Recovering the image on a Mycenaean sherd

Thanks to a Twitter recommendation, I recently came across a fabulous online tool, retroReveal.org, hosted by the University of Utah. In its own words, it ‘provides documentation and web based image processing algorithms designed to help people discover hidden content.’ This technology has a whole host of uses, including the revelation of palimpsests in manuscripts; and it immediately made me think of a Mycenaean sherd in the Leeds City Museum’s ancient Cypriot collection.

Mycenaean sherd

Sherd of Mycenaean krater © Leeds Museums and Galleries

I’ve written about this sherd before, when some experimentation with Photoshop marginally improved the appearance of the picture painted on it. Unlike most Mycenaean pottery, which has scenes in brown or reddish paint on a pale yellow-buff slip, this has an image in dark orange on a greyish ground. Presumably this was caused by some kind of error in firing, unless it’s due to later damage; I haven’t yet found a parallel for a Mycenaean vessel with this appearance. It’s likely that it came to Leeds from the British Museum’s excavations at Enkomi.

Running this photo through retroReveal’s processes resulted in many different views, one of which was really impressive in clarifying the image:

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Sherd of Mycenaean krater © Leeds Museums and Galleries

It’s plain to see that we have a scene with a chariot and a figure following it. It’s not clear what’s going on in the chariot itself, probably due to damage to the sherd; this alternative image really brings out the weathered surface.

ImageJ=1.45o

Sherd of Mycenaean krater © Leeds Museums and Galleries

The clearer image makes it possible to explore its place in the typology of chariot scenes on Mycenaean kraters.

Chariot typology

Arne Furumark, The Mycenaean Pottery: Analysis and Classification, Figs. 39 and 40

The chariot box and wing perch on top of the wheel, with no attempt to show them through the gaps between the spokes; in this respect, perhaps it is most similar to no. 20 in Furumark’s typology, especially given the neatly hatched double edging, though the wheel itself seems to be less detailed. As Furumark demonstrates, a range of filling decorations can be found, but this elaborate scheme of dots within circles, almost like leopard-print, seems rather unusual.

Scene typology

Arne Furumark, The Mycenaean Pottery: Analysis and Classification, Fig. 74

There isn’t enough of the scene to indicate what kind of chariot procession is shown, but the presence of a figure who is following and facing the chariot narrows it down to type e, f, g, or i.

Man

Arne Furumark, The Mycenaean Pottery: Analysis and Classification, Fig. 25

The shape of the following figure is also quite hard to make out – it looks like it could possibly be a IIIB unclad figure, given the shape of the torso (25 or 26 in Furumark’s typology above).

The British Museum has other Mycenaean kraters with chariot scenes from Enkomi, including this example with a magnificent horse; nothing that looks quite like this sherd though!

BM 1897,0401 929

Late Helladic IIIA2 krater found at Enkomi © The British Museum

There may be more sherds out there from the British Museum’s excavations at Enkomi with this distinctive appearance, and it’s possible that one day we’ll be able to see more of the scene, with or without the assistance of technology!