Ancient Cypriot art at the Neues Museum, Berlin

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit the ancient Cyprus gallery at the Neues Museum in Berlin. It’s a varied and interesting collection, with some truly outstanding individual pieces. It was largely brought together by Max Ohnefalsch-Richter, a near-contemporary of T.B. Sandwith in the early stages of archaeological exploration on Cyprus.

The building itself is architecturally interesting; built in the mid 19th century, it was badly damaged in the Second World War and has only recently been reopened, in 2009, after extensive reconstruction. Parts of the interior, including the Cyprus gallery, still have a semi-dilapidated feel to the decor; there’s an arresting juxtaposition between the antique feel of the modern building, and the vividness and freshness of the ancient Cypriot art.

Ancient Cyprus gallery, Neues Museum, Berlin

Ancient Cyprus gallery, Neues Museum, Berlin

The display itself is rather minimal in terms of exposition, with only the briefest information given on object labels, but fortunately the wonderful MAM Bookshop had been able to provide me with an English copy of the very full and well-illustrated catalogue of the Berlin collection.

Among my favourite objects was this Bichrome jug, where the exuberant design is carefully fitted to the curve of the pot. There’s nothing of this style in the Leeds collection, unfortunately; to me, they are among the most appealing and intriguing pieces of ancient Cypriot art.


Bichrome jug
© Neues Museum, Berlin

I was also pleased to see some Base Ring juglets, always a favourite of mine, with snaky elements in the design.


Base Ring juglets
© Neues Museum, Berlin

Possibly the most charming piece is this wonderful Red Polished jug/animal hybrid, originating from L.P. di Cesnola’s collection, with its four short legs, looping handle and spout ending in a flared rim; reminiscent of something from Oliver Postgate‘s imagination.


Zoomorphic vase of Red Polished ware
© Neues Museum, Berlin

One object which intrigued me was this Base Ring single-handled lentoid flask, with a pinched seam  and decoration of multiple crossed lines of white paint. There’s a very similar flask in the Leeds City Museum collection, with an unusually good provenance; it comes from Klavdia, part of a 1902 donation from the British Museum from its 1899 excavations.  It would be interesting to know more about this flask, especially its provenance, but it doesn’t appear in the catalogue, and the label was not informative; I’m currently trying to track down a bit more information. [Update: the very helpful team at the Neues Museum inform me that the flask was part of Ohnefalsch-Richter’s collection, and the exact findspot is unknown. Ohnefalsch-Richter excavated widely in Cyprus and also bought extensively from dealers on the island, making it difficult to draw any conclusions about where this flask might be from.]


Base Ring lentoid flask
© Neues Museum, Berlin


Base Ring lentoid flask, from Klavdia, Cyprus
© Leeds Museums and Galleries

It was great to see such a well-preserved and varied collection, and so much better than just reading the catalogue; there’s nothing like the experience of seeing the objects in real life. And of course the Neues Museum has the advantage of being situated on the city’s Museum Island, within easy walking distance of the Altes Museum and Pergamon Museum – what better way to spend a day’s holiday?

Snakes and opium

I’ve been intrigued for a while by the decoration on the shoulder of this Late Bronze Age juglet: undulating applied bands with a distinctly snaky appearance.

Cypriot Base Ring juglet, © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Such Base Ring juglets are not at all uncommon – there’s even an example in the illustrations of the Sandwith collection. There are four such juglets in the Leeds City Museums collection. Having read up on this type of ware, what I found fascinating is that their decoration – and even their shape – can plausibly be explained as advertising their contents.

Three Base Ring juglets © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Base Ring juglet © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Juglets such as these have been found in Cyprus, Egypt, and across the eastern Mediterranean, and date from the Late Bronze Age (c.1600 – 1450 BC), a period when trade was increasing between Cyprus and neighbouring countries.

In 1962 R.S. Merrillees¹ was the first to posit that these juglets were used to trade opium, probably diluted in a syrup such as honey. He argues that, when turned upside down, the juglets have a striking similarity to the seed pod of Papaver somniferum, the opiate poppy.

Papaver somniferum, F.E. Köhler (1887)

This is obviously more true of some than of others; the foot of the third jug above resembles the flaring top of the seed pod, while the others simply have flattish bases. However, the applied plastic decoration increases the resemblance. Most notably, a double ring where the handle joins the neck recalls the joint between the seed pod and the stem of the poppy.

The reference to opium production is made more explicit by the appearance of a ‘slit’ on the side of one juglet. This appears to be the usual way of harvesting the opium crop; the pods are slit and the opium-bearing latex leaks out, to be collected and dried.

Base Ring juglet with flared foot and ‘slit’ decoration © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Opium poppy

Base Ring juglet © Leeds Museums and Galleries

A similar effect is produced by the parallel vertical lines on the body of this juglet.

The long necks are suitable for dispensing liquids, as well as resembling the poppy’s stem, while the small size of the juglets suggest expensive contents (those shown here are less than 150mm tall). Opium would have been a common analgesic in ancient societies, and presumably therefore in continuous demand, which would fit well with the ubiquity of surviving juglets.

Can this hypothesis – that juglets of this type were designed to carry opium – be proved? Various chemical analyses have been published with claims to have found opiate traces, though these remain contentious. The Leeds juglets contain some intriguing residues; I may yet try to find a contact in the School of Chemistry to investigate further!

Base Ring juglet with residue © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Base Ring juglet with residue © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Jif lemon

Jif lemon

Merrillees makes the point that this kind of advertising by shape is by no means restricted to pre-literate societies, and probably accounts for the consistency over time of the shape of the juglets found in Egypt, since consumers would come to trust a familiar product. Modern parallels are not hard to find…

So what about the snakes? The symbolism is hard to pin down; in later Greek art snakes have a wealth of meanings, including allusion to chthonic (underworld) deities. It is questionable whether this can be projected back to Bronze Age Cyprus, though a broad association with sleep, death and oblivion would fit the opium product well.

The more time I spend with Cypriot ceramics, the more I appreciate their subtlety as well as boldness of form and decoration. These juglets are a good example of the extent to which they repay close reading.

¹ R.S. Merrillees, ‘Opium Trade in the Bronze Age Levant’, Antiquity XXXVI (1962), pp.287-292.