We often hear of important new excavations and finds in the world of archaeology. But what about the archaeological artefacts which have been forgotten – how much archaeology is hiding in plain sight, just waiting to be found again? Archaeology student and guest blogger GREG MORTON examines archaeology, rediscovered.
As a student of archaeology, I tend to define my subject as the uncovering of previously hidden artefacts. Once they are uncovered or unearthed, one might assume, artefacts remain forever in the museums, records and minds of interested scholars. Often, however, the process of ‘discovery’ can be a little messier.
In early March 2017, a flurry of newspapers from across the world were reporting that a marble sarcophagus had materialised in the grounds of Blenheim Palace.
In fact, this ornate funerary monument had been serving as a humble plant pot, before which it had been collecting water from a natural spring in the Palace grounds.
In many respects, this surprising treatment fits with the fantastically varied life stories of many Roman sarcophagi. During the renaissance, thousands were brought-up by noble families appreciative of their rich sculpting. Once inside aristocratic homes, sarcophagi tended to serve as rustic décor, blending into the background. One 15th century sculptor decided to re-carve a sarcophagus which was decorated with a mythical foot-washing scene, adding a functional fountain-spout into the scene. The sarcophagus was nearly repurposed into a working water-trough, fusing its original decoration with its new purpose.
During the weeks after these journalistic declarations of discovery, various ancient historians reported with some bemusement that the Blenheim Sarcophagus was perfectly well known. For example, they noted, it was mentioned in the 1882 book: ‘Ancient Marbles in Great Britain’ by Adolf Michaeli and in a 2011 compendium on Roman sarcophagi.
Crucially, however, its precise whereabouts had not been considered. Academics were content to assume that such an intellectually important object was surely being looked after somewhere. For their part, the Blenheim estate missed the artefact’s significance until a visiting antiques expert explained the tremendous value of sarcophagi, something demonstrated materially by its valuation at £300,000.
Archaeology, in this case, was hiding in plain sight. An example of this phenomenon can be found in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. On display in the Rome exhibit is a copper-alloy head of Marcus Aurelius, an emperor and philosopher who ruled the Roman empire from AD 161-180. The provincial bust strikes a remarkable likeness to his official portraiture, complete with a rather stylish mane of hair and beard. Adding to the bust’s effect, Marcus stares out with blue-glass eyes. Rather unusually, the head carries no sign of being formerly attached to a shoulder or body. Instead, a little slot in its neck would have enabled the attachment of a pole or sceptre, on which it could be carried aloft in processions.
Just as the Blenheim sarcophagus lay unappreciated in Palace gardens, this remarkable head stood regally, but unassumingly, in a farmer’s house in Berkshire. After being ploughed up in 1976, a lack of local interest kept Marcus in limbo until regional archaeologists caught wind of the farmer’s unlikely mantel-piece ornament in 2009. To complete its second discovery, the bust was purchased in 2011 by the Ashmolean, where it now lies on display.
As a student of archaeology, I continually have the urge to seek out a new site, to break new-ground and to unearth something unseen for 2,000 years. However, the Blenheim Sarcophagus is an important reminder of the wealth of archaeology hiding in plain sight, important artefacts that need only to be rescued from obscurity, to be rediscovered and to be reconsidered.
GREG MORTON is a second-year Undergraduate student at Lincoln College, Oxford. He studies Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, and will be undertaking a dissertation on the Blenheim Sarcophagus in his third-year.