BMCR 2002.05.14

Greek Gold from Hellenistic Egypt

, , , Greek gold from Hellenistic Egypt. Getty Museum studies on art. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001. xv, 74 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0892366338.

The jewelry that forms the subject of this little book seems to have made its first appearance as an after-dinner treat at the home of collectors Lawrence and Barbara Fleischman. Curator Marion True recalls in her preface: “As we seated ourselves in the library, Larry produced a small, brown paper bag. From the crumpled sack he lifted out one tissue-wrapped object after another and laid them on the table, then slowly he began to unwrap each piece…” True confesses to a severe attack of envy as she watched object after object emerge; if only she could have them for the Getty Museum! In 1993, when the owner decided to sell, her ardor had not cooled, and the Getty acquired a golden stephane, a hairnet, two bracelets and two armlets, three pairs of earrings, two rings, and assorted beads of gold and semi-precious stone. Michael Pfrommer presents them here in the Getty Museum Studies on Art series, “designed” (according to the jacket blurb) “to introduce individual works of art or small groups of related works to a broad public with an interest in the history of art.”

After a page and a half of introduction, the book is divided into seven sections. The first (“The Jewelry”) gives a streamlined description of the pieces, replacing the catalogue of a scholarly work. The second (“Alexander the Great: A New God in Egypt”) provides historical background, tracing Alexander’s conquest of Egypt and the establishment of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Each of the remaining chapters revolves around one type of artifact, which P attempts to situate within an ancient Alexandrian context and to weave into a history of Hellenistic Egypt.

P sketches the splendor of the ancient city in “Alexandria, a New City in an Old World.” He stresses that the ruling culture was essentially Greek or Macedonian and that explicitly Egyptian elements were few. This provides an introduction to the jewelry (which is wholly Greek in character) and leads into a discussion of the stephane and its iconography. P sees the Herakles knot, torches, and ivy that decorate the stephane as reflections of the Ptolemaic claim of descent from Herakles and Dionysos, and further suggests that the original owner of the jewelry was a priestess of one of the cults of the Ptolemaic queens.

He turns to the more elaborate of the three pairs of earrings in a short chapter entitled “The God of Love as King of Egypt.” (The other two pairs, of the common antelope-head type, are not discussed.) Each earring has a pendent Eros carrying a torch in his left hand; according to P they also carry flutes, but this is perhaps an error in translation, for they clearly hold phialai in their right hands (and are so described in the first chapter). He points out that if Aphrodite is the equivalent of Isis, then Eros is the equivalent of Horus, the god that the Egyptian pharaoh embodied; and he links the bull heads that appear atop the earrings with the cult of the Apis bull.

In “Powerful Queens: From Arsinoe II to Kleopatra VII” P turns to the two rings, each of them featuring an intaglio gem depicting a goddess: Tyche in one case, Artemis in the other. The double cornucopia of the former points to the Ptolemaic queens, especially Arsinoe II, for whom the symbol is said to have been invented, and P maintains that this a portrait of the queen herself in the guise of the goddess — an impersonation that the queens also carried out on the faience oinochoai that were used in the service of their cult. The Artemis, too, is identified as Arsinoe II on the basis of the large eye and long nose — although, since these features are miniscule, one may be permitted to doubt. A stipulation of the Decree of Canopus that royal priests should be recognized by their rings further suggests an association of the jewelry with dynastic cult. The chapter is fleshed out with colorful anecdotes about other Ptolemaic queens, especially Berenike II, Arsinoe III, and, of course, Kleopatra VII.

The elaborate hairnet is the focus of “Religion: One Language for Two Civilizations.” Its central medallion, representing Aphrodite and Eros, is taken as a reference to a Ptolemaic queen and her child; her melonenfrisur is supposed to evoke Arsinoe II, the flowing tresses on her breast the dedicated lock of Berenike II, though the absence of royal insignia forces P to stop short of calling this a portrait. Eight small masks that link chains of the net bring us back to Dionysos. They are indeed Dionysiac, but not, I think, satyr, silen, Dionysos, and perhaps maenad, as P identifies them; rather, they represent the standard new comedy mask types of the slave, old man, youth, and kore respectively. The theater reminds P of Mark Antony’s impersonation of Dionysos and provides a segue to the dramatic career of Kleopatra VII.

