Dr Paul Donnelly, Sydney University Museums; Professor Elizabeth Minchin, Australian National University; Dr Lily Withycombe, National Museum of Australia, 16 October 2016
DR LILY WITHYCOMBE: Good afternoon and welcome to the National Museum of Australia. My name is Lily Withycombe. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal, the Ngunawal and the Ngambri, traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and to pay respect to their elders, both past and present.
So welcome to our A History of the World in 100 Objects lecture series. So far we’ve hosted lectures exploring ‘Big history’, ‘Dawn and diaspora’ and the ‘Cradle of civilisation’, and today we’re moving on to ‘Rise of the empires’. So we’re fortunate to have two wonderful speakers with us here today. They’re both academics and curators, and they’re working with some of the most significant collections of classical objects here in Australia.
Elizabeth Minchin is now Emeritus Professor of Classics at the Australian National University, where she has taught ancient Greek and Latin language and literature and ancient history, teaching courses that pull together material culture and ancient texts of all kinds in an attempt to recover aspects of everyday life in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Elizabeth is interested in the workings of memory. She has written on the role of memory in the composition of the Homeric epics and on the role of features of the landscape in prompting memories for stories of all kind. Elizabeth is also the curator of the ANU Classics Museum, and this is an unpaid endorsement, she didn’t ask me to say this, but if you haven’t visited this museum yet, I really, strongly recommend that you do. It’s a beautifully laid out space, it has a beautiful array of objects, and it even has a collection app. The ANU Classics Museum has also a thriving friends’ community and a vibrant lecture series, so if you enjoy this, I really recommend you look this up and attend some of the lectures.
We also have Paul Donnelly here today speaking with us. He’s now Associate Director at Sydney University Museums, with the three main collections, including the Macleay collection, the Nicholson Museum and the Sydney University Art Gallery, going to be merged into a new purpose built site. The Nicholson Museum is the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a remarkable resource as a teaching collection for school students, as well as undergraduate and postgraduate students, and has had some really interesting exhibitions over the last decade, many of you will probably remember the Lego Pompeii, and I really look forward to hearing about the new space. I’m sure we all do. Prior to working at Sydney University Museums, Paul worked at the Powerhouse Museum for more than 20 years. His PhD from the University of Sydney was on the ceramics of ancient Jordan, and he remains active in archaeological excavations in both Jordan and Greece.
So the three of us are going to endeavour to give just 20 minute presentations today. I have a feeling we’re actually going to run over time, so rather than finishing at 3pm, we may well extend to about 3.30pm. If you need to leave, you can just exit by the same door you entered, but I think you’ll probably be spellbound, and you won’t even notice the passing of time. Okay. So I’m going to give the first talk and then Elizabeth and then Paul.
So now I have to introduce myself. I finished my PhD in London three years ago on the religious architecture of Augustine and early Imperial Rome. Over the last decade, I’ve worked on a number of Roman excavations throughout Italy as well as the Middle East, and for my PhD, I focused on two sites in central Rome, the Capitoline and Palatine hills, and I reconstructed the various Augustine-era buildings, particularly temples on these two majors sites. I’ve always been drawn to the Augustine period. It probably started as a child with Asterix comics, and as I grew older and learnt more about it, I became really profoundly fascinated by the Augustine period. This is because it’s a time of transition and change, and it brought about radical transformations in the political order of Rome, as well as religion, art and architecture. These changes did not just effect the Italian Peninsula, but they reverberated throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. The Augustine period also signalled a major turning point in the political, social and cultural life of the Western world.
So in the exhibition A History of the World in 100 Objects, the Augustine period is represented by this head [points to a slide]. This is the famous Meroë Head of Augustus, and I’m going to be referring to this throughout the talk simply as the Head of Augustus. Now, even though the full statue is no longer intact and we only have this head, it’s nonetheless a remarkably rare example of a significant and beautifully preserved fragment of colossal bronze statuary and imperial portraiture. So to a Canberra audience, the Head of Augustus is likely to be a very familiar image by now, thanks to the National Museum of Australia’s pervasive and far-reaching marketing campaign. Augustus has literally been the face of the exhibition in Canberra, and just yesterday I was in the Canberra Centre and I turned a corner and I was face to face with this image. The head is made of gilded bronze. This was a material that was reserved for the most important and lavish of statuary types. It features remarkable detail, particularly in the eyes, and this is really, for me, what is the most outstanding feature of this head. So the eyes are inlaid, they have glass pupils set in metal rings, with calcite irises, and if you look closely enough, you can actually see, remarkably, the remains of bronze eyelashes. So it’s very rare to find this kind of detailing that would survive. When you do have examples of bronze statuary, often the eye sockets are hollow, and I think that this feature, the inlaid eyes, are really what make this object so arresting and so unique.
Now, the hairstyle of Augustus, here [points to a slide], this is a very specific, iconographic motif. So this is reminiscent of Alexander the Great’s iconic hairstyle, a Hellenistic decorative trope, and you can see it here on the screen. So we’ve magnified a coin of Alexander the Great, this is also in the exhibition. And I think putting these two side by side, you really can see the similarities between the depiction of Augustus and Alexander, and this was very deliberate. So this hairstyle is known as Anastole, and this was a defining characteristic in the presentation of a Hellenistic monarch, and it was later absorbed into the Julio-Claudian style guide. All of Augustus’s imperial descendants featured a similar hairstyle. So if you line up Roman imperial portraiture, if you see this particular fringe, the parting of the fringe, you’ll know that this is likely to be Julio-Claudian, or referencing the Julio-Claudian period.
So the eyes are averted from a direct stare, and this suggests the distant gaze of a god. The curve of the head indicates that the body of the statue was arranged in the contrapposto style, representing the perfect counterbalance and showcasing the craftsperson’s grasp of classical sculptural traditions. Now we don’t know what the rest of the body looked like, but we can probably reconstruct it knowing what we do know about Augustine statuary already. It’s likely that in this statue Augustus stood with one arm outstretched and attired in the garb of an imperator. And I’ll explain in a moment why this particular argument can be made, but for now I’m just going to return to the man himself, so the emperor Augustus.
