Heracles to Alexander the Great exhibition at Oxford

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An exhibition of more than 500 objects, most of them never before seen outside Greece, opens next week at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. The exhibition is set to rewrite knowledge of the Macedonian civilisation that brought forth Alexander the Great – the man who conquered most of the known world, from Greece to Egypt, Afghanistan and India, in the 4th century BC. 

A magnificent array of objects, from intricate golden crowns to finely sculpted heads, will travel to the Ashmolean in Oxford this spring, for the first major archaeological exhibition to be held in the museum’s newly expanded galleries. 

The exhibition, Heracles to Alexander the Great, will show the fruits of recent excavations in Aegae, the ancient capital of Macedon. Artefacts in the exhibition will include objects from the burial tomb of the powerful King Philip II, Alexander’s father, and his son, Alexander IV – and splendid jewellery and ornaments from the tombs of various Macedonian queens. 

Some of the most revelatory objects in the exhibition are portrait heads. Unlike the idealised faces of classical Athens, they show furrowed brows, wrinkles and laughter lines and may transform understanding of the history of portraiture. “The Macedon of Philip II is the birthplace and birth-time of realistic portraiture,” said Dr Angeliki Kottaridi, the lead curator of the exhibition and the director of excavations at Aegae. 

Among these sculpted heads will be a portrait of Philip II, with a remarkably lived-in face and crinkly eyes. And even more intriguingly, there will be a set of lifesize and lifelike terracotta heads that are, according to Kottaridi, “absolutely unique”. 

Twenty-six were found, by Kottaridi herself, in the grave of a Macedonian queen dating from about 500BC. 

Dr Susan Walker, keeper of antiquities at the Ashmolean, speculated that these remarkable objects could seen as forebears of the kind of elaborate Hellenistic portraiture created in Alexandria centuries later, which in turn influenced Roman “true” portraiture. 

From the tomb of Philip II comes not only his royal crown but items belonging to a woman, thought by Kottaridi to be the Thracian princess Meda of Odessa, one of his wives. 

Kottaridi believes she may have committed suicide, according to Thracian practice, so as to serve her husband in death as well as life. Her beautiful, highly wrought golden crown from the tomb is, said Kottaridi, “one of the masterpieces of the exhibition”. 

The exhibition will show how an introverted, small tribal kingdom – mythologically founded by the descendants of Heracles – was, said Walker, gradually “drawn into the wider world, developing relationships on the eastern side of the Aegean and forming a key relationship with Athens, which it eventually pushed out of the region”. 

“For the first time we will be able to see where they were coming from; put the archaeology against the history, look at how they dressed and how they died,” said Walker. “We are so focused on the history of Athens that we completely underestimate the Macedonians.” 

The exhibition is co-organised with the ministry of culture and tourism and the 17th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities. 

Heracles to Alexander the Great is at the Ashmolean museum, Oxford, from 7 April to 29 August. 

Sources: SAE / ANA [March 31, 2011]

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