The Catholic University of America

Selected Objects from the Archaeological Collection and Some FAQs About Them

Why do all of these entries say 'provenance unknown'?

The 'provenance' of an ancient object is its archaeological origin. If an object 'has provenance,' it means that scholars know where it was found and in what context. An object with provenance can usually be used to make arguments about ancient cultures, and so it is of particular value to researchers.

An object without provenance can sometimes be used to study ancient cultures, too, but a researcher must find out the object's story first if he or she can. Many of the objects in this collection have not yet had their stories researched, which is part of what makes this collection so interesting.

How do we find out when an object was made?

Some objects are easier to 'date' than others, because we know about certain changes that took place in the way people made things. For example, at some time in the first two centuries of the Roman Empire (1st-2nd century AD), the Romans began producing glass by blowing it, rather than by casting it in molds. When you look at our two sample glass pieces (OD4 and OD8b), notice how smooth and even and thin they are. This shows you that they were made by blowing, and so we know that they come from a time after the technique was introduced.

Pottery can be even easier to date, because over a long period of time researchers have gradually established a 'pottery chronology' for many parts of the ancient world by figuring out the order in which small changes in style and design took place. A skilled analyst can often date a piece of Greek or Greco-Italian pottery within 10 or 15 years. For an example, look at the entry for OD1, the largest piece of pottery on display. Trendall has dated it to c. 325-310 BC.

OD1. Italian (Campanian) red-figure trefoil oinochoe by the 'Washington' Painter, depicting a nude youth with thyrsus and a maiden
Height, 33.5 cm
c. 325-10 BC
Publication: Trendall 694
Provenance unknown

This kind of vessel was used like an ancient pitcher. Notice how the spout looks, from above, like it has three petals. It was formed when the potter pinched in the sides of a round spout after he had finished shaping the pot on the pottery wheel. The nude youth with the thyrsus (the long staff that looks like a thistle) is probably the ancient Greek god of wine, Dionysus. He is often pictured in this pose, and this kind of staff is one of his symbols. He is often shown accompanied by young women, too, just like this one.

OD2. Italian (probably Campanian) red-figure olpe, 'face vase,' depicting two female heads confronting with a bunch of grapes between
Height, 20 cm
c. 375-25 BC
Publication: Trendall 382. Acquired from Leicester Museum (Leicester 1902/5)
Provenance unknown

You may think that this 'Italian' pottery reminds you of Greek pottery you have seen in museums. Groups of Greeks started founding colonies in Italy, especially in the south and west, as early as the 8th century BC, and they brought their tastes and techniques with them. Even hundreds of years later, Greek descendants and their Italian neighbors liked the look of pottery that used Greek-style shapes and decorations, so they made their own.

OD3a. Attic black-figure fragment from a vessel of unspecified open shape, depicting part of a horse with rider
Diameter, 5.1 cm
Late 6th or (less likely) early 5th century BC
Provenance unknown

OD3b. Attic black-figure fragment, probably from a cup, depicting a bare-chested centaur or satyr
Diameter, 3.9 cm
Second half of the 6th century BC
Provenance unknown

Many people think of Greek pottery as looking like OD1 and OD2, with red figures on a black background. This 'red-figure' pottery was the most common type in Athens by the high classical period, the central-to-later 5th century BC (think of Athenian democracy, Greek tragedy, Pericles, and the Parthenon). But earlier than this, and especially in the 6th century BC, the most common Attic (Attic means 'from Attica,' the larger area of state land which contained the city of Athens) technique was 'black-figure,' which showed black figures and decorations on a red background.

OD3b is the more interesting of our two fragments. We can tell from its shape that it came from a drinking-cup of the kind usually used at symposia, noblemen's social parties. It probably depicts either a satyr (a goat-man) or a centaur (a horse-man), either of which would have been an appropriate decoration for a party cup.

OD4. Roman flask (unguentarium)
Height, 15.5 cm
Blue-green glass
1st-4th century AD
Provenance unknown

Vessels like this one were often used by ancient people to store liquid or semi-liquid cosmetics or scented oil. The name 'unguentarium' means 'holder for ointments,' but the word 'flask' is what describes the shape. Compare this vessel with OD8a and OD8b, which are also unguentaria, but of different materials and shapes. Look back up above to the question about dating for some more information on Roman glass.

OD5. Possible secondary cremation burial (?) in unfooted pottery urn, Egyptian (?)
Diameter, 12 cm
Date unknown
Acquired from Leicester Museum (Leicester 522). Said to have been purchased in Athens and originated in Egypt
Provenance unknown

This object has an interesting story. It was sold to CUA by the Leicester Museum in Britain. The Leicester Museum has records which show it was donated to them in 1881 by Montagu Browne, a famous English taxidermist. Browne said that he bought it in Athens and was told there that it came from Egypt. We are still researching this object's history and trying to figure out whether Browne bought a real Egyptian burial or a fake or mislabeled one!

