Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings

, Special Exhibitions Gallery, Harvard Art Museums
  • Rhyton with the forepart of a griffin, Achaemenid, 5th–4th century BCE. Silver, partially gilded. The British Museum, London, Bequeathed by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, 1897,1231.178 (124081). Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

  • Shallow Bowl

    Shallow Bowl

    Hammered from a single sheet of metal, this silver phiale (libation bowl) has a shallow central navel or omphalos and is decorated with a pattern of radiating petals or leaves and, inserted between them, 14 lobes rendered in repoussé. The tips of the petals split to form an arch above each lobe, and a small upside-down teardrop appears where they split, as if growing from a calyx of leaves. There is a centering mark on the undersaide of the omphalos, and there are fine horizontal striations especially on the exterior of the rim. Black and brown patina with patches of green; crack in one lobe.

  • Animal head pitcher

    Animal head pitcher

    This ewer features a squat, high-hipped body, atop a hollow foot ring. The neck tapers to a spout in the shape of an animal head. The head is crowned by horns that curve into circles. A small handle curves from the back of the animal head to a second and simpler spout, that presumably made it easier to fill the ewer and pour from it. Surface decoration is both carved (incised lines on the horns) and molded (segment lines and arabesques on the body). Small scrolling lines within the segments echo the shape of the horns. Except for the foot ring, the ewer is covered in translucent cobalt-blue glaze.

  • Reproduction of the bull head rhyton from the Little Palace at Knossos

    Reproduction of the bull head rhyton from the Little Palace at Knossos

    Reproduction of original serpentinite bull head rhyton with shell, crystal, and jasper inlays. The original was found in the 'Little Palace' at Knossos, and is now in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum. (HM 1368, HM 1550) For information on the original see Robert B. Koehl, Aegean Bronze Age Rhyta (Philadelphia, 2006), cat. 307, p. 118.

  • Stirrup Cup in the Form of a Fox's Head

    Stirrup Cup in the Form of a Fox's Head

  • Horn cup and pedestal stand

    Horn cup and pedestal stand

  • 'He' Ritual Wine Vessel in the Form of a Standing Duck

    'He' Ritual Wine Vessel in the Form of a Standing Duck

  • Beak-Spouted Pitcher

    Beak-Spouted Pitcher

    The vessel has a shallow foot with flat base. A slight edge marks the transition of shoulder to neck, which opens in a flaring mouth. A flat strap handle connects lip and shoulder. Opposite the handle is a spout terminating in a long, trough-shaped and tapering beak (the very tip appears to be missing). It is linked to the vessel’s lip by a small bridge of clay. The bird-like appearance of the vessel is reinforced by a crop on the “neck” of the spout, below the “beak.” Two raised points towards the rear of the vessel, one on each side of the handle, were perhaps inspired by bird anatomy or by the bosses covering rivets on metal vessels of similar shape. The body of the vessel is fired buff to light reddish brown. Its surface is polished and painted with dark reddish-brown decoration. The most elaborate patterns occur at the transition to the spout, where a row of elongated triangles is reminiscent of a bird’s breast feathers. Other motifs include checkerboard and crosshatching. A large diamond filled with checkerboard decorates each side of the vessel, elongated triangles run along the beak-shaped spout, and wavy bands encircle the vessel’s mouth. The handle bears zigzag decoration with interspersed dots, the handle base is framed by volutes, and there is a diamond filled with dotted crosshatching below. On the vessel's interior, the lip is lined with dots, which also appear on the exterior at the transition from shoulder to neck and above the foot. The unpolished underside of the foot shows a sloppily painted cross with a dot in each quadrant, as well as smudged paint. The vessel’s mouth and spout are reassembled from a number of fragments; some 40% of the lip are restored. The painted decoration is abraded where the vessel’s circumference is the largest.

