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.

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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!

‘Smelling the flowers just quietly’: a Mycenaean krater

I’m learning a lot while exploring the Leeds City Museum’s collection of artefacts donated in 1902 from the British Museum’s excavations at Enkomi and Klavdhia in Cyprus. My favourite at the moment is this Mycenaean krater, a large mixing bowl for wine, decorated on either side with a bull sniffing leaves, which dates to around 1275-1200 BC. It’s been in fragments for some time, but is now newly restored by the Museum’s conservator, Emma Bowron, allowing it to be fully appreciated.

Klavdhia krater fragments s

Krater from Klavdhia, Cyprus, in fragments… © Leeds City Museum

Klavdhia krater restored s

…and restored. © Leeds City Museum

The krater comes from Klavdhia in south-east Cyprus, as noted on its side by the then curator of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society’s Museum, Henry Crowther. I’m not really a fan of writing the provenance of an object prominently on its surface, but there’s no denying that it helps with identification.

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Label on Klavdhia krater. © Leeds City Museum

This bears a close relationship to a similar krater from Klavdhia, retained by the British Museum. The authors of Mycenaean Pictorial Vase Painting, Emily Vermeule and Vassos Karageorghis, identify a group of five vases which closely resemble each other stylistically and argue that they are by the same painter; there can be little doubt that the Leeds krater represents a sixth.

BM Klavdhia krater

Krater from Klavdhia in the British Museum (1899,1229.129). © British Museum

The painting is in the ‘Pastoral’ style, which represents something of a deterioration from earlier Mycenaean pictorial painting; the bull is rather impressionistic, with little attempt to be accurate about the anatomical details. Opinion differs on the extent to which Mycenaean pottery was produced on Cyprus or imported, though it seems likely that ‘Pastoral ‘ style pottery such as this was a local production. It’s clear in any case that by the Late Bronze Age, Cypriots were eager consumers of Mycenaean wares, which have been found in high concentrations at coastal sites.

I am irresistibly reminded of Ferdinand, the eponymous bull in Munro Leaf’s story for children, illustrated by Robert Lawson.

Ferdinand

The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf, illustrated by Robert Lawson. © Grossett & Dunlap

Ferdinand refuses to take part in the bullfight, but instead ‘liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers’ – just as our bull is captured in a quiet moment. In common with much Mycenaean pictorial vase painting, the image on this krater doesn’t suggest narrative development or movement, but has a static, timeless quality which travels well over the intervening centuries, all the way from Bronze Age Cyprus to Leeds.