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The Amathus bowl, British Museum catalogue number ANE 123053 © Trustees of the British Museum

In 1875, an old tomb on Cyprus was cleaned out in search of antiquities. One chamber contained a copper cauldron, and in that cauldron were shield fragments, an iron dagger, and about half of a corroded metal bowl 16 cm in diameter. The looters had cast it aside as they broke the sarcophagi open and ransacked the tomb for salable goods. This was a mistake, because the bowl was of wrought and engraved silver and contained a beautiful series of reliefs in concentric bands. Shortly after it was discovered, the bowl was sketched by a careful artist and published in a volume on the archaeology of Cyprus so that it would be available to scientists. Thanks to the generosity of the Gallica project in France, this volume is now available to the world.

The bowl had a complicated and murky history after its discovery, as precious objects in private collections do. Before the British Museum acquired it was held by three different British collectors or dealers, and before them by Luigi Palma de Cesnola, a military adventurer from Sardinia who enlivened his time as US consul in Cyprus with some amateur archaeology. Art historians estimate that the bowl was made around 700 BCE, a time of turmoil in the eastern Mediterranean, as the Assyrian kings marched from victory to victory, and well-armed wanderers from the Aegean drifted towards the Levant. Despite that, it is not prominent in publications on military history, and I discovered it through an aging volume on Phoenician art in a green hardcover which I picked up in Calgary.

Have a look at this clip from the full drawing.

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Georges Colonna Ceccaldi, Monuments Antiques de Chypre, de Syrie et d’Égypte (Didier et Cie: Paris, 11882) Plate VIII c/o Gallica http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k62022979/f343.image

It is a siege! On the left ravagers cut down date palms while men with centregripped shields scale the walls with ladders. The defenders fight back from their towers and square battlements with bows and spears. On the right archers in kilts and bucket-shaped hats give covering fire while a file of spearmen with crested helmets and round strapped shields approach a ladder which another man has set against the walls.

Although of a similar age and artistic quality to the famous Chigi Vase, this depiction has received much less attention. Since 1989, most students of warfare in the eastern Mediterranean from the eighth to the sixth century BCE have understood their task as explaining how the Greeks invented a new type of warrior and a new type of warfare. A bowl from Cyprus which exuberantly mixes Egyptian and Syrian motifs was not a comfortable tool for that task. This bowl shows hoplites whose ethnicity is difficult to define (they could be Lydians or Carians or some sort of Greeks, and if the bowl were slightly later they might be Phoenicians). They fight alongside troops dressed and armed in several other ways. Rather than fighting other hoplites in the open field (“on the steppe” as a Babylonian would say) in proud isolation from other kinds of soldiers, they are storming a walled city defended by hoplites and archers working together. If these hoplites are from the Aegean, they are likely wandering aristocrats in search of loot and a generous patron. While this kind of warfare is very consistent with Herodotus and early Greek poetry, it is not what many modern researchers see when they look at this period.

Further Reading: J.L. Myres, “The Amathus Bowl: A Long-Lost Masterpiece of Oriental Engraving,” The Journal of Hellenic Studies Vol. 53, Part 1 (1933) pp. 25-39, Nino Luraghi, “Traders, Pirates, Warriors: The Proto-History of Greek Mercenary Soldiers in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Phoenix Vol. 60 No. 1/2 (2006) pp. 21-47, John R. Hale, “Not Patriots, Not Farmers, not Amateurs: Greek Soldiers of Fortune and the Origins of Hoplite Warfare,” in Donald Kagan and Gregory Viggiano eds., Men of Bronze: Hoplite Warfare in Ancient Greece (Princeton Univesity Press: Princeton NJ, 2013), pp. 182-184. I would welcome suggestion of other research which considers the military aspects of this scene in a less Hellenocentric way.

(Edit 2015/05/09: fixed broken link)