Gladiator figurine of bone or ivory

Roman Britain, 1st-2nd century AD
From Lexden, Colchester

This figurine depicts a gladiator of the heavily-armedmurmillo class. Naked, but for a loin cloth and reinforced belt, he is armed with a large visored helmet, a short sword, a curved rectangular shield, metal greaves to protect his legs, and a heavy guard on his sword arm. Appropriately, a scene of gladiatorial combat is carved on the shield.

These gladiators were often matched with the retiariuswho carried only a net and trident. A pairing like this was intended to produce an entertaining contest between the lightly-armed, but highly manouevrable retiarius and the heavily-armed but less mobile secutor.

Source: British Museum

Floor tile

Roman Britain, 1st-4th century AD
Probably from London

Inscribed with a sketch of a lighthouse

The sketch appears to show a pharos, a Roman lighthouse. Two such lighthouses flanked the Roman harbour at Dover, the main base of the British fleet. The sketch was scratched onto the tile before firing.

Source: British Museum

Gold buckle from the Thetford treasure

Roman Britain, 4th century AD
From Thetford, Norfolk

A dancing satyr

This gold belt buckle is part of a remarkable hoard of late-Roman gold jewellery and silver tableware found near Thetford, Norfolk, in 1979.

The figure on the plate is a dancing satyr holding a bunch of grapes. Two horses’ heads form the loop or bow. The buckle is one of a number of explicitly pagan items in the treasure, which was buried around AD 390, by which time the Roman Empire was officially Christian.

Source: British Museum

Stone panel from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II (Court D, no. 7)

Nimrud (ancient Kalhu), northern Iraq
Neo-Assyrian

c. 883-859 BC

This relief panel comes from the walls of the courtyard which led to the throne room of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC). It was positioned next to a side-door through which his throne was sometimes visible.

Although many of the sculptures decorating the palace depicted magical spirits, away from the main central door and buttresses the scenes in the courtyard were secular. This scene was part of series showing a group of foreigners bringing tribute. Their dress shows that they were from the west. The turban suggests one man is from north-western Syria, his clenched fists are a token of submission. At this time Assyria was expanding westward to acquired booty and tribute from states in the geographical region of Syria. The man with monkeys may be Phoenician. They bring luxury goods and status symbols. The monkeys may have come from Egypt or from the lands of southern Arabia from which incense was imported.

Mesopotamian kings prided themselves in the collections of exotic animals they acquired as booty or tribute. Monkeys were popular animals in the art of Mesopotamia. They were often depicted playing musical instruments, perhaps representing animals accompanying travelling entertainers. 

Source: British Museum

The Dying Lion, a stone panel from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal

Nineveh, northern Iraq
Neo-Assyrian

c.645 BC

This small alabaster panel was part of a series of wall panels that showed a royal hunt. It has long been acclaimed as a masterpiece; the skill of the Assyrian artist in the observation and realistic portrayal of the animal is clear.

Struck by one of the king’s arrows, blood gushes from the lion’s mouth. Veins stand out on its face. From a modern viewpoint, it is tempting to think that the artist sympathized with the dying animal. However, lions were regarded as symbolizing everything that was hostile to urban civilization and it is more probable that the viewer was meant to laugh, not cry.

There was a very long tradition of royal lion hunts in Mesopotamia, with similar scenes known from the late fourth millennium BC. The connection between kingship and lions was probably brought to western Europe as a result of the crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries AD, when lions begin to decorate royal coats of arms.

Source: British Museum

Painted terracotta head from a statue of a worshipper

From the Sanctuary of Apollo at Phrangissa, Tamassos, Cyprus
c. 600 BC

This head is in true Cypriot style with an Assyrian type beard, wide open eyes, a severe expression and prominent nose. A number of other male heads have Assyrian style beards like this one - hardly surprising as Cyprus was under Assyrian control from about 707-612 BC. The tallest of these large-scale terracotta statues discovered so far measures 260 cm in height and comes from the same site as this head: the Sanctuary of Apollo at Phrangissa, Tamassos on the island of Cyprus.

The first large-scale statues of terracotta in Cypriot style are recorded from the island of Samos in the middle of the seventh century BC. They were first produced in Cyprus in the later seventh century BC. The statues continued to be made into the sixth century, though production had ceased by about 550 BC when sculpture in stone became more popular. The city of Salamis may have led the way in the creation and diffusion of this terracotta art to other parts of the island, but finds from the site at Tamassos are impressive.

All Cypriot large-scale terracotta statues were assembled from several separate pieces made by different techniques. Bodies were thrown on a potter’s wheel; those of larger figures were made in two parts and assembled after firing. Legs were hollow and either handmade or made of clay coils; sometimes legs were wheel-made. Arms were either handmade and solid or wheel-made and hollow. Heads were normally hollow and turned on a wheel or made of coils; the faces were moulded. Accessories such as jewellery and beards were added and facial features formed. The figure was painted as required before being fired.

Source: British Museum

Black-figured plate, attributed to the painter Psiax

Greek

c.520-500 BC
Made in Athens, Greece; from Vulci in Etruria (now in Lazio, Italy)

An archer blowing a trumpet

The archer on this plate wears a flapped and pointed cap, patterned trousers and a long-sleeved top. His costume is unusual, and is mostly Scythian in origin, as is the combined bow-case and quiver hanging from his waist. Scythian archers were employed as mercenaries in Athens from the mid-sixth century until 514 BC, when the Persian conquest of Thrace cut lines of communication and recruitment with Scythia. After this, Greek archers start to appear on vase paintings: they retain many elements of Scythian dress, but unlike the generally bearded Scythians, they are shown clean-shaven, as here. The trumpet this figure blows is thesalpinx, blown in battle.

This plate was painted by Psiax, who worked in both the conventional black-figure and the new red-figure techniques. The design, with the single black figure set on a plain clay background, looks like a translation into black-figure of a contemporary red-figure decorative scheme. Comparing it with a red-figure plate by the painter Epiktetos, which also shows a single archer, the opportunities offered by the newer technique are clear. The red-figure archer stands out more boldly against his black background; more varied and intricate patterns can be achieved because the details of his costume are painted rather than incised.

Source: British Museum

Terracotta ‘Tanagra’ figure of an old nurse

Greek

c.300 BC
Said to be from Tanagra, possibly from Athens, Greece

This stooped old woman with hunched shoulders holds a large, naked baby firmly in her arms. She wears a voluminous, sleeved chiton (tunic) and most of her hair is contained in a sakkos (a bag-like headdress). Her face, with its raised eyebrows, sagging, wrinkled cheeks and chin, and frame of snail-shell curls is distinctly theatrical. The ‘Old Nurse’ was a popular character in Greek comic drama from the late fifth century BC onwards. While earlier terracotta actor figures are clearly characterised by their padded costumes or obvious masks, it can be difficult to decide whether later examples like this represent an actor or the real-life character on which the comic type was based.

It is uncertain where this figure was made, as similar old nurse figures have been found at both Athens and Tanagra. However, the high quality of the modelling and the appearance of the clay suggest that this example may be Athenian.

Source: British Museum

Gold diadem of twisted ribbons with a Herakles knot

Greek

c.300-280 BC
Said to be from the island of Mílos, Aegean Sea

Marking a moment of transition

This unusual and lovely diadem is made up of three long sheets of gold twisted to form ribbons on each side of a Herakles knot. The Herakles knot is found in Greek jewellery from the Mycenaean period, but became particularly popular in the fourth century BC. Its symbolism is closely connected with marriage, and the knot that tied the bride’s garment and was untied by the groom. In many cultures the tying or untying of knots marks moments of transition, whether from maiden to married woman or even from life to death. The untying of knots is also connected with the easing of childbirth.

Source: British Museum

Colossal marble head of Asklepios

Greek

c. 325-300 BC
Found on Mílos, Southern Aegean, Greece

The healing god

This head comes from a colossal statue of the god Asklepios, a god of medicine and healing. It was constructed from three separately worked pieces, of which two survive. The calm expression of the face is set off by a full beard and crown of hair. The lead pegs that would have held a gold wreath are still in place, but the wreath is now lost.

The cult of Asklepios was popular throughout Greece and Asia Minor during the Classical period (480-300 BC) and the Hellenistic period (323-30 BC). Important centres were set up in Athens and at Epidaurus in the Peloponnese. Hippocrates was the founding father of modern scientific medicine and, following his death in 357 BC, a healing sanctuary was established on his native island of Cos. There, Asklepios was represented in what became the canonical manner of the later Hellenistic and Roman periods: bearded, semi-nude and supported on one side by a staff around which a serpent is coiled. This head probably comes from such a statue.

Source: British Museum

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