Last night Michael Wood, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, gave a public lecture entitled ‘In the footsteps of Alexander: a fresh look at an epic journey’. This drew on the popular 1998 TV series in which Prof Wood re-traced the epic journey of Alexander the Great. In his talk Professor Wood updated the story with new material from the currently beleaguered areas of Syria and Northern Iraq, and illustrated his talk with stunning pictures of the regions Alexander visited and showed clips from his documentary series.
As part of the welcome in the Museum foyer I was asked to show some objects from about the time of Alexander and it was a great pleasure to bring out a tray of ancient Greek coins and some Achaemenid Persian pottery from the site of Yanik Tepe in northern Iran.
The coins included a gold stater and a series of what our numismatist, Keith Sugden, describes as ‘monotonous’ tetradrachms of Alexander and some of his Successors. In the photo above the profile of Alexander wearing a lion skin headdress can be seen. The reverse of the coins shows Zeus seated. The only difference between the issues is often only the mintmark, denoting where the coin was struck. Such coins were produced right across the vast empire that Alexander created, replacing the numerous smaller, local and regional currencies that numismatists like Keith find more interesting. A gold stater (on the far left) has on the reverse a depiction of Victory, or Nike, who as we all know, was the ancient Greek goddess of trainers…
Of particular interest to me personally was second from the right a silver coin of Seleucus, one of Alexander’s generals who founded a dynasty that ruled much of Asia until the 2nd and 1st centuries BC when the Seleucid empire fought unsuccessful wars with the Roman Republic. Seleucus commanded a portion of the Macedonian phalanx.
With the help of Ptolemy, Seleucus established himself in Babylon, expanded eastwards into India, and later swapped several eastern territories for a large herd of elephants, which were deployed to great effect against his rivals. In the Ipsus campaign Seleucus brought his war elephants from Mesopotamia to Turkey. Does that make him greater than Hannibal? In 281 BC, with Macedonia and mainland Greece almost within his grasp, and after a lifetime’s hard fighting, the old general was assassinated.
The other material of interest on this table was a group of Achaemenid pottery from Yanik Tepe in northern Iran. It was excavated by Charles Burney of the University’s Archaeology Department who still has sharp memories of driving out there in a jeep in 1960, working with a team of student archaeologists (he still rembmers all their names!) and driving the material back to the UK. The site was on a large mound made of the accumulated debris of not just hundreds but thousands of year of habitation from the Neolithic onwards. In one of its most ‘recent’ phases of occupation there seems to have been an Achaemenid Persian garrison based in a citadel on top of the mound in the late 6th/early 5th centuries BC. The pottery from this phase included a large pitcher for pouring liquids, wheel-made bowls and a pottery lamp. Some of the pottery is decorated with red cross-hatching.
Of course, all this was really just a warm-up act for the main attraction which was Michael Wood’s talk, which proved to be an extremely popular evening event at the Museum. It was great getting a range of objects out of store that visitors don’t get to see that often. And how refreshing to show representative material from a civilization that isn’t ancient Egyptian, Greek or Roman (not that they aren’t deeply fascinating).
My deepest thanks to Keith for getting out the ancient Greek coins, to Sajia who kindly helped on the objects table and to Sarah in Conservation who took some of the photos.