African designs, £9.99
Height: 176.000 cm
Width: 45.000 cm
Depth: 16.000 cm
ME 125075;ME 125186
Neo-Punic, 2nd century BC - 3rd century
From Carthage, Tunisia
One morning in Spring 2000, while checking objects in the basement reserves of the Department of the Ancient Near East, the curator Jonathan Tubb cast his eyes along the Museum's fine collection of Neo-Punic stelae. These large, intricately carved stones from the Phoenician cities of North Africa, represent votive monuments, normally dedicated to the principal Punic deities, Tanit and Baal Hammon. They were set up in special sacred precincts, known as tophets. In the period prior to the conquest of Carthage by the Romans in 146 BC (the Punic period), similar stelae, but considerably smaller, used to be erected over urn burials containing the remains of children and infants which had been placed in the care of the deities. Following the Roman conquest, however, it seems that the erection of the stela itself was sufficient to fulfil the obligations to the gods. The museum's collection of nearly two hundred Punic and Neo-Punic stelae was acquired around the middle of the nineteenth century from the excavations at Carthage and from various other sites in Tunisia.
As he surveyed the stelae, it became apparent that of the nearly two hundred examples, not one was complete. In his mind he began to try to piece together some of the fragments, matching up break lines, and juggling designs - tops of shrines with bottoms of shrines, headless bodies with bodiless heads and so on. And then he suddenly realised that all of these variables were coinciding in two pieces. He checked again and again until he was convinced that a lower half (complete from the unworked base to the shoulders of a human figure) and an upper portion (complete from the gabled top down to a human head) actually might fit together!
He pulled out photographs of the two pieces from the Departmental records, adjusted their scales on a photocopier, and found that the images joined together perfectly. The records showed that the two halves had been registered and numbered in the nineteenth century (in 1857 and 1860) as distinct and separate objects and no connection between the two pieces had been recognised.
The physical restoration was done over several weeks by Nicholas Lee and Karen Birkhölzer, of the Museum's Stone Conservation Section. The two halves re-united - now the Museum's only complete example of a Neo-Punic stela - provide a wonderfully integrated composition, showing a ritual bull sacrifice with musical accompaniment; a shrine containing the votary - named in Latin as L. Julius Urba, and a tableau of deities - a cupid, flanked by Venus and Dionysus, overseen by the Sun, the Moon and the Punic goddess Tanit.
Photograph: Takeo Matsunaga, staff photographer, Asahi Shimbun
C. Mendleson, Catalogue of Punic Stelae in t, British Museum Occasional Paper 48 (London, The British Museum Press, 2003)