In 2019, some of the UK’s most eminent Classicists, Archaeologists and Historians came together to share their favourite artefacts from the Ancient World. Here we have collated their #MyTopThree in order to showcase different aspects of ancient visual culture and offer you inspiration to think about your own choices. Get in touch with us via this website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and send us your favourites and we will add them to our collage. Join our #ClassicsConversation!
- Gold coffin face c.1400 BC (Museum of Wigan Life, Wigan)
Once owned by Wigan-born lawyer Sir John Scott who worked in Egypt in the late C.19th, this is the stunning gilded face of a noblewoman who lived c.1400-1350 BC. For me it encapsulates all that is so special about ancient Egypt, and about the people right around the UK who donated such items to their own local areas.
2. Statue of Amenhotep III c.1370 BC, Luxor Museum, Egypt
This spectacular quartzite statue portrays my favourite pharaoh Amenhotep III – grandfather of Tutankhamen – and is quite simply the most beautiful statue I think I’ve ever seen. Not only perfect in every detail, it conveys the king’s powerful political message since it represents him as a god – a warning to the priests who served him not to challenge his authority.
3. Silver denarius of Marc Antony & Cleopatra, 31 BC (Experience Barnsley Museum, Barnsley)
Minted by Cleopatra’s husband Mark Anthony in 31 BC in order to pay the troops who would fight for them at the Battle of Actium that same year, the coin bears the image of one of Cleopatra’s 500 warships on the front (obverse) and Anthony’ legionary standards on the back (reverse). Representing the sheer wealth and power of one of Egypt’s most famous female pharaohs, the thing that makes this coin so special for me is that it made up one of several large Roman hoards buried in the C.3rd AD in my home-town Barnsley.
Probably made by Minoan/Cretan craftsmen (or craftsman) – exquisitely crafted, with scenes of bull-taming, this cup was found in a tholos (beehive) tomb not far south of Sparta, originally buried with the local/regional ruler conventionally referred to as a ‘prince’ in the early Late Bronze Age. It serves as a reminder of the ‘heroic’, pre-historic, pre-Classical Age, the ‘Mycenaean’ age that Homer dimly recalled.
Also found in a grave, in this case of a Celtic ‘princess’ of the ‘Hallstatt’ culture, late 6th century BCE – this krater, a bronze wine-mixing bowl about 5 foot high with a huge capacity (over 300 litres) was found at Vix near Chatillon sur Seine (the Seine was connected to the Rhone via the Saone), and will have been brought from – I believe – Sparta – via the sea from Sparta’s port of Gytheion to Massilia/Marseille near the mouth of the Rhone and then shipped up the Rhone and Saone to Vix on Seine. It may have been – but not necessarily – a diplomatic gift, or it may have been simply a commercial trade object. Letters of the Greek alphabet were scratched on the neck of the vessel and the backs of the figurines to ensure they were correctly stapled on by people who were not Greek. The fact that it was a wine-mixing vessel belies the slur that Gauls drank their wine neat!
Not in good condition but a potent reminder that imperialist Romans were still being imperialist (ie conquering, slaughtering, dominating) despite the so called ‘Pax Augusta’. This was a trophy (tropaeum, a loan word from Greek tropaion) to mark the Romans’ defeat – crushing/slaughter – of the local Ligurians , descendants of the people amongst whom the Phocaeans had – peaceably – founded Massalia c. 600 BCE. Modern French ‘Provence’ is so named because that part of what became France was the Romans’ first ‘provincia’ in Gaul – founded 121 BCE – and yet 100 years later the Romans still felt the need to crush the locals militarily and demonstrate their prowess and control in this aggressive monument. Agricola, conqueror of part of Britain 77-84, came from here, Gallia Narbonensis, as perhaps did his son-in-law Tacitus…
Listen to Michael’s choices here:
These little pottery sherds have been found littered across Athens, particularly around the Athenian Assembly, and were used by the ancient Athenians to write the name of a person that they thought should be ostracised from the Athenian state for ten years – all these different sherds were then counted up in a vote and the person with the most votes had to leave. There is a great collection of them in the Agora museum but there’s something a bit odd going on because there’s about 90 or so say the name Themistocles but they are only written in 11 different styles of handwriting; given that it’s supposed to be one person, one vote, then something a bit odd is at play!
2. Athenian relief personifying Democracy and Demos
Dialling forward to the last part of the fourth century BC, my second favourite is the law against tyranny – for the preservation of democracy – which was set up on a big stele in Athens and above it, an image was created in relief that was thought to sum up the law. It bore an image of a personification of Democracy crowning a personification of Demos, the people. Demos is an old man, seated in a chair, looking a little bit like Zeus and Democracy is a beautiful woman. It is a great image and has always stuck in my head as one of my favourites coming out of Athens.
