“Harvester Vase” Fragments and Forms

Harvester Vase rhyton, c. 1500 BCE (Minoan) from Hagia Triada. Steatite.

Harvester Vase rhyton, c. 1500 BCE (Minoan) from Hagia Triada. Steatite. Diameter 4.5″ (11.3 cm). Archaeological Museum, Iraklion, Crete.

Last week I introduced my ancient art students to the Harvester Vase, and some aspects of our discussion have caused me to do some further research on this vessel. This is a Minoan work of art which comes from Hagia Triada; it is thought to perhaps represent harvesters or sowers in some type of religious procession.1  Even though only fragments of the original vase remain, it is likely that the Harvester Vase had a hole at the bottom (in addition to the wider “filler” opening at the top), so that liquid could “flow through [it] like a funnel.”This small hole at the bottom could be covered by the hand of whoever was carrying the vessel during a ritual or procession, and then the hand easily could be moved away to dispense the liquid libation or offering.

Only the upper portion of the vase (and part of the lid) are original pieces; they have been mounted together to give a semblance of the original body of the vase. This appearance has been determined by comparing the steatite fragments to other similarly-shaped Minoan vases (see one such example HERE). Sir Arthur Evans suggested that the relief on this vase may have been covered with gold leaf.3 No gold traces of gold have been found on the Harvester Vase, but other Minoan vases have been discovered since with traces of gold leaf.4

"Unrolled" image of the Harvester Vase relief, to show detail of procession

“Unrolled” image of the Harvester Vase relief, to show detail of procession. c. 1500 BCE (Minoan) from Hagia Triada. Steatite.

Harvester Vase detail

Harvester Vase detail, c. 1500 BCE.

This vase is quite small, being only 4.5″ (11.3 cm) in diameter. However, there are so many details to notice in this small space, which make the artistry and craftsmanship all the move impressive to me. Recently I’ve found a few things that I haven’t noticed before. One thing that I realized is that many of the participants have one fist raised to their chests, which is a gesture that has been connected with ritual (see above).Barry P. C. Molloy also points out that this gesture is found in figurines of boxers that are located on Minoan peak sanctuaries, and could be associated with physical combat and warriors.Given the context that the Harvester Vase is also a rhyton (used for libations and religious ceremonies), the association of the clenched fist with ritual makes more sense to me.

Another thing that I noticed recently was the clothing and the hair styles of the figures. Most of them are bald, wearing a cap or headband, and are bare-chested (sometimes exhibiting a keen attention to musculature and anatomy on part of the sculptor). However, the three figures who are singing (behind the man who is playing the sistrum) are wearing long robes, unlike the rest of the bare-chested marchers. Of course, these men still seem less significant than the large priest-like figure who seemingly marches in front of the procession, who has long hair and wears an elaborate tasseled garment.

Detail of Harvester Vase

Harvester Vase detail, c. 1500 BCE.

Detail of the Harvester Vase relief, to show detail of procession. c. 1500 BCE (Minoan) from Hagia Triada. Steatite.

John Forsdykh argues that the one exception to the solemn procession is a man who has turned backwards to shout at a man who is stooping or stumbling. Forsdyke explains, “That man is usually said to be one of the harvesters who is fallen down in his drunkenness; but he has no forked implement and there is no reason to suppose that he is drunk.”7 Forsdyke, however provides no explanation for why the man is stooping. I’m not entirely convinced of the shouting exchange between the turned man and the stooping man either, since they are directly placed over the same vertical axis and there isn’t even a suggestion of eye contact between the two figures. Could the turned man be shouting orders or directions to the solemn, closed-mouth harvesters who stand directly next to him instead?

Perhaps we would get a better suggestion of what was happening in this vignette if we were able to see the whole vase. Maybe we would also get a better indication of why one of the men is either stooping or stumbling – did something on the ground trip him? Other people have also considered how our understanding of this vase is limited due to its incomplete state, too. For example, tn the early 20th century, a father and son artistic team (Emile Gilliéron Sr. and Emile Gilliéron Jr.) set out to to create an object which imagined the original appearance of the Harvester Vase. The Gilliérons specialized in creating reconstructions of antiquities for sale and were able to profit over the cultural interest in Minoan art following Sir Arthur Evans’ excavations. Unfortunately, though, I can only find one image of this Gilliéron vase (see below,) and it doesn’t include the scene with the stooping man, so I don’t know how they interpreted this vignette in the overall scene.

The Gillierons' restored version of the "Harvesters' Vase," early 20th century.

The Gillierons’ restored version of the “Harvesters’ Vase,” early 20th century.