  • Frieze of Five Dancing Women, Vase Decorated with Male Heads, Rhyton with a Bull's Head, Statue of a Child Milking a Goat, Anubis Seated

    Frieze of Five Dancing Women, Vase Decorated with Male Heads, Rhyton with a Bull's Head, Statue of a Child Milking a Goat, Anubis Seated

  • Eye Cup

    Eye Cup

    Interior: Gorgoneion, drawn in outline, with irises and lips in added white, the tongue and hair in added red; Exterior: Quadripartite with two eye-areas and two handle-areas. In between each set of large eyes is a rudimentary nose. Between the eyebrows is a teardrop-shaped mark flanked by dots; another dot above the nose. The irises are painted white. Nude komasts flank each pair of eyes near the handles. All but one are beardless and all have red hair. Beneath each handle is an inverted lotus bud with dots. A rounded fillet separates the bowl of the kylix from its pedestalled foot. Condition: One piece of rim broken off and repaired; otherwise intact.

  • Pelike depicting Helen and Paris

    Pelike depicting Helen and Paris

    The scene on the front of the pelike (jar) comprises five figures: a couple consisting of a woman and a young man, flanked by a boy and second woman, respectively. A small Eros flutters in between. The central woman holds a lobed shallow bowl--likely meant to be of precious metal--in her proper left hand and lifts the upper edge of her finely pleated garment with her right. She faces a young man seated on a rocky outcrop, which is indicated by fine lines incised into the black background. He sits in a relaxed pose, with crossed legs, his right hand placed on his knee, and holding two long spears in his left. His richly patterned clothing consists of a cap with long flaps and a body suit with zigzag patterns below a sleeveless garment richly decorated with elongated triangles, volutes, diamonds, and a wreath motif. Reminiscent of the clothing worn by Greece’s eastern neighbors, this highly ornate, “foreign” costume was used by Greek vase painters to characterize barbarians. Here it probably denotes a mythical easterner: Paris, prince of Troy (Adonis has been proposed, as well). Paris’ gaze is focused on the woman before him, likely the beautiful Helen, while he is crowned by Eros flying above. The woman behind Paris holds another, now barely visible garland up to his head. She could be the goddess Aphrodite or her companion Peitho (“persuasion”). She stands firmly on the ground line, as does the boy on the other side of the composition. He, too, is characterized by his rich eastern dress with zigzag and leaf patterns and wears a floppy cap with long flaps. With his left he extends a drinking horn, whose striped pattern was probably intended to denote its material as gold or silver, another barbarian attribute and a reference to the wealth of the royal house of Troy. The simpler scene on the pelike’s back features three women: a central woman holding a box and two fringed, patterned sashes or towels, a woman fully wrapped in a large mantle with a thick, black border (on the left), and another woman with mantle holding what appears to be a garland (on the right). The figures are more cursorily drawn than those on the front. Double palmettes decorate the lower handle attachment. Most of the finer lines are slightly raised, and raised dots decorate belts and borders of the elaborate garments. Diluted glaze was used for selected ornaments and the soft folds of the caps. Faint traces of added paint remain for the garlands held by Eros and the woman standing behind Paris. On the back, added paint was used to render the hairbands of all three women, the fringes of the sashes held by the central woman, and the garland held by the woman on the right. Pre-drawings are visible on all figures painted on the vessel’s front. The vessel is complete but has some minor surface erosion and manganese staining.

  • Shallow Bowl
  • Animal head pitcher
  • Reproduction of the bull head rhyton from the Little Palace at Knossos
  • Stirrup Cup in the Form of a Fox's Head
  • Horn cup and pedestal stand
  • 'He' Ritual Wine Vessel in the Form of a Standing Duck
  • Beak-Spouted Pitcher
  • Frieze of Five Dancing Women, Vase Decorated with Male Heads, Rhyton with a Bull's Head, Statue of a Child Milking a Goat, Anubis Seated
  • Eye Cup
  • Pelike depicting Helen and Paris
Special Exhibitions Gallery, Harvard Art Museums

Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings brings together nearly 60 elaborate vessels of animal shape from collections in the United States and Europe. While the songs, speeches, and prayers that enlivened ancient feasts are now largely lost to us, these vessels have survived, offering a glimpse into the rich symbolism and communal practices that found expression at these gatherings. Taking animal-shaped vessels as performative props in the multifaceted world of feasting, the exhibition not only introduces the social and ceremonial functions of these ritual occasions, but also highlights the essential and universal role played by food and drink—and by the highly imaginative containers used to enjoy these refreshments.

