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>  News Releases >   2003 >   April

Deciphering the riddle of an ancient bronze sculpture

Posted 04/07/03, by Sue Knapp


Thurber and Ackley '03 are working to decipher the riddle of the ram
(photo by Joe Mehling '69)

Unknown. You often see this word on labels in art museums. At Dartmouth's Hood Museum of Art, it identifies an ancient bronze sculpture of a ram. "It is an exceptional object," says Joseph Ackley '03 from Southbury, Conn., the Mellon curatorial intern at the museum, "but one that raises myriad questions about its origins, how it was made, and its intended function."

The object was donated to the museum in 2000 by Mark Lansburgh, class of 1949 and the parent of two Dartmouth alumni, a '77 and an '88. But the ram's age, origins, and purpose are a mystery. Ackley and Bart Thurber, the Hood's curator of European art, are working together to fill in the gaps of knowledge about this piece.

Thurber initially contacted curators and researchers at other leading institutions, including the Harvard University Art Museums; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the Dumbarton Oaks Collection. All told him nothing in their collections significantly resembled Dartmouth's object. The investigation was launched.

"The ram provided a springboard for a relatively unexplored area of late Roman material culture," says Thurber.

Based on thermoluminescence dating of the sculpture's core, which involved testing a small sample of the ram's inner material, Thurber learned the ram is 1,400–2,200 years old. Knowing that the ancient Mediterranean had a prominent tradition of producing small bronze animal statuettes at that time, Thurber and Ackley began working together to determine where in the Mediterranean it was made and what it was used for.

"When searching for other objects of a similar style, I learned that the ram was virtually unique," says Ackley. "It took a lot of searching before I found even a couple of examples of ram depictions similar to this one, mainly in ancient sculpted reliefs for friezes and sarcophagi. Frankly, I couldn't find any examples of existing bronze animal statuettes of the same scale as our ram. The vast majority are much smaller. While we have many conjectures about the ram's date, origin, and use, we have almost no conclusive stylistic or scientific evidence to help answer these questions."

"While we have many conjectures about the ram's date, origin, and use, we have almost no conclusive stylistic or scientific evidence to help answer these questions."

-Joseph Ackley '03

Ackley and Thurber think the object offers great possibilities for years of research and dialogue by Dartmouth faculty and students as well as art historians worldwide. For example, the ram was produced through the lost wax-casting process, which could inform a discussion about bronze sculpture in general. Also, the hypotheses attached to the ram's function in society will certainly provoke further conversations regarding late Roman society, the importance of aesthetics when creating objects, and how the human world interacts with the material world.

As a side benefit, Ackley also got a lesson in historical metallurgy during his ram investigation.

"It was tempting to compare the elemental composition of the ram's bronze alloy to other bronze alloy compositions to determine the ram's geographic origin," he says. "Based on existing data, the ram's alloy was found to be very distinctive. The amounts of trace elements in the bronze, such as arsenic and bismuth, do not match the typical quantities found in most other bronzes produced on the Italian peninsula in the late Roman period. However, the discrepancies could have been the product of existing bronze being recycled and used for the ram, since the metal was so valuable. Until recently, bronze objects were frequently melted down to be reused for something else."

Thurber has been impressed with Ackley's ability to immerse himself in this project and make incredible progress. "I have to say that I enjoy working with students because, while they may not have the background and training to make precise scholarly contributions, they provide a fresh approach to the research subject," says Thurber. "Students contribute new questions, alternative perspectives, and generally lots of enthusiasm. Joe definitely filled all of those categories."

- Susan Knapp

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