By any measure, the ancient city of Sardis — home of the fabled King Croesus, a name synonymous with gold and vast wealth, and the city where coinage was invented — is an archaeological wonder.
One of the great cities of Antiquity
The ruins of Sardis, in what is now Turkey, have been a rich source of knowledge about classical antiquity from the 7th century BC, when the city was the capital of Lydia, through to the later Greek and Roman occupations.
However, Sardis has given up another treasure in the form of two enigmatic ritual deposits, which are proving more difficult to fathom than the coins for which the city was famous.
The two deposits each consist of a small pot with a lid, a coin, a group of sharp metal implements and an egg, one of which is intact except for a hole carefully punched into it in antiquity,” explains Will Bruce, a classics graduate student a the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been digging at Sardis for the past six years.
The dig at Sardis is overseen by Nicholas Cahill, a UW-Madison professor of art history. Cahill has directed field research at the site for decades. Both ritual deposits, says Cahill, date from the Roman era and based on the location of the find, date to between AD 70 or 80. The team were excavating below the floor of a first century room, which had been built over the ruins of an earlier building, probably destroyed in a massive earthquake in AD 17. Digging beneath the floor, Bruce and his colleagues first uncovered a thin-walled, near intact jug and close to this, an assemblage of mostly unbroken pottery.
Ritual deposits from the Roman period
Within that assemblage, Bruce began to carefully uncover an inverted bowl, which turned out to be sitting on top of another. The bowls, still filled with dirt, were carefully removed and immediately turned over to conservators who cleaned and dissembled them to find a set of small pointed instruments, a coin with a lion and portrait of Nero, and the intact egg.
“The ritual offerings were dug into pits in the floor, after the room was constructed,” says Cahill. “We know they were renovating the room periodically, because in another part of the space there was a dump of painted wall plaster buried under the floor, presumably in a renovation.”
“The meaning of these deposits is still quite open to interpretation,” notes Cahill, “but burying votive deposits below ground or in a wall was a fairly common practice,” perhaps as a ritual offering to protect the house against demons. Roman literary sources suggest eggs were used in particular rituals – in one case, the egg is used to entice demons inside where they are then magically trapped.
For the archaeologists, part of the intrigue is that similar groups of bowls, needles, coins and eggs were discovered at Sardis more than 100 years ago when the temple of Artemis was excavated by Princeton University archaeologists. “It is an exact parallel to what they found in the early 20th century,” according to Cahill.
Sardis is famous as the place where coinage was invented in the Western world, first using electrum, an alloy of silver and gold, and later of pure gold and silver. Nearby sources of gold made ancient Lydia, and King Croesus, fabulously wealthy. While these Lydian coins are very rare, coins and coin hoards from later Greek and Roman occupiers of Sardis are routinely found.
But the coin found with the egg, says Cahill, seems to be special.
“The coin has a portrait of Nero on the front. The original reverse was hammered flat, and the image of a lion engraved in its place, which is very odd.” Expert numismatists have never seen anything like it. “The image of the lion is important because it is emblematic of the Lydian kings and of their native mother goddess Cybele,”Cahill says.
Cahill comments. “It is most unusual to find such fragile things so perfectly preserved.”
Source: Past Horizonts/
University of Wisconsin-Madison based on an original article by Terry Devitt