however, died around 1075, after the construction of the current church, so the grave is almost certainly Peter’s.

The Orseolos were an illustrious Venetian noble family descended from Orso Ipato, dux of Venice, ie, leader of the Byzantine Empire’s military forces in territories under its rule. But while Venice was technically part of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna, it chafed at Byzantine control during this period of iconoclastic conflict between empire and papacy. In a big middle finger to the emperor, Venice elected its first independent Doge, the Venetian dialect’s word for dux, in 726: Orso Ipato. He was a great military leader who built Venice’s navy into a formidable force and helped kick the Lombards of King Liutprand out of Ravenna in 737 which eased tensions with the empire for a bit. (The Lombards would retake Ravenna in 751 and end Byzantine rule for good).

The next doge was Orso’s son Teodato. Another three Orseolos would take the office in the late 10th and early 11th century (five if you count Giovanni who co-ruled with his father Pietro II and Domenico who ruled for one day in 1031). The family was powerful militarily, wealthy and enormously influential, so much so that other Venetian families sought to bring them down and successfully did so. After the last real doge of the family, Ottone Orseolo, was exiled in 1026, its dominance of city politics was over.

By then the Orseolos had established very elevated connections indeed, ones that reached far beyond the boundaries of the lagoon. Ottone was named after his godfather, Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, and he married the sister of the Stephen I, first king of Hungary. When Stephen died in 1038, Ottone’s son Pietro succeeded his uncle as King of Hungary.

It would not be a placid transition. Stephen’s cousin Vazul had the stronger claim to the throne, but Stephen was not a fan and had him blinded and his sons exiled to smooth Pietro’s succession. Stephen, btw, would be canonized a saint less than 50 years after his death by Pope Gregory VII. Then, once Pietro was on the throne, he infuriated Hungary’s aristocracy by favoring Germans and Italians, both at court and in military alliances. He was also reputed to be a sexual predator who raped Hungarian noblewomen wherever he went.

Pietro was overthrown by Hungary’s lords in 1041. He did get his crown back, but he had to bend the knee to Holy Roman Emperor Henry III to get it. Henry invaded Hungary and slaughtered it back for Pietro. This second rule would be even shorter than the first, lasting from 1044 until 1046. This time it was a popular uprising by Hungarian non-Christians that overthrew him. Karma struck and he was blinded by supporters of Vazul’s son Andrew. Sources differ on when he died, then or a decade later, but whenever it happened, he was buried in St. Peter and St. Paul’s Cathedral, the church he had had built on the site of a late Roman cemetery. Pietro’s original cathedral burned down in 1064. The one that stands today was built over its remains.

The archaeological excavation of the crypt unearthed remains of the late 4th century Roman cemetery. They suggest Christian practices had reached this area of Hungary much earlier than previously realized. 

The Diocese plans to make the archaeological remains a permanent part of the church instead of reburying them. That way visitors to the crypt will be able to see its ancient and medieval antecedents.

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Bronze Age warrior tombs found in Sidon

July 10th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered the graves of Canaanite warriors from the 19th century B.C. in Sidon, Lebanon. The tombs were unearthed by a team of British Museum researchers who have been excavating the Frères archaeological site for 21 years and have discovered 171 ancient burials over the decades. The two found this season are particularly well-preserved.

The graves contained the skeletal remains of two adult males. The goods interred with them — bronze daggers and belts — identify the men as members of the warrior elite. The feet of sheep or goats were buried by the men’s feet so the animals would accompany them to the afterlife.

[The head of the British Museum’s delegation Claude] Doumet-Serhal said the daggers were not used for fighting, but were significant because they showed the warriors belonged to the society’s elite: “The Canaanites did not bury in such a way unless the dead belonged to the aristocratic and elite class of the Canaanite society.”

DNA taken previously from other Canaanites graves at Frères compared to the DNA of 100 Lebanese showed 95 percent were of Canaanite descent, Doumet-Serhal said, adding, “We were never divided. We were all Canaanites, then we were Phoenicians, then the Romans came, then the Byzantines, then the Arabs.”

This year’s dig season ends next week. The bronze artifacts found in the graves will be conserved and stored for future display in Sidon’s archaeological museum which has been under construction since 2014. The city’s 6,000 years of occupation and rich archaeological record has not been well represented until now. Almost all of the important artifacts unearthed in Sidon are in the National Museum in Beirut. The new museum will finally do the city’s history justice as a combination museum and archaeological park, with the city’s 6,000 years of archaeology visible under the ground floor and objects exhibited on the first floor.

“The belt and the daggers excavated will be placed in this Sidon museum next to all the pieces and artifacts discovered in this site over the course of 21 years,” Doumet-Serhal said.

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Triple Hecate confiscated from smugglers

July 9th, 2019

Police have recovered a striking Roman-era marble statue during a smuggling bust in Turkey’s southwestern Denizli province. Two vehicles were being followed as part of a police investigation into antiquities smuggling. Anti-smuggling and anti-organized crime police units pulled the cars over, searched them and the statue was discovered inside one. Four individuals were detained on suspicion of violations of the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage Law.

The reports in the press are meager with little in the way of detail. The sculpture is sketchily described as three-headed statue of a beautiful woman with torches and wings, but I don’t think that’s accurate. For one thing, each head has its own body, albeit squared at the side. You can tell from the Doric chiton they each wear that it’s three individual figures, not a single three-headed lady. The central female figure holds a torch in each hand, the side figures hold torches in one hand. The reliefs on the back described as “wings” just look like their second arms to me. They’re very roughly hewn with the draping lines indicating the short sleeves and Playmobil style gripper hands, so I can see why someone might consider them winglike.

This is a triple Hecate. Hecate was a protective deity, guardian of gates and crossroads, often depicted holding double torches and as a threesome, handy when you’re keeping watch over all lines of approach. Pausanias, in his 2nd century travelogue Description of Greece, claims that the 5th century B.C. sculptor Alcamenes was the first to create a triple statue of Hecate. If so, he started a trend that would outlast ancient Greece and Rome and still be going strong in artistic motifs by the likes of William Blake.

The worship of Hecate was widespread in Thrace and Anatolia. It may have even originated there and spread to Greece later. Hecate was a particular favorite of the ancient city of Byzantium who would become in its later Roman incarnation the capital of one empire, then the capital of another and is today the city of Istanbul.

Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, flush from a number of military successes, turned his attention to the Hellespont in 340 B.C., and besieged the city of Perinthus on the Sea of Marmara west of Byzantium. Perinthus, perched on a high slope with strong walls and stone houses jammed close together to act as a secondary barrier once the walls were breached, defended by the allied forces of Athens and constantly resupplied by Byzantium, proved too tough a nut for Philip to crack.

Hoping to choke off Perinthus’ support and take advantage of the absence of many of Byzantium’s troops, weapons and war machines, Philip peeled off half his army from the siege of Perinthus and hit Byzantium. His strategem failed. Neither city fell and Philip was forced to make a truce with them and their allies. Plutarch attributes Philip’s loss to skill of the Athenian general Phocion. Diodorus Siculus chalks it up to Philip giving up when a bunch of other Greek cities sent reinforcements to break his sieges.

The account of 6th century chronicler Hesychius of Miletus, on the other hand, posits a less terrestrial explanation for Philip’s defeat. It was a dark and stormy night. The moonless sky was a perfect setting for a sneak attack by Macedon’s troops. All of a sudden, a bright light illuminated the heavens and the city’s dogs barked loudly. Byzantium’s defenders awoke and fended off Philip’s soldiers, defeating the Macedonian decisively. The great light was the work of Hecate protecting her most devoted adherents with the aid of the animal most sacred to her, the dog. The dramatic end of the siege was commemorated with a great statue overlooking the Bosphorus of Hecate Lampadephoros, the lamp-carrier.

Triple Hecates have been found throughout the Roman Empire, and Turkey, which has a solid claim to the origin of the cult, is certainly no exception. There’s a beautiful example in the Archaeological Museum in Antalya 140 miles southeast of Denizli. It’s very similar to the one recovered by the police, only the recent discovery lacks its handsome proportion and attention to detail. It’s the budget option, basically.

The confiscated statue is now in the hands of archaeologists at the regional museum who will study it further.

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