Exhibit Watch: A City of Gold at a Cultural Crossroads

The Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus at the Princeton University Art Museum

This sixth-century B.C.E. limestone funerary lion was imported from the Local Museum of Marion and Arsinoe. The Princeton University Art Museum gathered artifacts from the British Museum, the Musée du Louvre and Cyprus’s Department of Antiquities, some of which have never before been on public display.

Through January 20, 2013
City of Gold: The Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus
The Princeton University Art Museum
Princeton, NJ

You’d think that a new exhibit displaying Hellenic funerary statues, attic pottery, Egyptian scarabs, Assyrian royal wreaths, Hellenistic military architecture and Byzantine churches would be a compilation of archaeological treasures from across the ancient world. Yet all of these artifacts come from just one site—Polis Chrysochous, northwestern Cyprus’s “City of Gold,” presented in a new exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Cyprus was the melting pot of the ancient world; while much of the first millennium B.C.E. population was ethnically Greek, the island maintained limited autonomy and was not only ruled by Assyrian, Egyptian, Persian and Hellenistic Ptolemaic regimes, it was home to Phoenician colonies and other competing economic and cultural influences.

In City of Gold: The Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus, the finds from Marion and Arsinoe (the two ancient cities located at Polis Chrysochous) reveal the island’s dynamic character. Visitors are greeted by fourth–third-century B.C.E. limestone grave statues that preserve fragile features and visible paint traces to bring the wealth and dignity residents to life. The statues are surrounded by other finds from Marion, a city destroyed by the Egyptian army in 312 B.C.E. The Marion antiquities are complimented by explanations of provenance, diagrams of dromoi and tomb entrances and an excavation history from the 19th-century site director Max Ohnefalsch-Richter up to Princeton’s recent excavations under the direction of William A.P. Childs.

The value of the finds from Polis Chrysochous lies in its diversity. Imported Attic pottery (painted Classical vessels crafted near Athens) sit in a display case near an Egyptian scarab, and a Cypriot king with distinctive Hellenic features wears an Assyrian-style wreath with rosettes near similar figures inscribed with Cypriot syllabary. Marion’s main public structure was a temple to a fertility goddess reminiscent of Astarte, and the prevalence of clay female figurines with upraised arms attests to the prominence of this distinctively international deity.

After the destruction of Marion, Ptolemy II Philadelphos helped rebuild the city and renamed it Arsinoe. In a contrast to the presentation of the cult at Marion, the ancient city of Arsinoe is depicted with harder edges and a military focus. Instead of a temple to the fertility goddess, Arsinoe’s central structure served a military function. The juxtaposition of the ancient cities is striking, but the subtly chronological layout yields a softer image of Arsinoe as the site transforms into a Christian settlement.

The exhibit displays the first-millennium Christian city through a collection of small finds, architectural photographs and a brightly painted ionic capital. While a small Christian settlement lasted through the 16th century, it does not appear to be the focus of the archaeological activity, and its inclusion in the exhibit comes off as just another historic and cultural influence that shaped the site of Polis Chrysochous.

Visit the Princeton University Art Museum’s website.

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