The exhibition includes vessels in the shape of standing or reclining animals, animal-headed cups and beakers, drinking horns, and animated pitchers. Various creatures, real and imagined, give these objects their shapes: powerful bulls and rams, majestic lions and mythical griffins, wild boars and goats, deer and gazelles, graceful birds, and braying donkeys, among others. Assembling such a range of vessels for the first time, the exhibition presents a cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary examination of how they spanned geography and time, across three continents and over three millennia. The international menagerie of drinking and pouring vessels vividly illustrates not just how shapes and artistic forms crossed borders, but how ideas as well were exchanged among cultures—tangible evidence of close contact and the intermingling of traditions.

Beyond their role in ritual and ceremonial drinking, animal-shaped vessels functioned variously as diplomatic gifts and tribute, the spoils of war, offerings to deities and the dead, and exotic objects of trade; they also were prized and emulated as symbols of status and prestige. Each object in the exhibition is a compelling animal study in itself, with a wealth of information embedded in its material, shape, and decoration. Many were made of rare or innovative materials—including gold, silver, bronze, glass, faience, and horn—and at the hands of skilled artists. They conveyed important information about their liquid contents and the nature of a gathering, but were also markers of social stature, identity, etiquette, and shared values.

Most of the objects in the exhibition belong to a tradition of animal-shaped drinking and pouring vessels that persisted in the Near East and the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age in the third and second millennia BCE to the advent of Islam in the seventh century; this tradition eventually extended all the way to China, via the Silk Road. Select animal-shaped vessels from other cultures and periods—including East Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America—provide further points of comparison. In addition to the vessels, the exhibition features several related objects (paintings and sculpture) with ancient and modern representations of feasts. More than 20 domestic and international institutions have generously lent objects to the exhibition, including the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford University), the British Museum (London), the Louvre (Paris), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), and the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston).

The exhibition, curated by Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art and head of the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at the Harvard Art Museums, is accompanied by a full catalogue edited by Ebbinghaus.

Crucial support for the Animal-Shaped Vessels project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor. In addition, the Harvard Art Museums are deeply grateful to the anonymous donor of a gift in memory of Melvin R. Seiden and to Malcolm H. Wiener (Harvard A.B. ’57, J.D. ’63) and Michael and Helen Lehmann for enabling us to mount this exhibition and to pursue the related research. This work was also made possible in part by the following endowed funds: the David M. Robinson Fund; the Andrew W. Mellon Publication Funds, including the Henry P. McIlhenny Fund; and the M. Victor Leventritt Fund, which brings outstanding scholars of the history and theory of art to the Harvard and Greater Boston communities through the generosity of the wife, children, and friends of the late M. Victor Leventritt, Harvard Class of 1935.

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Related Programming
Thanks to a generous grant from the National Endowment from the Humanities, the museums are offering free admission to all visitors on Wednesday afternoons, 1–5pm, and on the first Saturday of each month, 10am–5pm, throughout the run of the Animal-Shaped Vessels exhibition. Information about these and other events, including the opening celebration on September 6, hands-on workshops, a symposium, gallery tours, and more, can be found on the museums’ calendar.

Online Resources
An online digital feature hosted on the museums’ website at hvrd.art/animals provides visitors with expanded multimedia content on the history of feasting and drinking practices in the ancient world, as well as further details on the material history of these one-of-a-kind vessels.

The Exhibition Mapped: Explore the objects in the exhibition by their place of origin on this digital world map made by Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis.

Learn more about the exhibition in our series of short videos and filmed lectures available on Vimeo.

Survey
We invite visitors to the exhibition to share their thoughts through a few questions in this online survey

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition and its related book and programming do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.