Rare medieval healing bowl, archery rings found at Hasankeyf

This year’s excavation of the ancient Hasankeyf mound in southeastern Turkey has uncovered an 800-year-old bronze healing bowl and two archery rings made of agate and bone from the same period.

Healing bowls were used in medieval Islamic folk medicine to protect against animal bites. The inside of the bowl is engraved with talismanic verses, seals and images of a double-headed dragon, a dog, a snake and a scorpion. The dragon had apotropaic powers, providing protection from evil in two directions. The folk belief was that drinking water from a healing bowl would heal the drinker from dog, snake and scorpion bites. The engraving on this bowl makes the association specific. There are only 22 medieval healing bowls documented in museums and private collections around the world.

Archery rings (zihgirs in Arabic) were worn on the finger to protect the skin from damage from a bowstring. They were held in high value and were culturally significant artifacts in the Turkish-Islamic arts of the Middle Ages. These are the first zihgirs unearthed at Hasankeyf. One of them was found in a tomb of an adult male. The presence of the valuable ring indicates the deceased was someone of note, but no references to his identity have been found in the grave.

Built on the banks of the Tigris, Hasankeyf is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, with evidence of occupation going back 12,000 years. The bowl and rings have been transferred to the Hasankeyf Museum Directorate for conservation and display.

German museum weirdly asks Italy to give back the Discobolus

The Discobolus Palombara, also known as the Discus Thrower, was discovered in 1781 at the Villa Palombara on the Esquiline Hill, one of the palaces of the princely Massimo family. It was a 1st-century A.D. marble copy of a famous 5th century B.C. bronze by the Athenian sculptor Myron of Eleutherae. The original was probably cast for the city of Sparta. The pose of the athlete captured at the moment of maximum coiled tension just before he spins around and releases the discus introduced a new dynamism into Classical sculpture that was widely admired and copied for centuries.

The original was long lost, known only from ancient sources, when the Discobolus Palombara was unearthed. It was the first version of the famous work to be discovered. It is life-sized (many copies are reduced in scale) and is the most complete of any the copies that were later found. It caused an immediate sensation and vaulted into the small club of the greatest surviving works of antiquity.

The sculpture was classified as a work of exceptional national interest by Italy’s 1909 cultural heritage law which made it illegal to export, but in the mid-1930s, the Lancellotti-Massimo branch of the family had financial problems and declared they would sell the Discobolus for the princely sum of eight million lire. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was interested, but ultimately balked at the price.

Hitler was enraptured by Classical Greek art, describing it in Mein Kampf as “the wonderful combination of the most glorious physical beauty with a brilliant mind and the noblest soul.” That harmony was in stark contrast, he believed, to the “degenerate” aesthetics of Modernist art. The representation of the heroic male nude was a particular favorite of his as it tied to his ideals of the perfectly fit, strong and muscular Aryan male, trained in sport and war.

The prologue to Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 Olympia, her influential albeit interminable movie dedicated to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, makes the connection between the Classical ideal of beauty and the New German Man explicit: a long montage of the ruins of the Acropolis dissolving into famous Greco-Roman statues, prominently featuring ones in German collections.

The first is the Barberini Faun, which was sold to Ludwig, Crown Prince of Bavaria, in 1827, and has been in the Glyptothek in Munich, built by Ludwig specifically to house his huge collection of Greek and Roman sculpture, since it opened in 1830. Riefenstahl returns to the faun several times. The second is an extreme closeup of the Medusa Rondanini, also collected by Ludwig on his Grand Tour and in the Glyptothek. The Glyptothek’s Braschi Aphrodite makes an appearance as well.

Then, out of a cloud of dramatic smoke rises the Discobolus who morphs into a chiseled German athlete nude in a field throwing a discus into the sun-broken clouds in slow motion. Nude shot-putters, javelin throwers and more discus shots follow, as Riefenstahl claims the inheritance of ancient Greek representations of beauty and athleticism for the Master Race.

In 1937, the year after the Berlin Olympics, Prince Philip of Hesse went to Italy as head of an art buying expedition commissioned by Adolph Hitler. The Discobolus was at the top of the Führer’s wish list. Mussolini was glad to sell the black shirt of his own back to curry favor with Hitler, and the cultural patrimony of the nation was just as expendable. The Minister of Education protested the prospective sale, pointing out that by law the sculpture could not be exported, but Mussolini overrode all objections and ordered that Hitler get his heart’s desire. Mussolini’s son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, then Foreign Minister, arranged a private sale. On April 20th, 1938, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia debuted in movie theaters. On May 18th, 1938, the German government paid Prince Lancellotti 16 million lire in cash for the priceless Discobolus. In June 1938, Hitler presented it to the Glyptothek in Munich as a gift to the German people.

Ten years later, it was returned to Italy, one of thousands of artworks stolen, coerced or illegally purchased by the Nazis that were restituted after the war thanks to the diligence of Monuments Men from the Allied armies and national delegates to the task force. Germany strenuously objected to the repatriation of the Discobolus as it had been bought from a willing seller for exorbitant piles of cash, not looted or the product of a forced sale. They took it to the courts repeatedly and went so far as to lodge an official appeal with the President of the United States, Harry Truman. It didn’t work and the Discobolus has been in Italy since November 1948, now in the permanent collection of the National Roman Museum at the Palazzo Massimo.

Amazingly enough, it seems after 75 years, Bavarian museum officials still harbor delusions that their brief, illegal possession of the Discobolus has a chance in Hell of being reinstated.

