©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. The Archaic and Afterward, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 15 November 2019.
The Archaic and Afterward
The most important reference to amber from around 600 B.C. may be only apocryphal. It concerns the early Greek philosopher Thales of Miletos, the first to recognize amber’s magnetism, which he argued was proof of a soul or life, even in inanimate objects. Did he observe this property at home when watching women spinning Miletos’s famous wool with an amber spindle and distaff?
After about 600 B.C., the record shows a change in amber use. Individual pieces and long strings of worked amber became much rarer throughout the Mediterranean, perhaps owing to relative scarcity or to fluctuations in trade or even its interruption (perhaps by the Celts). Thus, amber finds from the next decades take on a particular importance. Most are very small pieces used for inlay, in multimedia fibulae, in small ivory and bone boxes, or in furnishings. Three composite ivory or bone and amber figured objects dating to the first half of the sixth century are of considerable iconographic importance: a pair of plaques from the Picene territory, from Tomb 83, that of an elite woman, at Belmonte Piceno; and a pair from a late Hallstattian Celtic tomb of an elite woman at Asperg, Germany. The two Picene plaques each represent a winged female figure flanked by two smaller female figures. The winged female is represented in the schema of Potnia Theron (Mistress of the Animals) or perhaps another (now unknown) divinity of protection and fertility. The carving is on all sides; the faces (now lost) were inlays of amber. Giulia Rocco attributes the reliefs to Picenum, noting the Greco-Orientalizing character of the figures and their relationship to portrayals of Artemis in the Laconian world. The Halstattian furniture plaques with amber-faced sphinxes are generally believed to be Laconian.
The figured ambers of the sixth to fourth centuries B.C. range in size from the tiny (20 mm) to the very large (250 mm) and are formed in a range of subjects, some traditional and some new to the material. They are mainly pendants and fibulae bow decorations. Not only is there a wide distribution of finds on the peninsula, but many of the individual pieces are of exceptional size. This is the third great flourishing of archaeologically evidenced amber importation in the Mediterranean-rim area before the time of the Flavian emperors.
Most large sixth-to-fourth-century figured works demonstrate a new respect for the original shape of the raw material in its naturally occurring forms—rods, drops, or sheets—and figural subjects accommodate the ancient resin’s form. Italian figured ambers of the eighth and seventh centuries continue ancient traditions, but new kinds of amuletic figuration developed during the sixth century B.C. in response to changing local and contemporary magical, medicinal, and sacral needs. The multifarious seventh-century fertility and hunting divinities began to be replaced by Olympian subjects and hitherto unknown faunal and fabulous subjects. Rams, lions, and boars (figure 43) take the place of frogs, monkeys, dogs, and sphinxes. Sirens now proliferate, and dancers appear. Pendants in the form of detached heads, of either specific female divinities or other figures, are among the few traditional subjects that retain their important place right through to the beginning of the fourth century B.C. Yet despite the change in iconography, the categories of appropriate subjects do not appreciably change: they are still the protective and regenerative subjects of tradition, the subjects that could enhance or focus the powerful properties of amber.
A number of exceptional (unprovenanced) ambers can be dated to the sixth century based on their style and iconography. Among them are the Getty Divinity Holding Hares group (figure 44), the Getty Ship with Figures pendant (figure 6), a two-figure group in London, Satyr and Maenad (figure 17, which is perhaps instead a dancing male and female), and a group of four pendant figures, possibly from Ascoli Piceno, now in Philadelphia: two crouching nude males and an addorsed pair of draped female figures. A recumbent lion, found in a circa 560–50 B.C. tomb at Taranto, is a rare example of a piece from a Greek colonial city. These are “contemporary” works for their time, but they also evince artistic connections to older central Italic and Etruscan art, to the eastern Mediterranean, and to East Greek and Peloponnesian art. This wide range of influences might suggest simple explanations: itinerant carvers with a rich artistic vocabulary or a workshop in the ambient of a great crossroads. While both may be accurate, this line of thought underemphasizes the magical aspects of the imagery. Alongside such evocative and wide-ranging explanations should be considered the fact that the figured ambers were made as amulets, or objects following a “prototype” or recipe, or modeled according to tradition and prescription, which required the practitioner to absorb various symbol systems and modes of representation. There must have been persistent types, and a long-lived oral tradition behind them. Because precision of execution is essential to efficacy, “magical practices have little potential for modification, change, and interpretation and thus tend to be slower to change than most other aspects of culture.”[215bis] What Jaś Elsner queries from the starting point of a large-scale offering at Delphi is relevant here:
In what sense is an image identical with the deity or activity it represents? The magical and theological properties of images, as well as the way the offering of the Orneatai could actually substitute as a ritual, hint at a much more dynamic interpenetration of image and referent, representation and prototype, than we usually allow for in discussions of mimesis.… Here … the context of the image asserts the actual presence of its prototype.
