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On a recent trip to Italy, I visited the Archaeological Area of Minturnae, a little-known but impressive archaeological site along the Appian Way.
Minturnae was originally an Auruncian city (of which no archaeological traces have been found), one of the three towns of the Aurunci which allied themselves with the Samnites and made war against Rome in 314 BC. After being defeated by Rome the city suffered severe repression and was burned to the ground. The Romans settled in the area and built a castrum along the river Liris after realising the strategic and commercial importance of its close location to the sea.
The military settlement grew into a Roman colony in 296 BC and became an important trading port of the Mediterranean as well as a fortified commercial centre along the Appian Way.
A stretch of the Appian Way passing through the ancient city and serving as its decumanus maximus, Minturnae © Carole Raddato
Room 56 of the British Museum; Mesopotamia: A large display case houses the “Queen of the Night Relief.” It is one of the masterpieces of the British Museum, also known as the “Burney Relief”. This terracotta plaque came from my land, Mesopotamia (mostly modern-day Iraq) and dates back to the Old Babylonian period, 1800-1750 BCE. My friend Joshua J. Mark published a very nice article about the Queen of the Night relief here on the Ancient History Encyclopedia site; therefore, I will not discuss the archaeology or history of the relief and will focus only on the experience of viewing the piece.
I stood a meter away from the case and watched the British Museum’s visitors; what will they do when they meet this “Queen?” Generally, they took some pictures of her and some selfies. A minute, more or less, they spent. It was my turn now. I approached the case; the glass was very clean and transparent.
A close-up image of the relief. showing the upper part of the nude female deity.
I will express my thoughts as a physician who examined the anatomical details of an approximately 4000 year-old woman. I’m a consultant neurologist, not an anatomist, but I studied anatomy in medical school!
This week’s masterpieces from Hadrian’s Villa are eight marble statues depicting seated muses.
In Greek mythology, the Muses were sister goddesses of music, poetry, and other artistic and intellectual pursuits. Poets and other artists often called on them for inspiration. Zeus, the king of the gods, was the father of the Muses. Their mother was Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. It was not until the 1st century BC that each of the Muses began to be related to a specific art. They were worshipped at the Museion of the famous library of Alexandria, from where the modern term “Museum” originates.
The statues were unearthed at Hadrian’s Villa in the 1500′s. They were made at the end of Hadrian’s reign by two Roman workshops reproducing Greek models from the 2nd century BC. The seated muses decorated the scenae frons (stage) of the odeon, a small theatre that could have held around 1,200 people.
The statues are now on display in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Room of the Muses showing the eight marble statues depicting seated muses that were unearthed in about 1500 at Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli © Carole Raddato
Masks were used for a wide variety of purposes across many ancient cultures. Some of the most common purposes were as funerary masks for important persons, as protection in warfare, worn during theatre performances, or to be worn by impersonators of gods during religious ceremonies. Materials were typically of high value such as gold, jade, and turquoise. This collection spans some 3,000 years from Egypt to the Americas.
Egyptian gold coffin mask of queen consort of king Djehuti (around 1650 BCE). Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst (State Museum of Egyptian Art) in Munich, Germany. Photographer: Ali Kalamachi.
The following seven Roman mosaics are all currently on display in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme National Museum, Rome. Mosaics were a common feature of Roman private homes and public buildings across the empire from Africa to Antioch. Mosaics, otherwise known as opus tesellatum, were made with small black, white, and coloured squares typically measuring between 0.5 and 1.5 cm, but fine details were often rendered using even smaller pieces as little as 1 mm in size. These squares (tesserae or tessellae) were cut from materials such as marble, tile, glass, smalto (glass paste),pottery, stone, and even shells. A base was first prepared with fresh mortar, and the tesserae positioned as close together as possible with any gaps then filled with liquid mortar in a process known as grouting. The whole was then cleaned and polished. Mosaics were by no means limited to flooring. Vaults, columns, and fountains were often decorated with mosaic, especially in Roman baths. Popular subjects were figures and scenes from Roman mythology, landscapes, and still-lifes.