Now, he’s the adopted son of Julius Caesar. He comes to power after tumultuous decades in the Mediterranean, when civil war tore apart the political structures of the late republic. The Roman Republic was a unique political system. It had been governed by aristocrats, and some new men as well, who were elected to public magistracies of fixed terms, often of one to two years. The great difference with Augustus is that he takes power as a sole leader without election and he rules without a break from 27 BC to 14 AD, so it was entirely unprecedented. His rise to power was marked by violence and ruthlessness, but also by good timing, excellent military support and above all, good luck. Augustus was an unusually fortunate individual and he explained his good fortune in terms of the Roman gods bestowing a very unique favour upon him.
So I think at this point it’s important to register the fact that Augustus was the first emperor. So questions of how to represent and how to understand an emperor must have been circulating throughout the Mediterranean, and at the time, these discussions couldn’t be resolved. But by the end of his period of rule, Augustus had probably come up with an answer. The official titles for Augustus provides some insight into the ways that he was represented and understood. Literature and inscriptions from the time inform us that Augustus was known by a series of very familiar titles which drew on naming conventions of the Roman Republic. So, for example, Augustus was called Imperator Caesar Augustus. So he’s a general, and he’s the son of Julius Caesar. Pater Patriae, the father of the fatherland, and also princeps senatus, the first man of the senate. But he was actually born as Gaius Octavius, and he was known as such for the first 36 years of his life. It’s only in 27 BC, when he was 36 years old, that he chooses the name Augustus.
Now at the time, there was no one else who was called Augustus, and in fact, the selection of the name Augustus was highly unusual. Roman authors tell us that previously it was an adjective that was only ever used to describe the most holy of contexts. So for example, a site that had been marked out by the augurs, the special priests in Rome, for a major public temple within the city walls, this could be described as Augustus. So it would appear that the name Augustus was chosen because of its very specific, very Roman connotations of divine blessedness, and this was perfectly appropriate for a man who would go on to hold all of the priestly offices in the city, who would sponsor a city wide program of temple restoration in rebuilding, and who presented himself as not only uniquely favoured by the gods, but as the direct agent of the gods on Earth, in particular Jupiter.
Now while the official titles for Augustus were reassuringly reminiscent of the pre-existing political order, the official portraiture of Augustus, of which we have an example here, offers quite a different insight into how he was portrayed throughout the empire. So by the early imperial period, there would have been thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, perhaps even more, statues of Augustus displayed throughout the empire, and today around 250 statues of Augustus have survived, predominantly in marble. And while there is certainly some evidence for variation in the earliest portrait types of Augustus, it would appear that representations of Augustus in imperial statuary standardised into a canonical form in the mid-20s BC, and the most well-known type is that which is now known as the Prima Porta type, and this is named after a famous marble statue in the Vatican, [points to a slide] which you can see here on the left.
So the Prima Porta type was the most successful imperial portrait of Augustus in relation to number of surviving copies, geographical and chronological distribution and stylistic impact on later imperial portraiture. And so, simply in terms of probability, if we were to attempt to reconstruct the body of this statue, it would make the most sense to reconstruct the body of the Head of Augustus in this style [points to a slide]. And to summarise the Prima Porta style, we have a youthful Augustus, who is styled like a god, he’s standing like an emperor and he’s dressed like a general.
Now this marked a radical break with the previous portrait types of the Roman Republic. In the late republic, elites were represented in what we know as the Verism style of portraiture, and this is a category type which derives from the Latin word veritas, meaning truth. This is defined by the accentuation of the physical features of old age, and a frontal presentation facilitating a direct sight line between the subject and the viewer. So even in the audience, you can see that you can make direct eye contact with this man here on the left [points to a slide], a republican senator, we don’t know his name. Whereas you can’t make eye contact, or direct eye contact with Augustus.
So the Verism type was designed to convey the strength, the wisdom and the experience of the individual featured. And I think by placing, or juxtaposing, these two images here, [points to a slide] you can just see how markedly Augustine portraiture signals a break with the earlier traditions. And although this particular head dates to early in the sequence of imperial representation, what’s really fascinating is that this was actually how Augustus was represented throughout his entire lifetime. So even when he was in his 70s and he was toothless, this is how he was represented, and moreover, throughout the empire, this is how he was recognised. Augustus himself walking down the street may well not have been recognised by members of the Roman Empire, but everyone would have recognised this image.
And in the past, it has been supposed that the emperor himself or elite members of his household were behind the design of imperial representations. So there’s this idea that Augustus himself or someone in the household creates an imperial brief and then circulates it and then they commission marble and bronze workshops to create images exactly as they have stipulated. But today, most scholars accept that the creation of imperial prototypes was probably the result of competing sculptural workshops, each of which came up with a style designed to appeal to imperial taste and commissioners.
Okay, so now having given you an introduction to Augustus, and a brief introduction to early imperial portraiture, I’m going to talk to you about how the head was discovered deep in the Sudan. So, you can see here [points to a slide], where Rome and the Italian Peninsula is. So here we have Italy, here we have Rome, and all the way down here we have Egypt and this is where the Roman province of Egypt stops. And then this is a map here which shows where Meroë is, all the way down to the very bottom of the map, in fact. So, it’s extremely far south, in north Africa, and it’s far beyond the rule of Rome.
The Head of Augustus was found in Meroë, in the Sudan in 1910, by the British archaeologist John Garstang, who was the then professor of archaeology at the University of Liverpool, and you can see him lounging casually in the field up here [points to a slide], this is Garstang, looking very smug. And Garstang discovered this head beneath the steps leading to a victory temple in Meroë. Alongside of the head were two pottery vessels containing gold dust and nuggets, and in this image here [points to a slide], you can see a Sudanese worker, who apparently has just excavated the head, the head is lying facing the side of the trench here.