In contrast to these “international style” works are a scattering of amber carvings, markedly Ionian in style, that date to second half of the sixth century B.C. Where they were carved is not known for sure, but some have old provenances: Falconara, in the mid-Adriatic, for the amber in New York; Sala Consilina, for the flying-figure ambers in the Petit Palais; Armento, for the London kouros. Another tiny kouros in Paris, two of the Getty Heads of a Female Divinity or Sphinx (figures 18 and 45), and the Getty Kore (figure 46) and her animal companions, the ram and boar pendants (figures 29, 39, and 43), if from the Italian peninsula, would be additional evidence of the presence of Ionians (or Ionian models).
Three burials, rich in amber objects that date to the end of the sixth century, demonstrate the tradition (extending back to the Bronze Age) of burying strings of ambers in elite females’ tombs: at Sala Consilina, with three necklaces totaling a minimum of 114 pieces; in Tomb 102 at Braida di Vaglio, with nearly 300; and at the “princely” tombs at Novi Pazar (Serbia), with over 8,000 individual amber beads, pendants, and related objects. In the Braida di Vaglio tomb, the skeleton is that of a young girl; the sex of the other two grave occupants are assumed to be female.
Fifth-century finds are more concentrated outside coastal sites in Latium, Etruria, and Magna Graecia. They are dispersed at the fringes of Etruria, the mid-Adriatic area, and in Campania and Basilicata. A very large number of surviving figured ambers, mainly pendants, can be dated by context or style to the period of about the mid-fifth to early fourth century B.C. They range in subject from the now-traditional rams’ heads, female figures, detached heads and faces, and satyrs to whole animals and mythological creatures in repose to more innovative images. The new subjects reflect the plurality of cultural and commercial relations established among Greeks, Etruscans, and other indigenous peoples, and many show the incorporation of new ways of attracting the good, averting the dangerous, or picturing the voyage to the afterworld and its guides. New to amber, but already established by this date in vase and wall painting, bronzework, and gold, all of which have come from graves, are action figures: Dionysian revelers vintaging or dancing, a charioteer, a swaying Danaid, and figures in flight, sirens especially. Athena, with lionskin, shield, and lance, is in movement: the Pyrrhic dance? Aggressive subjects of rape, imminent or active combat, or triumph over death emerge: Eos and Kephalos (or Tithonos), Herakles killing the Nemean lion, Ajax, or Achilles lying in wait. Only in a few cases such as these can heroes and divinities be surely identified.
The style and iconography of the ambers of this period come out of the artistic traditions of Greece (including Magna Graecia), Etruria, and other Italic areas. Some heads have old-fashioned “divine” hairstyles and large, severe faces, conjuring up Near Eastern divinities. Most wear old-fashioned Etruscan dress, the significance of which deserves more attention. Generally speaking, the Archaic style has a secure hold throughout the fifth century B.C. and well into the fourth. Some works are very like other sculptural works and compare well with the corpora of ivories, bronzes, and terracottas. Others, significantly, are old-fashioned in style: many have the oversized eyes of much earlier art, kept alive in the millennia-old schemata of divine and heroic representations of the Near East; some are remarkably like Hittite sculptures. The huge eyes signify the figure’s identity and the characteristic keenness of sight of the supernatural. Wide-open and exaggerated, the eyes of the amber heads project a dazzling gaze, emphasizing the efficacy of their role as apotropaia, or devices of protection and danger-aversion (figure 47).
