Amathus in Nottingham

As well as Leeds (if my theory is correct – see previous post), the British Museum sent objects from its excavations at Amathus to a number of other museums, public schools and colleges in 1895. According to a minute by A.S. Murray, these were:

Over the last few months I’ve been trying to track down these Amathus donations, with help from the organisations’ curators, who have been very generous in taking the time and trouble to further my research. I’d love to visit more of the collections in person (in particular, Dublin and Manchester are high on my list), but I was lucky enough to have a day trip to Nottingham last month to see the Amathus collection, kindly hosted by Rebecca Arnott, Collections and Access Officer.

First I made a visit to the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, impressively situated overlooking the city, and set in beautiful gardens – well worth climbing all the steps!

Nottingham Castle Museum

Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

I really enjoyed the Ancient Greek gallery, which was both fun and educational and got the maximum value from the Ancient Greek objects on display. But my favourite was the  ‘Every Object Tells a Story’ gallery, an inspiring ‘celebration of decorative art objects’ examining the stories behind them. This has much in common with my approach to the ancient Cypriot collections in Leeds. I loved the juxtaposition between a beautiful vase made by potter Magdelene Odundo, and three ancient Cypriot juglets and a figurine, which encourages new ways of looking at both the modern and the ancient objects, given more resonance by being displayed together.

Display of ancient and modern ceramics © Nottingham Castle Museum

Display of ancient and modern ceramics
© Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery

But the main purpose of my visit was to go ‘behind the scenes’ and look at the objects from Amathus, which are not currently on display. My aim was to see if there was any correspondence between these and the objects in the Leeds University collection, which would tend to support the theory that they were originally from the same source.

There certainly were a few parallels. For example, both collections include small juglets of Black on Red ware, with neck-ridge and decorated with black bands on glossy red slip.

NCM 1895-23 Black on Red juglet © Nottingham Castle Museum

NCM 1895-23
Black on Red juglet
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

UNIV.1913.0011 Black on Red Juglet © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0011
Black on Red Juglet
© University of Leeds

They also both have pilgrim flasks, of similar shapes and sizes:

NCM 1895-36 Pilgrim flask © Nottingham Castle Museum

NCM 1895-36
Pilgrim flask
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

UNIV.1913.0001 Pilgrim flask © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0001
Pilgrim flask
© University of Leeds

This isn’t particularly surprising; both of these are very common types of objects, and probably feature in many collections of ancient Cypriot artefacts. One object I found more intriguing was this fairly crude clay bottle:

NCM 1895-39 Bottle of red clay © Nottingham Castle Museum

NCM 1895-39
Cylindrical bottle
© Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

UNIV.1913.0016 Bottle of red clay © University of Leeds

UNIV.1913.0016
Cylindrical bottle
© University of Leeds

As the photos show, it’s not dissimilar to a bottle/jar in the Leeds collection, with a narrow foot, small, flat handles, and deeply incised scores at the neck. The Nottingham example is currently in several pieces; the neck (not shown) has roughly the same dimensions, and the same slight flare, as the Leeds bottle’s neck. I haven’t yet managed to identify the Leeds bottle; it’s not a typically Cypriot shape, and may well be an import. The presence of similar ceramics, slightly outside the mainstream, in the two collections may perhaps indicate that they come from the same source; or it could equally well be coincidence!

I really enjoyed my time in Nottingham and am looking forward to going back again – not least to further explore the Museum and Art Gallery, and quite possibly the café. My thanks to Rebecca for arranging my visit, and to all the other curators who have helped with this project.

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A Bronze Age figurine in the Leeds City Museum collection

I recently visited the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh for the first time. It’s an amazing building with an incredible variety of collections; I could happily have spent days there. The World Cultures galleries don’t have a major focus on ancient Cyprus, but I did track down a few Cypriot items in the context of ancient Egypt.

National Museum of Scotland World Cultures gallery © National Museum of Scotland

National Museum of Scotland World Cultures gallery
© National Museum of Scotland

As well as a very nice Mycenaean stirrup jar, similar to the one in the Leeds collection, and another Base Ring juglet, I was delighted to see this female figurine (on the left of the photo above). There is a similar figurine in the Leeds City Museum collection (below), sadly lacking her head and her legs below the knee.

Bronze Age female figurine © Leeds City Museums

Bronze Age female figurine
© Leeds City Museums

We don’t know when or where this figurine was found, but on stylistic grounds it can be dated to the 15th – 14th century BC. It may have looked something like this example from the Met Museum, New York.

Bronze Age female figurine © Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Bronze Age female figurine
© Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The head would have been ‘bird-like’ in appearance with a sharply beaked nose, round eyes, and large ears pierced with several rings. I still have hopes of coming across it in the stores one day! The navel doubles as a firing hole, to allow the release of hot gases during the firing process – a practical and creative solution.

Figurines such as these were generally found in tombs. The emphasis on their female characteristics has led to much speculation about their significance and functions; the pose of the arms and hands draws attention to the breasts, and the incised decoration emphasises the pubic area rather than suggesting any form of clothing. An earlier view was that they were intended as concubine companions for the (male) deceased on their journey to the afterlife:

‘If the blatant display of pubic triangle seems more lusty than bereaved, perhaps they were anticipating a long trip. The deceased might appreciate a few diversions.’

(Desmond Morris, The Art of Ancient Cyprus, 1985).

It’s tempting to speculate that this tells us more about C20th attitudes and assumptions than about the figurines themselves. Today they are viewed less as ‘diversions’ than as significant in their own right, associated with fertility, regeneration and rebirth. They may represent a primal Cypriot fertility goddess, who over time, and under influence from East and West, became assimilated with Astarte, Ashtoreth, and Aphrodite. This type of figurine may originally have been based on Syrian models; the Levantine influence is apparent from these Syrian Bronze Age figurines in the Ashmolean Museum’s collection.

Syrian Bronze Age female figurines © Ashmolean Museum

Syrian Bronze Age female figurines
© Ashmolean Museum

Even without her head, this is one of the most speaking pieces in the Leeds Museum collection. I hope in the future to uncover some information about her journey to Leeds, and the people involved.