Discovering the obvious – the Blenheim sarcophagus

Earlier this month a story that made a splash in the national and international press and that was all over my twitter feed was the ‘discovery’ of an ancient Roman sarcophagus at Blenheim palace. The story was reported by the Daily Mail, the BBC, the Oxford Mail, ITV News,the Times and the New York Times among others. The newspapers reported that an antiques expert has identified the piece, finely carved with Dionysiac reliefs being used as a flowerpot in the palace grounds. The managers of the estate were apparently unaware of what the object really was and have since had it restored and moved to inside the palace.

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I’ve only now gotten around to writing about this because I was bit ill when the news appeared (one of the hazards of having small children) and a bit busy with other things since then. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit, though, because the thing is I remembered seeing the sarcophagus myself on my first visit to Blenheim last April. Above is the photo I took of it – you can see the date if you want proof I really spotted it before it made the news.

My first reaction was to think that I should have been the one to ‘discover’ the sarcophagus and have had my fifteen minutes of fame (the antiques expert who did discover it remains anonymous). I soon realised, however, how extremely unlikely it is that I really could have been the first one to have realised that this plant box was really a 1700 year old Roman grave monument.

Blenheim is within a short bus ride of Oxford, home to the largest Classics Faculty in the world. Over the years countless academics and students must have visited the palace and known immediately what they were looking at. Among the hundreds of thousands of tourists who go to Blenheim each year there must also have been quite a few who knew what it was. When I mentioned to my wife that I was going to write this blog piece and told her about the Blenheim sarcophagus she said nonchalantly ‘Oh yes, I remember seeing that’. She’s not an archaeologist but she’s been with me to quite a few museums and the truth is that you really don’t need to be an expert to recognise a Roman sarcophagus once you’ve seen a few.

I’ve now done some very superficial internet research to see if anybody else had mentioned the object anywhere prior to the discovery and sure enough they had. Zahra Newby, an expert in Roman Art based at Warwick University discusses it in an article in a book on sarcophagi published in 2011. It is also mentioned in the 1882 publication Ancient Marbles in Great Britain by Adolf Michaelis (sadly the page in question isn’t viewable online so I’ll have to wait till I can get to the library to see what it says). By searching through Twitter I found that Peter Stewart, head of CARC (the Classical Art Research Centre at the Classics Faculty in Oxford) pointed out there that the sarcophagus is included in this publication when news of the ‘discovery’ broke two weeks ago. I’m sure he must have visited Blenheim and seen the sarcophagus himself.

I also found a drawing of the sarcophagus in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (viewable on their website) by the early 16th century artist Girolamo da Carpi. The drawing is particularly interesting because it preserves details that have now been lost to damage or to wear. The website calls the picture the ‘Blenheim Sarcophagus’. That can’t of course be what it was known as when the drawing was made because the sarcophagus must still have been in Italy at the time and because Blenheim Palace wouldn’t even be built for another century and a half (between 1705 and 1722 and named after the Battle of Blenheim of 1704). It seems unlikely, however, (and I should follow this up) that the name has only been given to the drawing in the last few weeks so this too seems to be further evidence that the sarcophagus was already rather well known. Finally, in 2010 somebody anonymously posted a photo of the flowerpot on TripAdvisor with the comment that it ‘looks like a Roman lenos sarcophagus’.

So, it is clear enough that over the years plenty of people – probably far more than my brief survey uncovered – have recognised the sarcophagus for what it really was. So why is it only now that it made the news?

The truth must surely be that everybody who saw it and recognised it simply assumed that the people at Blenheim were fully aware what it was. That was certainly my assumption. I found it a shame that it was outside and exposed to the elements and would have preferred the board in front of it to have given some information about it instead of saying ‘Keep off the grass’ but I thought that the sarcophagus had probably been placed there on a whim of one of the past Dukes of Marlborough and had been left there because it was now part of the history of the place and everybody had grown used to it. Not for a moment did I think about approaching someone who worked at the palace and saying ‘Hey, do you realise that ornamental plant box is really a Roman tomb monument?”

I also suspect that the monetary value of the sarcophagus is a big part of the story. I was drawn to the object by its historic interest as a relic of both the ancient world and the great period of the gentleman collectors in the 18th century when I would imagine it was brought to Britain. I had no idea that it would be valued, as it now has been, at £300,000. It took a very particular kind of expert for the alarm bells to start ringing at the thought of this rare, and extremely expensive object, being slowly but steadily worn away by the British rain – somebody who knows both about the market value of ancient art and knows that people who run historic properties sometimes don’t understand the nature of the objects they house. In other words it wasn’t so much a question of ‘discovering’ the sarcophagus as having the insight not to take for granted what so many others evidently have taken for granted over the years.

I suppose that the lesson to be drawn here is: never be afraid to point out the obvious. The next time I visit a stately home and see the marble head of an emperor being used as a doorstop or an Athenian kylix put down as a dog bowl I’ll make sure I speak up.

 

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