Category Archive 'Ancient Art'

18 Oct 2017

Scythian Art at the British Museum

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Fourth-century BC gold buckle


Horse’s helmet


Headdress from Pazyryk

London Review of Books, At the British Museum:

Herodotus tells us that when Darius’ Persian army invaded Scythia, in the late sixth century bce, the Scythians ran away. The Persians followed them over the steppeland north of the Black Sea until, tiring of the pursuit, Darius sent a messenger to the Scythian king to tell him to make a stand or bend the knee. The Scythian king, Idanthyrsus, informed the messenger that as they had no cities or crops they had nothing to defend and could therefore afford to exhaust the Persians by making them traipse across the land. They would fight only if the Persians tried to loot their graves: ‘Attack those graves and you will soon discover whether we are fighters or not!’ Eventually, his army sickening and hungry, Darius gave up and returned to Persia.

Nomadic civilisations pose many of the same difficulties to archaeologists as they do to invading armies. They are difficult to pin down. For one thing the Scythians weren’t so much a people as some peoples. The term ‘Scythians’ is a collective name for a number of migratory tribes who spoke early Iranian dialects and enjoyed a similar lifestyle, culture, economy and set of beliefs. Between 800 bce and 300 bce, roughly speaking, these tribes roamed a vast expanse of land stretching from Central Asia in the east to the Hungarian plain in the west (an area that would include parts of south-west Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan today). They were wealthy, allegedly because they controlled the slave trade between Northern Europe and Greece. But being illiterate they left no manuscripts, and being nomadic no ruins. There are accounts of them written by non-Scythians, Herodotus most prominently, but a lot of what we know about them we know because the graves they were so keen to defend have been ransacked and their contents – in many cases well preserved by permafrost – brought to light.

These graves, or kurgans (their Slavic name), provided rich pickings for grave-robbers until looting them was made illegal by Peter the Great in the early 18th century. It was Peter the Great who commissioned the first archaeological excavations of Scythian tombs and his Siberian Collection, on which much of our knowledge of Scythian material culture depends, contains around 240 gold artefacts. One of the most famous pieces of Scythian art and the first exhibit in the British Museum’s current show (until 14 January 2018) is a fourth-century gold belt buckle from Peter’s collection, 16 cms wide and 12 cms tall, which depicts two men in low relief sitting with a dead comrade beneath a tree. The man on the right holds the reins of two horses while the man on the left cradles the head of his dead friend, who lies on the ground in a suit of armour looking a lot like the sculpture of a dead knight one might find on a medieval tomb. A quiver of arrows hangs from the tree. The leaves, horses’ heads and quiver all droop downwards giving the impression that the whole scene is sinking into the earth, drawn by the gravity of death.


02 Jul 2016

The Firoconi Cista

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The Ficoroni Cista, Bronze, Late 4th century BC, National Etruscan Museum of Villa Julia, Rome.

Maddalena Paggi, Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004:

Praenestine cistae are sumptuous metal boxes mostly of cylindrical shape. They have a lid, figurative handles, and feet separately manufactured and attached. Cistae are covered with incised decoration on both body and lid. Little studs are placed at equal distance at a third of the cista’s height all around, regardless of the incised decoration. Small metal chains were attached to these studs and probably used to lift the cistae.

As funerary objects, cistae were placed in the tombs of the fourth-century necropolis at Praeneste. This town, located 37 kilometers southeast of Rome in the region of Latius Vetus, was an Etruscan outpost in the seventh century B.C., as the wealth of its princely burials indicates. Excavations conducted at Praeneste in the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century were primarily aimed at the recovery of these precious-metal objects. The subsequent demand for cistae and mirrors caused the systematic plundering of the Praenestine necropolis. Cistae acquired value and importance in the antiquities market, which also encouraged the production of forgeries. Four Praenestine cistae, out of a total of 118 specimens so far recovered, are in New York City (three in the Metropolitan Museum and one in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library).

Cistae are a very heterogeneous group of objects, but vary in terms of quality, narrative, and size. Artistically, cistae are complex objects in which different techniques and styles coexist: engraved decoration and cast attachments seem to be the result of different technical expertise and traditions. Collaboration of craftsmanship was required for their two-stage manufacturing process: the decoration (casting and engraving) and the assembly.

The most famous cista and the first to be discovered is the Ficoroni presently in the Museum of Villa Giulia in Rome, named after the well-known collector Francesco de’ Ficoroni (1664–1747), who first owned it. Although the cista was found at Praeneste, its dedicatory inscription indicates Rome as the place of production: NOVIOS PLVTIUS MED ROMAI FECID/ DINDIA MACOLNIA FILEAI DEDIT (Novios Plutios made me in Rome/ Dindia Macolnia gave me to her daughter). These objects have often been taken as examples of middle Republican Roman art. However, the Ficoroni inscription remains the only evidence for this theory, while there is ample evidence for a local production at Praeneste.

The high-quality Praenestine cistae often adhere to the classical ideal. The proportions, composition, and style of the figures indeed present close connections and knowledge of Greek motifs and conventions. The engraving of the Ficoroni cista portrays the myth of the Argonauts, the conflict between Pollux and Amicus, in which Pollux is victorious. The engravings on the Ficoroni cista have been viewed as a reproduction of a lost fifth-century painting by Mikon. Difficulties remain, however, in finding precise correspondences between Pausanias’ description of such a painting and the cista.

The function and use of Praenestine cistae are still unresolved questions. We can safely say that they were used as funerary objects to accompany the deceased into the next world. It has also been suggested that they were used as containers for toiletries, like a beauty case. Indeed, some recovered examples contained small objects such as tweezers, make-up boxes, and sponges. The large size of the Ficoroni cista, however, excludes such a function and points toward a more ritualistic use.

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