Stumbling upon a treasure in the twenty-first century? Not a fairy tale.

The Digging into JRA blog authors’ opinions are not necessarily identical to those of the featured JRA volume contributors.

Ever dreamt of accidentally stumbling upon an ancient treasure? Well, these archaeologists carrying out a dig before the opening of a New Yorker clothing store in Croatia actually did!

Before construction of the store could begin in the town of Vinkovci, a team of archaeologists under Šime Vrkić conducted a rescue excavation during the course of which the world was greeted by a major hoard of Roman silverware sitting just 70-170 centimeters below the surface. Boasting a total of 48 items that add up to almost 34 kilograms in weight, the Vinkovci treasure compares with the largest hoards of 4th-century A.D. dining silver. Vinkovci’s counterparts include Germany’s lost Trier treasure (which weighed over 100 kg), the controversial Seuso treasure claimed by Hungary, Kaiseraugst (Switzerland’s 58 kg of silver objects), and Mildenhall (England’s collection of tableware which includes a single platter weighing 8 kg alone) – none as brand new as the Vinkovci treasure of A.D. 2012.

The Vinkovci hoard greatly complements our knowledge of Roman high dining culture, which was most sophisticated from at least the 1st century A.D. While most objects in the assemblage are meant for either dining or toilet purposes, a few of them display incredible silversmith artistry that transcends the needs of practicality–in particular, the Tantalus vessel. Completely unadorned on the outside, the vessel features an elaborate scene of a marine revel on its interior: an abundance of sea nymphs known as Nereids, naked or partially draped and wearing beaded necklaces and armlets, appear riding a variety of sea-creatures and interacting with Tritons (mythological sea messengers). The collection’s unquestionable highlight and the only known “greedy cup” from the ancient world, it is a technically sophisticated bowl that can never be filled to the brim because the liquid would “magically” disappear. Through a system of holes and tubes, the water or wine could never rise past a certain level and thus Tantalus’ perpetual punishment would continue. Inside on the bowl’s base is a sheet-metal figurine of Tantalus seated on a rock, whose mythical punishment – he was damned to spend eternity surrounded by water which would recede every time he reached down to drink – is turned into a joke because liquid, when poured into the bowl up to a certain level, would drain out through a hole in its base. Late-antique luxury dining was often expected to involve such amusements, with caprice at the expense of functionality serving to convey the host’s high status.

Pieces no less whimsical are a heart-shaped silver vessel with a dolphin handle (supposedly for serving flat fish such as flounder) and a platter with a scallop shell rim. The latter is notable not only for its 12 moulded shellfish recesses evenly spaced around the rim, but also for the loosely bacchanalian theme in the centre and other parts of the rim, featuring a hunter on horseback galloping over a dying lion, surrounded by round-eyed female busts, ferns, a standing panther, and leaping hares. What on earth does all this imagery have to do with a vessel for serving shellfish?  

As much as it is tempting to hypothesize who the treasure belonged to and why it was buried, there is not much that can actually be proven yet, unless one of the silver-gilt platters with a scene that includes a shepherd and a building is a Biblical allegory rather than a vignette of rural life. The silver-plate set was found buried in a stack, but intense building activity from the 18th century onward had resulted in the total destruction of the surrounding late Roman layers, which could have provided some context. The most credible narrative to account for what may be the first great treasure trove of the 21st century links its burial with the defeat of Valens, the Eastern Roman Emperor, by Gothic rebels in A.D. 378. For one thing, Vinkovci is where Valens was born and would have had many supporters, but also, more significantly, his defeat resulted in much unrest in this part of the empire around the Danube and Rhine. And when things go so sour, one had better hide the valuables.

Once conserved and restored, the treasure will be the jewel in the Vinkovci Museum’s displays. To gain a deeper insight into the contents of the treasure and for several photographs, see the JRA Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/JournalofRomanArch. To get access to the full scholarly article, see H. Vulic, D. Doracic, R. Hobbs and J. Lang,  “The Vinkovci treasure of Late Roman silver plate: preliminary report,” JRA 30 (2017) pp. 127-150, or to order the whole issue, go to: http://journalofromanarch.com/order.html

Food for thought: 

  • This vessel is incredibly elaborate in design as well as in the mechanism used to control the level of water. What does this elaborate vessel say about the economy at the time of its production? Can the economy of other periods in ancient or modern history be reflected in personal items such as dining vessels or toiletry objects?
  • What is your perception of this vessel? Can it be viewed as expressing both tragedy and comedy?
  • What is the significance of including Tantalus in this vessel?
  • One interesting aspect of this vessel is that the liquid “magically” disappears. This is caused by the hidden mechanism beneath the rock. Is this magical disappearance of liquid important to the observer of the vessel? Does this magical component better illustrate the punishment of Tantalus? Are there other items from antiquity or modern time that similarly incorporate a magical component?
  • How does the other marine-related decoration connect to this vessel and its function?
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