Nearly every subject represented in amber during this period has counterparts in other media found in Italy, namely sculpture, vases, and gems, as well as in Greek, Etruscan, and Italic architectural decoration. In some cases, individual objects or monuments have been related to ancestors, or clan, as well as to place, or cult.
Rather than coming from Etruria proper, almost all fifth- to fourth-century B.C. ambers are documented as coming from (or are believed to have been found in) areas with significant Etruscan connections: at sites north of the Po; in Campania; on the Italian mid-Adriatic seacoast; farther inland in Basilicata, Lucania, and Calabria; at Aleria (Corsica); and at Kompolje (Croatia). As is true for the earlier figured ambers from nonpeninsular finds (Novi Pazar, most importantly), those from Aleria and Kompolje are closely related to Italian finds. Unfortunately, as is the case with the ambers from the eighth to sixth centuries, only a few ambers of fifth- to fourth-century dates have been included in the study or, in some cases, publication of the graves’ skeletal material. None of the significant amber objects from chance finds, problematic excavations, and illicit undertakings are able to yield information about the sex of the inhabitant(s) and other critical contextual information. The admirable exceptions, including many recent excavations in the Basilicata, show that tombs with figured amber of the sixth to fourth centuries were female burials, with one anomaly: the man buried in Tomb 43 at Melfi-Pisciolo. All the others belonged to women and girls. Figured pendants, in almost every case, were found on the upper torso, once the elements of neck and chest adornments, or in the pelvic area, once girdle pendants.
Many of the (well-published) fifth-century B.C. tombs with figured ambers from southern Italy are critical evidence for amber’s importance to the inhabitants and to the funeral customs of elite women of the populations, which reveals the continuation of certain late Bronze Age (indigenous) traditions and the impact of Magna Graecian and Etruscan culture in the interior through interaction with more recent settlers of the Tyrrhenian and Ionian coasts. The link between amber and ritual, elite status and salvation, is undeniable. Two exemplary tombs of elite Italic females might be singled out: the aforementioned late-sixth-century Tomb 102 from Braida di Vaglio and the late-fifth- to early-fourth-century Tomb 955 from Lavello-Casino. Both contain not only significant pieces of figured amber, but also gold (a grape-cluster necklace in Tomb 955) and a selection of vessels and utensils for banqueting, mixing and drinking wine (Italic and Greek traditions are both represented), and roasting and eating meat. The contents reveal a climate welcoming the worship of Dionysos in Italy, and perhaps the impact of Orphism.
Dionysian subjects had come into prominence in figured amber by the sixth century, satyrs first and then other imagery, and some ambers probably were prepared expressly for funeral rituals. They are powerful evidence for the importance of the resurrection divinity in folk religion and cult in Italy. They, like the evidence of banquet practices and sacrifice in indigenous graves, denote an afterlife condition of beatitude, and the mysteries of Dionysos constituted one path to salvation. Amber could have illuminated the way.
Dionysos (figure 48) watched over Italy, as we hear from the chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone: “God of many names … you who watch over far-famed Italy.” Dionysos, the god not only of wine but of dance and drama, who promised experiences outside the corporeal (ecstacies), was an obvious focus for individuals worried about the afterworld. By the fifth century B.C., as Susan Guettel Cole has observed, “the rituals of his cult were clearly associated with themes of life and death. Dionysos was a god whose myths about a double birth, death, and rebirth, and a journey to the underworld made him a figure attractive to those who wished to find a way to escape the anxieties of death.”
