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