3. Exekias’ (Type A) Cup
Where would we be without a wine cup or two from the Ancient Greek Symposium?! One of my favourite kylikes (wine drinking cups) is that which has a picture done by Exekias, the famous Athenian vase painter of the 5th century BC, and on the inside of the cup, coming into view as you drunk your wine, was a fantastic depiction of the god of wine Dionysus, lounging in a boat and sipping from his own cup. He is shown to be surrounded by the sea and surrounded by dolphins who had just before that moment been sailors, but who had displeased the god and so been turned into dolphins!
It sounds like a really boring choice, because it’s so famous, and even though the frieze of the Parthenon is one of the most famous works of art produced in the ancient world, unbelievably we genuinely still don’t know what it represents – people say they do know, but we don’t really, it’s still a mystery. It is a really successful form of sculpture, involving enormous skill, and yet in some ways it wasn’t very successful, because in ancient times it wouldn’t have been very visible, so it’s an intriguing monument.
My second choice would also be a Classical Greek sculpture, the so-called Motya Charioteer, which was made in Sicily just before the middle of the 5th century BC. It probably represents a victorious charioteer driver, swaggering and crowning himself, wearing a long gown which is covered in sweat because he’s just finished the race. It is a real virtuoso piece of sculpture, with an extraordinary carving of an athlete’s body, covered in this clinging drapery.
And my third example is a Gandharan sculpture, made in ancient Pakistan, which was a Buddhist monument, and the people who made it may not have known very much about the classical world, and yet to our eyes as classicists, when we look at it, we see the story of the Trojan Horse. What on earth did the Trojan Horse mean to those people, thousands of miles away from the classical world?
The sponge-on-the-stick illustrates the first rule of history: no toilet paper in ancient times! It’s funny, intriguing and memorable and underscores our fascination with the timelessness of history – Classics is eternally interesting as we find out how like and unlike us the ancients were.
2. Roman Oil Lamp
My second favourite is my very own replica of a little oil-lamp from Roman London in the shape of a sandalled foot.
And finally, a black-glazed ceramic baby-feeder from the British Museum. The scary actor’s mask on it isn’t because the mother wants the baby to grow up to be an actor… It’s apotropaic, to stop evil spirits making the milk sour. This very oil-lamp features in one of my latest books, Escape from Rome.
I couldn’t believe the extraordinary tailoring displayed on such an old artefact. It made me rethink the drapery in 5th century Athens as a choice (rather than necessity borne of undiscovered skills). In other words, they could have been wearing corsets in Athenian society if they’d wanted, so why weren’t they…?
The Pronomos Vase (so called because it features a piper with his name, Pronomos, inscribed) c. 400 BC, now in Naples is the most spectacular (in every sense) piece of evidence we have for 5th-century Athenian tragedy. The more you look at it, the more you notice. And of course so many of the details challenge the spectator (just like tragedy itself).
The technical ability displayed in this artefact is the first draw, but also the concept of a ‘luxury line’ in armour. Since each piece was bespoke and tailored, the armour swapping of the Iliad would have been out of the question. It also matches up with the breastplate that Heracles is wearing on the Pronomos vase and so sparked my interest in the idea of tragedy ‘borrowing’ props from contemporary society (an idea which I’m currently researching).
founder of the Classics Library
1. The Farnese Hercules, Naples Archaeological Museum
This literally tells a story and provides a lesson. Hercules, a mass of a man, uncharacteristically slumps, in apparent exhaustion, both his lion skin and club dumped by his side, his left hand stretched out almost in disbelief, his right hand behind him as if his back aches. But why? Why don’t we have our hero portrayed in majestic battle defeating a mythical monster? Only when you examine the statue further, taking a walk around it, do you find the reason. In his right hand are apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. What we’re seeing is a moment in time, where Hercules is catching his breath after travelling to the very edge of the world to retrieve the apples. One version of the myth has it that Hercules persuaded Atlas to pick the apples for him so that he wouldn’t have to fight the dragon Ladon, which was guarding them. But, for this to work Hercules would have to take Atlas’ place for a while, holding up the whole of the heavens above the earth. No wonder he’s so exhausted. The lesson? Always look at a statue from all angles in case you miss something important!
2. Athlete from the Villa of the Papyri, Naples Archaeological Museum
Another moment, frozen in time, but just as dramatic. The two bronze statues of athletes from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. Some think they are wrestlers, but to me they are runners, poised for the start of their race. Left leg forward with foot flat to the ground, right foot back and up on its toes, like a coiled spring, ready to launch the athlete into the race. The fingers of both hands are splayed in eager anticipation. The trunk of the body leans forward to give even more advantage. The eyes stare in focus and gritted determination. Indeed, carefully crafted from different materials (eyeballs of bone, irises of grey stone, pupils of black) the eyes particularly stand out as they zero in on their target, the winner’s line. For a comparable masterpiece, check out the charioteer from Delphi, looking especially again at the determined eyes, heavy brows furrowed in concentration, and tense grip on the horses’ reins.
