I attended a lovely reception last night (April 20) at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Randall Library for the opening of “Illumination,” a one month show focusing on research conducted by UNCW Art History students, under the guidance of Professor Nick Hudson, on a group of 100 ancient oil lamps and pottery vessels from the Levant. The lamps and vessels were a gift I arranged for one of my long term clients to make, and I worked closely with Prof. Hudson on completing this gift. The show continues through May 30 and is well worth a visit if you are in Wilmington. Here are a few images.
It’s been some time since Clio Ancient Art offered any antiquities from the Neolithic but the “Stone Age,” as well as the related subject areas of early technologies and experimental archaeology, are certainly of great interest to many of our followers. That’s why I’m recommending a video channel on YouTube called “Beyond2000BC.” The series is presented by Will Lord, who runs a commercial operation putting on workshops on everything from flint knapping to bronze casting and Medieval archery. There are other comparable channels by survival experts, etc. but I particularly like Will Lord’s sense of craftsmanship and appreciation for the process of making.
The “Beyond2000BC” channel currently hosts something over 60 videos. Here is a direct link to one of these, a recent video about a bronze casting workshop and the ancient and medieval objects the participants were trying to replicate Opens in a new tab or window):
and here is a link to the channel’s home page. Enjoy the videos.
Two news items appeared in the popular press during the second half of September, 2016 that addressed recent discoveries of possible East Asian migrants in a Roman period cemetery in London and Late Roman coins found in excavations of a Medieval castle on the Japanese island of Okinawa. While some aspects of the initial excavation reporting was misinterpreted in the popular press, these discoveries do fit into a larger pattern of exchange between the Mediterranean world and the Far East, including not only China but also Vietnam, Korea and Japan. In this brief article, I’d like to examine some of the inaccuracies in the recent news reporting and explore the implications of this surprisingly widespread pattern of exchange spanning distances of as much as 6,000 miles.
News outlets ran stories beginning on September 23 that attempted to summarize the results of a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, in which the authors had raised the possibility, based on a small sample of Roman period skeletons excavated in London (Roman Londinium), that a couple of the bodies might have had a far eastern origin. Unfortunately, popular reporting of scientific papers, and especially the often sensationalist headlines that result, tends to be misleading. Bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove promptly wrote an article for Forbes magazine in which she pointed out the limitations of the initial study and the ways in which the results had been misinterpreted. In her view, put simply, while contact between ancient China and the Mediterranean world certainly did occur, in the form of trade and even diplomatic missions, and that with further study it was quite possible that human remains from the Mediterranean might be found in east Asia and visa-versa, the rush to assume that limited evidence might suggest a Chinese origin for two skeletons in a small sample from Roman London was premature.
A few days later, a flurry of news stories appeared covering the finding of a small number of Roman bronze coins of the Constantinian Dynasty during excavations at the medieval Katsuren Castle on the Island of Okinawa. Initial reports in the Japan Times online and other news outlets showed images of a 17th Century Ottoman coin also found at the site, with a caption indicating it was Roman (see image below). The Japan Times corrected this error the next day with an updated photo and caption. But the initial error underscores the need for popular news outlets reporting on archaeological or other science stories to fully understand their material before publication, something that rarely occurs.
The find on Okinawa is puzzling, given the difference in age between the coins themselves and the period in which the Castle was flourishing, a span of nearly a thousand years. A few possibilities present themselves: That the Castle has a much earlier origin than previously supposed and the coins have somehow been moved by burrowing animals out of their original context in earlier layers, to be found in the Medieval layers being excavated now. That the coins had been kept in the castle for centuries as exotic curiosities. That the coins had slowly traveled eastward over a period of centuries (less likely). That the coins had been part of the cargo of a ship wrecked on the Island’s coast and found by locals centuries later during a low tide or after a storm dislodged them from the buried wreckage. Perhaps future seasons of excavation at the Castle site will offer clues.
