Museums and exhibitions


A review of the Islanders exhibition at the Fitzwilliam

Islanders: The Making of the Mediterranean

Fitzwilliam Museum (24 February – 4 June 2023)

The island of Cyprus has a claim to be a birthplace of ‘Western Civilization’, that great chimera of the academic and the charlatan. Here, amidst the froth and foam of the seas, Aphrodite was born. Goddess of love and desire, she brought forth the conflict that flattened Hissarlik-on-Scamander, in a war that drew its victims from across the Mediterranean, blood-maddened and god-bothered to their deaths.

A GREAT CATALOG OF SHIPS was sent forth by the Greek generals from Argos, from Sparta and Mycennea and other cities. They sailed across the Aegean Sea, resting on the islands that formed a convenient network of stopping points until their Black-hulled ships beached in the Trojan bay, where they stayed for a decade. Although not described in detail in the Iliad, the logistical side of operations to keep ‘boots on the ground’, as it were, for ten years would have been far more impressive than the strategy. It likely involved maritime trade. It was not for nothing that Aphrodite was later associated with sailing.

Yet Aphrodite of Cyprus was a composite goddess who drew on various traditions across a long time period and took on the attributes of various goddesses including Asherah, Ishtar and Isis. She was a goddess who did not stop still, moving in a blur, coming in and out of focus under different contexts.

She was the goddess who best defined the ancient Mediterranean.

Aphrodite Anadyomene: rising from the sea. (Marble statue from Salamis, Cyprus c.300 – 100 BCE, Cyprus Department of Antiquities, no: Sal St. 20A)

Islanders, a new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam explores the ancient inner sea.

The subtitle of the exhibition is ‘The Making of the Mediterranean’. It can be read on different levels. On a basic level it sets the scene (ancient ✓ Mediterranean ✓  objects ✓),  but on a deeper level it makes complex arguments about how we must understand the ancient world. It argues that the sea is a space in its own right. It is not the void of land, or a barrier between lands and peoples. It identifies the zone as a made thing, defined by human interaction on a series of different scales, and hence a culture or set of interconnected cultures in its own right. 

In their 2000 book The Corrupting Sea, Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell argued that the Med was unique because the islands were both separate systems but joined up.

The connectivity and disconnection worked together. 

The exhibition uses three case studies of Sardinia, Cyprus and Crete the second, third and fifth largest islands respectively in the Mediterranean, a sea littered with many hundreds of islands.

Islands could act as landing points for the system of navigation used by ancient mariners, linking settlements across the Sea. They were nodes in a network. A network is different to an empire or sphere of influence, although sometimes specific regional powers arose including Athens, Carthage and Ptolemaic Egypt. 

Zooming out, we see the traces of the ancient mariners and traders, many of whom have been identified as Phoenician or Greek. For example, a small altar dedicated to Baal Hammon has been found on the site of Sulci Tophet in Isola di Sant’Antioco just off the South-West coast of Sardinia. It is dated to the Fourth-third centuries BCE, when the site was an important Carthagian location. The city of Carthage was just under 200 miles away across the sea and the smaller island acted as launching stage for the larger island.

Hammon was one of the main gods of Carthage. What do we see here? Is this a case of a Carthaginian god worshiped by Carthaginians in a Carthaginian settlement, or a Carthaginian cultural form being used to express local Sardininian gods or aspects, or something more complex.

In an essay in the exhibition’s catalog, Marianna Vecellio uses Donna Harrway’s concept of ‘Compost’ to explore this mixture at a local level.

Compost expresses a form of knowledge that grows from below, based on the exploration of the unknown, a fertile unknown, resulting from a process of proximity and mingling.

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The intermixture and mingling of different cultural forms in a region both insular and highly connected led to rich cultures marked by difference and similarity.

Indeed we must consider the islands themselves not just as nodes, but also networks within themselves that can be broken down into ‘family’ units and individuals. The macro-networks informed the micro-networks: the people with access to trade routes had more influence and power within the islands.

We see this best in a gold earring pendant found in Tharros-Cabras in Sardinia, from 600-400 BCE.  The object contains three ‘lucky charms’ depicting a crescent moon shape, the Egyptian falcon god Horus & a basket topped with a pyramid shape. It is a luxurious object, expressed in an ostensibly Egyptian style. It demonstrates the importance of international trade across the Mediterranean Sea, the understanding of cultural differences and the adoption of styles to distinguish people within island communities. 

This was an elite object which used clear signs to distinguish its uniqueness.

It is because islands were both disconnected and connected that unique cultural forms like this could both develop and be spread. The need to communicate across cultures formed a common language, a koine or lingua franca (if we can use such anachronistic terms). We only have some of the material objects,  but the wider implications are potentially massive. 

Vecellio writes:

“If an island is by definition a minor country, a solitary place, separated from a larger whole and surrounded by water, it is also a metaphor for the way that everything is necessarily connected and intertwined and for the way that, perhaps, in conclusion, everything is island.”

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A take away from the exhibition might be that visitors think about the ancient world as a networked society. If we begin to understand ‘islands’ as a metaphor for a way of life at once both isolated and hyperconnected, then, with apologies to John Donne, we might begin to think of ourselves, contemporary humans, as islands, floating in a sea both desolate and empty of obstacles and open to the unknown horizons of life.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics