Stumping the Archaeologists

In one of Rome’s many archaeological museums, you’ll come across this. Identified as a Greek work from about the 5th century B.C., it is known as the “Ludovisi Throne.” That’s IMG_5156because it was owned by the Ludovisi family, and it sort of looks like a throne. But is it?

This is one of those instances where archaeologists all agree that an item is an extraordinary find… but they can’t agree on what exactly that find is. The notion that it’s a throne is based solely on its shape–although even that is pretty tenuous, since there is no seat or legs or any sort of base.

Some experts have suggested that it is the upper part of a pagan altar, but it’s hard to find a pagan altar with an “upper part” shaped like this. To date, no theory has really IMG_5157proven conclusive.

On top of that mystery, the subject-matter of the carvings is disputed too. Traditionally it has been believed to depict the birth of Venus, who was brought into existence from the sea foam (which is actually the meaning of the Greek word Aphrodite, did you know?). But as you can see, there’s no sea foam in the scene–nor, for that matter, do you see anything else that’s remotely sea-related.

This has prompted some archaeologists to suggest that its actually a depiction of Persephone, who spent six months of the year in Hades (corresponding to fall/winter), and six months on earth, when plants and flowers grow and blossom. They suggest that the image shows Persephone coming up from Hades to earth, at the end of the winter season. Okay–IMG_5158except that there’s no other example of a Greek sculpture of this type that is known to portray the story of Persephone in this way.

In other words, archaeological experts are just guessing! Perhaps some day, a similar sculpture will come to light, and its location will make clear to us all that it was being used as an altar, or a throne, or something else. And maybe at some point another archaeological dig will reveal new imagery of a woman being pulled up much like this–and it will be clear that the new discoveries were in a temple dedicated to Venus, or to Persephone, or to some third goddess. Then we’ll be able to compare the two and draw some reasonable conclusions! But in the meantime… all we can do is admire the graceful artistry of this ancient sculpture–and wonder.