30 December 2012

Princesses At The Dawn of History

Once upon a time, there was an Etruscan princess named Larthia who lived in Caere (now Cerveteri), a splendidly wealthy neighbourhood not very far from where Rome stands today.  Sometime before 660 BCE, she died and was buried (presumably with her husband, whose name is unknown) in what is called the Regolini-Galassi tomb:* 
In the first chamber lay the remains of a warrior, with his bronze armour, beautiful and sensitive as if it had grown in life for the living body, sunk on his dust. In the inner chamber beautiful, frail, pale-gold jewellery lay on the stone bed, earrings where the ears were dust, bracelets in the dust that once was arms, surely of a noble lady, nearly three thousand years ago....
The treasure, so delicate and sensitive and wistful, is mostly in the Gregorian Museum in the Vatican. On two of the little silver vases from the Regolini-Galassi tomb is the scratched inscription--Mi Larthia. Almost the first written Etruscan words we know. And what do they mean, anyhow? 'This is Larthia' -- Larthia being a lady? (D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places )
When the tomb was opened, they found an amazing wealth of precious artefacts, elaborate furnishings, silverware, gilded and bronze vessels decorated with lions and griffins, and immense golden pectoral pieces and a golden brooch over 30 cm [12"] long, decorated with embossed figures of sphinxes and griffins, which had once covered the body of the princess.

In addition, there were  two wide cuff-like bracelets (left) decorated with granulation and repoussé, depicting three women with alternating palm trees (top of post) and the Mistress of Animals between two rampant lions visible in the top rows (left). 

This splendid piece of jewellery is now on show in Athens, having a starring role in the long-awaited exhibition of Princesses of the Mediterranean at the Dawn of History which opened last week at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens.  The featured princesses are all real women, not goddesses nor legendary heroines. Or, rather, what we have are their burials and bones and their sumptuous grave goods -- objects from 24 women's graves found in Greece, Cyprus and Italy, truly at the dawn of history (10th-5th centuries BCE).  We don't know, of course, if they were princesses in our modern sense but they were certainly Princeps -- the first and highest ladies in their lands. Almost none is known by name: Larthia is a rare exception.

But she was far from exceptionally well-buried for a high-born Etruscan lady.  Many such princesses lived and died in the cities of the Etruscan federation.  Even outside of Etruria proper, from an Orientalizing tomb (Lippi 89) in the farthest east -- almost on the Adriatic shore -- comes this ornate bronze throne (left) decorated with scenes of women spinning wool and weaving cloth.  Very likely, it originally belonged to the lady buried close-by in the richly-furnished Amber Room Grave which, as its name suggests, was filled with enormous quantities of precious amber beads as well as other treasures, such as bronze urns inlaid with amber and a decorated bronze axe, presumably a ceremonial or ritual symbol of rank and power rather than a weapon. This throne, normally displayed in the local museum at Verucchio (near Rimini) is being shown for the first time outside of Italy.

And a Princess from the Etruscan Heartland

A princess of the next generation (ca. 625 BCE) was honoured in the Pietrera tomb at Vetulonia with this almost life-size limestone statue (left) --  one of four stone free-standing husband-wife couples housed inside the tomb; she is among the oldest examples of stone sculpture in Etruria. Her hands are posed flat on the breast, the right one over the left, in a gesture common in the ancient Near East to show reverence and submission.  Nonetheless, the costume of this woman and her hair-style, with her hair hanging down  in loose strands running over her shoulders, is found only in Etruria and reflects Etruscan custom.  She may well be dressed and posed as a priestess, but does she represent one of the aristocratic ladies buried in the tomb or is she a guardian female ancestor?

And now back to Greece 

During the darkest of the Dark Ages (ca. 1100-900 BCE), on the island of Euboea off the eastern coast of Greece, at the site of Lefkandi, there rose the most fascinating and mysterious building of that time (left) -- the Heroön, or monumental tomb, built some time around 950 BCE.  This unique structure had a curved (or apsidal) end and was surrounded by sophisticated colonnades which supported a wooden veranda.  At about 50 m long by 13.8 m wide [165' x 45'], it is the largest monument known anywhere in Greece during the Dark Ages.  And it was excavated by none other than my revered Oxford tutor, Mervyn R. Popham (1927-2000), so it is always a bitter-sweet pleasure for me to return to the site -- even if, as today, it is only a virtual visit.  In the large Central Room of the Heroön, Mervyn discovered two pits side by side (red arrow). 

