Augusta Raurica Museum Part Two: Perfection in Silver

Continued from Part One

So – following the delightfully presented exhibition on children and Roman life in Augusta Raurica, the museum continues with a further room on the unpromising-sounding Kaiseraugst Treasure.  I’m not that interested in things made of ‘precious’ materials, because they’re usually quite gaudy, it’s hard to see the details, and altogether they can be just too blingy.  I entered this room thinking I’d be in and out in, like, a minute – but no.  It was amazing!

The gallery containing the Kaiseraugst treasure, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The gallery containing the Kaiseraugst treasure, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Imagine this: it’s winter, 1961, and there you are, a 12 year old boy, playing in an open field.  Lying in the snow are a dozen disk-like objects and in a flurry of excitement, you take one to your teacher at school and show him.  He says its just some rubbish and tells you to throw it away.

Now imagine being that teacher: you felt pretty stupid, right, when you found out that you told the boy to throw away the so-called Ariadne Plate, one of the masterpieces of late antique art.

Over the course of the next few weeks, various people saw these treasures and a local landlady took five plates home with her, stored in the inn that she ran down the road.  Then, through an enquiry from a guy who’d found a Latin inscription on a piece and wondered what it meant, Rudolf Laur-Belart got involved.  He was a Swiss expert on the ancient world and in January 1962, he supervised a proper excavation of the site that had churned up all these objects.  But the collection was not complete.  In 1995, a notary announced that he had 18 further items that had been passed on to him from the family of a deceased client.

Now, only one piece is missing: it is only known to exist because it left an impression on a silver tray.

So what is the treasure?  It’s 58kg of pure silver turned into plates, trays, spoons… random other little objects.  The value of the treasure in the 300s was huge – the equivalent of the annual pay of 230 soldiers.  It belonged to a high-ranking supporter of the Emperor, from whom some of these items came as gifts.  One of the items has a label saying it belonged to an army commander, Romulus, but it’s thought that the whole treasure may have belonged to two officers, who buried it in AD 351 because they were worried about the political situation.

Their loss is our gain.  And what a gain!

Two objects with a hexagon star were the first to catch my eye.  It was easier to see the details on the bowl, at the front, and admire the the slinky radiating lines, and the neat geometric central pattern.  Apparently, the ‘star’ pattern demonstrates the type of abstract ornamentation that became popular during the period between late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.

The plate is quite interesting because there is an inscription saying: EVTICIVS NAISI₽V.  This refers the maker and his city of work, Naissus (now Nis in Serbia) which was a known centre for precious metal processing during the 400s.  The workmanship is incredible, and the silver shines and shimmers in an extraordinary way.

Hexagon Star plate and bowl, 4th century, silver, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland-e1514982684689

Hexagon Star plate and bowl, 4th century, silver, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

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Hexagon Star bowl, 4th century, silver, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

One of my favourite objects was an incredible plate with an intensely decorated central medallion and rim.  The central scene shows a beautiful villa by the sea, densely populated with fish and cupids in boats.  Around the edge are scenes showing a hunt, with barely clad men chasing boars, deer and rabbits.  The combination of the central idyll and the outer action-packed scene gives the message that this was aimed at the elite, who could indulge in this sort of lifestyle.  Of course, the fact that it’s made of silver also does that, but you know what I mean.

Two owners’ names are given on the bottom of the plate (Aquilinus and Fonteius), along with the weight (14 pounds, 11 ounces).

Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Detail of the villa on the Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Detail of the villa on the Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

A hunting scene on the edge of the Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

A hunting scene on the edge of the Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

A hunting scene with two men on the edge of the Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

A hunting scene with two men on the edge of the Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

A hunting scene with two men and a rabbit on the edge of the Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

A hunting scene with two men and a rabbit on the edge of the Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The central medley of reality and fantasy on the Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The central medley of reality and fantasy on the Idyllic Life plate, 4th century, silver and partly gilded, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The next object was actually part of a set.  The large, flat plate is the largest of those found in Kaiseraugst, with a diameter of 66.5 cm.  Beside it are other smaller plates, with the same beaded edge and simple borders.

Beaded edge plates, 4th century, silver, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Beaded edge plates, 4th century, silver, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Plate with its outer edge missing, 4th century, silver, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  There is apparently some writing on the underside and the little figure of a dog.

Plate with its outer edge missing, 4th century, silver, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  There is apparently some writing on the underside and the little figure of a dog.

Detail of the centre of the plate with its outer edge missing, 4th century, silver, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.

Detail of the centre of the plate with its outer edge missing, 4th century, silver, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.