While the Okinawa find is unusual in that the Roman coins are so much earlier than the strata in which they were found, artifacts from the ancient Mediterranean world, from the later Hellenistic Period on through the Roman and Byzantine, are surprisingly common finds in east Asian contexts. The Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia and China were not unknown to the later Hellenistic kingdoms or the Roman Empire. One literary source illustrates this in detail, while still leaving tantalizing questions. This is the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a trade and maritime navigation manual probably written in the mid-1st Century AD by an unknown author, and surviving as a 10th Century Byzantine copy. The Erythraean Sea encompassed, to the ancient Greek speaking world, what we now know as the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. The work is so detailed that the trade routes and ports mentioned must have already been well known and frequently visited by the time the manuscript was written. It includes clear references to the Himyarite and Sabaean Kingdoms in southern Arabia, the ports of Bharuch in Northwest India and Kochi in Southwest India, and after rounding the tip of India, other ports that may be associated with the Ganges River Delta and beyond in what is now Bangladesh and Myanmar (Burma). These most distant locales are more difficult to pinpoint on a modern map due to their ancient place names being so obscure.
Of course, sea routes were not the only method of contact between these widely separated cultures. The famed Silk Route, which was actually a network of many routes through Central Asia, connected the Roman Empire with the Chinese Han Empire (205 BC – 220 AD). The vast Roman output of gold coinage through Indian intermediaries for Chinese silks and Indian and Southeast Asian spices is proof of the frequency and volume of this two way trade. Many hoards of Roman gold coins have been found in southern India. But perhaps the most spectacular evidence of the reciprocal nature of trade along this land route is the Begram Treasure from Afghanistan, found in a Kushan royal storehouse at the Begram site. Begram had been the capital of one of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdoms. By the time the treasures found in this warehouse were deposited, the site had become capital of the Kushan Empire. Found there were classical bronzes and Romano-Egyptian painted glass vessels, probably made in Alexandria in the first decades after Egypt was incorporated into the Roman Empire, alongside Han Chinese lacquer boxes and ivory carvings from India.
Finds of Roman antiquities still much farther east are surprisingly common. Han Dynasty Chinese tombs have turned up many examples of Roman gold, silver, bronze and glass artifacts. A particularly striking example, pictured below, is a large 2nd or early 3rd Century Roman gilt silver plate featuring a central image of Dionysus and his associated animal, a panther. This example was found by chance during construction work in Gansu Province, China.
The diffusion of blown and cast glass across what is now southern Russia and Northern China , which was highly valued by the semi-nomadic cultures of the Central Asian steppe and by far eastern cultures that had not yet adopted glass blowing, helps explain the presence of Roman glass vessels in the Silla Dynasty royal tombs of Korea. Excavated in the early 1970s, Silla royal tomb number 98 held the remains of King Nae-Mool and his Queen. The Silla Kingdom was focused on the Southeastern part of the Korean Peninsula yet the tomb goods originated in the Roman and Sassanian Empires and parts of Central Asia. Among these was a glass ewer and several glass cups, all of typically Late Roman type. Their rarity and value to the Silla royalty may be judged by the fact that the damaged handle on the ewer, pictured below, had been repaired using gold wire. This finding was not unique. Several other examples of Roman and Sassanian glass, including an early Roman Millefiori glass cup now in the National Museum of Korea, have been found in Gyeongju tombs.
This article began with a report on Roman coins found on Okinawa and we end it with impressive finds of Roman period glass in Japan. Having spanned the entire Asian Continent with a breadcrumb trail of Roman and related antiquities, the journey ends facing the Pacific Ocean. In 2012, researchers excavating a 5th Century tomb near Kyoto found three Roman glass beads among the burial accessories. Chemical analysis confirmed their origin as Roman, with traces of natron in their makeup. More spectacularly, in November, 2014, Japanese archaeologists announced the recover of two ancient glass vessels, essentially intact, from a high status 5th Century tomb in Nara Prefecture. Chemical and stylistic analysis made clear that the elegant blue glass dish was from the Roman Empire, while the painted glass bowl originated in the Sassanian Empire, Rome’s great rival. Unlike the puzzling coin find on Okinawa, these objects seem to have been interred with their owner’s remains within decades of their manufacture. At the time, Japanese glass making technology was limited to small, opaque, bean shaped glass beads, so large colored and clear glass vessels of this type would have been highly prized, just as they were in China and Korea.
No doubt, rapid improvement in bioarchaeological techniques will soon permit the identification of human remains in seemingly unlikely places, such as the possible Asian remains in Roman London. Combined with continuing finds of material culture such as those listed here, it may be possible in the future to dispel the old notions of a lack of mobility and communications in the ancient world.
