Gallery Talk: The Mausoleum at Halikarnassos

The most photographed 3 slabs from the frieze around the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos. Done in an older style. British Museum, Room 21. (Photo: Sandra Alvarez)

On of the most interesting ancient attractions at the British Museum is its collection of pieces from the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos. The museum's Curator of Ancient Greece, Peter Higgs, recently gave a gallery talk on the Mausoleum’s history, and recovery.

The History of the Mausoleum

The building was designed by sculptors Pytheos of Priene (4th century BC) and Satyros (4th century BC), and is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It is the tomb for King Maussollos (377–353 BC), a member of the Hekatomnid Dynasty who ruled Karia. While Maussollos directed the initial stages of its construction, he died before it was completed. The tomb was dedicated in 351 BC.

The building was believed to stand 140 ft high, with an Ionic colonnade, and was constructed of  highest quality marbles. They were shipped across the Aegean, incurring a huge building cost.The famous frieze of Halikarnassos ran about 300m around the entire building. How do we know all this? We know details of its construction and appearance from ancient sources, such as Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD).

In later periods, Christians, Muslims and other religions destroyed the structure because they found it offensive. However, it stood until the 12th century when it was finally destroyed by a series of earthquakes. Afterward, the structure completely disappeared over time as bits of it were taken away to furnish other castles, such as Bodrum castle, built in 1402.

Colossal Statue of a Persian Rider on a Rearing Horse. 350 BC, British Museum. (Photo: Sandra Alvarez) Colossal Statue of a Persian Rider on a Rearing Horse. 350 BC, British Museum. (Photo: Sandra Alvarez)

Rediscovery and Recovery

The area of the Mausoleum was difficult to travel to until the 19th century when the British developed a strong relationship with the Ottomans. During that time, many of these objects ended up finding their way to the British Museum.

One person who was responsible for finding the Mausoleum was Charles Newton (1816-1894). He was an archaeologist and the first Keeper of Antiquities from 1861. He was tasked with locating the Mausoleum and sent several surveyors to try and find it. Newton managed to locate the site after studying ancients texts, however, he encountered a hurdle: he had to get permission to destroy the medieval houses that had been built over and around the monument in order to access it.

Another person who played a pivotal role in the preservation and recovery of the Mausoleum was British diplomat Sir Stratford Canning (1786-1880). In 1848, Canning managed to convince the Sultan to give him some of the sculptures in Bodrum castle. He quickly realized that they were not medieval, but ancient and began digging and found several slabs from the Mausoleum. These are better preserved and not as damaged as other pieces of the frieze. The human forms on the three slabs found by Stratford are more ‘old fashioned’ than others, harkening back to a style of sculpture more common in 5th century BC where figures are stockier, and more square.

The above slab depicts a more modern style of sculpture that is often forgotten when pictures of the Mausoleum are taken, because these newer depictions are more damaged. British Museum. (Photo: Sandra Alvarez)

Higgs pointed out that the tombs contained both ancestral and religious iconography. There were attempts to show the Hekatomnid dynasty linked with that of a God. This attempt to link human rulers to demi-Gods like Heracles/Hercules and Dionysus was not uncommon during this period.

British Museum curator, Peter Higgs discussing the colossal statues found at the Mausoleum of Halikarnassos. They are believed to be Maussollos and his sister-wife, Artemisia II. British Museum, Room 21. (Photo: Sandra Alvarez)

Higgs then discussed the two colossal statues found at the site, usually believed to be those of Mausollos and his sister-wife, Artemisia II of Karia (d. 350 BC). According to Higgs, the two sculptures represented one man's hopes for the afterlife. If you look closely, you can still see the marks from the sculptor's work. Higgs noted that the hair on the figures is odd because their style is archaic, dating to the 6th century BC. He suggested that this was perhaps done to show their ancestral links to the past. Another interesting observation was that the figure of Mausollos is not Greek. He has long hair, which was a non-Greek style, as well as a short beard, in contrast to fuller Greek beards. His statue is thought to be eastern in style with Greek influences. The statue is also covered as opposed to bare chested, Mausollos is not showing off his physique as Greeks would. Interestingly, he also appears to have a bit of a gut! According to Higgs, eastern rulers liked showing their high status in statues by adding in a bit of a paunch to show they were well fed and, therefore wealthy.

The Mausoleum of Halikarnassos remains one of the most fascinating and mythic remnants of the ancient world. If you’re planning to visit London, you can enjoy this incredible display in Room 21 at the British Museum.

For more information about gallery talks and event, please visit: www.britishmuseum.org

Follow the British Museum on Twitter: @britishmuseum

 

 

 

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One thought on “Gallery Talk: The Mausoleum at Halikarnassos”

  • George Tuck Pittman
    George Tuck Pittman October 13, 2017 at 7:05 pm

    This is FABULOUS. It would be nice to be able to do a 'Virtual Tour' simply because many of these areas are not available to be visited because of one word, WARS that are always on-going, or so it seems. Thank you, GTP

    Reply
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