©J. Paul Getty Trust
Causey, Faya. Cat. 27, Roundel: Animal, Ancient Carved Ambers in the J. Paul Getty Museum
Ed. Faya Causey. Los Angeles: Getty P, 2012. museumcatalogues.getty.edu. Web. 20 July 2019.
Cat. 27, Roundel: Animal
Diameter: 44–50 mm; depth: 16 mm; Weight: 6 g
Diameter: 44–50 mm; depth: 16 mm
Weight: 6 g
The piece has a severely degraded and friable surface. A large fragment on the lower edge of the animal’s head has been reattached. The surface has altered to an opaque light-tan degradation layer that is flaked and chipped overall, and there is a corresponding loss of surface detail. In ambient light, the pendant is yellow-orange. It is not translucent, and there are no visible inclusions.
The disk-shaped amber is carved in high relief on the obverse and is plain and completely flat on the reverse. The sides are tapered inward slightly from the bottom. The animal’s head is depicted in top view, with the chin, throat, and neck ventrally flush with the base. The left flank of the body is presented in profile view, with only one each of the fore- and hindlegs shown. The large head is paddle-shaped, rather flat on top, and wide through the ear area. The lower jaw is narrow and flat, the mouth an engraved line that extends as far as the outer canthus of the eye. The neck is thin. The bulges and indentations on each side of the head at the point of its greatest width must represent the ears. There is no legible evidence of eyes. The long tongue is extended, touching the rear hoof. Flush with the curve of the pendant’s edge, the animal’s back is rounded with a slight indentation just above and before the curve of the haunch, and just behind it is the tiniest indication of a tail. The chest and abdomen areas are approximately the same size as the head. The front leg is long and thin from knee to hoof and is bent at the ankle, as in nature. The powerful back leg and haunch curve forward. The nonfigured area in the middle of the roundel is recessed below the animal. There are two sets of holes: a perforation between the rear hoof and the tongue, and a lateral perforation from one side of the animal’s neck to the other. Along the dorsal ridge, equally spaced from the neck to the ankle, are six 3.5 mm-deep, tapered stopped bores.
Unique in form and subject, the roundel is unlike any other amber object. The round, thin form, with its flat reverse, beveled edge, perforation, and stopped bores, suggests that 82.AO.161.2 was originally the lid of a small, round pyxis. If that is the case, the perforations, the through-bore in the neck area, and the hole between the foot and the tongue may have been used for attaching a lid to a container. Alternatively, the lateral bore through the top of the animal may have been drilled to allow for hanging, perhaps as an ornament. This may have been a secondary use.
One of the best parallels for the roundel is not an amber object but an ivory lid from the Idaean cave, Crete, published as North Syrian by J. A. Sakellerakis. This beveled-edge lid is decorated with an overall geometric pattern and has a similar system of stopped bores, or mortises, on its edge. 82.AO.161.2 might also be compared to a group of Roman-period amber pyxis (or perfume pot?) lids, three of them in the British Museum: a nonfigured lid (BM 115), turned with a series of convex and concave moldings, engraved lines, and narrow fillets (very close in size to 82.AO.161.2), and two slightly larger figured lids, one of a sleeping swan with putti on his back (BM 117), and the other, a satyr face (BM 118).
The placing of an animal, resting or in movement, within a circular format is age-old. A contorted animal within a tondo is a distinct subset of the schema. As John Boardman notes, compositions with contorted animals, whose form is characterized by the dislocation of the legs or another portion of the body, imply movement and allow the circular field to be filled more symmetrically. Even though the contortion in 82.AO.161.2 only extends to the twisting of the animal’s head into top view and the body and legs into profile, the composition still calls to mind the whirling compositions of Cretan seal stones, which
express the old Minoan feeling for torsion and for spreading designs which own no top or bottom or sides. But these contorted animals are not simple essays in the grotesque as they are often described, but the artist’s rendering of a novel but natural viewpoint, top three-quarter of a reclining animal with his legs before him, the hindquarters twisted to one side.
A group of stone seals from the Greek islands, dating to the second half of the seventh century B.C., appear to be the only comparable post–Bronze Age Mediterranean objects decorated with the “old Minoan” type of contorted animals. Boardman considers a group from Melos to be dependent on actual Bronze Age seals found on the island, noting they “are of an importance and interest far beyond their intrinsic merit, because they show us how artists could be influenced by the arts and artifacts of a past civilization, otherwise remembered only by the poets.”
It may be that 82.AO.161.2 is a comparable seventh-century response—although there is no Bronze Age object with a comparable representation of a quadruped. The tongue extension, too, is unusual. Does the animal lick its hind leg, or is the tongue extended in exertion?
The condition of the amber and the schematic depiction of the animal do not allow for a sure classification of the quadruped. However, the salient physiognomic characteristics, and the position of the tongue, lead me to think that it is a fawn. This identity is posited despite the lack of a close comparison and despite some resemblance to a number of seventh-century ivory and amber dogs. However, the feet of 82.AO.161.2 are entirely different from the wide, multitoed feet of these dogs: they are tiny and undifferentiated.
An isolated fawn is an infrequent subject in ancient art, uncommon as the subject of a pendant, and exceptional in amber. The morphological characteristics of the animal depicted in 82.AO.161.2 compare well with those of a number of Greek Late Geometric fawns, does, or groups of a doe and her suckling fawn. Two bronze statuettes and a pair of bronze amphora handles assure the identity of the amber animal. The bronze of a standing fawn on a rectangular base in the Harvard collections has a similarly paddle-shaped head and nubs of ears set far back on the head. A standing fawn in the Menil Collection, Houston, which has a shorter, blunter head and huge ears and a dappled coat suggested by tiny concentric marks, is another schematic representation. More naturalistic are the early-fifth-century pairs of fawns (deer?) of two nearly identical Etruscan (Vulcian?) bronze amphora handles, one in Boston and the other in a private collection. On each handle, at the base, squats a syrinx-playing satyr. The connection of a satyr playing panpipes and sleeping fawns may be relevant for the amber roundel.
The subject of an animated fawn in amber, especially if it were an ornament, calls to mind the most famous brooch of ancient literature, a daidalon, the cunningly fashioned gold pin worn by the disguised Odysseus:
Godlike Odysseus wore a purple cloak of wool, double thick; but on it was fashioned a pin of gold with double clasps, with a daidalon in front: a hound was holding in its forepaws a dappled fawn, preying on it while it struggled. All were marveling at it how though they were [of] gold, the one preyed on the fawn throttling it, but the other struggled with its feet as it tried to flee. (Odyssey 19.225–31)
Because 82.AO.161.2 may have been an ornament, a rare image of a figure wearing a fawn pendant should be recalled: this is the fawn’s head worn by the bronze youth in the Guglielmi Collection of the Vatican.
The only other amber fawn known to me is in the center of a large pendant in London (British Museum 35), a representation of Bacchic revelers. From between the two dancers, leaps up a fawn, a scene from the Dionysian thiasos. The fawns and satyr of the Etruscan bronze amphora handles link the vessel, wine, and Dionysos. The fawn of 82.AO.161.2 may have been intended to refer to a nature divinity other than Dionysos. In the Geometric period in Greece, deer (and fawns) are associated with the Olympians Hera, Athena, and Apollo. In Archaic and Classical Greece, deer and fawns are most commonly associated with the children of Leto, although they are important in depictions of Dionysos and Herakles and hunting generally. There appears to have been a special association of deer with weddings and cultic activity in Attica. Fawns are held in the arms of many Archaic terracotta images of Artemis or her votaries, and images of fawns are found in sanctuaries of Artemis.
Not only did young girls imitate she-bears for Artemis at the Attic site of Brauron, in Thessaly, girls performed a ritual in which they played the part of fawns. Both rituals were considered preparatory for pregnancy and childbirth. By the end of the sixth century B.C., the fawn is pictured on Attic vases as a love gift between older and younger men, a custom that introduces Aphrodite into the picture.
Whether lid or pendant, dog or deer, the ultimate use of 82.AO.161.2 was funerary. The animated creature embodied in the amber tondo, eternally circling in a whirling composition, a design without beginning or end, might signify the cycle of life. Here, the idea of regeneration would be perfectly synthesized in material, subject, and form.