Now what I really like about this picture is it also allows you to see just how sandy the soil is, and this would have been really difficult to excavate. So it’s not surprising that we don’t have perhaps the straightest of baulks, which we’d otherwise expect in an archaeological trench. But I think it’s probably worth pointing out that the nature of – what you can see here [points to a slide] – it looks like gouging, and the uneven nature of the trench, to me suggests treasure hunting more than any scientific practise of stratigraphic excavation. And this is in fact supported, if you try and go back to Garstang’s field notes, they either don’t exist or they were really appallingly written and recorded.
Now the story of how this Head of Augustus arrived at the British Museum from the Sudan is certainly a story worth telling. So when the head was discovered, it made international headlines. Initially it was thought to be a head of Germanicus, and then Claudius, and then they worked out it was probably going to be Augustus. Now the Sudanese authorities only allowed Garstang to export the head and the pottery vessels and the gold, and this was following negotiations with the British authorities in the Sudan and with Garstang himself, on the condition that all of these objects would be sent directly to the British Museum and that plaster copies of the head would be sent back in return. However, Garstang had got into the practise of selling some of his most valuable finds.
Now ostensibly this was to fund his excavations, but I think in practice, it was also to supplement his salary. So what he did, and I should say this actually wasn’t abnormal practice at the time, but he formed an excavation committee, back in England, in Liverpool, and this comprised a number of individuals, but these individuals weren’t just interested in archaeology, they were private collectors, in England. And each of these members, they’re given an annual subscription to the Liverpool archaeological institute. And then in thanks, at the end of the season, they’re all invited to a special dinner, and Garstang regales them with stories of the excavation. And then at the very end, they’re all given a specially wrapped package, and they unwrap this package to find treasures from the excavation.
So although Garstang had negotiated with the British and Sudanese authorities, and he’d agreed on the direct transfer of the head to the British Museum, it turns out he’d actually floated it on the international market; and when he arrived in London and went to the British Museum, he didn’t bring the head with him at all. Instead, he turned up with the news that a Parisian private collector had already offered £500 for the head. And so he asked what the British Museum would offer and there was some protracted negotiations about this. The British Museum were of course really unhappy, and in the end they had to raise £1050, which was a huge amount at the time, and they had to raise this externally, in order to pay Garstang.
So that’s the story of how the head ended up in the British Museum. But the story of how the Head of Augustus ended up separated from its body and deposited in the foundations of a temple of victory in Meroë, I think is equally fascinating. [Points to a slide] So Garstang’s discovery was remarkable because the head is made out of bronze. So this is a valuable material which rarely survives in the archaeological record, and it came not only from a bronze statue of an emperor, but it comes from a colossal bronze statue of an emperor, so it’s exceedingly rare.
So when it originally stood to its full height, the total height of the statue would have been about two metres. It probably would have been located on a plinth as well, so you’re looking at a statue height of nearly three metres. However, in this local temple, dedicated to the Kushite victory, this is the last place that Garstang expected to find a Head of Augustus, and the discovery was remarkable because of the find spot. So thanks to the rich literary tradition from the period, a narrative survives to let us piece together the fascinating story of how this official portrait of Augustus ended up torn from its body and deposited in a foreign temple beyond the borders of the Roman Empire in Meroë in the Sudan.
And I’ll just explain here what I’ve put up on the screen. So this is a structure that Garstang erected around the remains of the temple which were mud brick walls and also some frescoes, and unfortunately, the frescoes haven’t survived to the present day, so we only have the early 20th century photographs, which is why they’re not the best quality. On this fresco here, it’s hard to see, but you can see the remains of someone’s feet, and it looks as though someone’s sitting on a throne here. And I should say as well, Garstang thought it would add a nice macabre touch that people would like if he put a skull here. That wasn’t actually found.
Now, so the story begins with one of the most famous love stories in history, that between Marc Antony and Cleopatra. So Marc Antony was a Roman citizen, and he was a former ally and friend of Augustus and Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. The naval Battle of Actium took place in 31 BC, in which Augustus defeated the combined forces of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, after which they both committed suicide. Subsequent to this, Egypt was annexed, and Roman settlements and forts were constructed throughout the new province. And within these new buildings, in the new province, statues were set up celebrating and commemorating the new emperor, Augustus.
And so, this head of Augustus probably comes from one of these statues, and it has been proposed that the head was stylistically reminiscent of earlier depictions of Alexander the Great, who was also a conqueror of Egypt, as a specific ploy to encourage the citizens of Egypt to recognise the new Roman Emperor. So for example, if they’d erected statues of Augustus in the Veristic style portraiture of a grizzled old man, they probably wouldn’t have recognised it, but this was something that was familiar, so this was quite clever.
But of course, North Africa was an ancient land with ancient kingdoms, and the establishment of a new rule in Egypt, so far from the centre of power on the Italian Peninsula, was always going to be complicated. Beyond the new Roman border were leaders determined to test the boundaries of this new authority. And one such ruler, her name has been given to us as Candace, she’s the one-eyed queen of Meroë, and the Greek historian Strabo records that in 25 BC, Candace and her army raided a number of the newly established Roman settlements and forts in Egypt. She carried back booty with her, apparently all kinds of imperial statuary, which she took back to her kingdom in triumph. So in the case of this head of Augustus, it would appear that Candace brought back the full colossal bronze statue of Augustus to her kingdom. And upon deciding that it was the most valuable statue of all the loot that she had collected, she cut off its head, we don’t know what she did with the body, and she deposits the head in the foundations of this new temple that she dedicates to victory. And so that whenever Candace or anyone else is ascending the stairs to this temple to worship victory, they are literally walking over the head of the Roman emperor.
So in sum, the head of the emperor is permanently below the feet of the captors while they worshiped this local god of victory. And what’s actually really interesting is that Garstang described a frieze, or a fresco that apparently depicted this very scene, and I’m sorry that it’s so grainy, but if you see here [points to a slide], there’s a series of individuals who all have their arms bound behind their backs, they’re all kneeling with their heads bowed and they’ve all got varying dress, varying different styles of clothing. But the figure here at the end is perhaps the most interesting, because it looks as though he’s actually wearing a Roman tunic, and Garstang described that he also had a helmet, a Roman helmet on his head. And he very confidently identified this as a Roman soldier. And then in the upper register of this fresco, you had a ruler who was seated larger than the size of these figures here, with his feet on top of these captives.
