The face of Caesar and Cleopatra’s son?

This statue head in the Petrie Museum in London might well represent Caesarion, the son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. He was born in 47 BC, and later appears as co-ruler of Egypt with Cleopatra. His official name was Ptolemy XV, but he was often referred to in Egypt as ‘Caesar’, using the Greek pronunciation ‘Kaisaros’, as in this hieroglyph cartouche (an oval frame that indicated a royal name) on a stele which is also in the Petrie Museum.

Caesarion stele - Copy

After the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Mark Antony supported Caesarion’s claim to be Caesar’s successor. Following the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, and their suicides in Egypt in the following year, Caesarion tried to escape to India. He was captured and executed by Octavian, who went on to become the first Emperor of Rome under the name Augustus, and Caesarion was never officially recognised as Caesar’s son.

There are still a few places left at our free workshops in the Petrie Museum on 18 and 25 April, where you can create new memories by drawing, photographing, and writing about ancient objects like these, helped by our experts. Let us know if you would like to join us: rememberingromans@gmail.com

The earliest Zodiac in Britain

This sculpture from the Mithraeum at Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall shows the god Mithras being born from an egg. His body rises from the lower part of the shell, and the upper part is still on his head.

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Mithras is usually shown being born from a rock, but the most exciting thing about this third-century sculpture is that the god is surrounded by an egg-shaped frame with the signs of the Zodiac on it. This is the earliest surviving depiction in Britain of the twelve signs of the Zodiac as we know them today.

The egg was a symbol of eternity, and the Zodiac was normally associated with Aion, the god of endless time. These cosmic symbols show that, on this section of Hadrian’s Wall, Mithras was worshipped as the eternal ‘Lord of Ages’, the perpetual creator of all things.

Come and see this sculpture at our free workshops in the Great North Museum in Newcastle on 9 or 10 May, and create new timeless memories by drawing, photographing and writing about ancient objects and what they mean to you. For more info or to let us know which date you would like to come: rememberingromans@gmail.com

An Eastern Sun-god on Hadrian’s Wall

The ancient god Mithras was popular with Roman soldiers and minor officials. His cult probably developed from Zoroastrianism, in the area that is now Iran. There is a lot of evidence for his worship along the western Roman frontier, from Hadrian’s Wall to the Danube. Worshippers had to be initiated into (exclusively male) groups, who met in a distinctive type of building called a ‘cave’, which we now describe as a ‘Mithraeum’.

Mithras was often identified as ‘the invincible sun-god’. The altar on the left of the picture is from a Mithraeum (a temple to Mithras) on Hadrian’s Wall and shows him in this guise. The altar has a niche cut into its back, so that the light from a lamp could have shone through the openings cut around the god’s head, giving the impression of the sun’s rays in the gloom of the Mithraeum.

gnm mithras altars

If you come to our free workshops at the Great North Museum on 9 or 10 May, you can see this altar and handle the examples on the right of the picture. One is a small altar to Mithras from a Roman fort by Dere Street, and the other is a fragment of a relief from Vindolanda showing the sun-god’s face and the rays around his head. Why might people have worshipped the sun in ancient Northumberland? Come and be inspired by these objects to draw, photograph, or write down your thoughts, helped by our experts. Just let us know which date suits you best: rememberingromans@gmail.com

Meet someone new at the Petrie Museum

There are still a few places left at our free workshops on 18 and 25 April at the Petrie Museum in London. Come and meet some ancient objects and create new memories by drawing, photographing, or writing about them, helped by our experts. We’ll provide all the materials and refreshments.

We’ll have several ancient objects that you can examine up close, and even handle, but you’ll also be able to look round the whole of the Petrie Museum, the UK’s largest collection of objects from ancient Egypt. The museum will be closed to the public, so we’ll have it all to ourselves.

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Perhaps you’ll be inspired by an object like this rather mysterious terracotta head. It depicts someone with short, dark hair and a beard that is neatly trimmed under the chin. It was found in Memphis in Egypt, but it looks more like the way that ancient Egyptians represented people from the Middle East rather than the Nile valley. Was it a portrait of a foreign merchant who had come to live in Egypt? What memories would it have evoked in people who saw it? Let us know if you can join us in exploring these ideas on 18 or 25 April.

Memories of Palmyra

GNM Palmyrene busts

These portrait busts from ancient Palmyra are in the Great North Museum in Newcastle.  We are holding free workshops there on 9 and 10 May, when you can come and meet objects like these and create new memories using photography, drawing and writing, helped by our experts. Come on the day or email us in advance, if you would like to join in: rememberingromans@gmail.com

These reliefs were made to seal burial chambers in tombs outside the important and wealthy trading city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The way the individuals are depicted blends Greek, Roman and local artistic traditions. They weren’t really ‘portraits’ in the modern sense, but conventional representations of how people wanted to be remembered. The inscriptions in the local language would have enabled people to identify them.

The woman on the left is Malakt. She is shown wearing local clothing and jewellery, and was buried some time between about AD 150 and 200. The man on the right is Wahballat. He is wearing a Greek cloak and holding writing material in his left hand. The depiction of a curtain behind him suggests that his bust was carved earlier in the second century. The frontal style of the reliefs looks normal now, but was unusual at the time. It appears in eastern Syria and Mesopotamia in the first century AD, and may have spread from there throughout the Roman empire. It had become a normal feature of Roman art by the fourth century, and continued to be used into the early Middle Ages.

How would you photograph an object?

When I look at an ancient pot, I see an archaeological artefact and I photograph it like this, so that I can see its design and decoration, which help me determine when and where it was made.

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When Rory Carnegie, the professional photographer on our project, looks at the same pot, he sees a work of art and photographs it like this, because looking at it differently can sometimes bring out how beautiful an object is.

GNM jug

How would you photograph it? Come and meet Rory at our workshops in London on 18 or 25 April, or in Newcastle on 9 or 10 May, and have a go at creating new perspectives of old objects – we’ll provide the camera and print the results for you. Come on the day or let us know which workshop suits you best: rememberingromans@gmail.com

Face to face with Mummy Portraits

Both the Petrie and the Great North Museum have examples of ancient mummy portraits. The woman on the left is from the Petrie collection in London and the man on the right is in the Great North Museum in Newcastle.

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These portraits are a fascinating example of the blending of ancient cultures in Egypt under the Roman empire. They were made for a community who probably regarded themselves as descendants of Greek settlers. From the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD they buried their dead with highly realistic portraits painted on wood of people wearing Greek or Roman clothing and jewellery, but which were set into mummy bandages or coffins that followed age-old Egyptian burial traditions.

The portraits must have been painted specifically to commemorate individuals who had died. But did they represent them as they really were, or as they wanted to be remembered? The faces appeal to our modern sense of photorealism, but were they originally intended more to evoke memories of class, gender, profession, or cultural background? If you come to our free workshops on 18 or 25 April in London or on 9 or 10 May in Newcastle, you can come face to face with mummy portraits and explore what memories they hold.