The silver kantharos withTheseus from the 5th century BC (left) and the silver rhyton with Silenus from the 3rd-2nd century BC are among the most interesting previously unseen archaeological artifacts in a new exhibition in Sofia. Photos: National Gallery of Arts
A number of previously unseen Ancient Thracian and/or Greek archaeological artifacts from a private collection – including a silver kantharos (ancient cup) with Thesius and a silver rhyton (ancient fluid container) with Silenus – have been showcased for the first time in an exhibition on the Golden Fleece and the quest of Jason and the Argonauts in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia.
The exhibition designed to tell the story from the Ancient Greek mythology (as well as in Thracian mythology and Roman mythology) about Jason and the Argonauts, and their quest to find the Golden Fleece in Colchis (the lands of today’s Georgia) can be seen at the National Gallery of Arts in Sofia from March 16 until June 10, 2018.
The exhibition formally entitled “The Golden Fleece. The Quest of the Argonauts” features a total of 62 archaeological artifacts, 17 of which have never been shown to the public before.
All artifacts come from the private collection of Vasil Bozhkov, a post-communist era mogul who has been active in various sectors ranging from gambling to road construction, and who has oftentimes topped the list of the richest Bulgarians over the past couple of decades.
Bozhkov’s collection of ancient archaeological artifacts is the largest and most famous out of a number of other private archaeological collections in Bulgaria collected since the 1990s.
The existence of such private collections is often deemed controversial and criticized against the backdrop of the rampant treasure hunting destroying Bulgaria’s tremendous archaeological, historical, and cultural heritage.
The proponents of the private archaeological collections in Bulgaria defend them with the argument that with them the Bulgarian collectors manage to keep in the country at least some of the archaeological artifacts which otherwise would have been trafficked abroad.
The previously unseen items now on display in the exhibition on “The Golden Fleece. The Quest of the Argonauts" in Sofia include a number of utterly impressive ancient (Thracian and/or Greek) artifacts.
Among the top ones is a silver kantharos (ancient cup) showing Theseus, the hero king deemed the mythical founder of Athens, on the island of Crete, dating from 440-435 BC.
Another top item is a silver kylix (ancient wine cup) also depicting the top Antiquity hero from Attica, Theseus, but with the Marathonian Bull, which dates back to 445-440 BC.
Yet another is a silver kantharos depicting baby Hercules (Heracles) on a gold-plated medallion, dated to 400-390 BC.
Among the most impressive unseen archaeological artifacts from the exhibition on Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece is a silver rhyton (ancient conical fluid container) with a depiction of Silenus, a satyr, i.e. a companion to wine god Dionysus who was also his tutor), dated to the end of the 3rd – beginning of the 2nd century BC.
In it, the elder Silenus is seen reclining on a leopard skin, placed on top of a wine vessel made of skin.
The silver rhyton with Silenus is said to be notable, among other things, because ancient rhytons mostly feature animal depictions, and those featuring humans are rather rare.
The National Gallery of Arts in Sofia, which has organized the exhibition together with Bozhkov’s Thrace Foundation, has described the Silenus rhyton as “a splendid example of a sophisticated creation of the luxury."
The silver kantharos depicting Athenian hero-king Theseus on the island of Crete is dated to 440 – 435 BC. Photo: National Gallery of Arts
The silver kylix depicting Theseus with the Marathonian Bull dates back to 445 – 440 BC. Photo: National Gallery of Arts
The silver kantharos depicting baby Hercules on a gold-plated medallion is dated to 400 – 390 BC. Photo: National Gallery of Arts
The silver rhyton with the reclining Silenus, one of Dionysus’s satyrs, is dated to the end of the 3rd – beginning of the 2nd century BC. Photo: National Gallery of Arts
Other of archaeological artifacts shown to the public for the first time include two red-figure pottery vases, and a gold kantharos from the 12th-10th century BC, a silver amphora (ancient vessel container) – rhyton with zoomorphic handles produced by craftsmen from West Anatolia at the end of the 6th century BC.
It is this artifact that is at the center of the exhibition on Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece. It was brought to Prof. Veselina Inkova’s restoration lab at the Thrace Foundation broken in dozens of pieces in November 2017.
The kantharos with the sacrifice of the golden ram was made using golden sheets, and there is said to be only one other archaeological artifact with a similar depiction in the entire world, property of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York City.
