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

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rare Alexander the Great Gemstone Found

Alexander the Great is as much a historical figure as he is a legend. Today it is sometimes hard to separate the myth from the man, and even during his lifetime the line between man and mythical hero was vague. The facts we know about Alexander are impressive and it is no wonder that so many fantastic stories sprang up regarding his exploits. He was a master tactician; he conquered the Persian Empire and expanded the boundaries of Greek culture all the way to the Indus River. Authors and generals, both ancient and modern, have studied his tactics and victories. Pompey and Caesar are just a few of the famous men that tried to emulate his greatness. Not only was he a military genius, he was also a playboy. He was young, dashing and oh so handsome. It didn't hurt that he died young either, adding to his legendary appeal.

In ancient art, images of Alexander abound. He was a popular subject both during his life and throughout history. The famed sculptor Lysippos was his court artist; the only person Alexander saw fit to translate his likeness to stone. But that didn't stop countless copies from being made during and after his death. When reviewing the catalog of ancient art, you can find an image of Alexander in just about every medium; coins, sculpture, gemstones, etc. Below you can find some examples of these artifacts. The images and legends of Alexander were ubiquitous in the ancient world, just like the names and exploits of Washington and Lincoln are in America today.
Recently a remarkable gemstone carved in the likeness of Alexander the Great was found in Israel. The gem is small, but masterly carved. Such a gem would have been set in a gold ring, which probably would have served as a signet with which to stamp wax scroll seals. Made of carnelian, this gem represents not necessarily that such things were made in the area, but that wealthy residents appreciated such fine objects and had the means to procure them. The gem shows Alexander in profile with a crown on his head. One of the most important aspects of this find is that the gem was actually dug up by archaeologists! So many artifacts in museums today have lost their context, robbing the world of invaluable knowledge. The art of gem carving traces its root back to the Near East, where cylinder seals appear during the Uruk period. Gem carving spread from there to Minoan Crete. We see round and oval shaped gems (like the Alexander gem) being used in 8th century Greece and beyond. Carving on gems became very sophisticated and popular during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The emperor Augustus is said to have worn a signet ring with the image of Alexander.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Second Century Coin Hoard Found in Israel

I love Roman coins. The first Roman 'thing' I remember seeing was a collection of Roman coins being sold at a flee market. I was just a kid at the time and didn't know the first thing about the ancient world, but I do remember that the coins I saw looked just like American coins! Roman coins are extremely valuable from historical and archaeological perspectives, since they give us a documented chronology of important events and give us a terminus post quem for dig sites. Coins are also important from an art historical perspective; Roman coins have been the best, and in some cases only, way to assign names to the countless statues of emperors and other important persons. I consider ancient coins invaluable for the reasons above, but they also offer something for the non-scholar. When looking at Roman coins, one can't help but see the similarity between today's currency and that of the ancient world. Ancient coins are great for education because they are so familiar and they can help teach that people in the ancient world weren't that much different than us.

If you go through your change jar today, you'll find coins that are mostly the same. Aside from the redesigned quarters of the past years, most change hasn't changed much. The penny has looked the same for 50 years! Not so in Romans times. In the empire, when a single man held the reigns of power, coinage was the best way to advertise one's self. In an age of no newspapers or TV, everyone still had a pocket full of change. Issuing coins to commemorate both the emperor and important events happened all the time. So it was basically through money that the emperor could articulate to the empire his deeds and accomplishments. Also unlike today, the images struck on Roman coins, during the empire at least, were usually of the living emperor. Today we view coins as more commemorative, honoring great leaders of the past.
The largest Roman coin hoard from the period of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in the 2nd century CE was recently found in Israel. Some 120 gold, silver and copper coins were discovered in a cave and were minted in Israel and abroad. Many of the coins were over-struck with insignia of the Jewish rebels, making this an extremely valuable find. Follow the link below for full details on this exciting find!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Colossal Statue Found in Turkey

If you walked through any city or town during the time of the Greeks or Romans, you would be confronted with statues of all shapes and sizes. Many statues have come down to us through the ages, but some archaeological sites offer better evidence than others as to what the ancient city looked like. When the Persians sacked Athens in the 5th century BCE, they sacked the acropolis, destroying temples and statuary. The ruins the Persians left behind were buried by the Athenians after the war and in more recent times archaeologists have uncovered these same statues, giving us an idea of just how crowded the acropolis once was with them. Other Greek sites such as Olympia and Delphi were congested with statuary, as is attested by literary sources and archaeological remains. Rome followed suit and crowded its forum and beyond with statues of famous men and gods. Statues ranged in size and material, but the most prominent were life size or larger, usually made of bronze or marble. Colossal statuary also existed and two famous examples come to mind that were both made of bronze. One was the Colossus of Rhodes, completed in 280 BCE and considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The other is the Colossus of Nero. Less famous perhaps, this statue was the ultimate manifestation of Nero's arrogance and vanity and was converted to represent the sun god Helios after Nero's death. Most people aren't familiar with this statue but everyone knows of the building that stood next to it. The Flavian Amphitheater was nicknamed the "Colosseum" because of its proximity to the giant statue.

Recently, a colossal statue of the god Apollo was dug up in Hierapolis in modern day Turkey. The statue, made of marble, is now broken in half; the extant portions being the torso and legs. The statue is believed to be from the 1st century CE, placing it in the Roman period, and originally stood around 13 feet tall. Though statues were common in ancient times, a large statue like this would have been special. Perhaps this was a cult image or dedication by a wealthy patron? Apollo was a very ancient god; anyone familiar with the Iliad knows that Apollo played a large role in that book, helping Hector and the Trojans. He was associated with music, art, healing, prophecy and light, just to name a few of the roles he played. Popular during the Greek and Hellenistic periods, Apollo morphed into Roman religion, gaining particular attention during the reign of Augustus after his victories over Antony and Cleopatra were attributed to Apollo. Like all archaeological finds from the ancient world, this statue is just one more piece of the puzzle which will help us understand history that much better.