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Capua, Italy

The snowy white body of a sphinx regally supports the ebony-colored cup of this ceramic rhyton, or drinking horn, found in a tomb in Capua, Campania, Italy. The sphinx, a mythical human-lion-eagle hybrid believed by Greeks to be a guardian of the dead, was carefully molded and coated in a fine white slip and painted with gold and brown accents. The wheel-made cup attached to the sphinx’s back is covered in black slip with red-figure decorations featuring Kekrops (or Cecrops), the legendary snake-bodied king of Athens (at upper left), and his children.

This 11.5-inch-high rhyton was made in Athens in the mid-fifth century B.C. by the potter Sotades, who signed his work. It and other vessels found in the Italian tomb likely identify the dead person as an Athenian migrant to the west.

Illustrated scenes on other ancient Greek vases indicate that the small hole between the sphinx’s front legs would have been closed (possibly by a finger) while wine was poured into the cup on top and then reopened to allow the wine to flow into a bowl or cup set some distance below. In addition to the entertainment value of such a display, this function also had the added benefit of aerating the wine and making it frothy before consumption.

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