So here we have an iconography of conquest that is also played out physically by depositing the Head of Augustus in the temple of victory in Meroe. However, this brief skirmish on the edges of the empire was not unnoticed, and therefore would not go unpunished. The general, Petronius launched a counterattack almost immediately. He soundly defeated Candace and her army, and he fined them with reparations that were so huge that it was only a few years later that Candace and delegation collected the statuary and went directly to Augustus, returned all of the statuary, begged his forgiveness, promised they would never do it again and begged him to lift the fines, because they simply couldn’t pay them. And Augustus forgave them immediately.
However, the Head of Augustus remained where it has been deposited, preserving this particular act of iconoclasm, as well as a rare example of Roman bronze colossal statuary. Portraits of Augustus have been found throughout the Empire, consistently representing a youthful general and a god, and it was Augustus who achieved the longest and most prosperous period of rule in Roman imperial history. Now this head is no exception to this representation, it more or less embodies it. But the Meroë head of Augustus doesn’t just tell the story of Augustus in Rome, it tells two parallel stories, that of the victor and that of the vanquished. So when you go back to see this object in the exhibition, if you look closely enough at the surface, you can see fine grains of sand that are still stuck to the surface of the portrait, sands from the Kingdom of Kush which are embedded onto the face of one of the most famous rulers of history.
PROFESSOR ELIZABETH MINCHIN: Well, thank you, Lily. Lily has, as it were, set the scene, for opening some windows now onto life in the Roman world, particularly in the Roman Empire and particularly life amongst the elite. I’m going to talk about three items, first of all this pepper pot [points to a slide], which is one of my favourite things. It’s only ten centimetres high, four inches. You can imagine feeling the weight of the silver and the gold in the palm of your hand, I think it’s something that gives me a great deal of delight. Something else that gives me a great deal of delight is the story of its find. Just as Lily talked about the find of the Head of Augustus, this pepper pot was found in 1992 by a metal detectorist, apparently that’s the term you use, somewhere in Suffolk, at a place called Hoxne. It was part of a hoard, a huge hoard, in fact, the largest hoard found within the bounds of the Roman Empire. It contained something like 15,000 coins, it contained items of silver, items of gold, all kinds of precious objects.
The form of the pepper pot, as you can see, is a lady. A lady of some wealth, obviously. If you look at her garment, it is bordered elaborately with gold, and this is representing the elaborate embroidery that would have been on an original gown. She’s also holding a scroll, notice she’s fingering delicately this scroll, and the scroll testifies to her level of education. She’s an educated lady of some wealth. She isn’t wearing any kind of diadem. At first, when this little pepper pot, along with three others, I should add, was discovered, it was first thought that she was an empress, and it’s often called the ‘empress pepper pot’. But in fact, she’s not wearing any kind of diadem coronet, so it’s a lady, not an empress.
What you can’t see here [points to a slide] is the underneath side, the base of the pot. This is where there’s a most ingenious mechanism, a little rotating disc is on three settings underneath, and you can move it around as you wish. The first setting opens a gap for filling the pepper pot, the second setting gives you a smaller hole for extracting some of the pepper over some food, and the third setting simply closes the hole, so you’re not trailing pepper all the time. But I find this so ingenious and so charming.
Now I’ve been talking about pepper. Where does pepper come from? Well, once again, Lily’s account of Roman history gives us some context. With the conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, trade routes were opened up. Trade routes that Romans hadn’t had access to before. Previously, the Mediterranean had been their field. With the conquest of Egypt, they had access to further reaches, in fact, as far as India, the west coast of India, where traders were able to obtain pepper, and they brought it back across the Indian Ocean, up the Red Sea, by land, then across the Mediterranean. In fact, pepper was not the only spice that they obtained, there was cardamom, ginger, in particular, and cloves. Cloves came with the aid of Arab traders from as far as Indonesia.
So spices are moving into the Roman world, at the end of the republic into the empire. And by the time of the time of the Emperor Vespasian, between 69 and 79 AD, in that period, so only about 100 years after the conquest of Egypt, a spice market was opened in Rome. And in this spice market are not only spices, but all sorts of other precious goods that have come from further afield. So silks, for example, are being traded in that spice market in Rome.
Now spices, having travelled so far, are luxury items and the pepper that goes with this little pot is a luxury item housed in a luxury item. Romans liked display, and so, in a Roman house, the silverware would be on display in the home, so that guests who are admitted to the private parts of the house can admire it. I should say too, that we have evidence of how spices are used in the recipes that have come down to us from the later writer Apicius, who has left a set of recipes, and you find in a number of those the ingredients include spices. And of course, his recipes are going to be recipes for the elite. They’re not how to make a simple soup, they’re how to make something that will impress your guests at dinner.
Now, the habits and the tastes of Rome moved to the provinces. They moved to the provinces with the administrators, the governors of provinces and so on, and they moved to the provinces with the army, and I’m thinking particularly of Britain. Britain had been a province since the time of the Emperor Claudius; it had to be administered and there was the presence of the army. So the leading, the higher officers in the army would travel to Britain with their wives, with their families, and they would set up their homes. And the other people in Britain who would have aspired to having items like this were the Britons themselves, those Britons who came in contact with the Roman administration, and they too wanted to take on some of the habits and customs and the tastes of the Roman world. And this is a process that we call Romanisation.
