Fragment of glass cup


Image courtesy of Benaki Museum

I know this isn’t the most visually appealing object ever (surprising right?) but I stumbled upon it at the Benaki Museum during my stay in Athens (expect some reviews soon!) and it intrigued because it’s stamped with a personification of the city of Tyre. I’m not hugely familiar with glass making and decoration techniques, since glass only starts to be used at the very end of the period I’m most interested in. This cup fragment is from the late 3rd-early 4th century A.D, so Roman times. I don’t have much information about it, just what the museum label says to me; and part of that is that it was found in Syria. Syria could mean largely Syria and Lebanon so it’s not excluded that this object might have been found in the actual city of Tyre, but don’t take my word for it.

I think it’s cool that cities have personifications, and this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered that of Tyre. It also helps archaeologists that this fragment is inscribed with the name of the city. In addition to the city of Tyre in the center, you can see the hand of a Nike holding a wreath, and the scales of justice. Side note, Nikes were victory goddesses in Ancient Greece so now you know a fun fact about the origin of the name of the brand.

So stay tuned for reviews of museums and activities in Athens and Crete, and I’m going to the Basque country next week as well so you can also expect a review of the Guggenheim Bilbao!

Bronze Head of a Woman


Image courtesy of the British Museum

Today we’re looking at this female head made from bronze and filled with lead, which might have been a mirror cover. It was found in Greece and dates back to 350-330 BCE, and now belongs to the collection of the British Museum although it’s not on display.

Many ancient cultures used mirrors, and I came across mirror lids of varying styles and shapes while doing research for this post. Most of the classical ones have scenes engraved on them, so I kept this one because I found it to be more interesting, first of all in the way it’s carved. The lids that depict scenes are relatively flat with low relief engravings, whereas this one is carved in three dimensions. Also, the subject differs significantly and this one is much more related to the use of its corresponding object. Remember the water jar? This has essentially the same context  in that it’s an image of a person, featured on an object whose function is to give an image of the person. Of course, this may not be a mirror lid at all in which case this whole argument is pointless; but you can learn more about this artifact here and formulate your own opinion.

Terracotta Hydria | Mirror Image Exhibition


Image courtesy of the Met Museum

I’ll be starting this year with a new exhibition called Mirror Image. It will deal both with the concept of symmetry and the idea of art in art, and  superimposing representations, as is shown in this vessel.

First things first, a hydria is a classical Greek pottery shape used for carrying water. This one is exhibited at the Met museum and dates back to around 500-510 BCE. It has a black-figure depiction of women filling their own hydriai at the fountain. This isn’t a rare thematic in Greek vessels. In fact, I know of two other hydriai with women at the fountain with hydriai depictions, one is at the Louvre and one at the Ashmolean. The practice becomes quite popular in the 6th century BCE

But this is what inspired me for this exhibition. I think it’s really cool the have pots depicted on pots, although it is not exceptional. Basically this vessel is saying “I’m a water vessel”. It’s like an early example of labeling. I think we’ll find through the exhibition that with time, depictions or references to the artist or object in art become more and more conscious and intentional.

Back to Greek pots though, if you’re interested in how black and red figure is achieved. This is one of the first thing you learn in art history/archaeology courses so there’s my time to brag about it. So the colors aren’t achieved through paint but by oxidation of the clay. The black parts were covered with a slip that turned black in one of the stages of firing. So essentially, while the vessel was being made, it was all the same color, then it was fired with low oxygen so that it turned entirely black. Then air was reintroduced slowly to turn the non-slipped parts back to orange. So basically the Greeks nailed firing. You can learn more here and there’s also many scholarly articles about it if you just browse academia.

Mummy Portrait of a Man

Image courtesy of the Chicago Art Institute

This mummy portrait was found in Fayum, Egypt (as were many others), and dates back to the second century A.D. It belongs to the collection of the Chicago Art Institute but isn’t currently on display.

Mummy portraits start showing up in Egypt by the Roman period. It’s a trend that lasts about 200 years. These portraits, as you may have already guessed, were included in the mummy of people. Studies were done to evaluate how realistic they were, using techniques of facial surgery, and it turns out that these portraits are generally quite accurate in their depictions.

Usually, these portraits were painted on wooden boards using pigments, wax, and gold leaf. Some of them can be dated by the hairstyles of fashion and jewelry represented on them (because typology is awesome like that).

Senet/ Twenty Squares Game Box

Image courtesy of the Met museum

This is an ivory game box and pieces found in a sarcophagus in Thebes (Egypt) and dating back to 1635-1458 BCE. This particular one is on display at the Met Museum in New York but I had the intention of posting a similar one that can be admired at the Beirut National Museum; and that is in better condition as it does not have modern wood panels to reconstruct it. Unfortunately I couldn’t find good pictures of it.

