Runestone erected by Christian Vikings added to UNESCO list

runestone
A Viking runestone bearing a cross and the first written mention of Norway found in the country has been added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World program. This program aims to protect important documents that contribute to our global heritage. The runestone, called the Kuli Stone, is the oldest document on Norway’s list.

It’s important for its early mention of the country’s name and also because of its Christian significance. Not all of the runes are clear and part of the inscription broke off in antiquity. The most accepted translation of the remaining text reads, “Þórir and Hallvarðr raised this stone in memory of Ulfljótr(?). . .Christianity had been twelve winters in Norway. . .”

Just what date that refers to is unclear. King Olaf Tryggvason tried to force the Norwegian Vikings to convert to Christianity in 995, leading many pagans to become martyrs for their faith. Nevertheless, a couple of generations later the Thing (Viking parliament) decided to convert the entire country in the year 1022 or 1024.

For many centuries the Kuli Stone was at the original site on the island of Kuløy off Norway’s northwestern coast. It’s now in the NTNU Museum of Natural History and Archaeology in Trondheim and a replica stands at the site. Viking runestones, both pagan and Christian, can be found in many places. Three of the best collections are at the British Museum (London), the National Museum of Denmark (Copenhagen), and Uppsala (Sweden).

Photo courtesy Kjell Jøran Hansen.

Sexy goddess bares all in Boston

sexy
The ancient goddess of love, sex, and beauty is making an appearance at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is a new exhibition examining one of the most popular ancient goddesses and her place in the Classical world. More than 150 ancient works of art are on display, including famous pieces such as the Knidia, a life-size sculpture of Aphrodite made by the 4th-century BC Greek artist, Praxiteles. Another interesting piece is the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a reclining figure who from one side looks like a voluptuous woman, and from the other like a man.

The exhibition traces Aphrodite’s sexy origins in the Near East and the place of her cult in Greek and Roman society. Aphrodite was a Greek goddess who was adopted into the Roman pantheon as Venus. She was the symbol of romantic love and ideal beauty. She also oversaw marriage, an odd choice since many of the myths surrounding her involve her cheating on her husband, the blacksmith god Hephaistos (Vulcan). Men worshiped her because she aroused male virility.

Being in charge of such important aspects of life made Aphrodite extremely popular. She was the patron goddess of Pompeii. Interestingly, Ramsay MacMullen in his Paganism in the Roman Empire points out that altars in private homes in Pompeii were more often dedicated to Foruna, Vesta, and Bacchus than Aphrodite. Perhaps because love received so much public worship, people felt they needed to give good luck, the home, and drinking some attention. They can be related, after all!

McMullen’s book (which I highly recommend) also touches on various ways the Romans worshipped Venus, including picnicking in the orchards around her sanctuary in Cnidus, and wild processions where a woman playing Venus led a string of dancing children playing Cupid. She and the other deities were very much part of daily life.

The exhibition also looks at related figures of Classical mythology, such as Aphrodite’s sons Eros (Cupid), the well-endowed Priapus, and Hermaphrodite.

If you want to meet this lovely lady and her interesting offspring, you better hurry. Aphrodite and the Gods of Love is only on until February 20, 2012.

Top photo: Fresco of The Judgment of Paris, Roman, Imperial Period, 45–79 A.D. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. © www.pedicinimages.com. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Early Christian art on display at the Onassis Cultural Center, NYC

early Christian art, David plate
It’s often called the Dark Ages, a time when barbarian hordes overran Rome and that great civilization’s art, culture, and learning disappeared. A time when there were no great achievements.

It’s a misnomer.

Rome did not fall in the fifth century with the usurpation of the last emperor in Rome in 476. To the east, at the new capital of Constantinople, modern Istanbul, the Eastern Roman Empire was starting a new renaissance in art and administration that would become known as Byzantium.

