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Jewelry in the Byzantine Museum of Athens: The Mytilene Treasure

Eugenia Chalkia, Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Summer Fellow 2006

A very significant component of the collection of gold jewelry in the Byzantine Museum of Athens consists of the Mytilene Treasure from the island of Lesbos. This find also includes a group of luxury silver vessels and thirty-two gold coins of the emperors Phokas (602–610) and Herakleios (first part of his reign, 610–629). The jewelry, twenty-one objects in total, includes bracelets, rings, earrings, necklaces, pendants, amulets, belts, and buckles. Despite the importance of the Mytilene Treasure, one of the most significant hoards of the seventh century from the Aegean area, no previous systematic study has been dedicated to it since its discovery in 1951, except for brief entries in exhibition catalogues.

My aim during the period of my fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks was to complete an in-depth analysis of this collection. The great opportunity afforded by the use of the research materials at the library of Dumbarton Oaks enabled me to undertake a comparative study of each of the individual pieces, and to write systematic entries for them.

My current research has resulted in some important new observations. For example, it has not been previously realized that a small bracelet with a double engraved cross monogram contains the owner’s name. Although bracelets with monograms are not unknown, this type is very rare. The very small dimensions of the piece of jewelry, as well as the masculine form of the name engraved within the monogram, lead to the conclusion that the bracelet belonged to a boy.

Another characteristic group of items within this collection consists of three cylindrical amulets, a very popular type of object, which typically contains a thin sheet of gold inscribed with magical texts. Amulets of this type appear frequently in the Faiyum mummy portraits, and a considerable number of them were found in tombs. The presence in this hoard of three amulets that obviously belonged to the same family, as well as the presence of another pendant-amulet decorated with a cross, is indicative of semi-magical practices existing among families of the upper social rank during the seventh century, the epoch in which the Mytilene Treasure was buried.

The final objective of this project will be the publication of a systematic catalogue of the Mytilene Treasure. This task will be undertaken in collaboration with the former director of the Numismatic Museum of Athens, Dr. I. Touratsoglou, who is studying the rest of the items, i.e., the silver vessels and gold coins.