Apart from the news stories mentioned here, which are easily found via web search, here are links to Kristine Killgrove’s thoughtful, cautionary article in Forbes – http://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2016/09/23/chinese-skeletons-in-roman-britain-not-so-fast/#1c9329b9ef9b
And to the Roman glass vessels in the National Museum of Korea – https://www.museum.go.kr/site/eng/relic/search/view?relicId=4452
Recent news reports out of the City of Paphos, Cyprus describe a clash between the Mayor of Paphos on the one hand and the Cyprus antiquities department and its local Museum in Paphos on the other, with official pronouncements, competing press conferences and plenty of mudslinging. The Mayor indirectly accuses staff at the Museum and organized crime (directly) of being involved in trafficking antiquities and the Museum of not completing a long term project to catalog and digitize their collection of some 20,000 0bjects. In a surprising twist, the Museum staff and antiquities department head have denied there is any illicit trade in antiquities in the area, despite police evidence to the contrary. Something is fishy on the coast of Cyprus.
This row is in many respects a manifestation of long term problems in antiquities-rich nations involving how to store, record and care for countless archaeological and casual finds. Many Mediterranean nations have found themselves increasingly pressed to adequately store and preserve the wealth of archaeological materials excavated or accidentally unearthed in their territories. The situation has been described as “a crisis in curation” and a problem that “continues to be widespread and serious.” At the same time, local governments are eager to benefit financially from tourist revenue generated through the display of antiquities in Museums or in situ. An excellent paper on this issue is: Kersel, Morag M. “Storage Wars: Solving the Archaeological Curation Crisis?” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 3.1 (2015): 42-54.
Here are two articles on this ongoing clash, one from The Committee for Cultural Policy website: https://committeeforculturalpolicy.org/cyprus-mayor-accuses-museum-staff-of-stealing-antiquities/
The other from the “incyprus” news site: http://in-cyprus.com/fedonos-organised-crime-behind-antiquities-looting/
All links open in a new tab or window.
A new post on the Staffordshire Hoard website has announced completion of the cleaning and conservation project. With many tiny fragments emerging from the soil during this process, the total number of pieces is now about 4,000. Several pieces have been reconstructed from these fragments, with surprising results. The research phase is continuing and a catalog, research reports and much more will be available online in 2018. The Hoard website already has an excellent photo gallery of some of the key objects. Read the latest here (opens in a new tab or window). – http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/news/staffordshire-hoard-conservation-programme-completed
Roman chariot race mosaic revealed in Cyprus, best collection of pics and a video from the “incyprus” news site (opens in a new tab or page) – http://in-cyprus.com/unique-akaki-ancient-mosaic-revealed-pictures
There have been several exciting antiquities related developments in the news over the past month, particularly in the field of Roman archaeology. Here is a roundup of some we found especially interesting (links open in a new tab or window). –
* A great short video on one artifact from The British Museum’s multicultural Sicily exhibition – https://youtu.be/rLhfKLGEY2U
* Rare discovery of Late Roman official buried in Leicester –
* Roman Ceramic Factory Found in Israel – http://www.livescience.com/55523-roman-pottery-shop-israel-photos.html
* Bronze figure of Roman goddess unearthed at Arbeia
in South Shields – http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/bronze-figure-roman-goddess-unearthed-11673851
* August Blog update on excavations at Vindolanda Roman Fort – http://www.vindolanda.com/_blog/excavation
This large and impressive textile, our Object of the Week, is a fragment from a Coptic Egyptian garment and features complex geometric and foliate designs. Thanks to exceptionally dry conditions, many types of artifacts made from perishable materials that would not survive elsewhere are common finds on Egyptian archaeological sites. Between the late 18th and early 20th Century great numbers of ancient Egyptian textile fragments from all periods were retrieved by local Egyptian treasure hunters and artifacts dealers for sale to foreign visitors, by foreigners conducting their own ad-hoc “excavations” and by archaeologists, often excavating using methods that would by today’s standards be considered little more than treasure hunting.
While textiles of all types, from the most humble garments to the most elaborate, and from every period of Egypt’s long history have been preserved in the dry environment, Coptic textiles are a class unto themselves. In common parlance, use of the term “Coptic” here refers both to the time period from which these textiles date – corresponding to the roughly 300 year period of Byzantine rule in Egypt – and the Christian culture that created them, as the Coptic Church, still very much alive today in Egypt, gives its name to both the ancient and modern Coptic culture. This uniquely Coptic textile style continued on in Egypt long after the Islamic conquest of the 7th Century AD.