The silver kantharos with gold depictions showing the sacrifice of the sacred golden ram that transferred Helle and Phrixus to Colchis is at the center of the exhibition on Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece. Photos: Thrace Foundation
A total of 45 of the archaeological artifacts from the exhibition on the Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece have been shown in some of the total six previous exhibitions of items from the Vasil Bozhkov collection (including a 2007 exhibition at the European Parliament in Brussels).
The artifacts which have been shown before include ancient gold and silver vessels, red-figure vases with representations of the sanctuary in Delphi, ritual silver-coated vessels, funeral offerings, ritual sets, among others.
There are two other especially notable vessels – a gold-coated kantharos and rhyton depicting legendary Ancient Thracian poet and musician Orpheus who was one of the Argonauts led by Jason to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. These are said to be the only two known ancient vessels of their kinds with depictions of Orpheus.
“Through the magnificent ancient masterpieces the public will follow the Argonauts on their route in a fabulous adventure. They will take the visitors to the ancient sacred places – Delphi and Samothrace, to the Thracian kingdoms, to the lands of the legendary Amazons, to the domain of the sun Colchis, and to the sacred Island of Crete," the National Gallery of Arts in Sofia says with respect to its exhibition on the Jason and the Argonauts myths.
“The Golden Fleece remained in the collective historical memory as a symbol of the new life, fertility, royal power, and alliance with the gods. The sacrifice of the sacred golden ram that had transferred Helle and Phrixus to Colchis, is represented at the center of the expositional space," the National Gallery of Arts adds.
The exhibition on Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece is curated by Dr. Lyubava Konova, an expert in Antiquity and Ancient Thracian history and archaeology, and Elka Penkova.
Konova and Penkova have curated more than 30 temporary exhibitions in Bulgaria and abroad, as well as sections of the permanent expositions in the National Museum of History in Sofia.
The National Gallery of Arts in Sofia notes that the Vasil Bozhkov collection has been collected since 2005, and consists of over 3,000 archaeological artifacts dating back from the Neolithic to the Late Antiquity.
The auction price of the silver rhyton depicting Silenus, which was used in wine pouring rituals, could surpass USD 1 million, private Bulgarian channel bTV reports. It is said to have originated in Asia Minor but to have been discovered intact in the Balkans.
“You have a lying satyr [Silenus], you know that he was a follower of Dionysus, and he lies on top of a leopard skin because leopard was the sacred animal of Dionysus. This skin is placed on top of a skin vessel full of wine because wine was apparently drunk at all rituals," explains Greek archaeology professor Athanasios Sideris from the Thrace Foundation, as cited by bTV.
“Rhytons usually depicted animals – a horse, a doe, or a lion. This one is decorated with a human figure. This is extremely rare! Don’t think that the ancient people drank their wine from it every day. Such expensive items were made only for rituals honoring god Dionysus," he elaborates, as cited by Nova TV.
Other fabulous archaeological artifacts from Ancient Thrace and Ancient Greece from the Vasil Bozhkov collection, including numerous rhytons, as displayed in the Golden Fleece, Jason and the Argonauts exhibition in Sofia. Photos: BGNES news agency
The exhibition also features a golden vessel made of almost 24-carat gold which is said to have been discovered “somewhere in Bulgaria".
“This type of items were made of a gold nugget by forging, and if you look closely, you can see hammer marks on it. They were used by the kings and the high aristocracy," Sideris adds, as cited by bTV.
Another interesting artifacts on display in the Golden Fleece and the Argonauts exhibition in Sofia is a bronze hydria, a vessel used for water storage, from the 4th century BC, which was also used by wealthier households.
Other intriguing artifacts include ancient decorations placed on war helmets.
“There are few museums [in the world] that can showcase such rare items made of metal, silver, and gold, representing the myth of the Argonauts. The fact that the collection is private is an even greater rarity. There are just a few similar other [private collections] in the world," Sideris says, as cited by Nova TV.
The silver kantharos, featuring Theseus in Crete shows the hero-king alongside the legendary Minos, the first king of Crete and son of Zeus and Europa, as well as goddess Athena and Aphrodite. It is said to have come to the lands of today’s Bulgaria as a present from Ancient Greeks to Ancient Thracians.
“Every image has a very fine print saying who is who. That is a great fortune because we don’t have to hypothesize. This is jewelry craftsmanship, it’s like a jewel," Sideris say, as quoted by Nova TV.
Learn more and view more photos from the exhibition on the Golden Fleece and Jason and the Argonauts here: