Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Roman Bowl Found in London

There is something magical about the shapes and colors of Roman glass that has always fascinated me. Blown glass, and especially mould-blown glass, allowed the Romans to manufacture glass vessels in some very unique shapes. Glass blowing was invented in Phoenicia in the 1st century BCE, and it was quickly realized that the new technique presented an unlimited range of potential designs (see photos below). Glass products spread throughout the Roman Empire and became extremely popular. The variety of shapes and colors probably helped make glass ware fashionable, but it was glass that imitated rock crystal that was most widely sought. One beautiful technique employed by Roman glass makers was millefiori. This technique used multi-colored glass rods from which cross sections were cut and placed side by side, creating designs that resembled flowers, hence the name.

Archaeologists at a Roman graveyard in London have unearthed an amazing find, a magnificent Roman millefiori bowl found in the grave of a wealthy Londinium resident. The bowl, which dates from the 3rd century CE, was found broken, but complete. It has recently been pieced back together and the final result is beautiful. The bowl is of a typical Roman shape and is made of hundreds of glass rod sections pieced together. This is apparently the first such artifact to be found in Western Europe, so this find is quite important. Roman period archaeology in London is rare, since the city has been continuously occupied since antiquity. The site were the bowl was found was once covered by Victorian houses, which were leveled in WWII, giving archaeologists a unique opportunity to dig in London. This bowl gives us only a hint of what treasures are still buried under London and other modern European cities.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Where Have All the Artifacts Gone?

It seems that every time I look at the news lately, there's an article about antiquities and illegal dealings. The most recent news I've found is that the Cleveland Museum of Art will be returning a whopping 14 artifacts to Italy. The artifacts were allegedly all stolen from Southern Italy, but the museum seemingly acquired them innocently. Last November, The Cleveland Museum of Art signed an accord with Italian authorities which guaranteed the return of the artifacts. I wrote about Cleveland's Apollo Sauroktonos and the debate about its provenience, but that statue is not one of the artifacts being returned. This story has it all; an American museum and the Italian government getting along, the willful return of known stolen artifacts and an agreement to conduct long term loans between Cleveland and Italy.

Sounds great, right? Returning stolen artifacts to their rightful owners is the right thing to do, but I'm forced to ask about the fate of these artifacts. Italy, with it's mile long list of museums, has more Greek and Roman artifacts than it knows what to do with. Where are these Cleveland artifacts going to be housed and who is going to study them? Italy owns them, fare and square, but don't they currently have a good home in Cleveland? If the artifacts are going to be returned to Italy and displayed and studied, I'm definitely on board with their repatriation. But what if these artifacts are put in a box in the basement of some museum. I think Italy would be the first to admit that it doesn't need another red-figure krater. Would it have been possible for Italy to take official ownership of these artifacts while letting Cleveland "borrow" them? These are all very complicated questions and the answers are not black and white. Please don't get the idea that I am against the return of illegally acquired artifacts, because I most certainly am not. I am concerned about how these artifacts are used, though, and I want to make sure that everyone has the chance to view them and learn from them.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bronzes Find New Home at the Getty

In my last post, I discussed the J. Paul Getty Museum's return of a Roman fresco to Italy. The past few years have seen a multitude of illegally acquired artifacts returned to their country of origin and it is a process that I applaud and encourage. But what about American museums? Are they doomed to be picked clean by European institutions who claim the rights to their artifacts? Despite the fears of many, the answer is no. Many museums house artifacts that, according to UNESCO accords, are the legitimate property of the museums that house them. Many such artifacts were purchases in the 19th century and early 20th century, and though we may disapprove of such sales now, at the time they were bought legally.