An exhibition in New York City’s Onassis Cultural Center explores the place of early Christianity in these often misunderstood years. Transition to Christianity: Art of Late Antiquity, 3rd to 7th Century AD opened yesterday and runs until May 14, 2012.

The exhibition brings together more than 170 objects from collections in Greece, Cyprus, and the US. There are a wide range of objects including mosaics, paintings, sculptures, architectural elements, inscriptions, coins, liturgical objects, jewelry, and domestic items. The timeline spans the last years of paganism and the rise of Christianity as a tolerated and eventually the official religion.

Early Christian art took on many of the forms and styles of earlier Roman art, as you can see from this 7th century silver plate, shown here in a Wikimedia Commons image. This is one of the nine so-called David Plates, commissioned by the Emperor Heraklios (ruled 610-641), whose victory over the Persians was compared to David’s defeat of Goliath. In this plate David is being presented to Saul (1 Samuel 17:32–34). The figures are dressed like Roman aristocracy.

The exhibition looks at many facets of late Antiquity including the interaction of paganism and Christianity, daily life, the importance of cities, and funerary art.

Of course the “barbarians” had art of their own. While that’s beyond the scope of this exhibition, many museums have collections of the Germanic tribes’ unique styles of jewelry, glasswork, and carving. The British Museum has an especially good collection.

Archaeologists blog as they excavate Nea Paphos World Heritage site

archaeologists, Nea Paphos
Archaeologists excavating at the ancient city of Nea Paphos in Cyprus have written about their work and discoveries in a blog.

A University of Sydney team has been working to uncover medieval walls built atop a Classical theater and investigating a public fountain dating to the first century AD, the Cyprus Mail reports.

Nea Paphos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was founded around 300 BC, and the theater was built around the same time. It served as the capital of Cyprus during the Hellenistic and Roman periods and was an important spot in Byzantine times, when a castle was built nearby. Legend has it that Aphrodite emerged from the sea at the nearby beach. I’ve been to that beach and it’s so beautiful I’m not surprised the legend arose there. Aphrodite probably started as a Phoenician fertility goddess long before the Greeks and Romans arrived, and continued as the cult of Aphrodite until 391 AD when the Roman Emperor Theodosius banned all pagan religions.

The team has wrapped up its work for the season but they and their blog will return in 2012. I’m glad to see archaeologists reaching out to the public this way and I hope more follow the University of Sydney’s example. There’s a lot of popular misconception about how archaeologists do their work and blogs like theirs help remedy that.

Photo of the Odeon of Nea Paphos from second century AD courtesy user einalem via flickr.

Smartphone app reveals new mysteries in Stonehenge landscape

Stonehenge
Recent excavations around Stonehenge have shown that the famous monument didn’t stand alone in the landscape; it was part of a network of monuments that developed over time.

One of the most enigmatic is Bluestonehenge, a mile away from Stonehenge and only excavated a few years ago. It was a stone circle much like Stonehenge, although now all that remains are the holes where the stones were placed around 3000 BC. Fragments of rock in the holes show the stones were originally bluestones, imported from Wales and also used for the inner circle of Stonehenge. In fact, some archaeologists believe they were removed from Bluestonehenge and incorporated into Stonehenge around 2500 BC.

Now a new analysis using a smartphone app (of all things!) indicates that Bluestonehenge might have originally been an oval. Past Horizons reports that archaeologist Henry Rothwell was working on a smartphone app about the Stonehenge landscape when he noticed something strange about the known holes of Bluestonehenge and those that hadn’t yet been uncovered. When he made a reconstruction of the site using the existing holes, they didn’t form a neat circle, but rather an oval.

In fact this oval is the same orientation and shape as Stonehenge and another site in the area–Woodhenge. Both Stonehenge and Woodhenge are aligned on the mid-summer and mid-winter solstices, and if Rothwell’s reconstruction is correct, then Bluestonehenge is as well. This makes a whole network of monumental sites stretching across centuries of history, all aligned to work as prehistoric calendars.

[Photo courtesy Steve Walker]