So what we have then, is an item from a collection of very fine silver. It was manufactured, it was produced about 350 to 400 AD, so it’s well after the time of Augustus, but it’s still very much part of the Roman world. But what is interesting is that the end of the – what shall I say – the moment at which Rome lost Britain as a province is in about 412 AD, so not so long after this was produced. So, you’ve put together the information of the hoard of silver, the end of Roman Britain, and you think, this is probably something that has been bundled up with the other pepper pots, with all the coins, with the other items of family domestic silver, it’s been bundled up and hidden in the hope that at some point the owners will be able to come back and retrieve their fine silverware. But of course, we know they never did. So there’s a kind of sad and unfinished tale, there.
So, this little pepper pot, to me, talks about the skills of silversmithing. It talks about the desire for luxury goods. It talks about Romanisation. It talks about the desire for tasty foods. It talks about trade patterns, and it talks about the thrill of an archaeological find. A metal detectorist in 1992, we can pretty much all of us remember them, and it’s so recent a discovery.
So, let’s move on to our next one. [Points to a slide] Here, now as you can see, this is the sarcophagus, the rather large sarcophagus that’s in the collection, in the exhibition, and it was photographed in the exhibition. You can see, very appropriately, the exit sign, just above it [laughter]. This is a sarcophagus produced in about the third century. It was found in Somerset, in the United Kingdom, and as you can see from the hole drilled in the sarcophagus, it seems to have been used in more recent times as a garden fountain. So it’s had another life after its original purpose.
Now this makes us think about the issues of dealing with the dead. The Roman world generally preferred to cremate their dead, but by the first century BC, wealthy Romans, elite Romans, began to think favourably of practices from the Greek east, from the Hellenistic world, where people built elaborate tombs with fine architecture and monumental sculptures, and elite Romans began to engage in this practice too.
And of course, once you had a tomb, you needed a sarcophagus to go into the tomb, and sarcophaguses were produced in Athens, in Rome and in a few, a very few other major cities. Generally, and this seems extraordinary to me, they were produced and then transported to their destinations. They were embellished, generally, either with mythical scenes, with scenes from military life, with scenes from the life of the deceased. So obviously he or she had planned ahead. There are scenes that have Jewish iconography, and like this one, Christian iconography.
In fact, there are about 10,000 sarcophagi from the Roman world still available to us. Now, this one, if you’ve seen it in the exhibition, you’ll have noticed that it’s embellished on three sides. We’ve got the main scene here, [points to a slide] which I’ll talk about, and the two ends, each end also bares some relief carving. The back is plain, and this is because it would have been set into a mausoleum, into a tomb, against a wall, so you didn’t need decoration on the back, that would have been wasted.
What we have here is the story of Jonah, Jonah and the whale. So we have the boat on which Jonah was, and he is on this boat. I don’t know which one he is, but one of them. Here’s the sea monster that’s going to consume him when he’s thrown overboard. So that’s part one of the story, and then, I’m not telling you the story because I don’t feel I’ve got enough time for that, and then part two of the story is when he has survived this ordeal and been coughed up again by the whale. He’s sitting under a tree and God has produced this special kind of tree for him, and there’s a bit more of the story associated with the tree.
Now, why do we think this is Christian? Up here is a lamb. Totally unrelated to the scene, but it’s a sign. It’s a sign to us that this is a Christian burial, a Christian tomb, a Christian scene. By the third century, and as I said, this sarcophagus is a third century sarcophagus, Christianity was certainly well-recognised, Christianity was certainly practised in the Roman world, but it was still a time of persecution. There had been persecutions of Christians since the time of Nero. And it was only a little later than this, by 312 [BC], so just at the beginning of the fourth century, that Constantine had his conversion to Christianity and Christianity began slowly to become more and more accepted into this Roman world.
But the persecutions, of course, were related to the fact that the emperor, from Augustus onwards, the emperor was considered to be a god. Christians could not acknowledge the emperor as a god, since they were already acknowledging another god, and so life was very difficult for the Christian community. And indeed, even after Constantine, the following emperor, Julian, apostatised. He went back to paganism for a couple of centuries there was a kind of uneasy movement between pagan observers and Christianity.
[Points to a slide] And our third image is Sophocles. If anyone was here at the panel discussion that [Radio National broadcaster] Fran Kelly organised, Fran Kelly chaired earlier this week, you would have heard her say ‘The only thing I don’t really get in this exhibition is the bust of Sophocles. What’s he doing there?’ And she asked whether anyone else of the panel felt like that, but they all wanted to talk about something else. So Sophocles was never really addressed, so here I am to speak for Sophocles.
150 AD we can date this bust to. It is a Roman copy of a Greek original. Now, this is phrase that you hear quite a lot when you’re looking at sculptures, and bronze, marble, that we’re looking at Roman versions of something that had existed in Greece beforehand. And indeed, our knowledge of Greek sculpture, in metal and in marble, really owes such a lot to the fact that Romans copied these Greek originals. Now, from my perspective, what Sophocles speaks to is the cultural debt that Rome owes to Greece. I think that is why he is here. Romans from the republic, particularly quite conservative Romans, were deeply suspicious of Greek culture. There were various periods that Greek philosophers were banished from the city, when Romans didn’t want to have Greek tutors for their children and so on. On the other hand, amongst educated Romans, amongst elite Romans, Greek culture was valued to the extent that Romans employed Greek tutors for their children, to the extent that they learnt Greek, that they studied in Athens and that they read Greek philosophers, Greek historians and Greek literature.
In fact, we have, for example, letters from Cicero, who wrote voluminous collections of letters. He was writing to his friend Atticus, who spent a lot of time in Athens, and Cicero was more or less sending him orders, orders for what he might pick up in Athens and send back to him by way of sculpture. And he says ‘This will look very nice against an ivy wall’, you know? ‘I’ll grow some ivy and just put the sculpture in front of it and it will set it off nicely’. So you could imagine something like this bust of Sophocles set up formally in one of those little courtyard gardens in a Roman villa.