Spoons and an oval dish with a fish motif, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Spoons and an oval dish with a fish motif, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

This next item is just incredible.  It’s a travel candle-holder.  It consists of two pieces that are pushed together.  Candlesticks were rare and special objects even in the Roman period, because of the cost of using candles, and were mainly used during banquets.    There’s some graffiti naming the former owners: Euticius and then Marcellianus.

Travelling silver candle-holder, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Travelling silver candle-holder, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Top part of the travelling silver candle-holder, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Top part of the travelling silver candle-holder, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Such pretty details on the travelling silver candle-holder, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Such pretty details on the travelling silver candle-holder, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The part where the top and bottom parts are joined in the travelling silver candle-holder, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The part where the top and bottom parts are joined in the travelling silver candle-holder, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Practically perfect coins,  Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Practically perfect coins,  Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

A bowl for collecting up the practically perfect coins, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

A bowl for collecting up the practically perfect coins, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The quality of this next item is immediately obvious, because it combines figures, patterns and different materials to form its lovely composition.  The centre shows Ariadne, sitting between her husband Dionysus and a satyr.  There are little erotes and animals in panels along the edge.  Together, the images on the tray give the message of a happy life.

Ariadne Tray, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Ariadne Tray, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Central panel of the Ariadne Tray, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  Ariadne is in the centre, with billowing fabrics, Dionysus is on the right, holding a staff, and on the left is a satyr.

Central panel of the Ariadne Tray, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  Ariadne is in the centre, with billowing fabrics, Dionysus is on the right, holding a staff, and on the left is a satyr.

Detail of the edge of the Ariadne Tray, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Detail of the edge of the Ariadne Tray, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

An impressive display in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

An impressive display in the Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

We know from written sources that the Romans would mix their wine with honey, pepper and other spices. They would therefore use sieves to make sure the particles didn’t get swigged.

Sieves and tooth-picks, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Sieves and tooth-picks, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Ridged bowl, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Ridged bowl, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Detail of ridged bowl, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Detail of ridged bowl, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Fish plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  He has probably got a worm in his mouth.

Fish plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  He has probably got a worm in his mouth.

The Achilles plate is densely made up of eleven equally dense scenes from the life of Achilles before he went to the Trojan War.  In the centre is Odysseus (second right) surprising Achilles (second left) who was living disguised as a girl in the court of the King of Skyros (his mother’s idea) so that he wouldn’t go to war and expose that famous heel to danger.  Achilles was a popular figure, a heroic youth who died young, and was still seen as a bit of a role-model in late antiquity.

On the underside, the name of the silversmith (Pausilypos) and the place of production (Thessalonike) are given in Greek script.

The Achilles Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The Achilles Plate, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

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The Achilles Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

The Achilles Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  The birth of Achilles - gee, he's so precocious, he's already sitting up on the floor.  

The Achilles Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  The birth of Achilles – gee, he’s so precocious, he’s already sitting up on the floor.

 

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The Achilles Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  Baby Achilles is being handed over by his mother to the centaur Chiron to get educated.

The Achilles Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  Here, his mother, and the ever faithful maid, present Achilles as a girl to be taken in by the King of Skyros.

The Achilles Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  Here, his mother, and the ever faithful maid, present Achilles as a girl to be taken in by the King of Skyros.

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The Achilles Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland.  Achilles, in the guise of a girl in the court of the King of Skyros, plays a lyre and leaves a princess entranced.

I have to say, that if you know the story of Achilles (as retold in the Roman period), then the scenes are actually very clear.  It’s almost like they are little theatrical episodes.  Very cool.

The next plate might not look that exciting – though it’s got a very pretty design – but its significance becomes clear when reading the writing around the central panel.  It says: “Emperor Constans, victorious, celebrates his happy ten year celebration and praises, after three favourable signs, a thirtieth anniversary.”  This shows that the plate was given as a gift by the Emperor to someone he considered important.  And the presence of an imperial gift gives additional proof, if the quality of the items wasn’t clear enough already, that this was a collection of exceptional workmanship.

Emperor Constans Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Emperor Constans Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Detail of the centre of the Emperor Constans Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Detail of the centre of the Emperor Constans Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Detail of the Emperor Constans Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

Detail of the Emperor Constans Plate, 4th century, Augusta Raurica Museum, Switzerland

So In Summary

What an amazing collection!  I still can’t get over the fact that they got chucked out like some old rubbish…  Fortunately, glittering beautifully in well-lit cases, they can now testify to the subtle skills of their makers, who produced works of exquisite quality during a period that art history tells us suffered a steep decline.

The museum is worth visiting for these objects alone.  What more can I say?

Please click here for Part Three of the Augusta Raurica Museum.

 

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