The final section (“At the Brink of Disaster: The Gold Treasure in its Historical Perspective”) speculates further on the identity of the owner of the jewelry and its possible provenience. The human scale and mixed iconography argue against its use as ornament for a cult statue, and P concludes that “there can hardly be any doubt that the owner of the jewelry must have belonged in the circle of Ptolemaic nobility”; he characterizes her as “an upper-class lady with court connections,” perhaps even “one of the so-called relatives of the king” (59-60). The redundant pairs of earrings and armlets argue against a tomb-group, which would probably contain only one set of jewelry; the objects, then, are mostly likely a hoard, secreted by its owner in a time of peril. P also concludes that the assemblage is not complete, since necklaces with animal-head terminations are absent. He ends by summarizing some of the events of the turbulent period from the late 3rd to the middle of the 2nd century that could have caused the owner to hide the jewelry.

The book is lavishly illustrated with many fine color pictures of the jewelry (including many details at greater than natural size), as well as of other objects discussed in the text. There is a meaty bibliography, organized by topic, at the end, and a detailed chronology at the beginning. The author is a learned man and a prolific scholar, a specialist in the field of Hellenistic jewelry and plate, and widely read in Hellenistic art and history; the text accordingly is dense and full of information. The entire project, however, is marred by a significant flaw, for the study is based on three unsupported assumptions: first, that the jewelry is ancient; second, that it was found together and hence represents a coherent group; and third, that it was found in Egypt. While all of these things may well be the case, all must be seriously questioned in the case of any unprovenienced object; one must begin with skepticism (as True, in fact, warns [ix]) and build a case on the basis of technique, form, and iconography. This is not easy, for securely provenienced and dated groups of Hellenistic jewelry are few, especially in Egypt,1 and the comparanda needed to build the case are difficult to come by. P, however, never entertains the possibility that the gold is not ancient; he swallows an Egyptian provenience without the bat of an eye (his first sentence reads: “The gold jewelry treasure… carries with it the allure of the myth and mystery of Egypt” [xiv]); and of the integrity of the group he says only “we have no proof to the contrary” (61). Rather, taking an Egyptian origin for granted, he proceeds to discuss the iconography of selected pieces in terms of an Egyptian setting. This is a dangerous path to follow, for the iconographic details are highly generic: Erotes, a bust of Aphrodite, bulls, torches, ivy, theater masks, the Herakles knot, figures of Artemis and Tyche. Of these, only the last, whose double cornucopia must allude to Arsinoe II, has an incontrovertible Ptolemaic identity. While one can quite easily spin a tale of the relevance of each motif to Hellenistic Egypt, artisans all over the eastern Mediterranean employed the same iconography in a variety of media. To cite a single example, all of these motifs — even the most compellingly Egyptian, the double cornucopia — can be found in the painted and moldmade Hellenistic pottery of Athens. They can hardly then be used as a reliable guide to the origins of this jewelry. True mentions a “detailed technical study” undertaken for the Fleischmans by Jack Ogden, an authority on ancient jewelry, who apparently noted a variety of workshop practices but declared the workmanship Egyptian; perhaps more convincing clues may be found there.

The late-3rd or early-2nd-century date suggested by P presumably rests on criteria he developed in his monumental work on the chronology of Hellenistic gold jewelry,2 a study that has been faulted by some reviewers for too great a dependence on unprovenienced objects.3 The indicators P invokes are few: the technique of the Herakles knot on the stephane (23-24), inlaid with glass paste and therefore later than a Herakles knot in the Toukh el Garmous treasure, the burial of which P places at 250-240;4 and the “style” of the finger rings (40: he does not elaborate further, but I assume he means the heavy architecture of the setting rather than the manner of the carving5). As he points out (32), such a date for the group as a whole makes the pearls in the earrings the earliest in Hellenistic jewelry — an observation that might lead one to question P’s chronological conclusions here, or to question the integrity of the group.

