by Dilovan Serindag
Heinrich Schliemann discovered the gold and silver bull’s head rhyton (see fig. 1) in shaft grave IV of Grave Circle A during his excavation at Mycenae in 1876. Schofield dates the graves of Circle A to the early Late Bronze Age, between 1600 and 1450 BCE (32). Logically, the rhyton dates to a comparable time period. The identity of the artist is unknown.
The bull’s head itself is a hollow silver vessel, which Tsountas and Manatt suggest was cast from a single mold (103). Both the horns, made of gilded wood, and the ears, made of bronze with gold and silver plating, were separately created and subsequently attached (Hood 163; Tsountas and Manatt 103). A multi-layered gold rosette, measuring 2.2 inches in diameter, sits centrally on the forehead, attached by a bronze nail (Tsountas and Manatt 103; Hood 163). Gold plating adorns the nose, and was apparently used to decorate the mouth and eyes but has since deteriorated (Tsountas and Manatt 103). Interestingly, Schliemann notes that instead of directly attaching the gold plate to the silver, the artist instead used a copper intermediary (218). Tsountas and Manatt theorize that applying gold to silver was beyond the artist’s capability (103). Niello, a black metallic medium, was applied on top of the gold and silver to add fine details (Taylour 128).
The purpose and historical significance of this vessel eluded its original discoverer. Schliemann only refers to a “silver cow’s head” in his excavation account (211). In fact, upon finding a hole in the bull’s head, Schliemann muses that it “may have served for flowers” (218). Subsequent scholarship has given the piece its contemporary classification as a rhyton; that is, a vessel used in ritual contexts to pour libations. Indeed, there are actually two holes in the silver head: one between the horns and another at the mouth. Lord Taylour reasonably concludes the mouth hole served as spout (127). Naturally then, the other hole provided a means to fill the rhyton with liquid. Its deposition in a grave, probably after its use in the burial ceremony, provides further consistency for the vessel’s classification as a rhyton.
The form of the rhyton—a bull’s head—suggests a Minoan influence. In Bronze Age art, bulls appear frequently in Minoan works. For instance, Biers notes that “representations of bulls…are plentiful” at Knossos in Crete (48). In fact, several examples of Minoan bull rhyta have been discovered in Crete. One of these rhyta (see fig. 2) shares strikingly similar characteristics with the rhyton from Mycenae. This Minoan bull rhyton was found in the Little Palace at Knossos. Unlike its counterpart from Mycenae, the Knossos rhyton is made of serpentine and features rock crystal and shell adornments instead of gold plating (Higgins 162). However, it too has horns made of gilded wood, and the structural similarities between the two rhyta are readily discernable. Additionally, the Knossos rhyton also has a filling hole in the neck and a spout at the mouth (Higgins 162-64). So great is the perceived Minoan influence in the silver rhyton from Mycenae that some scholars contend it is in fact Minoan in origin. For example, Hood suggests that the silver rhyton “may have been made in Crete” (163). Perhaps then, the silver rhyton was part of an elite exchange network between the aristocracy of the Mycenaean mainland and Minoan Crete. Alternatively, the artist may have been a Minoan living in mainland Greece and working at one of the Mycenaean palaces. In any case, whether the artist was Minoan or Mycenaean, or whether he worked in Crete or in mainland Greece, the Minoan influence on the gold and silver bull’s head rhyton found in a Mycenaean grave is indisputable.
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Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenaean Art. Rev. ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997. Print.
Hood, Sinclair. The Arts in Prehistoric Greece. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1978. Print.
Schliemann, Heinrich. Mycenæ; a Narrative of Researches and Discoveries at Mycenæ and Tiryns. London: John Murray, 1878. Print.
Schofield, Louise. The Mycenaeans. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2007. Print.
Taylour, Lord William. The Mycenaeans. New York: Praeger, 1964. Print.
Tsountas, Chrestos, and J. Irving Manatt. The Mycenaean Age: A Study of the Monuments and Culture of Pre-Homeric Greece. Chicago: Argonaut, 1969. Print.