Now, it wasn’t just sculpture that the Romans borrowed, or picked up, from Greece. Romans adopted Greek knowledge on metal casting, on coinage, on mosaics, the carving of cameos, perspective drawing and architecture and more. All these ideas have come from Greece to Rome. But that’s not to say that the Romans didn’t then do interesting things with the skills that they learned. I don’t want to bag them for that, but they certainly have a debt to Greece, to start with. But that wasn’t limited to the fine arts, their borrowings weren’t limited to the fine arts. The Greek forms of literature have shaped Roman literature. So, Greek epic is borrowed heavily for Roman epic. We have Greek lyric, Roman lyric. We have Greek novels, Roman novels. Greek historians, Roman historians and so on. It never stops, it’s a huge debt.
Let me just say one thing about Sophocles. Sophocles himself living in the fifth century BC, produced 120 tragedies. He lived until he was 90 and he produced 120 tragedies, which puts most writers to shame, I think, of which seven entire tragedies have survived to us. That is all we have, out of this huge production. The two most famous ones are Oedipus Rex(Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus the King) and Antigone, which has been translated into so many languages, of which there have been so many versions. There have been ballets and operas and new translations of this play, and I just want to put in a little plug, because at the end of October, the Sydney production of Antigone is coming to Canberra, and it is getting rave reviews. So have a look in The Canberra Times and check it out. It’s just demonstration that culture from the fifth century BC is still alive today. So thank you.
DR PAUL DONNELLY: I’ve got my own little speaker here which does recall to me many a Madonna video, so if I strike a pose half way through, you’ll understand why. [laughter]
Okay. Thank you very much, Lily and Elizabeth. We’ve seen some of the most spectacular items in this show, and it’s very heartwarming for a curator to see so many people in an exhibition of this nature, and to see it being enjoyed at that level. I have gone for the underdogs of the exhibition, you might say, so I’ve always been drawn to the smaller items which have big stories to tell, and I’m going to have a little journey today through the Spanish silver dollars and the Kilwa sherds. And I thought I’d use it as an opportunity, and especially in terms of the sherds, to talk about the differences between these kinds of evidence and how you can maximise the kinds of secrets that pottery has.
So the Spanish silver dollar, these are the ones in the exhibition. [points to slide] I’m sure most of you have seen the display by now. The Spanish dollar was produced for many centuries. These look very irregular because they’re basically handmade. They’re known as cut off bars, so apocryphally, they were making so much coinage that they would put a wooden rod down into the sand and then pour the molten silver into it, leaving a very rough bar, and then they would cut it off and then make the coin. I think it was actually a little bit more industrialised than that, but it does give the idea of how quickly this kind of currency was being made, and it really was a world currency. We know them as Spanish dollars, to the Spanish they were known as eight reales, or royals, and interestingly if Menzies had had his way, we’d have been spending royals instead of dollars. There’s a nice little connection there.
The one at the top has been made by, this is 1619 or so, by this stage they’re making them with machinery, they’re milling them with powered machinery. The difference between these two is that coins, and you’ll see quite a number of beautiful coins in this exhibition, the wonderful thing with coinage is that they of course are embedded, literally, with the stories. They tell you who produced them, why they were produced, where they were produced, often the date in which they were produced, and if you dig down even deeper, you’ll find out even more secrets.
The pottery, on the other hand, it’s taken scholars to identify this pottery. The Kilwa sherds were found, discarded, broken sherds cast up on the beach of a Tanzanian city, of ancient Kilwa. They’ve had to know that they are Chinese, celadon, Middle Eastern, blue and white and local pottery, to know that they represent those distant shores, they had to have been studied and they had to be identified. And so, in order to see the wonderful stories that make A History of the World in 100 Objects, there’s often, and as we’ve discovered today, you can always go deeper, and when it comes to these things, you can’t tell. You won’t recognise Augustus, you won’t recognise what these are. They had to have been identified.
Now, it’s a bit of a later Spanish dollar. This isn’t in the show, but I chose it because it has more of an Australian connection. You can see it was produced in 1739. We can tell by this M with a zero that it was produced in Mexico, and as the label in the show well attests, the many millions of kilograms of these dollars cost huge numbers of lives, to the point where, when they were running out of locals, they had to import African slaves. It was a dreadful business, but it meant that Spain was an absolute superpower.
And we’ve all grown up with stories, and seen Pirates of the Caribbean and Jim Hawkins and ‘pieces of eight’, argh, with his parrot. So this is where we get ‘pieces of eight’, [points to slide]. There’s the eight there, and as I say, Mexico, Plus ultra, further beyond; Spain had grand aspirations when it came to the world powers. And here we have the Pillars of Hercules, through which you passed from the Mediterranean into that wide world. And just here is one of the possible origins of our dollar sign, here. You can see the ribbon going around that column there. There’s a few other candidates, but that’s one of the ones that I like.
Of course, there’s an Australian connection there too, because it was a world currency, because there were millions in circulation around the world. When Governor Lachlan Macquarie wanted to have a currency for the fledgling colony of New South Wales, he imported £10,000 worth, which equated to 40,000 Spanish dollars, and had the centres cut out to make 15 pence, and these remained at their face value of five shillings. You can’t beat a canny Scot when it comes to making money from money.
Incidentally, in terms of the ubiquity of Spanish dollars, the first crime, on the first fleet, even before they’d arrived in Sydney, some of the convicts had busied themselves in the hold of one of the ships, and had somehow managed to get enough equipment to be able to cast counterfeit versions from shoe buckles of Spanish dollars. And Captain [Arthur] Phillip lamented ‘If only I could use their ingenuity in more legal ways.’ [laughter]
So, these sherds from Tanzania demonstrating connections across the world, demonstrating that not only do these show trade across the Indian Ocean, via India, via the Arabian coast, from as far afield as China and Persia, where you find trade, where you find objects like this, there’s also a testimony to, of course, the exchange of ideas, religious beliefs, as well as goods.
Which is what brings me to my demonstration of how you find out as much as you can from literally the fabric of these kinds of ceramics. And, for my sins, I did a PhD many years ago on a particular kind of pottery called chocolate-on-white. These were examples of them here. I’ll go into a little bit more detail, perhaps more detail than you actually want, but I’ll try and make it quick, especially since we’ve technically finished. So, they’re 3500 years old and they were found in modern day eastern Mediterranean, modern day Jordan, Palestine and Israel kind of areas. These broken ones are examples of sherds found in living contexts, the complete vessels come from tomb contexts, so they were buried for aspirational life or afterlife for the dead, as well as being used by the living.