Returning artifacts to their country of origin is great, but when American museums where ironing out the details of such agreements, both sides decided that an atmosphere of cooperation was essential. Being a scholar means sharing information with your peers and the public, and without cooperation both at home and abroad, the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge suffers. Countries of origin have no desire to close American museums and take their artifacts, and a new loan to the Getty is proof of the renewed cooperation across the Atlantic. The National Archaeological Museum in Naples is loaning the Getty two nearly life size bronze statues found at Pompeii. Large bronze statuary is extremely rare, for reasons I have talked about before, and the fact that Italy is letting the Getty house these artifacts proves that there is a new found trust between American institutions and those in Europe. Let's hope that such actions encourage more loaning of artifacts, because the only way to advance the fields are archaeology, history and art history is openly share knowledge and resources.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Getty to Return Roman Fresco

The past few years have been sad for museums and archaeologists, but things are looking up. After many high profile scandals rocked the world of antiquities trade, things seem to finally be heading in the right direction. Museums now are ceasing their shady dealings and are being open about where their artifacts came from and how they got them. Not that the problem of looting is solved of course, but every small step helps in ending the practice. When a looter digs up an artifact and sells it on the black market, everyone looses. The country of origin looses a small piece of its history and archaeologists loose valuable information about the context of that artifact. The latter by far has the biggest impact because every shred of information regarding context, no matter how small, helps us better understand history as a whole. It is infuriating and frustrating that looting happens at all, but as long as there is a market for stolen artifacts, the practice will continue.

The J. Paul Getty Museum in California is no stranger to scandal. Marion True and her alleged dealings in looted artifacts is a stain on the whole archaeological community as well as the Getty itself. The facts about what Ms. True did and didn't do are complicated and I'm not going to pass judgment on her here. What I will say, though, is that her high profile court case has led to many positive changes in museums around the country. Many "hot" artifacts from the Getty (and many other institutions) have been returned to their country of origin, which is were they belong. I fully support museums from around the world housing artifacts from other countries, as long as those artifacts were acquired legally and are professionally studied. Returning artifacts to their country of origin can't give us back lost information regarding context, but at least the artifacts are returned to their rightful owners. The Getty recently agreed to repatriate a Roman wall painting, not because of international pressure, as has been the case in the past, but because of changed attitudes at the institution. The Getty apparently saw newly published images of another repatriated fresco and realized that the fragment they had was from the same wall. I applaud the decision to send the fresco back to Italy and hope that this positive step is a sign of continued and expanded cooperation between American museums and museums throughout the world.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Many Faces of Julius Caesar

Caesar - the mere name conjures up images of power, prestige and arrogance. Julius Caesar has never failed to capture the hearts and minds of the public, whether it be in ancient times or today. During and directly after his life, Caesar was both revered and hated by many. Those who revered him would eventually prevail, and it was his name and "divine" lineage that helped solidify Octavian's position in the latter half of the 1st century BCE. Octavian, who would later be given the name Augustus, took Caesar's family name and exploited the fact that he was now the son (adopted) of the divine Julius. The name Caesar would eventually loose its family connection with the death of Nero and would hence forth be more of a title of office. Julius Caesar faded from the public view during the middle ages until his story was revived by Shakespeare in his famous play. Today, Caesar is a house hold name, though many probably don't know his full story or the amazing role he played in shaping Rome's destiny

Julius Caesar has always been one of my favorite characters from Roman history. The story of his life and his rise to power is full of drama and intrigue and his personal desire for success was astonishing. Caesar possessed many rare talents that made him stand out from the crowd, and putting those talents to use made him continually victorious against overwhelming odds. Caesar the man is perhaps not so noble as Caesar the myth, though, and it's important never to look at history through rose colored glasses. For all his famous clemency, Caesar started a war in Gaul out of a desire for personal glory. The Gallic Wars probably cost over one million lives and led to widespread destruction. Caesar also launched the Roman world into civil war to suit his own ends and protect his own interests. Arguing the pros and cons of Caesar's exploits has been discussed in multiple volumes, and I won't try to justify or condemn his actions here.

So, why all this talk of Caesar. A new museum exhibit, of course. "Caesar: The man, the deeds, the myth" is now showing in Italy at the Chiostro del Bramante. According the to the New York Times article below, the exhibit is quite promising. Far too often the public gets the facts wrong about history, and they can't necessarily be blamed. Gladiator and HBO's Rome are sensational, but tend to distort facts. Movies and shows like those are necessary to spark people's interest, but it's up to scholars and museums to make clear the fact vs. the fiction. This new Caesar exhibit has a wide range of artifacts spanning Caesar's career, and it is always exciting to see such exhibits brought to the public. I hope this exhibit shows a balanced picture of Caesar though, for to understand the man is to understand all aspects of him, both good and bad.