Ritual and Memory: The Ancient Balkans and Beyond
On ViewInstitute Of Study Of The Ancient World
Ritual and Memory
September 21, 2022 – February 19, 2023
This treasure-trove of artifacts from regions stretching from the Balkan Mountains north to the Carpathian Basin on view now at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World is a revelation and engenders an overdue revision of ancient history. Classics students of my generation were taught that Athens was the pinnacle of civilization and that Macedonia and the regions above were inhabited by uncouth barbarians and battle-scarred warriors. Aristotle, and later Euripides, had been summoned by King Archelaus and Philip II to introduce aristocratic Macedonian youth like Alexander the Great to the wonders of high civilization. Euripides’s Bacchae was to serve as a warning against the Dionysian excesses in the hinterlands, where drunken louts, doped-up men in pelts, and maenads ran amuck. At ISAW, resplendent treasures on loan from eleven countries and seventeen institutions (organized in partnership with the Field Museum in Chicago) pull back the curtain on obscured civilizations, and make the viewer ponder the dynamism and mystery of long-forgotten rituals and reconsider the interconnectedness of ancient cultures. The Thracian gold wreath crown from the Zlatinitsa-Malomirovo burial mound (375-325 BCE) in Bulgaria could give the Metropolitan Museum’s Hellenistic wreaths a run for their money. This was no barbaric outer region!
This revelatory exhibition is laid out chronologically and extends from the Neolithic Period (ca. 8,500–6,500 years ago) through the Iron Age (ca. 3,000–2,100 years ago). A mysterious and memorable Neolithic ceramic male figure (5000–4500 BCE) from Hungary with a triangular mask-like face, known as a “Sickle God” due to the curved item he holds over his right shoulder, greets visitors early in the exhibition. A headless ceramic female figurine that accompanies him is equally exquisite, and both feel oddly contemporary. It ranks in accomplishment with Cycladic counterparts as do later limbless “violin”-shaped ceramic torsos (2,800–2,500 BCE). Such enigmatic human forms undoubtedly served a ritualistic function as witnessed by their archaeological contexts, yet the specific beliefs and practices are lost to time: no written record from these Neolithic or Copper era cultures has come down through the ages, if writing in these regions even yet existed.
An architectural model, perhaps a representation of a sanctuary, excavated from a mound in Romania associated with the Gumelnița culture, reveals great aesthetic and technological accomplishment. Made from fine clay and fired at a carefully regulated temperature, such a haunting artifact was the product of a highly skilled craftsperson. The viewer wonders if it was transported to represent the larger structure. The model’s bull-shaped gables associated with Copper Age cult architecture have similar bovine themes that often linked agrarian settlements and agricultural renewal, reminding us that these were amongst the first settled farming communities in Europe. Other Romanian treasures on view in the first large gallery include three gold daggers or halberds (1700–1600 BCE) which must have served no practical purpose—this precious metal is too soft for a functional combat tool—but were probably created as symbolic objects of power.
The second, smaller gallery displays an array of show-stopping artifacts, many in gold and silver, from the Iron Age Indo-European-speaking peoples who lived on the edges of the Greek world: the Iapodians, the Paeonians, and Thracians. While we have only scattered inscriptions and no robust textual records from these cultures themselves, the sumptuous archaeological finds provide tantalizing clues. Striking jewelry and adornments from a necropolis in Milci, North Macedonia (700–650 BCE), once belonged to a woman who must have held a high status. The personal pendants and cult wands invite the viewer to wonder what ceremonial roles women may have performed in this Paeonian culture.
The high level of craftmanship seen on a selection of gold and silver objects in this gallery rivaled anything I have seen in collections from the Greco-Roman world. Among the standouts was a Romanian silver goblet (350–300 BCE) whose base featured a gryphon and boar. Perhaps the most stunning object in the exhibition is a tiny gold earring (250–200 BCE) from Bulgaria featuring a Nike on a chariot pulled by two horses, from the burial of a Thracian woman. It rests in a vitrine alongside a wide silver belt from Serbia (500–450 BCE) with geometric patterns, which probably belonged to a member of the Iron Age aristocracy.
The selection of resplendent gilt-silver rhytons, drinking cups with animal bases, rivals those seen in the Near Eastern galleries at the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre. Discovered by chance by a farmer plowing his field in 1970s, this sensational grouping may once have belonged to the Thracian king Kotys I (383–359 BCE) or perhaps was presented as a gift from him, a history suggested by the Greek inscriptions on the rhytons and pitcher that read: KOTYOΣ EГ BEO (Kotys from Beos). The hoard reflects the influence of Greek culture on Thracian elite in other ways as well: the bowl and pitcher depict Dionysiac scenes—the Greek god of wine, vegetation, theater, ecstasy, and ritual madness—and the set presumably was used during royal rituals or ceremonial feasts involving the consumption of wine. Although some Greek writers described the Thracians as “barbarians” in biased, unflattering terms, such lavish symposium-worthy wares leave us to contemplate the true cultural exchanges in antiquity.
The pièce de résistance that finishes the exhibition with a bang is a silver gilt helmet (325–275 BCE) from a burial assemblage found in Peretu, Romania, which was discovered in a hoard that also included a chariot, horse trappings, and a silver sculpture of a head. The helmet is one of three known Iron Age artifacts from the region depicting the “evil eye” iconography. The delicate feather detail and bird with boar on the cheek plates set it apart.
Once again, ISAW has presented New York archaeology enthusiasts with an exhibition that fills in the gaps in other collections by displaying works from regions and cultures seldom seen in the US. The opening up of the Eastern Bloc has given institutions new possibilities for loans and scholarly exchanges. As a contemporary art critic, I found myself wondering if much art made today would resonate more deeply if it had been made in connection with rituals of agricultural and spiritual renewal. In addition to the joy brought by the visual splendor of these rarely seen artifacts, this exhibition made me ponder more philosophical questions about what we are now missing. I felt like I had stumbled up a lost treasure trove that brightened a gray afternoon.