But they’re relatively rare, and not much was known about them, to the point that they could have been white-on-chocolate, as well as chocolate-on-white, and I’ll wager this is the only chocolate bar that will be showing in this series of lectures. [laughter]. But it was an opportunity to talk about how little was known about this ceramic, whilst it was very recognisable and various archaeologists across that southern part of the Levant recognised it as being something specially, there were a lot of assumptions about this. From other contexts, it was obviously made between 1550 BC and 1400 BC, which makes it, of course, 3500 years old, but there was never any actual study of the divisions within that, and it started to be abused in terms of, when they found chocolate-on-white, an archaeologist could use it for their own purposes to say ‘This is clearly a middle bronze age deposit’. Others could use exactly the same sherd and say ‘This is a late bronze age deposit’.
So, as a student, I figured that this was worthy of further study, and I was lucky enough to be a member of the Pella team, the Sydney University archaeologists’ expedition to Pella. Some of you may have heard Stephen Bourke talking recently, he’s the director of excavations. So, there had been previous studies of chocolate-on-white which had said despite patterns of distribution that they didn’t come from Jordan, that it came from somewhere else, that it was exotic. Others were saying that it was made in Lebanon, even though you didn’t find any in Lebanon. So it seemed to me to be a ripe opportunity to try and get as much information on this material as possible, and ultimately join the kinds of objects that we have in the exhibition out there, objects that are able to tell us grander connections and bigger stories.
So my study went along, it was multidisciplinary, where as some scholars had just done, for example, clay analysis, where they had chosen as many clay samples as they could from around Pella, and then compare it to here, and then find that they weren’t the same. They came to the grand conclusion that it wasn’t made at Pella. However, that’s on the assumption that the local clays had all been found, maybe some of those clays had been buried over the last 3500 years, maybe they didn’t find the particular level. So there were a lot of assumptions. I thought of coming from a number of different, converging from a number of different points, you have a better chance of questioning assumptions and finding new results.
So, I did a distribution across the landscape, which is the simplest thing. It involves a bit of travel, which I’ll talk about briefly. Ultimately, you find out all the samples you can, and mark out where all the sites they were, and see where the hotspots are. The core group, as I say, was Pella, and I was fortunate to be working from a site that had such a large, and probably the best, group in the whole region. And because of Pella, the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney has probably the best collection of this kind of material outside of Jordan.
I had to identify and record the samples, which includes drawing and photography. I then did an elemental analysis, which I’ll cover very briefly, I promise you, and the quantitative analysis even briefer, and then the conclusions.
[Points to slide] So, just to put it in context, this is Pella here, where I was working from, but it covers this whole site. This is the core area. You’ve got Cyprus up here, Syria up here, the Hittites are up here, the Hurrians up here, in terms of empires. The Egyptians are down here. So this area here is squeezed between the superpowers of the era. So in terms of distribution, it’s not rocket science. You go around, you count how many samples you can find in publications, preferably you go and see the items in person, because part of the problem was people were identifying chocolate-on-white when actually it was just a white slipped ware with another fugitive kind of colouring. So I had to decide on making a particular, having a normative kind of group and working out from there.
And as you can see, vastly more numbers were from the north Jordan valley region, so even on this basis there’s a suggestion that Lebanon up here is not the origin of chocolate-on-white, nor is Egypt and nor is Cyprus. But that’s not enough in archaeology. You have to demonstrate your assumptions a bit more scientifically. [Points to slides] These are opportunities to show … this is Pella, this is the temple here, with the wonderful, some of you might have been there, the Canaanite temple here. This is dig house where we live, in palatial splendour [laughter]. Tents. This is a close up of the temple here, and this is a view from a similar viewpoint taken from up here, but towards more classical remains. It’s a beautiful site and it was a very important site, situated as it was on main corridors, north-south along the Jordan Rift Valley and east-west through the Carmel Range. So it had close connections to the Mediterranean, as well as to Egypt and up into Syria and Turkey.
So, grunt work of course, includes looking at these sherds. From a simple sherd you can extrapolate to find vessels of this nature. You had to go to various places, and in addition to Paris and the British Museum, I went to Toronto, to Harvard, to numerous other places, which was very, very hard work. Sometimes you found celebrity sherds, and here we have this particular one here found by Sir Flinders Petrie and published in his Tell el-Ajjul publication. [Points to slide] Here it is drawn here, and I think you can see there’s a little bit missing there, so I think they’re still trying to find out who did that.
Elemental analysis. You can, through visualisation, through stylistic analysis, you can work out different groups, in the fabric, in the style, in the way that the slip has been treated and the decoration. But it’s wonderful to be able to have at our disposal now, in archaeology, independent, objective means of testing those groups. And so, in a nut shell, elemental analysis, both using synchrotron in Chicago, and that’s basically a great big ring of light, going around there, of which you have laboratories funnelling through to your sherds. And those sherds bounce through, bounce off the sherds, the light bounces off the sherds. It tells you what kind of elements, whether it’s silica, or iron, or magnesium or whatever there is, and more importantly it tells you how and what quantities there are in parts per million, so then you can quantify them and compare them and start to see groups.
Here we have ANSTO [Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation] down in Sydney who did neutron activation analysis, and as I say, synchrotron analysis up in Chicago. Quantitative analysis, this represents. I’m not a statistician, but I tell you, it can do your head in. And this is, I’m not too sure if you’re familiar with fly papers, but if you’re not really, if you haven’t got your head screwed on, you can get caught in the fly paper [laughter]. That was just to wake you up. [Points to a slide] So here’s some bivariate analysis, this is one example of many of demonstrating that putting these sherds through objective elemental analysis, quantifying them, you can start to see that the groups that had been identified in terms of fabric independently were observed in the science as well, and that was a really fantastic thing to see, that this wasn’t just my seeing what I wanted to see. There was a good way of testing that.
