Accessing Harvard’s Bronzes

July 9, 2015
Index Magazine

Accessing Harvard’s Bronzes

This bronze helmet, dating from the mid-sixth century BCE, is one of nearly 1,300 objects in the collection of ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums. 

At some point in the late sixth to fifth century BCE, somewhere in or near Greece, a man was likely buried wearing the bronze helmet that is now one of nearly 1,300 objects in the collection of ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern bronzes at the Harvard Art Museums. The ancient object bears the possible imprint of a beard; over time, the strands of hair left their shape upon the corroding metal, creating what is known as a “pseudomorph.”

Two important new resources provide further details about this evocative helmet and many of the other objects in the museums’ bronze collection: the 2014 volume of essays Ancient Bronzes though a Modern Lens, edited by Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art and the head of the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art; and a robust digital resource, edited by Lisa Anderson, the Frederick Randolph Grace Assistant Curator of Ancient Art. The book offers a general introduction to the study of ancient bronzes, including technical and analytical approaches, and summarizes research conducted on the museums’ objects. The digital component presents comprehensive information about every bronze in the ancient art collection.

For Anderson, researching and cataloguing these objects has been fascinating. “Most people would specialize in a specific area within ancient art, such as Egyptian or Near Eastern or Roman art, but this collection requires a really broad knowledge of the ancient world,” she said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot about different types of objects that I otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to.”

The original plan, initiated in the late 1960s, was to publish a catalogue of highlights from the collection. As the endeavor morphed into a catalogue of all the bronzes in the expanding collection, involving the efforts of dozens of curators, conservators, fellows, interns, and Harvard students, it became clear that a searchable digital platform would be best suited for the vast amount of information associated with the objects.

Today, the special collection comprises a wide variety of copper alloy objects, including hundreds made of bronze (a copper-tin alloy) and brass (a copper-zinc alloy). Created over a span of five thousand years, between the early Bronze Age and the Byzantine period, and with origins in the Mediterranean, northern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, the objects include everything from sculptural masterpieces (such as the Roman statuette of Demosthenes) to votive statuettes (such as an Egyptian sculpture of Horus as a falcon) to utilitarian goods (such as dress fasteners, lamps, and furniture decoration).

In addition to the standard information available for most objects on the museums’ website, the database of bronzes provides extensive information concerning the chemical composition of the metal, technical observations about the method of manufacture and current condition, and descriptive text with commentary by curators and former students. Many listings include multiple photos, as well as x-ray images and line drawings, offering visual context and even some perspectives that can’t be obtained with the naked eye (such as on this incense burner).

“It's important to have a holistic view of each object,” said Anderson. “Understanding how it was made and used situates an object more firmly in its cultural context.”