Here are images, with links, to some recent additions to our Etsy and eBay online stores. Links will open in a new window or tab.
Here are images, with links, to some recent additions to our Etsy and eBay online stores. Links will open in a new window or tab.
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.
Our object of the week is an unusual type of pottery oil lamp dating from the later years of the Roman Empire, not long before the full transition of the Empire’s eastern half to what we now call the Byzantine Empire. This general type of pottery lamp seems to have been manufactured at workshops in northern Syria, and possibly further south into what is now Lebanon, over a period of nearly 200 years. Our example seems to date to the earliest phase of production and features some quite unusual characteristics, outlined below.
The most obvious and uncommon aspect of this lamp is the long, pointed handle. Most late Roman and early Byzantine period lamps manufactured in the Near East feature short handles of spike or thumb shape. The long, rather delicate form of this lamp’s handle is both aesthetically pleasing and uncommon.
The other interesting aspect of this lamp is its combination of decorative elements. The raised pellets around the central fill hole were a common theme on this broad category of lamps over a long period. But the cross-like image in low relief at the rear of the lamp, and continuing upward onto the handle, is puzzling. At first glance, this appears to be a Patriarchal cross, a type featuring two cross bars over the central vertical bar. But this type of cross did not appear in any numbers until the 9th and 10th Centuries in the Byzantine Empire. An alternative explanation might be that this was an attempt to depict the so-called “Tau” cross, the simple T-shaped crosses on which criminals were sometimes executed in the Roman Empire. But the image is still vague. In our opinion, any attempt to assign this cross-like relief image to a specific type of Christian iconography is no more than guess work.
Just as baffling is the maker’s mark or decorative element on the lamp’s flat base, shown below. Connected to a stylized palm frond that runs the length of the nozzle’s underside is a radiating sixteen pointed element set inside concentric raised circles with simple hatching between them. At first glance, this starburst design looks for all the world like the Union Jack on flags from Great Britain. But closer inspection shows another set of eight spokes in much lower relief between the eight main spokes. Is this a maker’s mark or is it simply a pleasant design? And in either case, does it carry any early Christian symbolism, as it resembles both a cross and a Chi-Rho symbol or Christogram?
In view of the date at which this piece was made, around 400 AD, and the combination of decorative elements (a possible cross on the upper surface, a palm frond – an image re-purposed from Pagan antiquity – and the cross-like design on the base,) it seems most likely that this lamp was made for sale to Christian customers. However, it is worth noting that at least in the Levantine region, pottery lamp makers did not seem to favor a specific category of client. Whether Christian, Jewish, Samaritan or Pagan, lamp makers seem to have created products for all types of customers and with all types of imagery.
This lamp is available in our eBay store here – http://www.ebay.com/itm/Late-Roman-Pottery-Oil-Lamp-AD-400-Holy-Land-/132102302002?hash=item1ec1e92932:g:BMoAAOSwCGVX8ENH
and in our Etsy store here – https://www.etsy.com/listing/292086487/late-roman-pottery-oil-lamp-ad-400-holy?ref=shop_home_active_11
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
This week’s featured object is a small bronze coin of the Roman Emperor Constantius II. That may not be a name that jumps out from the pages of history the way Roman Emperors like Augustus, Nero or Hadrian do but in his own way Constantius II was a remarkable ruler.
Born in what is now Serbia to Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great, and the Empress Fausta, he was one of three sons, along with his brothers Constantine II and Constans. Constantine I elevated Constantius to the rank of Caesar in AD 324. While serving in this role Constantius fought against barbarian incursions along the Danube frontier and gained valuable experience that would serve him later.
Upon the death of his father Constantine I, who by any measure was surely one of the most remarkable, energetic and dynamic figures in Roman history, the three sons met to divide the Roman domains among themselves as co-emperors. A purge had taken place upon Constantine’s death that included the murder of two male cousins whom Constantine had apparently intended to serve as co-rulers with his sons. Roman commentators place the blame for this purge squarely on Constantius but the bias in these sources makes this less than certain. Constantius’ share of the Empire included the Balkans and Greece, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor (modern Turkey), while the European and North African provinces were governed by his brothers.
