Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Could This Be the Most Expensive Flowerpot in England? $364,000 Roman Sarcophagus Was a Garden Ornament

Ancient Origins

An ancient Roman sarcophagus worth up to 345,000 Euros ($364,000) has been found in England. The precious marble coffin was discovered on the grounds of Blenheim Palace, a monumental country house situated in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, where it was used as a flowerpot for almost a century.

 The Roman Sarcophagus was Discovered Coincidentally
 What could be described as an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, the newly acknowledged Roman artifact of immense archaeological and historical significance, served as a humble flowerpot for the past 100 years in the rock garden of Sir Winston Churchill's birthplace in Oxfordshire.

Blenheim Palace, where the Roman sarcophagus was found. (CC BY 2.0)

Before that, the valuable sarcophagus was obtained and used during the 19th century as a garden ornament (a type of fountain) by the fifth Duke of Marlborough, who was famous for his impressive collection of antiquities. Palace officials decided to better examine the almost two meters (6’6ft) long artifact at the suggestion of an antiques expert, who was impressed by the object’s ornate carvings. Ironically, his visit was unrelated to the Roman marble coffin, which he noticed coincidentally.

 Kate Ballenger, house manager at the palace, told Daily Mail:

“We were alerted to the sarcophagus' importance by an antiques expert who was visiting the estate. We always thought it was a beautiful sculpture but we were not aware of the fact is was a Roman sarcophagus dating back to 300 AD. First an elaborate water feature and then a planter for flowers, it has now been conserved and relocated inside the palace. We are delighted to have it back and the restoration work is very impressive. Now it is in a consistent indoor climate away from the natural elements we are hoping it will remain in good condition and survive for many more centuries to come.”

A person visiting Blenheim Palace in 2010 noted that the flowerbed looked like a Roman sarcophagus. Courtesy of TripAdvisor.

The Sarcophagus’ Impressive Carvings Depict a Dionysian Party
After conservators removed the front marble section, which is the genuine part, and carried out a detailed examination they were shocked to identify the basin as a white marble sarcophagus portraying lively and noisy Dionysian festivities, dating back to 300 AD. To be more specific, the impressive carvings depict a dissipated Dionysus, leaning on an equally intoxicated woodland satyr. 

The pair are surrounded by other partygoers including Heracles and Ariadne, as well as two large lion heads. Fortunately, the sarcophagus appears to be in great shape, despite being exposed to natural elements for nearly two hundred years. Nicholas Banfield, of Cliveden Conservation of Taplow, Berks, who has supervised the restoration, told Daily Mail: “The piece is actually in remarkable condition considering it has withstood seemingly aggressive environments, particularly that of a fountain receptacle.”

Example of a marble Roman sarcophagus depicting the ‘Triumph of Dionysos and the Seasons.’ (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Not the First Time a Sarcophagus was Used as a Flowerpot This is not the first time such a valuable and historic artifact was used as a flowerpot. In 2013, auctioneer Guy Schwinge sold a similar sarcophagus for 115,000 Euros ($121k) after finding it being used as a plant trough. He claims that this sarcophagus could be worth three times that price and apparently, Mr. Schwinge, of Duke's Auctioneers of Dorchester, Dorset, seems to agree with Schwinge’s predictions. He tells Daily Mail,

“The quality of this sarcophagus panel suggests it was made in Rome for a high status member of the patrician elite. The overall form and Dionysian carving suggest a date late in the late 2nd century and the lion's masks are a clear expression of Roman Imperial power. At auction a panel of this sophistication could easily realize £300,000 or more with the Blenheim Palace provenance.”

The sarcophagus has now been positioned on public display in an underground room in Blenheim Palace.

After restoration work, the Roman sarcophagus is very impressive. (Blenheim Palace)

Top Image: A Roman sarcophagus that was once used as a garden ornament is now restored and displayed in Blenheim Palace. Source: Blenheim Palace

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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