Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Mysterious Roman Vase

Back in April of 2009, I blogged about the Riddle of the Portland Vase: who are the figures depicted on it?

Yesterday Bonhams, the London-based antiquities dealers, announced they have another Roman cameo vase on loan from a mysterious owner. You can read about it HERE. This is very exciting news to all Roman historians, archaeologists and glass experts. If the vase is genuine, and not a clever fake, it could rival or even surpass the Portland Vase in fame. This vase is so 'new' that experts aren't even sure what to call it. I will call it the Bonhams Newby Vase**.

So far the pictures of it are so small that it is hard to see any detail, but it is possible to get a rough idea of what is happening.

On one side is an heroically nude beardless youth trying to calm a horse bull (see comments below). Beneath the horse bull a woman rises up out of the ground: maybe a personification of a river? On the hero's left is a woman with lots of babies or Cupids. There are more figures to her left, including a struggling pair?

On the other side of the vase is a bearded man on a throne holding what might be a trident: Neptune? He is turning his head to look at a man in a tunic on his right. The man is turned away. A woman is clinging to the man's leg as if asking for mercy. To the right of the seated god are three other figures, one of whom seems to be dancing, like a maenad. In front of her a boy may be clapping his hands.

Underneath the two main scenes is a battle between figures on horseback and foot soldiers. We might expect Greeks v. Amazons or Centaurs v. Heroes but the battle depicted on the vase is not either of these.

Experts will be poring over this vase during the next few weeks, trying to determine whether it is real. One of the tests they might perform is on the chemical content of the glass, which will contain amounts of lead. If the lead content of the white glass on the vase matches the percentage of lead content of the Portland Vase then it is almost certainly genuine.*

Despite the handicap of not being able to examine the vase in close detail, my detectrix Flavia Gemina might try to determine whether it was real or not by making a list of clues.

Clues that the Bonhams Newby Vase might be real.

1. The owner does not want to sell at the moment and if it was a fake, the main motive would be getting rich by selling it.
2. Though bigger, the Bonhams Newby Vase is similar in shape to the Portland Vase.
3. The figures on the vase are just as mysterious as those on the Portland Vase, a forger might go for a well-known scene.
4. The hair and drapery of the figures is so close to those on the Portland Vase that they might be from the same workshop.
5. The handles are almost identical to those on the Portland Vase.

Clues that it might be a fake.

1. Perhaps the shape and style is too similar to the Portland Vase!
2. At first glance, it seems coarser than the Portland Vase, but it might just need a good clean.
3. The scenes are much more crowded and not as 'artistically' composed.

On balance, Flavia would conclude that the Bonhams Newby Vase is genuine. (Or by a very skilled and diabolically clever forger!)

Want to know more about Roman cameo glass? A new book called Roman Cameo Glass in the British Museum will be out in March. It is written by a team of experts: Paul Roberts, William Gudenrath, Veronica Tatton-Brown and David Whitehouse.
*P.S. My friend Mark Taylor, a Roman glass expert, says this:
The white glass will have lead in it, but it will not necessarily be similar in amount to that of the Portland Vase, though it would be nice if it was. Glass batches in the ancient world, although all based on a soda-lime composition, were different for virtually every potfull that was melted - due to the impurities in the raw materials and to the recycled glass that was added to the melt. They were also dependent on the required colour. If the compositions are very similar, then it is possible that the blanks were made within a day or so of each other.

**P.P.S. I have since decided that The Newby Vase is a better name than the Bonhams Vase. Martine Newby of the Ashmolean Museum is the clever scholar who first realised the worth of this big Roman cameo vase.

[The 17 books in the Roman Mysteries series are perfect for children aged 9+, especially those studying Romans as a topic in Key Stage 2. A new series set in Roman Britain follows characters from the Roman Mysteries a dozen years later...]


  1. Anonymous9:06 PM

    Just a few comments: it is a bull not a horse and on the other side the scene is Dionysiac, possibly even the marriage of Dionysus and Aridane after she was adbandoned, certainly several figures are holding thrysoi, the meanads have fruiting ivy wreaths in their hair, a putto is holding a liknon etc..

    The shape is like the Portland Vase and we have always known that the Portland Vase should have had a second frieze. The base of this vase is like the Auldjo Jug, also in the British Museum.

    The quality of the engraving is superb and also has parallels among the other fragments known. The handles are similar but there is no relief lozenge at the upper handle attachments. There are 25 figures in the upper scene and 16 in the battle scene below, but all the figures look male, including the dead ones. There is a possibility of there being Amazona in the upper frieze.

    Don't worry its not a fake but almost certainly by the same hand as the Portland Vase.

  2. Thanks for those comments. I'm glad you agree that Flavia's deduction is right! I can't wait to see close-ups of the figures and read Martine Newby's analysis!

  3. Anonymous10:53 PM

    This is a fantastic blog! Glad I found it. I'm writing a fantasy novel drawing a bit on certain things from Roman culture. Your post on the outdoor toilet and the sponge were perfect details for me. Appreciate the picture too. Thank you, d:)

  4. This is an amazing blog, I really wish I was a teenager again, apart from the spots and embarrassment you know what I mean. I have a quick question which brought me here a little bit nerdy and then I'll return to cheerlead. I was looking up tene me ne fugiam and it's variants sent me here but can't find the quotation, thinking of having it put on a wedding ring, once I've have worked out the wording just have to find a willing bride. My question is where did you find the text. I came across a fragment from a slave collar and the commentary argued it was a progressive slave rights thing. You weren't allowed to harm or damage the slave you had to hold them for safe return to their master. Tene me should be followed by a subjunctive. So sometimes it's seen as tene me ne fugiam (or is it fugiem present subunctive) then other variants are explained by poor commissions from wandering scribes like me who weren't that certain of grammar, then of course elaboration flee in flight. Then later it becomes some kind of mystical love will conquer death thing Orpheus thing. Anyway if you had anything on that great otherwise I'll just keep an eye on this blog. It's that mixture of famous five and the Da Vinci code, if you had gone with channel 4 the americans would have picked it up and you'd be as rich as that harry potter woman.

    On the crowded composition. Did you know (bad start but one has to start somehow) that one of the easiest ways to tell the difference between Pompeian 1st style and Pompeian 4th style is that 1st style is fairly crowded whereas 4th style is more open spaced. One theory might just be mine mind, is that as the city was new the art was quite busy for the nouveau riche, buying paintings by size or to fit in with the colour scheme, and then later on the patrons became more sophisticated and wanted in their mosaics to recapture the sense of space even if the city was becoming overcrowded and in line for a demolition. You should teach and inspire in schools except this stuff is wasted on kids. I'll be back.

    Oh I can speak with such conviction on Pompeian art styles mainly because I have absolutely no idea what I am talking about. Catcha later and often I hope.