The colonnades and galleries around the courtyard are dedicated to the art of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, from the third millennium BCE to the first millennium CE. The galleries show objects from Egypt, Iran and Mesopotamia, Greece, and the Roman Empire, respectively, with some examples from adjacent regions and a few from further afield and from later periods. In antiquity, the Mediterranean Sea experienced lively traffic from traders and pirates, conquerors and colonists, and the occasional traveling artist and craftsman. Just as the lands straddling the Mediterranean were connected by the active exchange of goods and ideas, the colonnades lining the courtyard here build links between the individual galleries. Coins from the Harvard Art Museums’ sizable numismatic collection add works of a smaller scale and provide historical background.
The objects assembled in this colonnade are typical testimonies of ancient cultures. Fragments of a larger monument or building, they have survived millennia because of their relatively durable material, stone. They were created with a purpose in mind, to fulfill specific functions and make concrete visual statements in particular settings, including palaces, tombs, and sanctuaries. Their makers operated within a well-defined framework of expectations, which — depending on their rank and the type of work — offered more or less scope for innovation. Now lost, artists’ names were often already in antiquity eclipsed by those of patrons and owners. For these reasons, individual artistic identities are hard to define for the ancient world, with the partial exception of Greece. The three objects on display here are also both telling and mute: they speak of artistic achievements and the visual (and tangible) aspects of antiquity that written history does not convey, but the lack of context and our incomplete knowledge can make it difficult to fully understand their message.