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. Photo: Thrace Foundation
A silver kantharos (ancient cup) showing the sacrifice of the sacred golden ram that transferred twin siblings Helle and Phrixus to Colchis is the centerpiece of the new exhibition in the Bulgarian capital Sofia presenting with unique archaeological artifacts the ancient mythology story about Jason and the Argonauts.
The golden ram sacrifice kantharos in question is one of the 17 artifacts (out of a total of 62 included in the exhibition) which have been shown to the public for the first time.
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.
Among the top previously unseen items now on display in the exhibition on “The Golden Fleece. The Quest of the Argonauts" in Sofia 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.
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 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.
Truly intriguing is the silver kantharos with gold depictions showing the sacrifice of the sacred golden ram that took twin siblings Helle and Phrixus to Colchis (though Helle perished along the way).
The artifact chosen to be the centerpiece of the exhibition on Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece was brought in November 2017 in dozens of pieces to Prof. Veselina Inkova’s restoration lab at the Thrace Foundation which has co-organized the exhibition together with the National Gallery of Arts in Sofia
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 Golden Fleece ram sacrifice kantharos is seen in the same exhibition window as a silver and gold ram sculpture and a massive gold vessel forged out of a gold nugget. Photos: Thrace Foundation
“This [artifact] is unique. Only in the Metropolitan Museum there is an artifact with a scene similar to the Golden Fleece," Inkova, a leading Bulgarian expert in metal processing and restoration, has told the Bulgarian National Radio.
She has pointed out that virtually all the ancient archaeological artifacts included in the Jason and the Argonauts exhibition have been repaired or restored to a certain degree as many had arrived with damages.
“We ‘live’ every single artifact. They arrive in very different conditions. Sometimes they are unknowable, unreadable. Sometimes they are in fragments, or corroded," she adds.
“Our work requires knowledge not just in physics and chemistry but also in the ancient technologies in Bulgaria and the neighboring lands. Indeed, the work with metal requires interdisciplinary skills," the prominent restorer says.
“The kantharos [with the golden ram sacrifice scene] was in 20 or 30 individual fragments. It was in such a condition that no other [restorer] had dare take up [its restoration]," she reveals.
The silver kantharos with gold depictions showing the sacrifice of the sacred golden ram that took 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
“We are actually glad [when artifacts arrive in] such condition because when the items have undergone some intervention, their authenticity, the information they carry get compromised," Inkova elaborates.
The exhibition on Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece is curated by Antiquity and Ancient Thracian history and archaeology experts Lyubava Konova and Elka Penkova.
Penkova has emphasized that the exhibition seeks to outline in detail the quest of Jason and the Argonauts, which could be construed as the Ancient Greeks’ first trip to get to know Europe.
“We were given the choice to select the artifacts for the theme we have chosen. The collection gives a fantastic opportunity precisely for this theme about the first trip to get to know Europe. The exhibition is an experiment. That’s why we’ve chosen the way of the Argonauts with the idea, the utopian idea of the Golden Fleece," Penkova has told the Bulgarian National Radio.
She emphasizes the fact that the epic about Jason and the Argonauts is older than the Trojan War epic presented in Homer’s Iliad, but is somewhat lesser known because it was recorded later, only in the 3rd century BC.
“The way of the Argonauts is the first trip of getting to know Europe. They set off from a real place, Iolcus, near today’s Volos in Greece, and the entire arc covered by their ship Argo marked precisely the spots which were later taken by the Hellenes (Ancient Greeks). That is, that was the first coming to know Europe by the Hellenes who were themselves Europeans," Penkova elaborates.
“What is more, the idea of the Golden Fleece is an eastern one, Anatolian, it exists in Hittite texts, and the Hellenes adopted it from there," she says.
“So we have managed to illustrate this entire idea about Helle and Phrixus, and the magical golden ram by telling the epic through these magnificent exhibits, some of which are one of a kind in the entire world," the curator explains.
Penkova makes it clear that given the ancient history and the archaeology of Bulgaria’s territory, the exhibition also emphasizes the Ancient Thracian heritage and characters – as Ancient Thrace and the Ancient Greeks were in constant contact.
The exhibition features a large number of silver and gold rhytons (ancient conical fluid containers). Photos: Thrace Foundation
Thus, the exhibition features 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 for the Golden Fleece. These are said to be the only two known ancient vessels of their kinds with depictions of Orpheus.
Exhibition curator Penkova explains:
“We illustrate the places where the Argonauts went with the respective artifacts. For example, they went to King Cyzicus, ruler of the Dolionians, and at first he met them with a feast, a revelry. We show the role of the revelry in the ideology of the Thracians. Then there was a misunderstanding, and they killed him. Then the Argonauts themselves organized the funeral. We use that part in order to present the funeral rites of the Thracians. The Argonauts also went through the lands of the blind Thracian King Phineus who was also a seer. He gave them a prophecy. These exhibition windows here could be seen as the Cyanean Rocks (the Symplegades). The Thracian Phineus tells the Argonauts to set free a dove, and when exactly to pass. They go through a number of other ordeals, they go through the lands of the Amazons. In the center of the exhibition we have the sacrifice of the golden ram by Phrixus. We also present their way back with the lands of the Etruscans, the Tyrrhenians. Later the Argonauts reached Crete, and here we include Theseus and Minos, you know, and the cycle gets completed. And we make a connection here with the second epic, about the Trojan War."
“Our exhibition is an experiment. It is in the European Year of Cultural Heritage (2018). We reckoned we should show where Europe actually started from," Penkova adds.
She also reveals that her favorite exhibit with respect to the exhibition theme is precisely the kantharos depicting the sacrifice of the Golden Fleece ram, while otherwise her most favorite artifacts are the two vessels depicting Orpheus.
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. It is especially notable because of the human figure whereas rhytons mostly depict animals. Photo: Thrace Foundation
All artifacts in the exhibition on “The Golden Fleece. The Quest of the Argonauts" in Sofia 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.
Learn more and view more photos from the exhibition on the Golden Fleece and Jason and the Argonauts here: