Friday, August 7, 2015

Magnificent statue of Silenus discovered in the Agora of Pella

Excavations at Pella, the capital of ancient Macedon and birthplace of Alexander the Great, continue to show the immense wealth and quality of the Hellenistic city. In the last couple of weeks a beautifully sculpted marble statue of Silenus was brought to light in the Agora. The discovery was announced by Professor John M. Akamatis of the Department of History and Archaeology of Aristotle University, Thessaloniki.
The life size statue dates to the Hellenistic era, a reflection of the wealth of the city and the opulence of its public spaces at that time. It was found in the north stoa of Pella’s huge Agora. The Agora of Pella is the largest of any Hellenistic city so far discovered. It extends to 72,000 square metres and occupies the centre of the gridded street plan of the Macedonian capital.
The bearded Silenus, approximately 1.75cm in height, is of exceptional quality. Since we know that the god Dionysus was of particular significance to the Macedonians, it is not surprising to find a representation of Silenus, his companion and tutor, in a place of prominence.  Silenus is depicted standing, wearing an animal skin and high leather boots and showing traces of the red and ochre pigments that reveal he would have once appeared as a vivid painted figure rather than the plain marble seen today. Though broken at the head and the legs, the statue is in generally good condition, though there is sediment that needs to be removed from the front, and care must be taken to ensure that the colour that remains on the lower part is preserved. However, restoration and conservation will be carried out and it is intended that the restored piece will go on display in the museum at Pella.
The location of the find is interesting: Professor Akamatis postulates that it may have been where some kind of cult or ritual activity took place. The area nearby had revealed a semicircular construction with narrow lead pipes which supplied liquid from two small tanks positioned to the rear. The width of the lead pipes would indicate a small or restricted flow of liquid and it is possible that this may have been used for ritual ablutions or libations, and that the Silenus was connected with this fountain. A bronze fragment of drapery from a colossal statue was also discovered at the fountain, further underlining the importance of this area of the Agora of Pella.
The building of the Agora is thought to have been started during the reign of Kassander (ruled 305 to 297 BC) over an area which included the necropolis of the Classical city. The Agora was the commercial, administrative and social centre of the Hellenistic city until its destruction by an earthquake 200 years later probably. The nature of the sudden destruction of the city has meant that the contents of the rooms behind the stoae are almost intact, leading to valuable archaeological evidence for their use.
The statue has been identified as Silenus on the basis of its distinctive features and the animal skin. Sileni, along with Satyrs and Maenads, were followers of Dionysus, with Sileni depicted as older than the other followers. Originally a Silenus figure was depicted a nature spirit with the ears, and sometimes the tail and legs, of a horse.  Later depictions show Silenus - now singular - as totally human, but with unkempt hair and beard (though often bald on the top of his head), thick lips and a squat nose. By the Hellenistic era he was depicted as an individual named Silenus, the teacher and faithful companion of the wine-god Dionysus.
Dionysus riding a panther, Pella
The worship of Dionysus was very important to the Macedonians. One of the most famous of the pebble mosaics from Pella shows the god riding a panther, and Olympias, wife of Philip II and mother of  Alexander the Great, was said to be an avid devotee of his cult. Alexander himself is recorded as offering sacrifices to Dionysus in temples he dedicated to the god in the cities he founded during his campaigns in Asia, and a wonderful small ivory of Dionysus supported by a Maenad was part of a decorated couch from the tomb of Alexander IV in Vergina. Perhaps most intriguingly, Euripides wrote The Bacchae, based on the Greek myth of King Pentheus of Thebes and his mother Agave, and their punishment by the Dionysus, at Pella itself. Euripides was invited to Pella, the new capital of Macedon, by King Archelaus I who had moved the capital from the city of Aegae (modern Vergina), and died there in 406BC. Thus this new find of exceptional quality adds to the body of material which shows the importance of the cult of Dionysus to the Macedonians, and also is testament to the refinement and luxury of this beautiful and important Hellenistic city.
Dionysus supported by a Maenad, Tomb III, Vergina

Thursday, March 5, 2015

New discoveries from the necropolis at Aegae, including the tomb of a possible priest of Dionysus

Gold earrings from 4th C BC tomb, photo: Greek Ministry of Culture 
Today the latest discoveries from the necropolis of Aegae (Vergina) were announced by Imathia’s Head of Antiquities Angeliki Kottaridi. And, as usual, they did not disappoint. The excavations revealed a total of 21 graves, of which 6 had been looted. The most spectacular find came from a tomb dating to the 4th C BC which contained the remains of a young girl. The girl had been buried with gold ornaments including earrings, but also a bronze mirror, the only one discovered so far in Aegae.  The mirror features a relief of Eros flying in to embrace the god Dionysus, who is seated on the skin of a panther laid across some rocks. 
Bronze mirror with Eros & Dionysus, photo: Greek Ministry of Culture
One of the tombs contained the remains of a funerary bed decorated with plaques made of terracotta, showing Athena watching a battle of Greeks against barbarians in relief.
 Perhaps the most intriguing find was a looted cist tomb, dated to the time of Alexander the Great, that contained a vase used as an urn. The urn was crowned with a bronze ivy wreath and contained the remains of a man aged around 50 years of age. The tomb contained a narrow wooden table upon which utensils of the type used in a symposium had been placed. 

