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Container for cosmetic items
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This copper alloy container for cosmetic items dates from the third century BC. It is said to have been found at Palestrina (ancient Praeneste), in Lazio.
It is a cylinder topped with a domed lid, standing about 35 centimetres high, with a diameter of 22 centimetres. It stands on three clawed feet, each with a tiny crouching lion on top.
The body of the container is made from an alloy of copper and tin, with traces of other metals. A brilliant green patina of malachite has leached from the copper, and now encrusts its surface.
The rim and base of the container have been decorated with incised borders showing a lotus and palmette design. Between these borders, on the body of the container, faintly incised designs show scenes from Greek legend. Ionic columns separate three groups of figures. In the first group two women weep over a male corpse, watched by three soldiers. In the second, three soldiers hold a kneeling, naked woman. The last group depicts the gods Apollo and Diana standing with another, unidentified goddess.
Two small discs with fine chains hanging from them are attached to the body of the container, 6 centimetres from the top. One of the chains has broken, the other ends in a small bead. Circular patches about the size of a two pence piece show the positions where another seven discs would have been. These have been added later, as they cover part of the decorative design. All the discs would have been linked by chains.
The original base of the container has entirely corroded away, leaving a ragged edge, but it has been patched in modern times from inside using a copper lining. The soldering process used to attach it has left a sooty black line on the surface of the cylinder, near the base. The lid is not original, but has been made from an ancient, battered bronze bowl, stained in places with a patina of green. A knob-like finial with a length of fine bronze chain is attached to the centre of the lid, and a copper rim has been added to the bowl in an attempt to give the lid a better fit.
An engraving of the container, by William Skelton, illustrates part of the decoration, and includes the unidentified goddess to the left, a marble column, and two soldiers with long flowing hair to the right. They wear only cloaks thrown around their shoulders, and each holds an upright spear and leans on his shield.
The 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 it was used in the Mysteries of Dionysos and the Eleusinian Mysteries. In fact it is simply a container for cosmetics.