The southern pit contained a double burial.  A large elaborately-decorated bronze amphora held the cremated remains of a warrior wrapped within a shroud of fringed linen.  This was placed within a still larger bronze bowl, and next to it lay his iron sword with wooden scabbard and an iron spearhead.  The bronze vessels sat near the right leg of the skeleton of a woman who was probably in her late twenties at the time of her death: she had been laid out on her back, her head to the west.

And she was dressed up to the nines in gold for her burial.  She wore gold hair coils, gold earrings, a gold pendant on her throat and a necklace of gold and faiënce beads, and sheet-gold disks embossed with spirals connected by a moon-shaped gold plaque were placed over her breasts.  Beside her head had been placed an iron knife with an ivory handle, perhaps a hint of her status, occupation, or family ties. 

Or perhaps it meant something much grimmer: note that her hands still rest close together, having been folded over on her stomach while her feet are also crossed. Because this happens so very rarely in natural burials, Mervyn suspected that the young woman had been bound and deliberately killed (that damn knife!) to accompany her lord-and-master to the other world.  If so, she certainly went out in style.

They both did, really. Within a short space of time, the upper walls, roofing, and support posts of the Heroön were dismantled, the rooms filled in, and a tumulus of pebbles, mudbricks, and earth was raised over the whole building. Thus, the edifice may have been intended for destruction from the beginning -- to remain forever as a hero shrine for a warrior whose name, alas, is long forgotten as well as that of his golden princess.

I leave you with an image of her golden brassiere of glorious dimensions, on show, too, at the Cycladic Museum.  Each disk measures 30 cm [12"] in diameter:  she must have been quite a woman.

Princesses of the Mediterranean at the Dawn of History Showcasing more than 500 objects from 24 Greek, Cypriot, and Italian Dark Age women's burials.  The exhibition runs until 10 April 2013 at the Museum of Cycladic Art, Athens.  Highly recommended.

Happy New Year to all my readers!

* Named after the excavators who found the unplundered Etruscan tomb in 1836,  the arch-priest of the locality, Alessandro Regolini and General Vincenzo Galassi.

** The other shaft contained the skeletons of four horses, the iron bits still in their mouths. These animals were apparently thrown headlong into the shaft as a funerary sacrifice to accompany their late master into the next world.

My thanks to Dr Stephanie Budin who first reported on the Princesses exhibition on the Pandora Studies group website (digest # 360) on 8 December 2012.

Sources, in addition to the press kit of the Cycladic Museum (and I am most grateful to the Press Officer, Alexia Vasilikou, for sending me this information), include the website Mysterious Etruscans (don't be put off by its name!);  M. Nielsen, Greek Myth, Etruscan Symbol;  C.G. Thomas, C. Conant, Citadel to City-State, Ch. 4:  Lefkandi: New Heroes of the Ninth CenturyWomen of Lefkandi, at Wesleyan University Online Museum of Greek Art and Archaeology;  British School of Athens.  'Jewellery from a female burial'. Early Excavations at Lefkandi: The Protogeometric Building and the Cemetery of Toumba. Web. 3 Dec. 2012;  M.R. Popham, E. Touloupa, L.H. Sackett, 'The Hero of Lefkandi', Antiquity, 1982, 169-198.


Top: Gold bracelet (detail), 675-650 BCE. From the Regolini-Galassi tomb, Cerveteri. Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican.  Photo credit: Vatican Museums. Via Cycladic Museum, Athens.

Top left: Gold bracelets,  675-650 BCE. From the Regolini-Galassi tomb, Cerveteri. Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican.  Photo credit: Vatican Museums.  Photo via Mysterious Etruscans website.

