Archaeology Magazine Archive

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from the trenches
Cult Chair Volume 61 Number 2, March/April 2008
by Jarrett A. Lobell

[image] An Augustan-era fresco, left, in Rome depicts a chair with details similar to one recently found in Herculaneum, right. (Courtesy Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompei) [image]

Archaeologists have unearthed a wealth of information on the ancient villas of the Bay of Naples, but they know almost nothing about the furniture that filled the sumptuously decorated homes. Most pieces were destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Now excavators working in Herculaneum, near the famous Villa of the Papyri, have uncovered parts of a remarkable chair.

Made of wood and ivory, the chair is the first of its type ever found. Although fragmentary, its decorations depict scenes of the cult of Attis, a Near Eastern deity who was driven mad by the goddess Cybele and castrated himself, only to be reborn as a pine tree. On the chair are scenes of a pine tree with offerings at its base, Dionysos leaning on a pine, and a satyr with a pine, as well as cupids playing cymbals. The images allude to the celebration of the death and rebirth of Attis, who was introduced to the Romans under the reign of the emperor Claudius (r. A.D. 41-54).

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America