In the years that followed, Constantius demonstrated great vigor as both a military leader and an administrator. Clearly, the trust his late father Constantine had placed in him was justified. In addition to managing a long and bloody (though inconclusive) war against the resurgent Persian Empire in the east, he countered numerous barbarian thrusts into the west along the Rhine and Danube frontiers and put down multiple serious revolts led by usurper would-be emperors in Europe. At a time when the allegiance of the legions to the legitimate Emperor or a usurper was never a sure thing, the reverse legend on this coin – GLORIA EXERCITUS or Glory of the Army — conveyed the image of loyalty and stability. The mint mark visible on the bottom, reading SMANAI, refers to Antioch, then in the province of Syria (now in modern Turkey), where Constantius spent considerable time during his campaigns against the Persians.
Constantius ruled as sole legitimate Emperor from AD 353 until his death in 361 but in total, from his elevation to the rank of Caesar in 324, he ruled for 29 years, making him one of the longest reigning Roman Emperors. He reigned in a troubled period of Roman history, one in which lesser men might have floundered. Whatever his shortcomings, he did hold the Empire together against many threats both internal and external. This tiny coin, worth very little in its day and still quite inexpensive today, as these were made in their countless thousands by the Imperial mints and a great many survive in excellent condition, tells part of that story.
Marble portrait of Constantius II excavated in Syria and now in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology
For those interested in acquiring this objects it may be found in our Etsy store here –
And our eBay store here –
One group of artifacts making up a large proportion of small bronze objects available on the legitimate antiquities market is the fibula or brooch — an ornate pin, usually made of copper alloy but sometimes of precious metals or even iron, used to fasten and decorate clothing. Prior to the use of buttons becoming common with the introduction of new clothing types in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, fibulae made in their many thousands were an absolute necessity for many social classes, and both sexes, in Roman society.
Our “Object of the Week” this week is a small, inexpensive but finely crafted and well preserved Roman bronze fibula. This is a variant on”Kraftig-profilierte” type brooch, dating to the 1st Century AD. Despite measuring little more than one inch long, this lovely piece displays a great range of line and form in its cast bronze body.
Fibulae already had a long history throughout what would become the Roman Empire. Many early Roman fibulae, including this week’s object, reflect prior local traditions and styles. While the great majority of Roman brooches were simple bronze sprung or hinged pins on a roughly bow shaped body with minimal cast, punched or filed decoration, some examples utilized more elaborate decorative techniques to enhance their otherwise simple form. A brooch’s owner might have an ordinary example enhanced to look “upmarket” with a layer of tin (to make it look like silver) or of silver or even gold or the addition of colored enamels or niello (black silver sulphide) in recessed areas. Fibula types evolved over time, of course, and varied greatly by region within the Roman Empire and beyond, meaning the range of types is truly enormous, including those dating from well before and well after the Roman period. The scope for collecting is great, particularly since the majority of types are quite affordable.
To purchase this item, click either of the URLs below –
There are many excellent resources for this specific area of antiquities collecting available in print. Here a couple we recommend:
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
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
Our featured item of the week is a large and impressive example of a Late Roman to Early Byzantine barrel shaped glass bead, appearing black, decorated in both red and yellow trails. A set of four double trails of applied red divide the bead into a series of registers, each with a thick zig-zag trail of applied yellow. The surfaces are overall well preserved, with some surface weathering, particularly to the yellow trails; it is otherwise intact. This antiquity was formerly in a Canadian private collection.
The Roman glass industry was remarkably prolific and the remains of workshops or other tangible evidence of the industry’s presence have been found in every modern nation the Roman Empire once encompassed. Most Roman glass vessels are easy to categorize and date but glass beads can be more difficult. Glass beads, pendants and other small items seem to have been made by a separate set of craftsman operating in workshops distinct from those of glass blowers. Many bead types continued unchanged for centuries. This type of bead is typical of glass from the later Roman period and into the early Byzantine period, with a preference for very strong colors, and was widespread in Egypt, Israel / Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and beyond.
An excellent resource for readers with an interest in ancient glass beads is Maud Spaer, “Ancient Glass in the Israel Museum, Beads and Other Small Objects,” The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 2001
Readers interested in purchasing this antiquity may find it on our eBay site here: http://www.ebay.com/itm/A-Large-Late-Roman-Trail-Decorated-Barrel-Shaped-Glass-Bead-4th-5th-Century-AD-/131894108807?hash=item1eb5806287:g:RwgAAOSwH3NXnPRG
And in our Etsy store here: https://www.etsy.com/listing/273956844/a-large-late-roman-trail-decorated?ref=shop_home_active_7
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