Among the vessels was a bronze bowl used for mixing wine and water, with very fine decoration that showed the high degree of skill of the Macedonian craftsmen.
 The bowl was found lying on the floor of the tomb and surrounded by organic debris associated with the funerary couch. The remains of fabric from the bed and the clothes of the dead were lying amongst the debris of the wooden couch, and traces of purple could be seen amongst the fabric. The gilt decoration from the front of the couch is reminiscent of the gold and ivory beads discovered in the (so-called) tomb of Philip II at Vergina. Speculation has arisen about the occupant of the tomb. Mrs Kottardi noted that the occupant was an adult male so wealthy that he could afford clothes dyed with purple, yet at the same time there were no arms or armour within the tomb. The absence of arms, combined with the ivy wreath around the urn, suggested to Kottardi that the man may have been a priest of Dionysus, or an associated cult. Let’s hope that further investigations shed more light on the occupants of the newly excavated tombs.
Lifting the slabs of a cist grave, photo: Greek Ministry of Culture

Saturday, February 21, 2015

P.D. James and the Mystery of the ‘Apollo’ Jacket

I was working at the British Museum in 2001 when the invasion of Afghanistan took place.  Horrified by the plight of the people caught up in the conflict, I decided to hold a ‘Bring and Buy’ at the museum to raise money for the Red Cross campaign to help refugees.  Needless to say, the museum wasn’t really used to this sort of thing, but they gave me permission and let me use the old lecture theatre. Lots of kind and generous people brought things in for us to sell and I recruited my neighbour, Frances Powell, to help.

One of the things that I donated was a very unusual jacket. I had bought it in Nauplion in the Peloponnese several years before, in a shop that sold handmade ‘one-off’ designs. It was cream, with a profile painted on to the jacket in black, which was clearly meant to look like the sort of face you might see on a Greek vase. My friend Andrew and I loved it, and called it my ‘Apollo’ jacket. He and I both used to wear it – I have a photo somewhere of him wearing it at a wedding. It was extremely distinctive and used to get a lot of comments whenever either of us wore it.

However, by 2001 I had decided the style was looking a bit dated (it had 90s shoulder pads) and so I donated it, amongst other items, to the Bring and Buy.  I was in two minds about letting it go, as it was still in very good condition, and I remember being a bit wistful as I hung it on a clothes rail. Thanks to the generosity of British Museum staff, Frances and I raised £500 for the Red Cross Appeal, and we took whatever didn’t sell to the charity shop. I was so pleased with the amount raised that I didn’t even look to see whether the jacket had gone.

I thought no more about it until the staff newsletter appeared. I was looking to see whether the Bring and Buy (which had only been open to staff) had been covered in the newsletter, and stopped in my tracks when I saw a photo of P.D. James, who had been doing a public event at the museum on the evening of the Bring and Buy, wearing the jacket at her reading.

‘She’s wearing my jacket’ I told everyone, who of course thought I was mad. We couldn’t imagine P.D. James somehow getting in to the Bring and Buy and snapping up a jacket to wear that evening at a public event. But to me there was no doubt that it was my jacket. How could there be two? I had bought it in the early 90s in an obscure and local Greek shop. The designer had told me it was a one-off. What were the chances, a decade later, of there being another? Anyway, I obviously couldn’t prove it, but it provided an amusing dinner party story that I used occasionally to tell.

P. D James in the 'Apollo' jacket Picture: Peter Payne 

One day I was telling all this to a friend who remembered my jacket but doubted my story, and so we decided to do a Google image search. There we found a few photographs of P.D. James in the jacket on different occasions (see above, but the best one is here: However, suddenly we noticed that there were photos, more recent, of her in a similar – but not exactly the same – jacket with a classical style outline face on the front. The colours and style were the same, but the face was less classical, with a front-facing rather than profile eye. She clearly likes this one a lot too as it is in a number of photos. Now I was really intrigued.
P.D. James in 'the other' jacket! 
How appropriate, I thought, that we have here a P.D. James mystery. There was, apparently, not one jacket, but two. ‘Apollo’ is in older photos, the other one in more recent shots. Did she like the ‘Apollo’ jacket so much that, when it wore out, she had a new version made? Or did she just manage to find another that was similar in colour and style with a black outline face on it?

But perhaps I am making too much out of all of this. It is entirely possible that the first jacket wasn’t ‘mine’ at all: it could be that my jacket wasn’t unique and that I fell for the marketing ploy. Then it would just be a coincidence that both jackets were at the British Museum that day. P.D. James might have been shopping in Nauplion and bought an identical ‘Apollo’ jacket (maybe they told her it was a ‘one-off’ too?) and then went back to the shop years later and bought something similar.

None of this matters of course. But it does cross my mind from time to time. So if anyone out there can shed any light please do so. Do you have an ‘Apollo’ jacket too? Do you know if P.D. James bought mine? And if so did she like it so much she had another one commissioned? Let me know and put an end to the mystery.