A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Over the years the Onassis Cultural Center in New York has hosted several important exhibitions, from Cypriot and Cycladic antiquities to post-Byzantine artworks. Now, through April 16, it is the sole North American venue for Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism, which seeks to provide the historical and cultural context of Alexander the Great as established from archaeology rather than the second-hand, or further removed, account of his ancient biographers.
Using many objects that have never been shown before, Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism explores a number of specific subjects such as Alexander in portraiture, coins and rulers, weapons and the military, and aspects of Macedonian society such as symposia and the place of women. Its curator--Dimitris Pandermalis of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and excavator of Dion--maintained in a December press conference that the exhibition was not a response to Oliver Stone's cinematic interpretation of Alexander. It was, he said, a way to bring to the public the many discoveries made since the landmark In Search of Alexander exhibition toured the U.S. some 25 years ago.
Among the most eye-catching of the artifacts are three representations of Alexander--a mid-fourth-century B.C. portrait found on the Athenian Acropolis, a third-century portrait from Pella, and a first-century bronze figurine of him on horseback that was discovered in Herculaneum. How Macedonian rulers used depictions of themselves is evident in the selection of coins in the exhibition. These include money issued by Alexander's predecessors, coins minted during his reign (ones showing Indian elephants are of note), and those made after his death (initially the successors continuing to use Alexander's portrait and only later their own). There is also a stunning series of large gold medallions featuring Philip, Olympias, and Alexander, which were made during a mid-third-century A.D. revival of interest in Alexander. One of these shows the Roman emperor Caracalla, who claimed he was a reincarnation of Alexander.
Any discussion of Alexander's achievements involves the Macedonian military machine. A variety of weapons (swords, spear points, arrowheads, and lead sling bullets) and gear (shield fragments and armor) are all included here. But what is most impressive is a sarissa, the 18-foot-long spear used by the Macedonian infantry. Here it is cleverly re-created, with the iron point and other fittings being mounted on a plexiglas shaft that extends through two display cases. Alexander's battlefield prowess was matched by his efforts in symposia, social gatherings that combined drinking and discussion. Metal and fine pottery drinking equipment such as pitchers and cups, along with decorative furniture attachments give an idea of the luxury and display of wealth the symposia entailed. One late fourth-century silver cup from Aigai is said to be from a "not particularly wealthy burial" according to the catalogue, but at its bottom, where it would be exposed as the wine was consumed, is an image of a youthful Dionysos with gilt hair and an ivy leaf crown. Not bad for second class.
Perfume vessels and a variety of jewelry--necklaces, earrings (a wonderful pair of lion-griffins excavated at Pydna), bracelets, rings, dress pins--are among the artifacts in the exhibition that relate to women. What appealed to me more, however, were a number of fourth- to second-century terra-cotta figurines of women and goddesses. Found in tombs and sanctuaries at Pella, they show the costumes worn by Macedonian women. One of the highlights of Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism is the gold appliques and jewelry from the burial of "The Lady of Aigai." This tomb, excavated in 1998 by Angeliki Kottaridi, dates to about 500 B.C. and it's occupant was likely the wife of the Macedonian king Amyntas I. The Lady of Aigai, in her early 30s when she died, was interred with a wealth of vessels of bronze and precious metals. But her funeral garb (chiton and peplos) must have been magnificent with its gold embellishment complemented by gold dress pins (nearly 12 inches long) and brooches, gold necklace, and gold headdress. Women in the Macedonian royal family were very powerful, something reflected, no doubt, in their wardrobe. The Lady of Agai's finery, displayed as it would have been worn, makes seeing this exhibition worthwhile on its own.
Not all could be buried with such wealth, though two gold wreaths of flowering myrtle in the exhibition show some attempt at a display of it. More poignant are two individual gold leaves from late fourth-century burials at Pella inscribed with the names of the deceased, Philoxena and Hegesiska.
Mark Rose is executive and online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.
Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism can be viewed 10:00 to 6:00, Monday-Saturday, at the Onassis Cultural Center at 645 Fifth Avenue, between 51st & 52nd Streets. Click here for more information about the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation and the Onassis Foundation (USA).