Last week I took a break from drafting my thesis chapter on the 19th century roots of the Leeds City Museum’s ancient Cypriot collection, in order to visit the new exhibition at Weston Park Museum, ‘Cyprus: Island of Copper’.
In fact, the Leeds and Sheffield collections have a lot of shared history; many of Sheffield’s objects came from the collection of T.B. Sandwith, of which a large part was placed on loan at Weston Park after 1875, then sold by the Sheffield auctioneers Nicholson, Greaves, Barber, and Hastings in 1897, in aid of Armenian and Cretan refugees. I would love to see the catalogue of this auction, as it would reveal so much about the spread of ancient Cypriot objects in the region, but so far my researches have drawn a blank – any suggestions would be very welcome! At any rate, it seems that the curators of Weston Park promptly bought back part of the collection for the Museum, where it has remained ever since. The other part of the collection came from the Reverend Julius de Baere, based for a while in Limassol; it would be fascinating to find out more about his collecting activities and networks.
I’ve seen some of the Sheffield collection in store before, and it includes some wonderful objects. It was great to see them in this thoughtful and interesting display, which conveys a lot of information in a relatively small space. I particularly liked the double-sided glass display cases which allowed an excellent view of both sides of the objects, and also let the sunshine illuminate the ancient glass.
There’s a stunning example of Black Polished incised ware, made around 4,000 years ago – it looks so fresh and vibrant, having sat out most of the intervening years in a tomb. It’s very similar in style to the one illustrated in Sandwith’s Archaeologia paper.
I was very struck by this jug with a figurine holding an oenochoe – the same type as the jug from the Kent Collection which I discussed at the ‘Classical Cyprus’ conference last year, but a very different example. The figurine is large, clearly moulded separately and mounted on the jug with the aid of a step for her feet to rest on, and she’s holding the oenochoe almost at arm’s length. I don’t know how large the opening from the base of the oenochoe into the main jug is, but from the size of the oenochoe, it looks like you could pour at a reasonable rate; presumably for some kind of special occasion rather than everyday use.
However, the use in ritual of this bull askos really stretches the imagination. It doesn’t look like it’s got an opening at the mouth, just at… the other end. At any rate, it looks like a sturdy beast, with a considerable capacity.
The most surprising things for me were the jugs with faked inscriptions – I’ve never seen anything quite like this before! They’re really interesting in indicating the drivers of commercial value in the 19th century. As a rule, Cypriot ceramics were too easily accessible to make it worthwhile to fake them, but ceramics with inscriptions are a different story. Evidently there was a market of buyers who knew that inscriptions were important, but weren’t sufficiently clued up to recognise problems with the technique (the characters were incised after firing) and the loose approximations of ancient scripts.
The exhibition was produced with the Sheffield and Peak District Young Archaeologists’ Clubs, and their responses to the objects were included in the display; a chance to see them from a fresh perspective, and a helpful reminder of how speculative and subjective much of our interpretation of ancient art has to be. Their artistic responses also demonstrated that time had been spent looking closely at the objects and experiencing them at first hand, encouraging the visitor to do the same.
I timed my visit to coincide with a lunchtime talk by Sheffield Museums’ Curator of Archaeology, Martha Lawrence, who gave lots of insights into the collection’s histories and the themes of the exhibition, including trade, metalworking, religion and burial, and writing. The objects have all been professionally photographed as part of the Cyprus Institute’s project on Cypriot Antiquities in Foreign Museums, which is providing a real impetus to make records of smaller collections available online.
The exhibition is on until April 2019, and I thoroughly recommend a visit – I’m hoping to go back myself for a second look!