If this really is a secondary cremation burial, the urn contains a mixture of burned earth, wood ashes, and burned human bone. The deceased was cremated on a pyre (a pile of wood and flammable debris), and after the fire went out and the ashes cooled, what was left was scooped into this urn and buried. The small quantity of material in the urn does not necessarily mean that the deceased was a child; it may mean that the fire was very hot and the clean-up process rather incomplete.

OD6a. Corinthian aryballos, round and unfooted, depicting a procession of armed hoplites
Height, 6.3 cm
7th-6th century BC
Provenance unknown

OD6b. Corinthian alabastron, elongated and unfooted, depicting a cock
Height, 7 cm
6th century BC
Provenance unknown

OD6c. Corinthian alabastron, elongated and unfooted, depicting a swan
Height, 8.6 cm
6th century BC
Provenance unknown

Aryballoi and alabastra were often used to hold the oil that athletes rubbed themselves with before and after exercising (look at the illustrations of these on the 'Greek Vase Shapes' page). They were also used for liquid and semi-liquid cosmetics and perfumed oils.

Corinthian pottery was very popular in Greece and in Italy during the 8th-6th century BC, before Athenian black- (and later red-) figure pottery took over the market. Scholars generally identify Corinthian pottery by looking at several features: the blonde-colored clay, the dark red and blue decorations, the frequent use of animal motifs, and certain decorative designs like the floating rosettes.

The most interesting piece here is the aryballos, OD6a. It shows a procession of warriors with shields and spears. During the time when Corinthian pottery was being made, a change took place in the way Greeks organized armies and fought battles. The orderly ranks of hoplites you see here are a product of that change.

OD7. Etruscan or Roman terracotta foot
Length, 21 cm; width, 9 cm; height, 8 cm
Probably 4th-2nd century BC
Provenance unknown

This foot may originally have been part of a pair used as mounts for a wooden statue. Some scholars believe that feet like this were used as parts of votive offerings, or religious gifts to various gods. The Etruscans were an Italian people who lived in and around the area now called (after them) Tuscany. They fought many small wars against the Romans in the earlier years of the Roman Republic as Rome was trying to expand its territory. By the time of the Empire, however, they had been fully absorbed into Rome.

OD8a.
Roman or Romano-British (?) fusiform unguentarium
Height, 13 cm
Date unknown but almost certainly later than 2nd century BC
Provenance unknown
 

OD8b. Roman narrow flask (unguentarium)
Height, 13 cm
Blue glass
1st-4th century AD
Provenance unknown

The pottery unguentarium is of a shape called 'fusiform' by scholars. Small vessels like this one, used to hold cosmetics or scented oils, were used in life but were also very frequent gifts to the dead. They were buried in graves, sometimes by the dozens, starting from about the 3rd century BC. We are fairly certain that this particular unguentarium is Roman and dates from much later than that, but we have said 'later than the 2nd century BC' just to be safe. You can learn more about the glass unguentarium by reading the entry for OD4, above.

OD9. Central or southern Italian jug (possibly Etruscan bucchero)
Height, 7.3 cm
Fine black-glazed ware, ribbed
5th-4th century BC
Provenance unknown

'Bucchero ware' was a kind of black-glazed pottery made by the Etruscans (see the entry for OD7, above). It had a nice, almost metallic, sheen to the surface and was sometimes ribbed just like this piece is. However, the Greeks who were living in central and southern Italy (see the entry for OD2, above) at the time this little jug was probably made also sometimes produced solid black pottery with ribbing on it. We are still in the process of studying illustrations of other known pieces of Etruscan bucchero to decide whether this jug is Etruscan or Greek.

OD10a. Miniature shoulder amphora of transport type, with knobbed foot
Height, 19.4 cm
Roman period
Provenance unknown

OD10b. Loom weight with two holes for hanging; tall, roughly trapezoidal shape
Height, 6.2 cm
Fired terracotta
Date unknown
Provenance unknown

OD10c.
Terracotta baby feeder with spout
Height, 6.4 cm; diameter, 6.9 cm
Roman period
Provenance unknown

OD10d. Conical 'Arabic' lamp displaying evidence of burning
Height, 5 cm; diameter, 6.6 cm
Fired terracotta
Late Roman or early Islamic period
Provenance unknown

The amphora you see here is a miniature of a shape that was usually much bigger, sometimes about 3 feet high. Full-size amphorae were used to store and transport large quantities of wine, oil, grain, and other pourable products throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. Notice the pointed bottom with the knob on it. The point allowed large numbers of amphorae to be stacked in layers, nested between each other, in the holds of Greek and Roman cargo ships. The knob acted as a grip when someone wanted to pour from the amphora. If you were an ancient person who owned an amphora of grain, you would dig a hole in the dirt floor of your house and put the amphora in it so it would stand up.