Dionysos also knew the great sea, into which he plunged to avoid Lycurgus and from which he was rescued by Thetis, and where he showed his powers as he transformed his Tyrrhenian pirate captors into dolphins. The liquid, winelike optical characteristics of amber may have created a natural connection between Dionysos and the ancient resin. As E. R. Dodds writes in his edition of Euripides’ Bacchae, “[Dionysos’s] domain is, in Plutarch’s words, the whole of hugra phusis [the principle of moisture], not only the liquid fire of the grape, but the sap thrusting in a young tree, the blood pounding in the veins of a young animal, all the mysterious and uncontrollable tides that ebb and flow in the life of nature.”
Satyrs (figure 49), nymphs, Bacchic revelers, heads of the god, and other Dionysian subjects are among the most numerous of the fifth-century funerary figured ambers. And Dionysian subjects would be the most common of Roman-period figured ambers.
Herakles (figure 50) in Greece and Italy (in Etruscan, Hercle) was another powerful apotropaic figure because of his cultic roles as danger-averter, healer, and death-dealer. His polyvalent cult functions in Etruria and much of the Italian peninsula were also associated with trade, triumph, transhumance, and initiation; and he was worshipped in his oracular and mantic roles. The hero-god is represented in amber derived from various schemata—Greek, Etruscan, and Cypriot. Two amber amulets of the Cypriot-type of Herakles show him wearing a lionskin helmet: these pendants were doubly potent, for the lionskin itself was a standard protective device.
The Homeric heroes Achilles and Ajax, both represented in amber, also had longstanding danger-averting, protective, and propitious roles in Greek and Greek-influenced culture. Achilles triumphed in arms (Achillean sharp-subject amulets “cut” pain). An amulet with Ajax, heroic rescuer of the fallen body of Achilles, who committed suicide by falling on his sword but was said to live after death on the island of Leuke, might also “cut” pain or offer protection.
Most importantly, Homer’s very words were magical. Quotations from his work could heal people when whispered in their ears or written on amulets, preferably of gold, hung around their necks. Not only could Homer cure disease; he could also make fruit trees grow and favor people’s relations with one another.
Heroic and martial figures could play important roles in what is called aggressive magic. Subject, material, and actions (such as attachment and incantation) were likely combined in the use of potent objects for healing. The large amber pendant of Herakles stabbing the Nemean lion (with blood spurting from the wound) in the Bibliothèque nationale de France might be explicated by the recipe of physician Alexander of Tralles (circa A.D. 525–circa A.D. 605) for abdominal pain, or colic. It was to be given if a patient “would not follow a regimen or could not endure drugs.” It reads: “On a Median stone, engrave Herakles standing upright and throttling a lion; set it in a gold ring and give it to the patient to wear.”
The last moment in the pre-Roman period for the interment of amber is toward the end of the fourth century B.C. This is documented by a concentration of finds on the central Adriatic coast and in southern Campania. Villalfonsina, Paestum, and Timmari are three exceptional finds: the subjects of the pendants are female heads or faces, joined into necklaces with spacer beads of various shapes. The finds at Paestum date after the Lucanian takeover of the site, as Angela Pontrandolfo Greco points out—critical evidence for the earlier appreciation of amber among the Lucanians. One of the latest examples of these necklaces was found at Timmari and dates to circa 330–20 B.C. From the late fourth century B.C. until the first century A.D., amber was a scarce grave good in Italy. The exceptions are a number of gold earrings in the shape of helmeted heads (the negroid heads are of amber) of the third century B.C., many of them from Etruria. Just like the earliest Etruscan and Greek ambers, these late manifestations of funereal figured amber objects are tiny. Yet their functions are still to protect, to avert danger, and, as fertile subjects, to promise rebirth. It was not until the revival of trade by the Romans that amber again became abundant in Italy. Figured amber objects, necklaces, rings, small vessels, and small, independent carvings once again were significant grave goods, particularly for women and children. Danger-averting gorgons, Dionysian and marine subjects, and other time-honored images of protection and regeneration dominated, continuing what was now a peninsular vocabulary for efficacious objects of amber.
Please continue to the next section...
The Archaic and Afterward