Drinkware exhibit shows ancients as party animals

AP, CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts

Tue, Sep 04, 2018 - Page 7

Centuries before Julius Caesar sipped from a chalice and Alexander the Great raised a goblet to toast his troops, the ancients drank from festive cups made in the image of the beings they revered the most: animals.

An unusual new exhibition at the Harvard Art Museums explores that primal connection between man, beast and libation.

Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings opens on Friday, offering a glimpse of six dozen elaborate drinking and pouring vessels — and, through them, a window into the weird symbolism that early civilizations invoked whenever they partied.

Make no mistake: Our Bronze Age ancestors were well-acquainted with the concept of the liquid lunch, and they seem to have had one setting — beast mode.

“By illuminating the history and making of these remarkably global objects, we invite our guests to raise a glass to what unites us across culture and time,” museum director Martha Tedeschi said.

Visitors will journey deep into West Asia and Mediterranean past, where they will be rewarded with priceless, rarely seen items culled from nearly two dozen museums across the US and around the globe, including the British Museum, the Louvre, Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The oldest object: a terra-cotta cup featuring a snarling lion from what is now known as Turkey, believed to date to the early 2000s BC.

The youngest: an ornate drinking horn that then-Soviet chairman Nikita Khrushchev gifted to then-US president John F. Kennedy in September 1962, on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“It’s fascinating how these animal-shaped vessels spread from culture to culture around the world. They were really quite fashionable,” curator Susanne Ebbinghaus said in an interview.

“I hope people will become more aware of the kinds of messages that are encoded in everyday objects, and the importance of social gatherings and getting together,” said Ebbinghaus, who oversees Asian and Mediterranean art at the gallery.

Even the word symposium comes from the Greek for drinking party, she said.

Archeologists have long marveled at how much drinkware used in songs, speeches, prayers and other rituals has survived the ravages of time over three continents. Many were placed in tombs, which helps explain why they endured, Ebbinghaus said.

The Harvard collection includes goblets and beakers shaped like standing or reclining animals; drinking horns and pitchers made in the images of bulls, rams, lions and wild boars; and cups and chalices featuring a mythological menagerie of griffins and dragons.

Fashioned from gold, silver, bronze, glass or animal horn, some of the vessels were status symbols seized as the spoils of war. Others were used as diplomatic gifts or to toast the dead as their spirits journeyed to the afterlife.

Most span the Bronze Age of the third and second millennia BC to the rise of Islam in the seventh century AD.

The vessels are displayed alongside texts, pottery and paintings that capture how humans feasted back in the day.

Somewhat humorously, multiple items incorporate the image of a braying donkey — an ancient symbol of overindulgence.

“Recalcitrant, stupid, uninhibited,” Ebbinghaus said. “That’s what happens when you drink too much.”