This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
Perched above the swelling form of a diminutive pottery vessel, the head of a black man looks attentively ahead, the apparent custodian of its contents. Though his appearance here may catch the viewer unaware, the presence of a black person amid the mundane culture of the ancient world should not be at all surprising. Across the centuries traversed by the Greco-Roman civilization, the image of black people relates a story of arrival from not-so-distant Africa that affected Mediterranean culture as profoundly as any other contributor.
An askos is a small bronze or terra-cotta vessel for enhancing the flavor of food in the ancient world, most often with a sprinkling of olive oil. Judging from the great numbers that survive, the askos must have been a staple of the ancient Mediterranean dining table. The earliest examples go back several thousand years before this one. The word askos in Greek means “leather bag,” referring to the animal skins used to store wine. The body of this askos does indeed resemble an inflated skin, with a small spout in the side to pour out its contents. The container is filled from the larger opening at the top of the head.
This intriguing vessel was produced in Selinous, a thriving coastal town in western Sicily. Like many of the large cities of South Italy and Sicily during this time, Selinous made up part of Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece, a major zone of expansion for cities on the Greek mainland and the eastern shore of Asia Minor. Founded in the seventh century B.C., Selinous soon became a major religious and commercial center, possessing some of the most magnificent temples of the ancient world.
Along with such impressive monuments, one of the largest pottery-manufacturing quarters of the ancient world has recently been unearthed near the city walls of the metropolis. After over two centuries of prosperity, the city was partly destroyed in 409 B.C. during hostilities with the Carthaginians, a powerful non-Greek people who dominated much of the western Mediterranean. Selinous never regained its former status as a great city after this defeat and finally fell into ruins after another attack by the same foe a century and a half later.
The features of the black man’s head conform to a standard type going back to the initial encounter of black people by Greek culture. The incised, coiled hair, with its receding hairline, and the full shape of the lips derived from prototypes developed in the faraway Greek homeland from at least the mid-sixth century B.C. Unlike the rest of the piece, the diminutive head, less than 2 inches high, was formed by pressing wet clay into a two-part mold. Although now isolated as a unique artifact, the easily reproducible black head once must have appeared on a large number of askoi.
Scholarship is divided over the date of the askos. It is usually assigned to the late fifth century, about the time of the near destruction of the city by the Carthaginians. Beyond considerations of date and style, the conjoining of the black head with the globular, clearly nonhuman body of the askos invites speculation over the intended meaning of the hybrid figure.
The process is informed by another surviving example of this type of askos. The piece in question represents a siren, the mythological bird-woman believed by the Greeks to lure sailors to their doom by the seductive strains of her song. Also made in Selinous and dated to the same period, the construction of the body, head, decoration and appendages corresponds to that of the askos with the head of a black man. The resemblance between the two is so close that they may have been made side by side in the same workshop.
Virtually all traces of coloration have worn away from the askos with the black head. The presence of short legs and a tail, just as in the siren askos, seems to associate the black man with the same type of mythological creature that is a hybrid being, evocative of untamed, mysterious forces threatening the stability of civilized life. Together with the siren askos, the askos may form part of a group of related human-headed vessels.
Male sirens rarely occur in Greek art after the sixth century B.C., but the situation may have been different in the cosmopolitan culture of Sicily during the ensuing classical period. The ancient Greek world was fertile ground for the dissemination of key visual motifs, including those from foreign cultures. Hybrid creatures such as the siren originated in the Near East and were often incorporated by the civilizations of the Mediterranean world as part of their own cosmology.
One means of transmission for this singular body of mythological lore was the far-ranging commercial power of Carthage. Long before their conquest of Selinous, these seafaring traders served as a vital point of connection between the Greek colonies and the ancient cultures of Asia Minor and the Levant. The askos with the head of a black man, like the siren askos, represents the continued presence of such imported cultural influences within the quite different ambient of the classical world.
The conjunction of the black man’s head with the body of a mythical creature conjures a dual sense of otherness. The distant geographical origins and clear physical difference of sub-Saharan Africans from those of native Mediterranean peoples introduced yet another element of diversity into the cosmopolitan scope of the ancient Greek world. This very condition, however, could also provide a beneficial apotropaic function by warding off evil influences lurking just behind the relative order of mundane life.
Whatever the precise combination of human and unnatural being may reside in this small clay vessel, the askos with the head of a black man uniquely documents the continual recognition of the African presence in the ancient world. A paradoxical conjunction of disturbing fancy and deliverance from malign forces, it evokes the important, but often marginalized, role played by people of color at the dawn of Western civilization.
The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.