Thursday, 23 May 2013

The seal of Alexander the Great -- part one

One of the greatest joys in being a collector is finding a great bargain. More often than not, it will be something that lacks proper identification. After all, people usually do not give things away.  Of course, ethics comes into the picture, so if I am offered something for sale by a member of the public and I see that it might be very valuable, I will identify it for the seller and offer them advice on what to do with it. Sometimes, the seller might ask me to handle the sale and I will usually ask for a small brokerage fee to do this.

All of my best bargains have come from auctions, and quite often I am the only person bidding who thinks the object might well be something very special. Every week I get many email auction notifications and if a sale seems interesting enough, then I will study the catalogue. I almost always bid only on on-line auctions where I can see the latest bids. Most of my buys of this nature are based on nothing more than a suspicion, and I am not always right. Sometimes, though, I am fairly sure of my identification.

A few years ago, I came across one of the greatest bargains of all and I was fairly confident in what I was looking at – a lead seal impression of Alexander the Great. The auction house did not specialize in this sort of material. Now, no one knows what Alexander’s seal looked like, even though we know that the man who
Posthumous portrait of Alexander the Great
Image courtesy of  Classical Numismatic Group, Inc

made all of Alexander’s seals was named Pyrogoteles. These seals would have been issued to certain people in the Alexandrine Empire for use on official documents, so there were probably quite a number of them made. The seal impression bore the name of Alexander (Alexandrou) and I was not the only bidder who had a tentative attribution because the price soon greatly exceeded what would usually be paid for an ancient Greek lead seal impression. I decided that my only hope of obtaining it was to snipe the auction in the last few seconds and to bid all that I could afford. To say that this made me rather nervous would be an understatement! Apparently, either my confidence or my budget was higher than at least one other bidder because I won the seal. Being confident about the attribution is one thing, but to supply good evidence for such an attribution is another matter and my research continued for another seven years!

Before I present all of the evidence, let us “fast-forward” to late last year: I often show objects from my collection to people whom I think might be interested.  These are often people that I might see frequently at various companies that I visit – I once even gave a presentation to a class at my daughter’s school. Usually the reaction is something like “Cool!” or “Wow! I've never held anything that old!”

Karmen holds the seal of  Alexander the Great
Karmen’s reaction was unlike any other. I placed the seal impression in her hand and told her what it was. She said nothing at all and just stared at it. It was her expression that surprised me the most. I would liken it to the expression you see in Raphael’s paintings where Mary is looking down at the infant Jesus in her arms. This was so unusual that I asked her about it. She replied that her mother was born in Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia.

Alexander the Great was born in Pella, the capital of ancient Macedonia – now in modern Greece. Political boundaries change over the centuries, but a sense of cultural belonging does not change with the boundaries – that attitude is mere nationalism. In fact, although Karmen’s mother came from Skopje, Karmen, herself, is Canadian – from British Columbia. This fact made no difference at all to the cultural connection she made with the object in her hand. Nor should it: cultural identity is a personal thing – it did not need the fact of Canada’s official multicultural policies, or a certain country’s name on a birth certificate, to exist.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Collecting early Celtic art -- part three

Shield handle mount, one of
three known, the other two
being on the Chertsey Shield
in the BritishMuseum.
4th to 3rd cent BC
Not currently in coll. 
In searching for predecessors of the Celts, scholars of various disciplines are attracted to the Urnfield culture of central Europe which flourished between the twelfth and the eighth centuries B.C. This appears to be the time when the proto-Celtic language was forming and a number of artistic or iconographic motifs that appear during the Celtic La Tène, such as the water-bird motif (which we saw on the French brooch in part one) have their genesis during this earlier period.

In northern Italy, the Urnfield culture of central Europe develops into the Golasecca Culture and the first Celtic movements into northern Italy influences the Golasecca culture as do the Situla culture and the Etruscan culture . This becomes especially confusing to those who like their history compartmentalized as we see, in northern Italy, a surprisingly early cosmopolitan society and this characteristic lasts for many centuries passing its influences on to Rome. The situation is made even more complicated by a general lack of clear archaeological evidence. It seems that the development of the Roman empire, much later helped to eradicate much of the evidence of earlier cultures. However, we do see examples where the cosmopolitan flavor is well-attested: Celtic cemeteries in northern Italy which contain Etruscan inscriptions and jewelry  Celtic Hallstatt period brooches and even Greek strigils. There was nothing strange about intermarriage between any of the cultures and one might be hard-pressed to define the ethnicity of any given household as there was so much borrowing between the cultures.

It is hardly surprising that such a region would attract people from far and wide with its pleasant weather, ample produce and other resources. As more people arrived they brought with them their own skills which further expanded the product supply of the region and thus attracted even more arrivals. The Celts were represented very early by the Cisalpine Insubres who settled in the area of Milan and perhaps founded that city (Mediolanum). The Cenomani, who gave their name to Le Mans in France, crossed into Italy and ousted the Etruscans to the east of the territory of Insubres, The Boii were widespread -- lending their name to Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic). In Italy they captured the Etruscan town of Felsina which is now known as Bologna. According to Cato (quoted by Pliny ) the Boii consisted of 112 tribes (but what was probably meant was 112 clans). To the east of them, around the mouth of the Po, lived a branch of the Lingones who had moved there from the French department of Haute-Marne. Further south, the Senones, whose homeland includes the modern French departments of  Seine-et-Marne, Loiret and Yonne, occupied the Umbrian lands between Ariminum and Ancona on the east coast.

Coin of Ariminum in Umbria showing Celtic
warrior with shield and spear. 
Image courtesy of  Classical Numismatic Group, Inc
  A coin of Ariminum , minted after 268 B.C.   depicts a Celtic warrior, no doubt a member of   the Senones, armed with an oval shield and a   spear. Most puzzling are the Veneti (Venice).   Much about their culture appears to have been   Celtic but their language was, at the very least, a   different dialect native to northern Italy. It thus   seems unlikely that they were the same Veneti   who occupied southern Brittany, but it is   possible that some sort of partial migration took   place in one direction or the other.

The Celts in northern Italy were much more than mere settlers. Their society was warrior based and it would be no exaggeration to say that they were in the business of war. From the ancient Greek writers onward, we are told that the Celts hired themselves out as mercenaries but this term gives an impression of a single soldier of fortune who joins a foreign army, perhaps along with a number of others like himself and together, they fight under their foreign commander using the strategies and tactics of the army they have joined. This was most likely the impression that was sought by the Greeks who would have rather liked to have saved most of the glory for themselves. In actual fact, the Celtic warriors were often more like auxiliary regiments who brought with them certain specialties. Polybius says: “The two largest tribes, therefore, the Insubres and Boii, made a league and sent messengers to the Gauls dwelling among the Alps and near the Rhone, who are called Gaesatae because they serve for hire, this being the proper meaning of the word." In actual fact, the term comes from the Celtic *gaison, meaning spear, and it should thus be understood that these mercenaries were really an auxiliary force of spearmen. The principle Celtic weaponry of shield and spear came to an end sometime around 200 BC.

This is an ongoing series, so do come back for more. Remember, all of my own images are free to use for any purpose -- no credits required.