To read more about this fascinating art form, see Ancient History Encyclopedia’s article on Roman Mosaics.
A Roman floor mosaic dating to the 3rd century CE and depicting one of the four seasons. Black and white mosaics were very popular throughout the Roman period in Italy. Provenance: via Prenestina, Rome.
Greek sculpture from 800 to 300 BCE took early inspiration from Egyptian and Near Eastern monumental art, and over centuries evolved into a uniquely Greek vision of the art form. Greek artists would reach a peak of artistic excellence which captured the human form in a way never before seen and which was much copied. Greek sculptors were particularly concerned with proportion, poise, and the idealised perfection of the human body, and their figures in stone and bronze have become some of the most recognisable pieces of art ever produced by any civilization.
They created life-size and life-like sculpture which glorified the human and especially nude male form. Even more was achieved than this though. Marble turned out to be a wonderful medium for rendering what all sculptors strive for: that is to make the piece seem carved from the inside rather than chiselled from the outside. Quite simply, the sculptures no longer seemed to be sculptures but were figures instilled with life and verve.
This Crouching Aphrodite marble statue is a Roman variant of the 2nd century CE after a Hellenistic type. It depicts Aphrodite as bathing, crouching with her right knee close to the ground. (Louvre Museum). Photo by Carole Raddato, CC-BY-SA.
After visiting Babylon and Borsippa, I planned to visit the ancient city of Kish in modern-day Iraq. I had an obstacle; how to get there? It is not a typical site for tourists or the public. The site was an American military base for a few years after the US-led invasion in 2003. After they withdrew from the site, the Iraqi army prevented people from going there, because, simply, it is a target for looters and illegal excavations!
I drove my car and kept my fingers crossed. The ancient city of Kish lies about 12 km to the east of Babylon. I took my uncle and cousin with me. I’m not familiar with the area, but we found it in the end. A security checkpoint stopped us… no way to Kish! My cousin made some phone calls to certain people; bingo, we could go in!
The most striking thing you encounter when you visit Kish, is this: ruins of a ziggurat.
The British Museum in London is rim-filled with treasures. Not only does its Mesopotamian section blow your mind, but you can continue and wander through time, enjoying the ancient Greeks and Romans. Almost hidden, at the back of the museum on the first floor, is the Egyptian section. It’s filled with the usual mummies and papyri, but my personal favourite of this section is the tomb chapel of Nebamun.
Nebamun was an accountant in the Temple of Amun at Thebes (modern Karnak), living around 1350 BCE. He must have been good at what he was doing, as his family was so rich that he was buried in a richly-adorned tomb. The tomb is covered with beautiful wall paintings that show many facets of ancient Egyptian life… or at least how the wealthy classes in Egypt wanted to portray their life. These murals are an idealised view of how life was like in Egypt, but seeing it you can still imagine how things might have been.
Hunting in the Egyptian Marshes
Standing on a small boat, Nebamun hunting in the marshes. His wife and their daughter have come along for the ride. Like many cultures, the Egyptians hoped to enjoy life and see beauty in the afterlife. Isn’t the wildlife stunning?
This year marks the bimillennial anniversary of the death of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. He died on 19th August AD 14 at the age of 75 after a 41-year reign, the longest in Roman history.
Augustus left his mark on Rome and western civilisation like few others. He vastly expanded the Roman Empire, established a period of relative peace known as the “Pax Romana” (or “Pax Augusta”), a period of immense architectural and artistic achievement whose effects were felt far beyond the capital. His legacy is perhaps best represented in the abundance of statues that were erected throughout the empire during and after his reign.
Augustus of Prima Porta, discovered in the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta © Carole Raddato
Portraits of Augustus were used as symbols of his political propaganda. Abandoning the realistic style of the Republican period, his portraits always showed him as an idealized young man. This would set the standards for imperial portraiture used by Roman emperors over the next three centuries.