One of the loveliest objects we have on display in our Ancient Worlds Gallery, is a beautiful cast of a female head …

Leeds City Museum, LEEDM.D.2007.0022

The original is held at the British Museum and is believed to be a first or second century bronze head from Satala in northern Turkey. It would have been part of a life-size bronze statue, with inlaid eyes. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, beauty and fertility. She was born of sea-foam and was believed to be a protector of sailors. She is identified as Aphrodite through comparison to other statues, notably casts of the Aphrodite of Knidos (the original does not survive, but the most faithful copy is seen as the Colonna Venus in Vatican Museums).

Colonna Venus

However, there are other interpretation, it is suggested that she is a statue of the Iranian goddess Anahita, whose personality later became conflated with Aphrodite and Athena.

Anahita vessel, AD 300-500, Cleveland Museum of Art

The statue may date to the reign of Tigranes the Great, king of Armenia in 97-56 BC, so it has also been suggested that the head could also represent an Armenian goddess.

There are two aspects of this post I find fascinating: one is the reliance on casts of statues that have now disappeared for dating and stylistic analysis; the other is that even when we feel we firmly know an identity of an object, there are often many more layers to understanding it than first appear.

Have you visited Aphrodite? Who do you think she is? She may well be all three! It is important to remember that Turkey, 2000 years ago, was an economic and cultural crossroads, where ideas on everything, including religion, were exchanged and mutated into different forms. Just as today, culture was not a static force, but was constantly in motion.

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