The dispute arose when the director of the National Roman Museum requested the statue’s 17th Century marble base be returned from the Antikensammlungen state antiquities collection. The German museum instead asked for the return of the Discobolus Palombara, saying it had been illegally transported to Italy in 1948, the Corriere della Sera newspaper reported Friday.

Italy’s culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, expressed doubts that the German culture minister, Claudia Roth, was aware of the Bavarian request.

“Over my dead body. The work absolutely must remain in Italy because it is a national treasure,’’ Sangiuliano was quoted by Corriere as saying, adding that he hoped that the base would be returned.

The fraught history of the Discobolus Palombara was just recently brought to the forefront again when it was featured in the Liberated Art 1937-1947 exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome early this year.

Tiny Roman tortoise found in Suffolk

A small Roman copper-alloy tortoise figurine has been discovered near the village of Wickham Skeith in Suffolk, England. It was found in July of last year by a metal detectorist. There is no precise date, but the stratigraphy of a comparable tortoise dated it to the beginning of the 2nd century A.D.

At just over one inch long and just under one inch wide, the sub-circular tortoise has a projecting rounded head with smaller projecting rounded feet. (The front left one is broken.) The tail is triangular and projects from the lower half of the back. The shell is mounded, and although it is heavily worn, two lines of crescent-shaped grooves are visible down the length of it. If there was any decoration on the ventral side, it is gone. The flat underbelly is heavily abraded.

There is no evidence that this small creature was originally a mounted decoration or a brooch. This was likely a free-standing figure.

Tortoises or turtles were most often associated with the god Mercury in the Roman world and Mercury is often found accompanied by turtles/tortoises in iconography. Mercury was the god of commerce, communication and travellers. A possible reason for the association with Mercury was that tortoise shells were used for making lyres, stringed musical instruments used in antiquity, the invention of which is attributed to Mercury in mythology.

The wee tortoise was reported to the Suffolk Finds Liaison of the Portable Antiquities Scheme for documentation and has now been returned to the finder.

Lion mosaic found at Roman theater in Konuralp

A mosaic of two lions has been discovered at the Roman theater in the ancient city of Prusias ad Hypium in modern-day Konuralp on the northwest coast of Turkey. The iconography is unique in Turkey.

The mosaic was found in a room of the portico in the middle of the theater axis. The room was rectangular and the walls were covered with marble slabs attached with a thick layer of mortar. The mosaic covers the entire floor and is almost intact. The main length of it features a floral vault pattern. The foundation of a large platform is on the north side of the room. The borders of the mosaic embrace it in a U shape.

On the south half of the room is the central mosaic, an example of very fine local craftsmanship. It is made out of white, blue, yellow, green and brown tesserae arranged in alternating borders — concentric squares of white, guilloche, white, brown and black forming a frame. In the center of the frame, composed by smaller precision tesserae, is a scene of two lions standing on either side of a pine tree. Hanging from the tree are a tympanum (a drum or tamborine) on the left branch and a pan flute on the right branch.

Archaeologists believe this was a space dedicated to the cult of Dionysus. Dionysian parades often featured Silenus and maenads playing the tympanum and pan flute. The god is usually in a chariot drawn by large cats, such as panthers, lions and tigers. He is also shown riding a lion. Dionysus himself once turned into a lion to escape some pirates who tried to hold him for ransom.

The theater was elaborately decorated and over the past four years of excavations, archaeologists have uncovered many architectural fragments with carved reliefs of Actaeon being devoured by his hunting dogs, the gorgon Medusa, masks of comedy and tragedy, floral decorations, egg and dart ornaments and much more. In September of this year, a well-preserved 2nd century portrait head of Alexander the Great was discovered at the theater.

Small medieval coin hoard assigned to Ostróda Museum

A small but significant hoard of medieval coins found near the town of Iława in northern Poland has been transferred to the Ostróda Museum by the provincial conservator of monuments. There are 13 coins and partial coins, most of them cross denari: silver coins minted in Saxony specifically for trade with the Western Slavs. One of the fragmentary coins (used for its weight value) is a 13th century bracteate minted by Sambor II, Duke of Pomerania.

The coins are named for the cavalier’s cross that is always found on the reverse of these denari. Both the obverse and reverse have what looks like lettering bordering the central images and symbols, but they are imitations, a pseudo-legend rather than an inscription. Without any real inscriptions or any other references to the minting year, they are impossible to date precisely, but they were only in production between 965 A.D. and the beginning of the 12th century. They have unusually high edges on both sides.

Cross denari were the primary currency in what is now Poland in the second half of the 11th century. Several hoards of cross denari hve been found in Poland, the largest of which, discovered in 1935 in Słuszków, central Poland, contained more than 12,500 coins.

According to Łukasz Szczepański from the Ostróda Museum, the location of this treasure fits in an interesting way with the identified settlement structure of the southern Jeziorak microregion.

“We have there, among others, a Prussian stronghold from the 11th-12th centuries, a network of open settlements, various types of earth fortifications that are attributed to Prussia. This treasure complements our knowledge about the settlement activity of this zone” – said the archaeologist.

Metal detectorists from the Iława Search Group discovered the coin hoard on a hillside outside the town on a weekend rally earlier this year. As required by Polish law, the metal detectorists had permission from the landowner and the conservator of monuments to search the site. The group hopes that this find and others they’ve made will go on display in a future local museum in Iława, but until then, the Ostróda Museum will be the beneficiary of their work.