Reading Charles Higham’s account of digging at Verulamium reminded me that I too was there in the summer of 1959. I was reading Classics at Cambridge and, having chosen the Archaeology option in my final year, I needed to go on a dig. I spent two weeks there, and I too was asked to help with the proton magnetometer. I clearly remember the lion mosaic being discovered, and a further memory involves Barry Cunliffe. Still a student, he was supervising the area just near to where I was working, and I remember thinking that he knew what he was talking about. Not long after that he was digging up Fishbourne, and the rest is history!
The mystery of the Combat Agate
Hugh Andrew and Huw Ford (CWA 110) very reasonably raise questions about how the Antikythera Mechanism relates to other finds, or the absence of them. Where are its antecedents, analogues, and descendants? Tony Freeth is clearly right in his explanation: that bronze being a corrodible, reusable, and valuable resource in its own right, the seabed has been the only safe-ish hideout over the two intervening millennia. Examples that remained in circulation will have, for example, stopped working and been recycled. The reported 3,000 bronzes from Corinth will not have been destroyed immediately, but will have passed into the possession of prosperous Romans, and survived until they fell victim to medieval Christian dogma, neglect, or warfare.
More puzzling, in my view, is the so-called ‘Combat Agate’, recovered from an early Mycenaean tomb at Pylos in 2015, by Sharon Stocker of the University of Cincinnati (see CWA 82 and 89). There can be no doubt of its authenticity, since it was first published – though hardly recognisable under the three-millennia accretion of limescale – among the other jewellery from the tomb in 2016, which included four gold seal rings of Minoan affinity and ‘dozens’ of engraved seal stones. As found, it was mounted with gold clasps.
It was only when cleaning and conservation were complete, in 2017, that the quality of its artistry and workmanship was revealed.
On the workmanship, the precision of the drawing and the accuracy of the engraving – in sunken relief, on a surface measuring only 37mm across – are astonishing. Could this have been achieved without optical aids? Possibly it didn’t need to be – in Rhodes there is a set of five bronze-mounted plano-convex rock crystal lenses from the archaic sanctuary of Athene at Ialysos, and similar, though unmounted, stones have been found in Crete. But agate is quite hard – c.7.0 Mohs – so what was it cut with?
As to the artistry, particularly the close attention to anatomical detail such as the tensed calf muscle of the soon-to-be victim, the closest contemporary analogue that I’ve been able to find is the fire-damaged and fragmentary Palaikastro Kouros, now in Sitia museum, which also attains, though on a larger scale, a level of anatomical observation not seen again for 1,000 years. But most extraordinary of all is the careful symmetry and the dynamic energy of the entire composition.
Incidentally, the version of the narrative published by the excavators, and still current in Wikipedia, is clearly wrong: ‘The seal portrays a warrior who, having already defeated one opponent sprawled at his feet, is plunging his sword into the exposed neck of another foe with a “figure-of-eight” shield, while at the same time grabbing the crest of the man’s helmet.’ This interpretation ignores the fact that the dress and armament of the deceased – asymmetric loincloth; sword of a form identical to the one physically in the tomb (so this is clearly not an heirloom), and also represented in a shaft grave at Mycenae; a spherical-headed mace on a thong; no helmet, shield, or body armour – exactly matches that of the ‘hero’ on the left, in stark contrast to the enemy’s elaborate helmet, shield, and spear. So do we have an early version of the Achilles/Patroclus/Hector triangle? The iconography, though not the quality of workmanship, is also paralleled in the shaft graves.
For reasons discussed above, the unique survival of the Antikythera device is not surprising. But none of that applies here. You can’t recycle a sealstone; their usual destination in antiquity was a wealthy tomb, from which literally thousands have been recovered, and even if the tomb was plundered, an artefact of this quality would surely have been preserved in people’s collections; and once deposited in the ground, it is safe from degradation for many thousands of years.
It is inconceivable that a prehistoric Leonardo suddenly woke up and thought ‘I know…’, and then forgot about the whole thing. So where is the tradition? Where are the workshops? Where are the (even if less accomplished) antecedents and analogues, the practice and apprentice pieces? Any ideas?
Please note: letters may be edited; views expressed here are those of our readers, and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine.
1900 years ago…
Construction of Hadrian’s Wall is traditionally believed to have begun in AD 122, during the reign of the emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117-138). The 117km Wall stretches across the north of England, from Segedunum at Wallsend on the east coast to just beyond Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Hadrian’s Wall was built to protect the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire, and created a boundary between Roman Britain and the territory to the north. Today, Hadrian’s Wall is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and many parts of the Wall, including forts and smaller military posts built along it, can still be seen.
While there is some scholarly debate surrounding the exact year when work on the Wall commenced, AD 122 has long been the generally accepted date, so 2022 is being celebrated as the 1,900th anniversary. This is being marked by a variety of events and activities across Hadrian’s Wall throughout the year. Find out more about the 1900 Festival at https://1900.hadrianswallcountry.co.uk.
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