And that meant by having different groups I could do further work such as this. And so, when scholars, as I mentioned, had been using the same ware to show earlier periods and later periods, they might have been finding material like this, and saying that it’s late bronze, vice versa, they could have been finding material that was equated to in style and use to up here, and saying it was made in here. But now, with a seriation, this is called ‘battleship curves’ for obvious reasons, this demonstrates how through time you have a particular type coming in, reaching a period of favouritism, and then dying out. And as you can see, there’s a gradual sweeping through of the different kinds of fabrics. And so, now, when an archaeologist finds chocolate-on-white, if it looks like fabric group one, he can tell by looking at the thesis, he can tell that it actually comes from what particular kind of date it was made in. It just makes chocolate-on-white now a more accurate chronological tool than previously had been the case.
In terms of empires, by identifying the different types of sherds, it also meant that we could be more granular in our visibility of the ware, and the red sites here show sites with chocolate-on-white, [points to slide] as opposed to white slip and other types of ware that we confuse with this proper ware, and by being able to identify it in a more granular kind of way and more accurately, we were able to see that there was a kind of a pattern.
And this was around, as I say, 1550, 1500 BC, when one looked at later Tell el-Amarna texts in Egypt, the names of letters, the names of rulers, coming from letters from this region, demonstrated that there were sites that had chocolate-on-white that didn’t have Hurrian names, they maintained their original Canaanite indigenous names, which suggested that chocolate-on-white ware was individual enough and localised enough to be representative as a cultural signifier for a particular group, and when you’re between the superpowers of Egypt down here and Hittites up here, and the Hurrians up here, you possibly felt like you wanted to raise the flag on occasion, especially at say feastings and on occasions when you wanted to demonstrate your independence.
Which brings me back to the Kilwa sherds. So, when we see these sherds and we see the fabulous stories represented in the show out there, ultimately there’s a lot of work that goes into these often sweeping statements about what they represent. Because unless we study them, unless time is spent identifying the secrets that’s within their grains, their stories are always much reduced. So thank you very much.
DR LILY WITHYCOMBE: Okay, thank you so much for those two presentations, they were really fascinating. So, Elizabeth, if you can come back up on the stage, and Paul as well. I think we have some time for questions. Thank you for staying over time. And I’d also just like to say thank you very much to Kevin for doing excellent work with setting out the PowerPoint and everything else, and to Janae as well, so thanks very much. All right, over to your questions. Yes. Janae’s going to pass around a microphone.
QUESTION: I have a curatorial question. Who actually has the pleasure of being, or who is allowed to handle the objects in the exhibition?
DR LILY WITHYCOMBE: Okay. Not the National Museum of Australia. So, the British Museum, they bring the objects over themselves. They have a special arrangement with couriers. And they fly them over. The conservators handle them from the beginning, from when they take them off the plane and they bring them to the National Museum. When they install them in the case, and they close them, they close the cases. And we have agreed that we will never open these cases. If something were to happen to an object, if we need to open a case, a conservator’s going to have to fly from London to Canberra. But one of the reasons is, for example, the sword in the exhibition, if any of you have seen that beautiful, I think it’s a Japanese sword. So the conservator who handles that, she’s actually been trained in the arts that this particular sword embodies, so no-one else could perform the appropriate ritual, things that go along with this sword as well. So it’s not just straightforward object handling, sometimes. Often there’s people paying attention very carefully to the rituals that are embodied in some of these objects.
So if it was the National Museum exhibition, we would be able to handle it. Our conservators would under supervision of the curators. But with this British Museum exhibition, just the British Museum.
QUESTION: Thank you. I was just wondering how it was decided among all the many artefacts that have obviously been found in the expeditions et cetera, how it was decided on these 100 objects. Who decided that they represent the history of the world?
DR LILY WITHYCOMBE: So, it was Neil MacGregor, the then director of the British Museum who made the selection. This was his great vision, and his great idea, and as you’ll know, he actually carried this out in the form of a podcast, initially, and then in a paperback. So it’s important to know that this was never an exhibition in London. The British Museum never had a A History of the World in 100 Objects in an exhibition in London. The first time it was shown was in Perth, and it was actually Alec Coles, the Director of the Museum of Western Australia, who came up with the idea that it could be a travelling exhibition. And I think that Neil MacGregor drew on his favourite objects, from having been the director of the museum for such a long time, and all of his experience and knowledge. But I understand that he also took, I guess, advice from other departments as well.
What’s interesting is that if you read the paperback, we actually don’t have all of the objects that are listed in the paperback, nor in the podcast. So one example is the sensational suffragette penny, you know, I would have loved to have seen that, where someone’s written votes for women on a penny that’s sent round in wide circulation. That didn’t come out. And the Head of Augustus, actually no, I initially thought that the Head of Augustus had come only to Canberra, but I found out recently that Perth had it as well.
PROFESSOR ELIZABETH MINCHIN: We didn’t get the Rosetta stone.
DR LILY WITHYCOMBE: Watch this space, dot dot dot!
PROFESSOR ELIZABETH MINCHIN: Oh right –
DR LILY WITHYCOMBE: Not for this exhibition, but –
JANAE BRADLEY: We just have time for one more?
DR LILY WITHYCOMBE: Yes. One more question. I feel like when I said there was an unidentified Roman veristic portraiture, I felt someone gasped. I felt there was an intake of breath, and someone was going to tell me that it was identified. No? Okay. All right, well, thank you so much for your patience, I’m really aware that we’ve run over time and I hope you enjoyed our session today, and next Sunday the 13th of October, I understand –
JANAE BRADLEY: Sorry, 13th of November.
DR LILY WITHYCOMBE: Sorry, 13th of November, that’s right. We have another session as well, another lecture series. So if you enjoyed this one, I’m sure you will enjoy that one as well. So thanks very much. Thank you Elizabeth, and thank you Paul.
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Date published: 02 June 2017