Anyway this box also serves as the board for two games: Twenty squares on one side, in which the players had to race towards the central square; and Senet on the other, another racing game. The two weird looking pieces that are different from the game pieces are knuckle bones and were used as a dice. If you’re interested in learning more about the games, the Met has a great blog post about it which you can find here.

Image courtesy of the Met museum

Thistle Window

DSC_1212This stained glass window comes from the James A. Patten house in Evanston, Illinois; which was designed in 1901 by architect George Maher. It was originally in the Great Room, next to the fireplace, and it forms part of a group of three identical windows. The one pictured is exhibited at the MFA Boston and the other two are in the Met Museum and the Huntington Library.

This example is the only one I have seen in real life and I really appreciated to see it exhibited on a real window. Way too often, stained glass in museums is exhibited on an opaque wall which really doesn’t render the effects of light on the colors properly. That’s also why I chose to use my own picture here rather than the one on any of the websites that have one of the windows; but if you want to see it more in details you can just look up “Thistle Window” on the MFA’s website.

PS: I know this isn’t conventionally an archaeological object but I’m posting it in the archaeology gallery by elimination. And also because I don’t want to open an architecture gallery because it’s not really my thing and it wouldn’t be very rich.

Unicorn stamp seal

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This steatite seal from the Indus Valley dates back to between 2600 and 1900 BCE. I got acquainted with this type of seals last year while doing my MA because I had to work on a portfolio that included a similar seal. But before I share some fun facts about them with you, let me remind you that seals had an important administrative function in antiquity. They were used to mark and to close off things (you would press them in hot wax or clay and it would imprint the design on it).

So this seal has a representation of a unicorn. At Mohenjodaro, a major Indus Valley site, 75% of the excavated seals represented animals, and the vast majority of those were unicorns. Some scholars believe that the animals represent different social statuses. That little motif next to the unicorn is very common as well, and is considered to be an offering table. Almost all the Indus Valley seals also have writing on them, but unfortunately the language is still undecipherable.

I’d like to come back to the unicorn motif for a bit. It’s the only mythical creature represented on seals from this civilization; but mythical animals are not uncommon in any sort of iconography from the majority of cultures around the world. I find them interesting because they’re usually combinations of actual animals and it always made me wonder what makes people select specific features from specific animals to create hybrids out of them. Research interests anyone?

Anyway you can see this seal at the Met in New York (stay tuned for the review). I am trying my best to also promote smaller museums; but I also give a lot of importance to the aesthetics of this blog, and this is why you often see objects from major museums. The smaller ones don’t always have an accessible online catalog with HD pictures, and a lot of research goes into every post on this blog so I’m not taking the easy solution here. For example, I know that there is an important collection of Indus Valley seals at the New Delhi National Museum so go check it out if you happen to be around there.

Ibis Figurine

Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts

I saw this cute Ibis figurine on display when I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Don’t let the picture fool you, it is actually only 3cm tall. This figurine is made of gold and two different tones of blue copper enamels. It dates back to the 4th century B.C.E (during the Ptolemaic period), and may come from Alexandria.

The Ibis was an important symbol in Ancient Egypt; as it was one of the forms that the god Thot took, and the hieroglyph that represented him. Thot was the god of learning, knowlege, culture, and the arts. There are many known depictions of ibises as well as some mummies  all over Egypt, going as far back as the Middle Kingdom.

Greek bronze-pointed neck amphora with stand

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This amphora from Greece dates back to the Late Archaic or Classical period in Greece (500-450 BCE). It has some very fine elaborate decoration featuring feline heads on the handles. It is mostly corroded but I think the relationship between the blue color of the corrosion and the metal itself provide a certain aesthetic dimension to it. This amphora is currently on display at the Met in New York and you can learn more about it here.

Mosaics from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

Photo courtesy of freshcreator on Flickr

Photo courtesy of freshcreator on Flickr

Photo courtesy of Jos van der Woude

Photo courtesy of Jos van der Woude

These mosaics can be found on the celing of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, in Ravenna, Italy. The building was constructed in 430 AD and was supposed to serve as the final resting place of Galla Placidia, daughter of Roman Emperor Theodosius. The mausoleum also has prominent mosaics featuring themes from Christianity, and the ones pictured are on less important parts of the walls and ceilings but they are the ones I chose to feature here because I am a fan of geometric designs, especially in terms of mosaics and I find these simply breathtaking.

As you may have guessed from the date and the mention of Christian imagery, these mosaics date back to the Byzantine Period. By then, mosaic is not really a new form of art, but the innovation during the Byzantine era comes with the introduction of glass thessera (mosaic cubes) as opposed to archaic stone ones. Another interesting point to note is that the gold parts of the mosaics are made of glass cube that were actually gilded, so this is not just the iridescent effect of the glass. You can find a lot of this trend illustrated in the auras of people represented on Byzantine mosaics, such as the mosaics of Emperor Justinian.