The Phoenicians were an ancient civilization from the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Renowned for their seafaring and trading feats, they got their name – a Greek version of purple, from their production of a purple dye made from the crushed shells of Murex sea snails. They occupied – or perhaps more accurately accommodated for a time, a fairly long time – the Italian island of Sicily, at the toe of the boot.
The Phoenician story marks the beginning of a Sicilian story, being told in the recently opened Ashmolean Museum’s Storms, War & Shipwrecks exhibition in Oxford. It is one that journeys a thousand years and more across time, and perhaps almost as many fathoms to the depths of Mediterranean sea.
The exhibition presents a tale of a culture with its beginnings in the Sican and Sicel native islanders. It starts with the arrival of the Phoenicians. Then the Romans, the Byzantines, and culminating in the Arab-Norman era to AD 1194 – and the arrival of oranges and Jasmine to the island. It also traverses pagan, Greek and Roman gods, to the arrival of Christianity.
This is not a tale told from land however, but pieced together from the numerous shipwrecks taking place around the Sicilian shores over millennia, and the accompanying finds from their cargoes brought to the surface of the Mediterranean in the 20th century. Not content to submit to the decaying forces of seawater, jugs, bowls, jewelry and religious ephemera have found a sedimentary savior in the sea, to survive in some cases almost intact for a 21st century Oxford audience.
It is the story behind the ancient finds that musters them to life. For me, a metaphorical jewel in the watery crown is a bronze perfume jar retrieved from the storm hit Camarina Shipwreck. Believed to date from AD 150-200, the jar’s façade is intricately embellished, in a way that seems to belie its age, with vine leaves shaped almost heart like. What would the fragrance have been then if the lid were lifted then, or now? Would it have contained a liquid, paste or grain-like substance? At the time the storm hit, was the perfume jar already a purchase or gift, or perhaps yet to be sold? These are questions the exhibition prompts but does not answer.
Although the Sicilian story being told is one of battle – between peoples, with the elements, for land – it most vividly presents a visual, textured, fragrant account of Sicily through its surrounding waters. It is a plentiful display of words, pictures, re-creations and artefacts.
An extra dimension will be added on 21 July when ancient Sicily will meet contemporary culture, as actor Luca Zingaretti – ‘Inspector Montalbano’ from the Sicily-set Italian detective series broadcast in the UK on BBC4, will join a private tour of the exhibition.
Storms, War & Shipwrecks is on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until 25 September 2016.
© Laura Claire H 2016.