On June 9th, Duke’s of Dorchester auction house will be selling an ancient gold myrtle wreath kept for years in a box under a bed in Somerset. Duke’s appraiser Guy Schwinge went to the cottage to examine some of the belongings of the elderly resident. He was amazed when the owner pulled a busted old cardboard box out from under the bed, dug through the crumpled up newspaper and fished out a Hellenistic gold wreath. It’s a hoop of pure gold with gold myrtle leaves and flowers attached that obscure the hoop and give it the look of a natural myrtle wreath when seen from the front. The workmanship is very fine, with delicate veining on the leaves and details like the anthers and filaments of the flowers.
The style suggests it dates to around the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., but its exact age can’t be determined.
“It is notoriously difficult to date gold wreaths of this type. Stylistically it belongs to a rarefied group of wreaths dateable to the Hellenistic period and the form may indicate that it was made in Northern Greece,” [said Guy Schwinge].
“It is eight inches across and weighs about 100 grams. It’s pure gold and handmade, it would have been hammered out by a goldsmith.
“The wreath is in very nice condition for something that’s 2,300 years old. It’s a very rare antiquity to find, they don’t turn up often. I’ve never seen one in my career before.”
I’ve never seen an ancient Hellenistic gold wreath with those hoops at the end of the circlet before. The current owner, who prefers to remain anonymous, inherited the piece from his grandfather. He doesn’t know anything about it. He is quoted in the article saying that his grandfather traveled extensively in the 1940s and 1950s, including in northwest Greece near the border, but the Duke’s auction catalogue says it was acquired by the seller’s grandfather in the 1930s.
It’s all a bit shady, especially since according to the article there are still bits of dirt embedded in the wreath. Dirt suggests recent excavation, not something that was bought legitimately 60, 70 or even 80 years ago. Gold wreaths are expensive, small and portable which makes them highly desirable to looters. In 2006 the Getty had to return one they had bought in 1993 from a “Swiss private collection,” ie, a gang of Greek smugglers, to Greece. In 2012 traffickers were caught red-handed trying the sell a looted gold wreath in Greece. On the other hand, there are plenty of nooks and crannies in the hammered sheet gold for dirt to nestle in for the long haul. If it was never professionally cleaned, it’s possible that some of the soil from its burial place stuck over decades.
It almost certainly was deliberately buried as a funerary offering. Wreaths of braided flowers, grasses, leaves and branches were used in ancient Greece and Rome as symbols of victory, honor and sovereignty crowning the heads of Olympic athletes, generals on the battlefield, even literary giants like Ovid and Virgil. Wreaths also symbolized the ascension to immortality or apotheosis, often seen in funerary monuments held over the head of a deified emperor, for example.
Myrtle, along with laurel, palm, oak, olive, grape vines and ivy, were popular wreath motifs. The myrtle was associated with the goddess Aphrodite, symbolizing love and immortality. Myrtle wreaths were worn at weddings, by victorious athletes and by initiates into the Eleusinian mysteries. In Rome, the Corona Ovalis was given to a military commander determined by the Senate to be worthy of an ovation (a ceremony a step short of a triumph) for a victory realized without bloodshed.
Gold versions of the wreaths during the Hellenstic period were placed in graves as funerary offerings for the honored dead or dedicated to the gods in sanctuaries. They were too fragile for use as crowns or diadems in life. They are best known from the graves of Macedonian rulers — a gold myrtle wreath believed to have beloned to Meda, fifth wife of Philip II of Macedon, was found in the royal tombs at Vergina — but Hellenistic gold wreaths have been found as far afield as southern Italy and the Dardanelles.
The articles about the Somerset wreath say it could sell for as much as £100,000 ($146,000), but Duke’s is far more circumspect. The pre-sale estimate is £10,000-20,000 ($14,600-29,000).