3. Terracotta Toy Ape and its Baby
Immediately playful, comical even, this terracotta toy of an ape with its baby on its back is many things all at once. It’s a crude piece or work, in no way high art, but this endears itself to me more. It’s an ordinary, everyday item, to be used, to amuse, perhaps even to be cherished, but it’s no showpiece. Body hair is roughly marked with broad red brushstrokes. Features such as eyes, mouth and fingers are etched with simple grooves and holes. The mummy/daddy ape sits with its legs stretched far and wide while grabbing its toes with its (eleven!) fingers. Its protruding bottom aims perhaps for a degree of anatomical accuracy but achieves humour, if also allowing the animal to sit more stably. And baby ape perches on its parent’s shoulders. The look on baby’s face is less pronounced, perhaps more of innocence, in contrast with what may be a worried or pained look of the adult – the child is, after all, grabbing its parent by the ears!
But for all that, archaeology tells us that this toy was likely found in a child’s grave. A life taken all too early, but which was, we hope, lived long enough to enjoy what may have been their favourite toy, for all its simplicity, loved enough to be buried beside them.
Head of Classics at Runshaw College (reigning three times Classics Competition winners!)
The Ancient Greeks left these tablets at healing sanctuaries such as Epidauros and they are wonderfully indicative of the reciprocal nature of Greek religion since they either record an individual thanking the god, Asclepius, for a cure they have received or they are given as a gift in advance of his help. The reason I like these objects so much is that they provide us with the most extraordinary tales of miraculous recoveries, for example, Aristagora of Troezen visited the sanctuary at Troezen with a tapeworm in her stomach. Whilst sleeping in the sanctuary hoping to be cured in a dream (a process known as incubation), she was visited by the the three sons of Asclepius who cut off her head but were unable to place it back on her body. The sons sent for Asclepius who was in Epidauros at the time and the next evening when she had a second dream, Asclepius was able to replace her head on her neck and cut open her stomach to remove the tapeworm. It is even said that the temple priests saw Aristagora without her head in the interim time between two dreams! A fascinating story and a great insight into the Greek belief in miracles.
Whilst I have only seen the replica at Delphi today, this beautiful monument consisting of three entwined snakes, shows just how closely Greek religion and politics were entwined. Given to Delphi as a gift to Apollo for the Greek victory at Plataea in 479BC and made from the melted down weapons of the Persian army, it is clear that the Ancient Greeks acknowledged their victory as being largely due to divine help. In fact, both Athens and Sparta had consulted the Delphic Oracle prior to the Second Persian Invasion in 480BC for guidance. The spiral column is also significant in that it lists the 31 city states that came together to repel the Persian threat and they are listed in order of command, Sparta being first and Athens second – just as the Historian Herodotus recorded. Today, the Serpentine column is in Istanbul having been moved there by the Emperor Constantine in 324AD. Somebody clearly liked it as much as I do!
This alluring statue is sadly only present as a Roman copy today but was the first female nude to appear in Greek art. As a result, she caused a fair commotion and the island of Kos even refused to accept her, leading to Knidos gaining the controversial tourist attraction instead. Her pose is incredibly playful and whilst we have clearly caught her bathing, she does not appear to be making much of an attempt to cover herself up. Since the Ancient Greeks truly believed the gods could inhabit their sculpture, it is not surprising that some members of society decided to try their luck with the goddess of sex, love and beauty after hours. According to Pliny and Lucian, certain ‘acts’ were attempted with this statue at night and whether or not there is any historical accuracy to these claims, they certainly make for an entertaining read!
1. The Charioteer Papyrus
This papyrus showing the charioteers from Antinoe is a fifth-sixth century book plate found in 1913/14 in excavations at Antinopolis, the city founded by Hadrian near where Antinous drowned in the Nile. You can see three of the racing team’s colours (red, blue and green), and the ropes wound round their bodies for a bit of protection. I love the colours!
2. The Delphi Charioteer
We have very few bronze statues left from the classical period (as was the case with other metals, bronze artefacts were melted down and the bronze re-used), and, like the Riace bronzes, this charioteer shows us how much we are missing. Roman marble copies just don’t have the same appeal.
3. Selene’s Horse
The head of Selene’s horse from the east pediment of the Parthenon, now in the British Museum. The moon goddess’ horse is exhausted, the head hanging down, the jaw gaping, the nostril flaring, contrasting with the sun god’s horse which is raring to go and start its daily journey through the sky. Considering that the sculpture would have been 12 metres above ground level, the detail is astonishing.
Anna Dunkow, AKS Lytham:
The Rosetta Stone
Parthenon marbles of the Centauromachy
The Code of Hammurabi
Thomas Hewitt, Kirkham Grammar School:
Roman shield boss
The Portland Vase
The Sebasteion at Aphrodisias
Archie McKenzie, King Edward’s School Bath:
The Gonzaga Cameo
The Bust of Dynamis
The Statue group of Laocoon
Alice Owens, Runshaw College:
The Narmer Palette
Serpentine Column at Delphi