Middle left: Bronze-decorated wooden throne showing women spinning and weaving from Verucchio tomb Lippi 89, end of 8th-early 7th century BCE. Museo Civico Archeologico Verucchio. Photo credit: © Archaeological Superintendence of Emilia Romagna, via RayTalk for Archaeology .

Lower left 1: Head and torso of a female funerary statue (ca. 625 BCE).Vetulonia, Pietrera tumulus.Florence, National Archaeological Museum.  Photo credit: Fernando Guerrini and Mauro del Sarto. Soprintendenza Archeologica della Toscana. Via Cycladic Museum, Athens.

Lower left 2: Lefkandi, graphic restoration of the apsidal building by J. Coulton, via Lefkandi, Euboea: Wesleyan University Online Museum of Greek Art and Archaeology

Lower left 3:  Plan of southern burial shaft containing the cremated body of a man buried with his weapons and an inhumed woman with gold jewellery:  Jewellery from a female burial.

Lower centre: Photograph of the female burial in the southern pit, via Women of Lefkandi.

Lowest centre: Gold discs with stamped decoration placed over the woman’s chest, from the burial of the Lady of Lefkandi, ca. 950 BC. © Archaeological Museum of Eretria, 11th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities Photographic Archive. Photographer: Eirini Mieri. Via Cycladic Museum, Athens.

11 December 2012

New Light and New News on Nefertiti

6 December 1912: This is the excavation photograph (left) taken of the painted plaster and limestone bust of  the most beautiful woman in the world shortly after it was dug out of the ground on that day.

6 December 2012: Exactly one hundred years later, the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection at the New Museum of Berlin is celebrating the amazing appearance of Nefertiti's bust in a sculptor's studio in the ancient city of Amarna, on the Nile halfway between Cairo and Thebes.

Her name is once again in bright lights.

But that's not all she has to celebrate this year: she just received an exceptional 100th anniversary gift -- a major new discovery about her life has just come to light, too.   But, first, the show.

In the Light of Amarna: 100 years of the find of Nefertiti

'Amarna' refers to the ruins of the ancient Egyptian city of Akhetaten (Horizon of Aten), the new capital city founded by Pharaoh Akhenaton.  There, in the desert and far from the old centres where they worshipped animal-headed gods, he established a magnificent city for his own 'religion of light', whose sole deity was the sun god Aten.  He gave Aten an imposing new temple that was 600 metres (2,000') long! The whole city was built within three years and populated in the year 1343 BCE.  Glory was short-lived, however: the city and its god, and Egypt's brief flirtation with monotheism, were abandoned a few years after Akhenaton's death (ca. 1331). At the beginning of the 20th century, extremely successful excavations took place there under the direction of the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt (financed by the wealthy Jewish banker and art patron, James Simon).  The finds were shared between Cairo and Berlin.*

The exhibition illuminates the context of the discovery of the bust of Nefertiti in the sculpture workshop of the master craftsman Thutmose, along with numerous objects, including the pigments and tools used by the artisans.  At the centre of it all, of course, is the "radiant grandeur" of the bust, 50 cm (20") tall, whose "anxious charm" once delighted the German writer Thomas Mann. In the Light of Amarna sets out to provide a deeper understanding of the revolutionary period in which the ancient Egyptian queen lived.

Nefertiti, renowned as one of history’s great beauties, was the powerful chief wife of Pharaoh Akhenaton.  Surprisingly, however, hardly anything is known for certain about her life.

Her name means The Beautiful One Has Arrived. She was probably the daughter of an upwardly mobile provincial family already close to the royal house.  Nefertiti's aunt appears to have been the "Great Royal Consort" of Pharaoh Amenhotep III,  Akhenaton's father.  Her own father had had a successful career, rising to the rank of general of the chariot force.  Her marriage to Akhenaten may have been her second. In religious and state art she is portrayed as almost her husband’s equal. A limestone statue of the queen (left) shows her later in life than the famous bust: she has lines around the eyes and mouth. 

