Greece

Two more Hellenic sarcophagi from Sidon (Istanbul Archeology Museums)

Diggins from the Necropolis of Sidon fill five gigantic halls at the Istanbul Archeology Museums. A number of styles are represented, including recycled Egyptian sarcophagi, and the quality of carving is extraordinarily high throughout. Here are two more sarcophagi from the same room where the Alexander Sarcophagus stands.

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So-called Alexander’s Sarcophagus at the Istanbul Archeology Museums

The Alexander Sarcophagus is one of four massive carved sarcophagi, forming two pairs, that were discovered during the excavations conducted by Osman Hamdi Bey at the necropolis near Sidon, Lebanon in 1887. Originally thought to have been the sarcophagus of Abdalonymus (died 311 BC), the king of Sidon appointed by Alexander immediately following the Battle of Issus (333), it was demonstrated convincingly by Karl Schefold to have been made before Abdalonymus’s death, its still-classical manner uninfluenced by the style of Lysippos. Some scholars now believe the sarcophagus was made for Mazaeus, a Persian noble and governor of Babylon. Six Ionian sculptors’ hands have been distinguished, working in an Attic idiom, most probably in Sidon.  It now rests behind glass at the Istanbul Archeology Museums.  The quality, accuracy and detail of the carving is absolutely incredible and unmatched by any antique tomb I have seen anywhere.  The sarcophagus was once painted — traces of paint can be clearly seen in several paces — and must have looked a lot like the decor of a South Indian temple.


Gulbenkian: The Abukir Medals

Here are the eleven so-called Abukir medals now at the Gulbenkian Museum in Libson. They have many claims to extra-ordinarity: the story of their finding is a bit of an orientalist mystery (a la Conan-Doyle: dubiously colorful oriental gentlemen arrive in Paris with a crazy tale of a treasure dug up in the desert sand; on account of their being dubiously colorful and oriental, no one wants to buy their wares except… another Oriental gentleman), we have no clue as to their purpose, they are the only such set surviving (though others have once existed and we do have their fragments), they are technically incredibly attained, as any cursory comparison with the Renaissance medals in the same museum shows, despite the relatively low technological level of metallurgy in Roman times, their iconography is mysterious (it is not clear how all the images hang together), and some of the medals represent novel treatment (such as the fellow seen enface from somewhat below). Above all, they are very beautiful and (like everything else in this museum) very beautifully displayed.

The guides tell you blithely that they are ancient Olympic medals. Here lies a huge problem: there is no downside risk for bullshitting. Should there be a penalty for people in teaching positions spreading minsinformation? Nothing too severe: cutting off a pinky for something minor like this.


British Museum: The Portland Vase

A piece of virtuouso Roman glass cameo, unmatched by modern efforts to reproduce it (the Northwood vase at the Corning cracked in firing); recorded since 16th century; father to Wedgwood’s Jasperware; it passed through the hands of William Hamilton; and made him a fortune which — probably only partially — made up for the loss of his collection at sea. Etc. Read about it here.


More Athenians have been spotted at the British Museum

Surely, these photos are the least satisfactory I have ever posted anywhere. The reflective glass aside, camera’s single lens is simply an inappropriate instrument with which to view figure-decorated pottery. The human eye — because there are two of them a few inches apart — sees more of the decoration at any time. Take for instance the alabastron below: it’s about 8 inches high and when you view it, you see probably something like 160 degrees around its surface; while the camera sees less than 90. Similar problems arise with amphorae where part of the decoration lies above the fold: photos can show us either the lower part, or the upper part, never both. When viewing the real thing, we suffer from similar limitations and end up craning our necks, but somehow, our brain corrects for the movement of the head and we have the impression of apprehending the whole picture.

Makes one wonder how the clever Chinese knew to avoid, by and large, large figure decoration on their ceramics.