Many Coptic textile fragments, and in some cases entire garments, have since found their way into museum collections. This has somewhat reduced the number of high quality examples available on the legitimate art market. But many fine examples can be acquired from the major London and New York auction houses and reputable antiquities dealers in Europe and the North America.
This example is tapestry woven in black (now appearing purple) with red details on a cream ground, with two parallel strips of mostly foliate and geometric patterning, including remains of a few figural elements contained in lozenges. The fragment has been professionally mounted on a linen backing and very neatly framed and is suitable for hanging. It was acquired on the Swedish art market in December, 2009 and was formerly in a late 19th – early 20th Century Cairo collection. It dates from the 5th to 7th Century AD, and has the following dimensions: 27.9 x 17.8 cm (11 x 7 in.); 17 x 13.5 inches with the frame For related examples, see the Rietz Collection of Coptic textiles in the California Academy of Sciences, online catalog numbers CAS 0389-2421 and CAS 0389-2416.
For those interested in acquiring this object, you may do so on our Etsy site here – https://www.etsy.com/listing/262372123/framed-coptic-egyptian-textile-fragment
There are excellent print and online resources for the student or collector of ancient Coptic textiles. The Coptic Tapestry Albums & The Archaeologist of Antinoe, Albert Gayet by Nancy Arthur Hoskins, is a very accessible, lavishly color illustrated guide to the collection amassed by the controversial French psuedo-archaeologist Albert Gayet in the late 19th Century. It describes Coptic textile production techniques as well as offering insight into how collections of these objects were built in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Online, in addition to the Rietz Collection mentioned above, we recommend the Indiana University Museum’s small but excellent online collections – http://www.iub.edu/~iuam/online_modules/coptic/cophome.html.
Our object of the week is an intact Roman glass toilet bottle, usually called an unguentarium. This name seems to be a 19th Century invention, based on the ancient Roman term “unguentarius,” a word used to describe sellers of perfumes. This type of glass vessel is believed to have been used for dispensing perfumed oils for both daily and ritual use. The actual Roman name for this type of vessel is unknown, despite the form being relatively common.
Our example is structurally intact. The vessel consists of a long bag shaped body, wider and rounded towards the bottom, with a tall narrow neck that widens to a rim that has been thickened by folding it back over itself. Around the body is a thin trail of glass, applied while molten, making seven full revolutions around the vessel, starting from just above the base and ending at the rim. A pair of chunky handles are attached very thickly to the midpoint of the vessel, are pulled outward and meet it just below the rim. Much of this decorative trailing is still intact. There is some encrusted reddish soil inside the vessel and in recessed areas of the exterior, obscuring the vessel’s original color. The original glass color, which is a transparent green-blue, may be seen clearly at the top of the vessel in the first image above. The vessel sits on a thick, round pad base. When the glass worker was attaching the completed vessel to this base he did so slightly off-center, which may also be seen most clearly in the first of two photographs above.
Unguentaria were first made popular in the Hellenistic period but these were mainly of pottery. Many of these have survived, making them rather inexpensive today, and a few are available on our eBay and Etsy stores. While the pottery types continued into the Roman period, it was the development of glass blowing, making glass a common and affordable commodity rather then the preserve of the wealthy, that made our vessel possible. Blown glass unguentaria have survived in countless forms. The Corning Museum of Glass’ printed and online catalogs of unguentaria list dozens of distinct variations, though few have the twin handles of our example until the middle and late Roman period. Our example was made in the Eastern Mediterranean, probably in the coastal region of what is now Israel/Palestine and Lebanon This form continued on and developed in new directions during the early Byzantine period in the Near East and changed again with the advent of Islamic rule in the region.
This vessel was part of a large collection of antiquities formed by a Welsh collector between the 1970s and 2008, drawn from the UK and European art markets. The collection was dispersed at auction by Bonhams, London, Sale #16777, 29 April, 2009. this object was part of Lot # 302.