There have been fantastic speculations about her fate in relation to that of her husband, Akhenaten, and of Tutankhamen, who succeeded Akhenaten after his father's death.**  Nefertiti had been mentioned for the last time in texts from Akhenaten's Year 12 [although he reigned until some time in the Year 17].  This is often explained by assuming she died early (a plague was raging in the Nile Valley at that time; according to a Babylonian clay tablet, an Amarna queen was one of the victims), or that a conflict arose between the queen and Akhenaten, leading to her being banished. Other scholars assume Nefertiti's name was changed because she was appointed to serve as a second 'king' beside Akhenaten soon after Year 12: her name as king was thought to be that of a female pharaoh Ankhetkheperure Neferneferuaten (who used the epithet 'Effective for her husband' in one of her cartouches).

New News and Lots of New Light

Just in time for Nefertiti's centenary celebrations, sensational new evidence about the royal couple has been discovered in the Dayr al-Barshā excavations in Middle Egypt, not far north of Amarna.

A barely legible building inscription written in red ochre on a pillar in the local limestone quarry was deciphered by the Egyptologist Athena Van der Perre (Leuven University, Belgium).  It begins with a date on the 15th day of the third month of the flood season in Year 16 of Akhenaten, his highest certain date.  More important, however, is the fact that the third line evokes queen Nefertiti as Akhenaten's chief wife:  Great Royal Wife, His Beloved, Mistress of the Two Lands, Neferneferuaton Nefertiti. This proves that Nefertiti and Akhenaten were still officially recognized as the royal couple a year before the end of Akhenaten's reign.  There can be no question of Nefertiti disappearing!  And, equally, as late as Year 16, her name had not changed: she is still simply the beloved Nefertiti.

The Beautiful One has Arrived

It still remains likely that she assumed the function of  co-regent, but we can now prove that this did not happen before Akhenaten's last year, and perhaps only after his death. Drs Van der Perre explains:

If Tutankhamen succeeded Akhenaten immediately, as many assume, then the at least three years that Nefertiti reigned as king must have overlapped with Tutankhamen's reign -- with Nefertiti functioning as a kind of queen mother. Another option is that Nefertiti ruled Egypt for some years after the death of Akhenaten, and that Tutankhamen was her successor. There is still a lot of uncertainty, but several old ideas about Nefertiti's early disappearance must now be discarded.

Nefertiti's own life and [co-]regency presumably had ended by Year 3 of Tutankhaten's reign (1331 BCE) when the religious Counter Reformation began.  Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun, returning to the official worship of the god Amun.  He abandoned Amarna and went back to the old capital of Thebes.  Damnation followed: angry successors destroyed the images of the heretics, their names were obliterated and almost all traces were removed.  Her mummy disappeared.

And so, while we have the face whose "smile is animated with an inner light" (as French Egyptologist Christian Jacq described her), we still do not know what happened to the body of the most beautiful woman in the world.

*  On the bust and its recently-discovered inner limestone sculpted core, see Vanity, Thy Name is Uppity Woman.  On the history of its discovery and the continuing  controversy between Germany and Egypt over who owns it, see Two-Timing Nefertiti and Two-Timing Nefertiti II.

** Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten and his sister-and-wife (mummy KV35YL), whose name is unknown but whose remains are identified as 'The Younger Lady' mummy.

In the Light of Amarna: 100 Years of the Find of Nefertiti
Neues Museum, Berlin
Fri 7 December 2012 - Sat 13 April 2013

Sources (in addition to press releases from the Neues Museum) include Matthias Schulz, 'Re-Examining Nefertiti's Likeness and Life', via Spiegel Online International; Lutz at Egyptian Dreams; the Dayr al-Barsha Project;  and Aayko Eyma on the EEF-Digest (2-9 December 2012) -- to whom I am also grateful for the notice of the new inscription from Dayr al-Barsha.

Illustrations (all Neues Museum Press Photos)

Upper left: Photo of the bust of Nefertiti, taken 1912, document of the official division of finds © Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (DOG).

Centre: Unfinished model head of a statue of Nefertiti, limestone. Donation James Simon. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photo credit: Sandra Steiß

Lower left: Standing figure of Nefertiti, Limestone.  Donation James Simon. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Photo credit: Sandra Steiß.

Below left: Head of Nefertiti from a former double seat statue of the royal couple, grey granite. Donation James Simon. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Photo credit: Sandra Steiß.

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