The Meroë Head, one of the most important surviving portraits of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, is explored in a new Asahi Shimbun Display at the British Museum together with the fascinating story of its discovery. Originally part of a statue of Augustus that was ritually beheaded in antiquity, the bronze caused an international sensation when it was excavated in Sudan in 1910. It is shown next to captivating and rarely seen photographs of the original excavation in a free display.
A rare survivor from the period, the mesmerizing portrait retains its original inlaid eyes. The eyes consist of green and black glass paste, each encircled by a small copper ring, set into wedge-shaped, highly polished limestone. The tear ducts are indicated in reddish paste. The eyelashes, now mostly broken off, were formed by thin, serrated sheets of copper or bronze. Masterpieces of ancient craftsmanship, they truly bring the portrait to life and capture Augustus’ much celebrated and arresting gaze, a quality noted in Roman literary sources. Based on models from classical Greece, the portrait type used for the Meroë Head differed from earlier, more naturalistic depictions of Augustus. Its timeless and ageless character successfully communicated Augustus’ authority and the might of Rome, which he ruled from 27 BC – AD 14. Yet in a dramatic turn of fate, it owes its very survival to the triumph of Rome’s enemies far from the borders of the Roman Empire.
In 25/24 BC, soon after Augustus’ conquest of Egypt, an army of the ancient African kingdom of Kush (in what is today the Republic of Sudan), destroyed and looted statues of Augustus in raids on the Egyptian border. The portrait head became a prized trophy, and was buried beneath the steps of a victory shrine in the Kushite capital of Meroë, so that whoever entered ritually trampled the decapitated head of the ruler of the Roman Empire.
The Meroë Head was excavated at Meroë in 1910, by a team led by Professor John Garstang of Liverpool University. The discovery, captured in stunning photographs, immediately attracted international attention. Lord Kitchener, who had been touring the Sudan, arrived to see the spectacular find for himself, accompanied by the Governor-General, Sir Francis Reginald Wingate. The New York Times report on the excavation and singles out the Meroë Head: ‘An archaeological sensation has been created by the splendid results that have rewarded Prof. Garstang’s excavations at the ancient city of Meroë in Ethiopia…chief of all the prizes is a great bronze head’
Modern photographs in this display illustrate how, like Augustus, leaders today use portraiture to manipulate and control their public image and how these portraits are deployed in times of conflict. After the first Gulf War, the Iraqis installed a floor mosaic of the American President George Bush Senior at the entrance of the Al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad, so that all visitors (including western politicians and businessmen), were forced to walk over face of the leader of the biggest power in the West – just as the Meroites did with the face of Augustus outside their victory shrine 2,000 years earlier. The Americans in turn tore down statues of Saddam Hussein as soon as they captured the city. Between art and politics, these portraits remain powerful objects.