For those interested in purchasing this item, you may find it here —
Our Etsy store (opens in a new tab or window) – https://www.etsy.com/listing/261567267/roman-glass-unguentarium-late-3rd-4th?ref=shop_home_active_8
Our eBay store (opens in a new tab or window) – http://www.ebay.com/itm/Roman-Glass-Tubular-Vessel-with-Trailing-4th-5th-Century-AD-/131818636485?hash=item1eb100c4c5:g:SdoAAOSw6BtVU2zy
To learn more about unguentaria and ancient Roman glass in general, we recommend the following printed and web resources —
- E. Marianne Stern, “Roman, Byzantine and Early Medieval Glass, 10 BCE-700 CE” Ernesto Wolf Collection, 2001.
- Roman Glass in the Corning Museum of Glass, Volumes I and II, Corning Museum of Glass, 1997 and 2001, respectively
Because these printed resources are quite expensive, we also recommend online research. The Corning Museum of Glass has a tremendous online collection of ancient glass, especially Roman. A simple search for the word “Ancient” with an image brought up 4,644 results (new tab or window) – http://www.cmog.org/collection/search?f=bs_has_image%3A1&f=im_field_object_work_type%3A299021&solrsort=
Also useful is this exploration of Roman glass from the University of Pennsylvania Museum (new tab or window) – http://www.penn.museum/sites/Roman%20Glass/index.html
Today we are launching a new feature, entitled “Clio’s Object of the Week.” In this feature we plan to highlight a single antiquity or ancient coin from our stock and explore the object in more detail than is normally permitted in our commercial listings. A link will be included for those interested in purchasing the item.
Our choice for the first object in this weekly feature is a superb Cypriot Black on Red Ware pottery bowl. This deep bowl dates to the 7th Century BC, which on the Island of Cyprus would correspond the Iron Age and specifically what is referred to in archaeological terms as the Cypro-Archaic Period. This last term is intended to suggest a linkage to the Archaic Period of the Greek mainland and islands, a time when Greek civilization was beginning to fully emerge from the so-called “dark age” that followed the collapse of earlier Bronze Age civilizations in Greece and many parts of the eastern Mediterranean. By the Cypro-Archaic Period, most of Cyprus was Greek speaking. The Island’s small city states had recently freed themselves from a period of Assyrian rule, though they would later be controlled briefly by Egypt and Persia, before becoming fully integrated into the Hellenistic world.
Cypriot Black on Red Ware, also sometimes known as Cypro-Phoenician Ware, typically has a burnished red slip with added decoration in thin black lines. The motifs used are typically “bulls eye” designs and parallel lines forming concentric circles in varying thicknesses. Evidence suggests that it was produced only on the Island of Cyprus at multiple production centers beginning around 850 BC, and had a long life, continuing into the 5th Century BC. Although a great deal of Cypriot pottery of all periods was legally exported from the Island during the period of Ottoman rule, especially in the 19th Century, and during the British colonial period from 1914 through 1960, deep bowls of this type are much less common than the juglets and other closed form containers available on the antiquities market today.
Of special interest on this example are the fingerprints of the potter who made it – two smudged finger marks in black slip. These are visible in the first image at the top of this article, inside the bowl at upper left, and again in the image above, directly alongside the handle but inside the bowl. These marks are a remarkable survival from antiquity. They remind us that pottery such as this was intended primarily as utilitarian ware, not as art, and that modern collectors and art historians have redefined such objects as art based on rarity and beauty.
To view this object on our Etsy store, go here (opens in a new tab or window): https://www.etsy.com/listing/280649766/cypriot-black-on-red-ware-large-pottery?ref=shop_home_active_8
To view this object on our eBay store, go here (opens in a new tab or window): http://www.ebay.com/itm/Cypriot-Black-on-Red-Ware-Large-Pottery-Bowl-7th-Century-BC-/131793379127?hash=item1eaf7f5f37:g:yP8AAOSw8d9UsZhX
To learn more about ancient Cyprus, we recommend the following books —
Ancient Art from Cyprus: The Cesnola Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, N.Y.), 2000
The Art of Ancient Cyprus by Desmond Morris, Phaidon, 1985
For online resources we recommend –
- The ancient Cyprus page on the Ashmolean Museum’s website (opens in a new tab or window) – http://www.ashmolean.org/ash/amps/cyprus/
- The ancient Cyprus page on the British Museum’s website (opens in a new tab or window) – http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/publications/online_research_catalogues/ancient_cyprus_british_museum.aspx