The ARHEOMEDIA project: iconography and epigraphy of ancient stone monuments in Romania

Cristina-Georgeta Alexandrescu

Figure 1
Figure 1. Map of the area of the Roman provinces of Dacia and Moesia (from A. Nacu, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Roman_Dacia_1.1.svg#filelinks)
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Introduction

Until recently, the area of the former Roman provinces of Dacia and Moesia inferior in Romania and northern Bulgaria, as well as the Greek colonies, Roman cities and their hinterland on the shores of the Black Sea (Figure 1), have been studied within quite narrow parameters, with a strong emphasis on Romanisation and continuity. Such studies lacked comparisons with other provinces and did not consider information available for stone monuments in full, such as the type of monument, inscription or archaeological context. Within the current three-year ARHEOMEDIA project, ancient stone monuments bearing images (different kinds of funerary monuments, cult and votive sculpture and architectural decoration) are being investigated using a more synthetic and comparative methodology.

Objectives

The project focuses on iconography and, as far as possible, the reconstruction of the original context of production, 'message' and elements of display (beneficiaries, artists, workshops and the ancient 'public') exhibited by the stone monuments. It examines the possible influences on craftsmanship and iconography, the importation of monuments, materials or artists, and the relationship between written and visual media in the ancient communities considered. The presence in the region of colonists from all over the Roman empire, attested by the written sources, can also be traced in the sculpture, as shown by the iconography or the details depicted.

Examples of external influences include the inscription on the Mithraic relief found at the cave of 'La Adam', Constanta County in Romania, which mentions the dedicant, a senior tax official, and the artist, Phoibos of Nicomedia in Asia Minor (Figure 2). A small series of similar votive reliefs from the region were either made or influenced by foreign artists and their works. At the Late Roman fortress of Halmyris, the re-used fragmentary gravestone of a lady (Figure 3) presents dress details specific to the Norico-Pannonian area of the empire. A few similar examples are known from Dacia; they are taken to represent the visual expression of the origin of the population of the province. The overall shape of the funerary monuments shows this Norico-Pannonian influence more generally.


Figure 2
Figure 2. Mithras-relief from 'La Adam', Constanta County, Romania. Dimensions: 47.5 x 56 x 13cm (Museum of National History and Archaeology Constanta, arheomedia-db/ID5044).
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Figure 3
Figure 3. Fragmentary gravestone from Halmyris, Romania. Dimensions: 72 x 124 x 20cm (Museum of History Tulcea, arheomedia-db/ID5017_1).
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If we turn to iconography and inscriptions, the mixture of cultures and traditions brought by the colonists and soldiers, known to have come ex toto orbe Romano, results in the hybrid iconography and the variety of types of monuments that can be seen in Dacia and Moesia inferior. Epigraphic studies document the various provenances of the provincial population, while Dacian soldiers were relocated to Britain, Germania and Numidia. The situation in Moesia inferior is different, following the tradition of Greek colonies on the shores of the Black Sea but incorporating Roman input. Such blending of many traditions and regional elements is an aspect of Roman provincial art that has yet to be fully explored.

Preliminary results

Three case studies in our project concentrate on the use of colour on ancient cult and votive monuments, on architectural decoration and on funerary monuments. The systematic study of colouring practices in antiquity, mentioned in the literature as early as the eighteenth century, is relatively young, especially as it requires pluri-disciplinary investigations.


Figure 4
Figure 4. Detail of the gravestone of Flavia Titia from Halmyris with remains of colour. Width: 90cm (Museum of History Tulcea, arheomedia-db/ID5013_1).
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Figure 5
Figure 5. Close-up of the gravestone of Flavia Titia from Halmyris with remains of colour (Museum of History Tulcea, arheomedia-db/ID5013_3).
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Among the large-scale, 2–3m high stelae from Halmyris, Tulcea County (Zahariade & Alexandrescu 2011), traces of colour are still preserved, the most visible being the iron-based red and yellow pigments (Figures 4 & 5) investigated through macro photography, optic microscopy, X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF), scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and energy dispersive X-ray analysis (EDX). Colour can also be seen on a further significant category in the region, the funerary lions. An example from Benic, Alba County (Figure 6), in the territory of the Roman colony Apulum, shows blue colour (Figure 7) marking the eyes of the lion.


Figure 6
Figure 6. Funerary lion from Benic, Alba County, Romania. Dimensions: 108 x 105 x 30cm (Museum of History Sebes, arheomedia-db/ID5075_1).
Click to enlarge.
Figure 7
Figure 7. Funerary lion from Benic, Alba County, Romania. Left: detail of the face. Right: blue colour on the left eye (Museum of History Sebes, arheomedia-db/ID5075_4).
Click to enlarge.

Ancient cult statues from the area of the Pontus Euxinus, and their depictions on coins minted by the cities in the Greek and Roman periods are the object of a further study; it examines whether cult statues were realistically depicted or whether they used a representative but standardised motif. One of the most valuable examples for this type of enquiry is a statuary group depicting Fortuna and Pontus (Figure 8) which forms part of the famous 'Tomis Sculpture Treasure' (a temple inventory hidden for protection in Late Antiquity). This very group is to be seen on several coins of Tomis (Figure 9).


Figure 8
Figure 8. Fortuna and Pontos, statuary group from Tomis/Constanta, Romania. Height: 155cm (Museum of National History and Archaeology Constanta, arheomedia-db/ID5057_1).
Click to enlarge.
Figure 9
Figure 9. Tomitan coin of Philipus II (AD 244–247) showing the cult statue of Fortuna with Pontos (Moushmov 1912: type 2334, pl. V/33), detail. Item in private collection, not to scale (cf. http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/bigpic.cgi?pic=coins/ric/philip_II/_tomis_AE27_Moushmov_2334 accessed 4 August 2010).
Click to enlarge.

Finally, the ancient monuments used as spolia in the Late Roman fortresses of Moesia/Scythia minor and the so-called 'hoards of sculpture' from the third century AD have been identified as a suitable topic for detailed investigation. Preliminary results show that the common view of the role played by the Christians in the destruction of pagan statuary is only partly confirmed by the available evidence.

Acknowledgements

Our thanks go to the National Council of Research in Higher Education of the Ministry of Education and Research in Romania for financially supporting this project. The elemental characterisation of the colour traces is due to the Laboratory of microphysical characterisation of the National Institute for R&D in Microtechnologies (IMT-Bucharest).

References

  • ARHEOMEDIA. Online database. Available at http://www.arheomedia.ro/monumente.php (accessed 29 March 2012).
  • MOUSHMOV, N. 1912. Ancient coins of the Balkan Peninsula and the coins of the Bulgarian monarchs. Sofia.
  • ZAHARIADE, M. & C.-G. ALEXANDRESCU. 2011. Halmyris II. Greek and Latin inscriptions, signa and instrumenta from Halmyris found between 1981 and 2010 (British Archaeological Reports international series 2261). Oxford: Archaeopress.

Author

  • Cristina-Georgeta Alexandrescu
    Archaeological Institute 'Vasile Pârvan', str. Henri Coanda nr. 11, RO-010667 Bucharest 1, Romania (Email: cgalexandrescu@gmail.com)