Charles Townley's cista mystica

Container for cosmetic items

Engraving of the container by William Skelton

Engraving of the container by William Skelton

Other objects in the group, engraving by William Skelton

Other objects in the group, engraving by William Skelton

Height: 35.300 cm (with lid)

Townley Collection

GR 1814.7-4.703

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This bronze container became known as the cista mystica or 'casket used in the mysteries'. Its owner, the collector Charles Townley (1753-1805), thought that the scenes engraved on it indicated that such boxes were used in the Mysteries of Dionysos and the Eleusinian Mysteries, partly because of a snake shown in a basket. In fact it is simply a container for cosmetic articles.

It was said to have been found with two bronze vessels, a bowl, ladle, knife, pair of cymbals, mirror, pair of bracelets, spoon, incense burner and a figure of a warrior. The group was acquired by James Byres, Scottish architect and antiquarian (resident in Rome 1750-1790) from a silversmith who claimed that they had been found by a peasant on the site of the Temple of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina. However, they are in fact of different dates and probably from one or more tombs. Various alterations and additions had been made to the objects, perhaps by the silversmith. Byres sold them to Townley from whom they passed to the British Museum in 1814 (apart from one of the vessels, see GR 1824.4-89.5).

The feet of the vessel are formed of lion's paws surmounted by crouching lions, and there was originally a chain hung from a row of discs around the middle. The scenes around the vessel have not been identified with certainty: suggestions include the death of Astyanax, the death of Neoptolemos, or the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

On display: Enlightenment: Religion