As you can imagine, it's tough to choose favourites from over 170 exquisite pieces, which vary so greatly in terms of their size and material - from huge statues of victorious athletes, standing to around two metres tall, to much smaller coins, arrowheads, and pieces of jewellery. It can sometimes be easy to overlook some of the smaller pieces in an exhibition of this scale. So I'm going to begin these profiles by focusing on one of the smallest objects in the exhibition to encourage you to seek it out during your visit. It's worth it!
As Ancient Greeks explores the material culture of competition throughout the ancient Mediterranean, you will see more representations of Nike, the personification of Victory, than any other god or goddess in this exhibition - and this is one of them.
Carved from a light blue chalcedony, this gemstone bears the signature of its talented maker, Onatas. It measures just over 3cm in height and 2.5cm in width, roughly the size of a large olive. Despite the small surface available for carving, the scene is rendered with extraordinary detail. We see the goddess Nike setting up a trophy of arms taken from an enemy defeated in battle. The trophy consists of armour including a leg guard, a cuirass (chest shield), and a plumed helmet; the pile of weapons includes shields, a double-tipped spear, and a sword; and fluttering regalia of flags and banners flies proudly above. Nike is carefully arranging this pile of arms into a dedicatory offering to Zeus, the king of the gods, after a battle.
In antiquity, carved gemstones were treasured objects. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the most prized possession of Polykrates the King of Samos (535-522 BCE) was a golden seal ring bearing a carved emerald (The Histories 3.41). As stamping devices, seal rings provided proof of legitimacy and were used to seal confidential documents and secure containers holding valuable items in wax or clay. But they were also status symbols signifying the wealth and power of the wearer.
Carved gemstones could also be talismanic, a kind of lucky charm. The image of the goddess with her trophy of captured arms on this gemstone, originally mounted on a ring, may have been intended to imbue the wearer with strength and courage and bestow success and prosperity upon them. I can only dream of wearing such a glamorous and auspicious jewel!
When you see the gemstone in person, you will notice that it is much easier to discern the detail of the Nike scene via the high-resolution photograph accompanying this profile than it is by observing the object. This tells me that the wearer would have needed to explain the scene and its significance to anyone who admired it, which fits within our understanding of ancient Greece as having a rich oral tradition. Such objects provided inspiration for storytelling and encouraged dialogues about the world of ancient Greece and its mythology.
Ancient treasures like these had rich afterlives. Collections of carved gemstones remained surprisingly intact through the tumultuous post-Antique periods, maintained within royal and church collections. And they continued to inspire contemporary revivalist trends across Europe, particularly during the Renaissance and the 18th century. This gemstone found its way to the collections of the charismatic Alessandro Castellani, who came from a family of famous jewellers, being celebrated designers of the "Archaeological style", which sought to imitate jewellery styles from the ancient Mediterranean. Castellani was an extremely well-connected antiquities dealer, with a famous museum, gallery and restoration studio in Rome, who sold this gemstone to the British Museum as part of a large sale of material in 1865.
- You can find this exquisite carving of Nike in Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes, on display at the National Museum of Australia until May.