P’s description of Hellenistic Alexandria relies heavily on models and reconstructions. This is unavoidable given the state of the ancient monuments, but there is a danger that these illustrations may in some cases mislead the targeted non-specialist reader. For example, the sema of Alexander is shown in a photograph of a wonderfully lifelike model of a Macedonian tomb, complete with tumulus, in a precinct surrounded a steepled wall. This is a reasonable conjecture, but the accompanying text does not explain that not only the appearance, but even the location of the monument remains a mystery. In other places, too, hypothesis is stated as fact; for example, the kithara player at Boscoreale and the woman with a ship crown on mosaics from Thmuis are claimed unhesitatingly as portraits of Berenike II.6 While these are intriguing possibilities, they are far from certainties; but the “perhaps” and “might be” of scholarship have been suppressed in the interests of providing a seamless and glittering portrait of the Ptolemaic royal house.

This failure to distinguish clearly between fact and conjecture would make me hesitate to recommend this book to students. P’s apparently uncritical acceptance of a dealer’s provenience and evasion of the ethical issues raised by the recovery and acquisition of the jewelry are also problematical in an educational context.7 Most archaeologists, I believe, would prefer that both their students and the general public be aware of the problems posed by the antiquities market, and the blithe acceptance of the status quo expressed here is infuriating. In his concluding chapter, P remarks that “This splendid jewelry exists as a proud symbol of social status” (59): indeed — for its presumed ancient owner, for the Fleischmans, and for the Getty Museum. Its greater worth as testimony to its time was lost when it was pulled from the earth without a witness. If anything is to be salvaged, there is need of a dispassionate and thorough study of all aspects of this material that can perhaps establish its provenience on the basis of evidence more compelling than the polysemous iconography P invokes.


1. Only six groups of Egyptian gold jewelry are listed in Pfrommer’s encyclopedic Untersuchungen zur Chronologie früh- und hochhellenistischen Goldschmucks (Istanbuler Forschungen 37, Tübingen 1990, 207-209). Only two of them have an archaeological context and one is apparently a fake (B. Deppert-Lippitz, Gnomon 48, 1993, 75).

2. Pfrommer (note 1 above).

3. S. G. Miller in AJA 97, 1993, 580-581; B. Deppert-Lippitz in Gnomon 48, 1993, 751-753. For P’s response, which cites the Getty jewelry as vindicating his chronology, see M. Pfrommer, “Roots and Contacts: Aspects of Alexandrian Craftsmanship,” in Alexandria and Alexandrianism, Malibu 1996, 189, note 53.

4. Although numismatists have dated its latest coins around 260 (M. Thompson, O. Morkholm, C. M. Kraay, An Inventory of Greek Coins Hoards, New York 1973, 236, no. 1680). For Pfrommer’s arguments for the date, see M. Pfrommer, Studien zu alexandrinischer und großgriechischer Toreutik frühhellenistischer Zeit, Archäologische Forschungen 16, Berlin 1987, 150-151.

5. Such heavy rings fall in the range 225-150 in the chart he publishes in Pfrommer (note 1 above), 227, fig. 42.

6. For the scholarly development of these hypotheses, see M. Pfrommer, Göttliche Fürsten in Boscoreale: Der Festsaal in the Villa des P. Fannius Synistor, Trierer Winckenmannsprogramme 12, Mainz am Rhein 1992, 19-21, 23.

7. P is not unaware of these issues and gives a succinct summary of the dilemma posed by illicit excavation in another popular account of this same material (M. Pfrommer, Alexandria: Im Schatten der Pyramiden, Mainz am Rhein 1999, 125).