Friday, 19 August 2016

Storms, War and Shipwrecks: Treasures from the Sicilian Seas

The waters around Sicily have yielded a wealth of historical wonders, as the Ashmolean’s exhibition brilliantly reveals

Written by Sandra Smith
Sandra-Smith-colour-176The legacy of a succession of invasions of Sicily, the earliest of which predate the birth of Christ, is a society teeming with cultural influences and historical and artistic treasures. For centuries the island’s location at the heart of the Mediterranean made it a focal point for traders, travellers and rival civilisations. As a result its seas are dotted with archaeological sites, and in the Ashmolean’s summer exhibition Sicily’s past is chronicled via remarkable artefacts recovered by divers and local fishermen.

The exhibition opens with a section devoted to Honor Frost, who gave up a career as a balletset designer to pursue a passion for diving. Frost became a pioneer in the field of underwater archaeology, one of her greatest discoveries being a Carthaginian warship off Sicily’s coast.

Early Greek influence on the island is revealed through domestic objects such as bowls and cups. An amphora encrusted with red coral serves as a striking reminder of how long these items remained on the seabed, while life-sized photographs of divers at work – discovering the head of a fertility goddess and a stash of 3,000 bronze coins – further emphasise their deep-sea origins.

The Ashmolean’s collaboration with game developer Creative Assembly has resulted in a digital depiction of the Battle of the Egadi Islands, fought between the fleets of Rome and Carthage in 241 BC. Displayed alongside the screen are several rams from warships involved in the battle, one of which still has a piece of wood from an enemy ship embedded into it.

This area also features limestone portrait heads of North African stone possibly used as ballast, and storage vessels that contained wine, olive oil or garum, a fish sauce favoured by the Romans. A statue of a warrior demonstrates the preservative effects and perils of prolonged submersion. One half, having lain in sediment, is largely unspoiled, while exposure to the marine environment is responsible for pitting and wear on the other.

Concluding with the Byzantine Empire (535-827) reveals Christianity’s influence. A ‘flat-pack’ church interior, comprising a marble pulpit, columns and a choir screen, is complemented by a cabinet of church bronzeware. Sicily’s later golden age under Arab-Norman rule, a period of multiculturalism and religious tolerance, is similarly highlighted in this accessible exhibition.

Until 25 September at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beaumont Street, Oxford: 01865 278002, 

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