Open daily, 10am–5pm, Free

419 Great King Street Dunedin, New Zealand

Challenging the Deep


Robert Hannah, one of Otago Museum's Honorary Curators and resident ancient history expert, gives the James Cameron – Challenging the Deep exhibition a classical spin!


Otago Museum’s exhibition, James Cameron – Challenging the Deep, is impressive and interesting on several levels, mostly revolving around the character of film director and explorer, James Cameron. It is hard not to admire his desire from an early age to explore the great depths of the oceans, and his energy and drive in becoming the first person to achieve a solo descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. There are also fascinating insights into the direct interplay between his film and explorer careers, especially through the making of his film, Titanic. The team that made this possible also deserves and gains credit for their integral part in these accomplishments.


But other characters make an appearance at times through the exhibition, and particularly in the documentary of the 2003–2005 expeditions, Aliens of the Deep. In these explorations, scientists studied the ecosystems around hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Among the animals that feature in the film are two octopuses. ‘Oh man, look at this thing!’, exclaims Cameron, reacting to seeing one of them as it swims by, extending its tentacles across the rocks. They remind me of the various octopuses that appear on items in the Classical Collections.


The earliest is an egg-shaped flask (askos) made in Cyprus, dating to the Bronze Age period known as Middle Cypriot III, which corresponds to ca.1750–1650 BCE.




Image: Askos. About 1750–1650 BCE. Willi Fels Memorial Gift; Otago Museum Collection E48.186.  © Otago Museum.


Askoi were small, delicate flasks – this one measures just 7 cm by 6 cm – used to contain and pour liquids like olive oil, perfume, or even fish sauce. As the vase does not have a separate air hole, the liquid would tend to glug out. The artist has cleverly filled the ovoid surface of the top with a centrally positioned octopus. Its head is set under the handle, in line with the spout, and its eight tentacles stretch out symmetrically across the surface, ending in spirals, like the New Zealand fern pattern. The suckers are clearly depicted.


A couple of Bronze Age octopuses decorate other items on public display. Both are modern electrotype copies of objects that are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, but were found in graves in Mycenae. The decoration, however, is of Cretan origin, belonging to a period when art there was dominated by marine themes. Cretan decorative schemes, and perhaps even Cretan artists, travelled across to mainland Greece, where local artists also eventually adopted and adapted the motifs, reducing their naturalism in favour of formalised and abstract versions.


One of these electrotypes is a little circular disk, originally of gold, which was buried with the deceased, perhaps attached to their clothing or equipment.



Image: Electrotype replica of engraved gold disk from the Shaft Graves, Mycenae. Gift of the Association of Friends of the Otago Museum; Otago Museum Collection. Original in Athens, National Archaeological Museum. About 1680–1580 BCE. E75.12. © Otago Museum.


The base of the octopus’s body is set at the centre of the disk, while its tentacles extend like multiple spokes of a wheel around it, filling in the space in mirror-image symmetry.


The other copy was originally a vase, made of chloritic stone, carved in two halves to make an egg shape, topped by a vertical spout and perforated in its base with a series of holes. The vase is a rhyton, (top image) which was used to pour liquid offerings (libations) to the gods in religious rituals.


The octopus here is placed within an underwater rocky or coral landscape. An extraordinary feature of this vase is that the two halves of the original were made in different places and at different times. The upper half with the rock-work design is Cretan, but the lower half, which carries the octopus, is a later repair, made by a mainland Greek artist out of the same type of stone but from a different outcrop. It is impossible to know whether the original Cretan octopus was quite as symmetrical as the later Greek artist has made it.


Octopuses lend themselves to symmetrical designs, as these three items show. The same tendency is seen also much later in a more restrained form on the top of another small flask (guttus), which is presently in storage and dates to about 300 BCE.



 Image: ‘Black glaze’ guttus. About 300 BCE. Willi Fels Memorial Gift; Otago Museum Collection E48.244. © Otago Museum.


Only 10.8 cm by 8.9 cm, it is a nice example of so-called ‘black glaze ware’ – although the black colour is not a glaze, but a clay slip made of the same clay used to make the flask, fired in the oxygen-deficient atmosphere of the kiln. It may have been made in Apulia in southeast Italy. Once again, there is no separate air hole, so the liquid would be well contained in the guttus, and easily poured out slowly through the tall spout.


More impressive in scale, but equally formalised as a symmetrical pattern of bulbous body and ranging tentacles, is the octopus on a large vase (column krater) on public display.



Image: Corinthian or Italo-Corinthian column krater. About 550 BCE. Otago Museum Collection. E63.2690. © Otago Museum.


It was made either in Corinth or in Italy, but under the influence of pottery from Corinth, and dates to around 550 BCE. Kraters were used to contain wine mixed with water, from which drinks could be scooped out by ladle and poured into drinking cups. The shape first appears in Corinth in the seventh century BCE, and seems to have been called ‘Corinthian’(Korinthios). Corinthian pottery is best known for its small vases with miniature painted figures, usually arranged in tiers around the vase – there are examples on display in the Museum. However, at this time, potters adopted an alternative approach of larger scale figures like this octopus that dominates the vase.


Finally, mention of creatures of the sea, such as the octopus, reminds us of the god of the sea: Poseidon for the Greeks, Neptune for the Romans. Each appears on coins in the Classical Collection.


The Greek colony of Poseidonia near Naples in Italy – better known nowadays by its later Roman name, Paestum – minted silver coins with an image of its patron god on the obverse (heads) side from the 6th century BCE. Our example belongs to the middle of the 5th century.


 RH CTD Poseidonia

Image: Silver diobol from Poseidonia. About 460–440 BCE. Otago Museum Collection. E2015.96 © Otago Museum.


Poseidon is shown striding out, naked except for a cloak draped over his extended arms, with his right arm raised brandishing a trident, which curiously passes behind his head, presumably so as not to obscure his face. The image may well reflect a famous statue in the city. Rather nicely for our theme in this blog, the city also produced a small coin with Poseidon on the heads side, and an octopus on the tails, but the Museum unfortunately does not have an example.


The Roman version of the god shows a much more relaxed figure, presumably also based on a large-scale sculpture of Neptune.



Image: Bronze coin (as) from Italy. 37–41 CE. Otago Museum Collection. E2017.523 © Otago Museum.


The coin is made of bronze and usually dated to the reign of the emperor Caligula (37–41 CE), who was the grandson of Agrippa, whose portrait appears on the obverse of the coin.


Neptune and Agrippa are linked via the latter’s sea battle victories in support of the future emperor Augustus, most notably the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, in which Antony and Cleopatra were defeated and Egypt came under Roman rule. Agrippa built a temple to Neptune in Rome, with a statue of the god inside. Perhaps we are seeing a reflection of this figure on the coin.


For the ancient Greeks and Romans, like modern New Zealanders, the sea was never far away, and marine themes occur frequently in their art, reflecting reality. The octopus was part of their natural world, as it is of ours. They would probably have appreciated James Cameron’s fascination with the deep and its inhabitants.


James Cameron – Challenging the Deep is only on until Sunday, 23 February, so come along while you still have the chance!




Top image: Electrotype copy of chloritic stone rhyton. Otago Museum Collection. Original in Athens, National Archaeological Museum. About 1750–1450 BCE. X2019.925  © Otago Museum.