A selection of ancient Classical and Near Eastern artefacts belonging to the Iziko Museums of Cape Town (1) is currently on display at the Sasol Art Museum (a Stellenbosch University Museum) (2) as the remodelled exhibition, Containing Antiquity. The exhibition, though modest in size, features several important and interesting pieces, many of which are known to South African and international scholars. (3)
Containing Antiquity is the happy result of an extended agreement between Iziko, the Department of Ancient Studies at Stellenbosch University and Sasol Art Museum. Iziko owns a large collection of antiquities, many of which were purchased for the then South African Museum by the businessman and benefactor to the city, Capetonian Alfred Aaron de Pass (1861-1952). His noble intention was that the "public of Cape Town [benefit from seeing] original examples of the artistic achievement of ancient civilizations". (4) Originally housed in the Old Supreme Court Building of the South African Cultural History Museum, (5) Cape Town, the antiquities were on display until they were put into storage in 2003.
In 2004 fruitful negotiations between the Department of Ancient Studies, Iziko and Sasol Art Museum allowed several key pieces of the collection to see the light of day again. (6) The artefacts selected were given new life in an exhibition housed in the Sasol Art Museum from 2005 until 2007, the appropriately entitled Living Antiquity. Living Antiquity is now succeeded by the re-themed Containing Antiquity, which is a study of a selection of ancient vessels with a particular interest in shape. With this focus, the exhibition capitalises on one of the particular strengths of the Iziko collection: its broad representation of vessel shape, type and function. (7)
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The current exhibition
The provenance of the objects on display is Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel / Palestine, Etruscan Italy and the Roman world and they range in date from the 3rd millennium BC to the 3rd century AD. All artefacts were selected because they are containers of some kind, and functions cover a wide spectrum of human experience: from birth to death, both male and female, freeborn and slave. These pieces each contained or packaged substances essential to ancient daily life, whether ordinary domestic life, the good life, or death and the afterlife.
There is, for example, the Egyptian "Bes" vase,8 which may have been used to store milk for feeding babies. Other objects were used for the storage, mixing, pouring, carrying and serving of daily foodstuffs, such as olive oil, water and wine. Some particularly refined vessels would have featured as smart dinner tableware, such as the Etruscan bucchero ware, (9) the exquisite Egyptian lotus cup, (10) and the better Greek black-and red-figure pieces such as the showpiece Chicago Painter stamnos. (11) While the various wine-drinking cups and the larger Greek vases such as the stamnos and the column krater (12) would have mostly been used and contemplated by men at the Greek symposion (drinking / dinner party), other smaller pottery vessels are drawn from the life of women. Included here are vessels that would have contained personal items such as trinkets and jewellery (e.g. the pyxis), (13) or perfumed water (plemochoe). (14) Storage of oil for athletes (aryballos (15) and alabastron (16)) and the pouring of funerary or religious libations (lekythoi (17)) are other uses represented here. There is a small selection of Roman glass bowls and toilette bottles, and a few pottery lamps that would have regularly been topped up with oil, perhaps by a slave, using the guttus. (18) Finally there is the alabaster canopic jar (19) from Egypt that would have contained the intestines of the deceased removed during the mummification process.
Such a range of vessel provenance, period, decoration, shape and function make this collection an ideal window into various aspects of ancient life. …