The loom weight was used to pull a warp thread taut on a vertical loom. If an ancient woman was weaving a piece of cloth (most men in ancient Greece and Rome did not weave), her loom would have a whole row of loom weights hanging down across the bottom.

The baby feeder was used just as its name implies: milk or some other thin food like diluted grain porridge or pureed fruit would be poured or spooned in through the top, and the baby would then suck at the spout while an adult held the handle.

Notice, when you look at this little lamp, that it has been used: the spout, where the flame was lit, is blackened. Lamps throughout the ancient Mediterranean were generally filled with olive oil. We only use olive oil for cooking, but in the ancient world it was also used for light, as a base for perfume and other cosmetics, as a moisturizer, and even for bathing (you would rub it onto your skin and scrape it off again; the dirt would come off with the oil).

OD11a. Miniature egg-and-dart molding, possibly from a votive relief, small altar, or (less likely) tombstone
Length, 12.5 cm
White marble
Roman period
Provenance unknown

OD11b.
Stamped brick with meander ("Greek key") design
Length, 10.8 cm; face width, 5 cm
Fired terracotta
Date unknown
Provenance unknown

The egg-and-dart (named after the shapes in the design) molding shown here is far too small to have decorated a building; it was probably part of a votive relief (a carved picture given as a gift to a god), a small
religious altar, or even a tombstone. We will need to study this piece more closely to try to assign it a more specific date: the style and technique of the carving should help us decide.

The brick displays a decorative pattern which probably looks rather familiar to you. 'Meander' is the technical name for what is often called a 'Greek key' design. This motif was very popular in both ancient Greece and ancient Rome.

OD12a. Terracotta horse, hand-shaped
Length, 14.7 cm; height, 10.8 cm
Date unknown
Provenance unknown

OD12b. Romano-British (?) terracotta dog of type commonly depicted in Roman art
Length, 12.5 cm; height, 11.4 cm
Date unknown
Said to have been found at Chipping Norton
Provenance unknown

OD12c. Terracotta bird, probably a dove, with polychrome paint decoration
Length, 8 cm
Date unknown
Provenance unknown

OD12d. Terracotta tortoise
Length, 6.7 cm
Date unknown
Provenance unknown

OD12e.
Stone lion of Mediterranean mountain lion type (not African)
Length, 7.5 cm
Date unknown
Provenance unknown

Miniature animals like these may have served one of several purposes: they could have been children's toys, small votives (gifts for a god), decorative figurines, or something else. The most interesting animals here are probably the dog and the lion. The dog is of a type which is often seen in Roman art: not unlike a German shepherd, with pointed ears and a muscular body. Romans did not have the dog breeds we do (our purebreds are the products of generations of selective breeding), so most ancient Mediterranean dogs probably looked very much like this one. The lion is also a characteristic Mediterranean type: slender, with a small head. Even though both the Greeks and the Romans liked to imagine themselves battling fearsome, giant beasts more like African lions, Mediterranean lions were more like mountain lions in their size and in their habits.

OD13. Corinthian pottery fragment: one wide leg of a short-legged, possibly tripodal, shallow dish, depicting sphinxes
Height, 6.4 cm; width, 11 cm
7th-6th century BC
Provenance unknown

This pottery fragment is very interesting for several reasons. First, it comes from a vessel of unusual shape. It is probably the leg of a shallow kind of pan, a sort of ancient casserole dish. The phrase 'possibly tripodal' on the label means that we think it is possible that this dish had three legs. Why? Many ancient tables only had three legs. Three-legged tables and stools will sit firm without rocking even if the floor is not perfectly flat. Since many ancient homes only had dirt floors, tables that did not rock would have been very useful. It is possible that the three-legged idea may have extended to this dish. Plus, this leg is thick enough and big enough to suggest that three of them may have done the job.

How do we know how big the dish was? This fragment is curved. All we have to do is imagine the curve finishing and complete the circle.

This fragment is also interesting because of its decoration, which is finely detailed and pictorial. A sphinx is an imaginary or mythological creature with an animal (usually lion) body and a human head. Sphinxes were a favorite motif on Corinthian pottery from this time period (see the entry for OD6, above), but the image of the sphinx probably originally came from Egypt or Mesopotamia, as early as about 2500 BC.

OD14. Roman cosmetic (?) bottle, molded as a bust of an African female
Height, 11.5 cm
2nd century AD (?)
Provenance unknown

Both the Greeks and the Romans were fascinated by the human face and the human figure, and they often enjoyed depictions of people who were different from themselves and therefore appeared 'exotic.' The earliest known depiction of an African in Greek art may be a figure on a black-figure cup from the 6th century BC, but this small pottery bottle, probably used for cosmetics or perfumed oil, is probably Roman in date.