I like this image of the Gilliéron restoration, though, because I like being prompted to think about the legs of the figures who would have been energetically marching in the procession. I’m even reminded how some of the curves and angles are made for practical purposes (such as how the tilt of the priest’s kilt is likely due to a raised leg in motion). It is common today to discuss how the Harvester Vase depicts a sense of dynamic energy and movement, but it’s easy to forget that the sense of movement that is only a portion of what would have been seen on the intact vase in antiquity!

1 For a synopsis on interpretations of the vase in relation to harvesting or sowing, see Wendy Logue, “Set in Stone: The Role of Relief-Carved Stone Vessels in Neopalation Minoan Elite Propaganda,” in The Annual of the British School at Athens 99, (2004): 165-166. Logue mentions that the long poles carried by the marchers were interpreted by Müller as harvesting tools for fruit in trees (such as olives), whereas Forsdyke proposed that this was a ritual that took place before sowing.

2 Barbara M. Soper, Ancient Rhytons, The Old World Archaeologist (Journal of the Old World Archaeological Study Unit) 24, no 3 (July 2004): 1. Available online:

3  Peter Warren, Minoan Stone Vases (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. Available online HERE.

4 Ibid.

5 Logue, p. 166.

6 Barry P. C. Molloy, “Martial Minoans? War As Social Process, Practice and Event in Bronze Age Crete,” from The Annual of the British School at Athens 107 (2012): 110.

7 John Forsdyke, “The ‘Harvester’ Vase of Hagia Triada,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 17, no. 1/2 (1954): 2.


Minoans, the “Poppy Goddess” and Opium

The "Poppy Goddess," ca. 1300-1250 BCE, approx. 31" in height (79.5 cm). Terracotta, Archaeological Museum of Crete at Heraklion. Image courtesy Wikipedia

I have written before about my undergraduate professor who compared the Minoan civilization to the “hippies” of the 1960s. Today in class, I mentioned in passing that the Minoans used opium, and a question from one of my students led me to explore more of the artifacts that give evidence of opium use in Minoan culture. One sculpture that I learned about was the “Poppy Goddess.” If I have ever come across this sculpture before, I don’t remember it. After doing some research, it seems like right now this figurine is more popular in archaeological scholarship than art historical scholarship.1

Aesthetically, the “Poppy Goddess” is similar to two other Minoan female figurine types, the so-called “Bird Goddess” and “Goddess with a Cone and Horn of Consecration.”  The “Poppy Goddess” is one of the artifacts that archaeologists cite to support the practice of opium use in Minoan culture. She was discovered, along with four other female figurines, at Gazi in July 1959. In the same room as these figurines, a heap of coal was found as well as some vertical vessels thought to be used for the inhalation of opium vapors.2 Classical texts reveal that opium was used for a variety of purposes in the Mediterranean, including use as a hypnotic drug to induce sleep.

Detail of "Poppy Goddess," ca. 1300-1250 BCE

On top of the Poppy Goddess’s head rest three moveable capsules of poppies. A 1967 archaeological study by Kritikos and Papdaki confirmed that these heads related to one specific type of poppy used for opium in ancient times.3 This same study also pointed out that the colors of the vertical notches also correspond to the dried juice of the poppy.2 Additionally, these archaeologists suggested in the study that the goddess might have closed eyes, to represent sleep. I think this is an interesting idea, but I would like to see if microscopic traces of paint have been on this statue. It could be that pupils were painted onto the statue that have disappeared over time.

I hope that more discussion about this figurine can take place amongst art historians, since I haven’t found some in-depth artistic analyses of this figurine yet. (If you know of any more scholarly discussion about this figurine, please share in the comments!) Here are some questions that the Poppy Goddess raises for me, from an art historical standpoint:

  • Why are the opium capsules moveable? Was there an additional function or purpose for these capsules, apart from their placement in the head? Are the capsules moveable simply because they were fashioned separately?
  • Does the woven cap have any significance? The artist took great pains to decorate this cap with incisions, whereas much of the body has a smooth texture.
  • What is wrapped around her neck? What does this scarf-like object look like from the back of the figurine? I wonder if it ends in a sacral knot, similar to some other depictions of priestesses (I’m thinking of the “La Parisienne” fresco at Knossos.)
  • Is this sculpture hollow, if it is made of terracotta? Is there an open bottom? Could it be that the holes in her head (when the opium capsules are removed) could waft vapors of opium, similar to the vessels which were found in the room with this figurine? (This is just a wild idea, but I’m going to throw it out there.)

I think it is also important to note that the poppy, because of its multiplicity of seeds, could also serve as a symbol of fertility in ancient times. Given the associations with other Minoan female figurines and fertility (most notably the famous Minoan “Snake Goddesses,” one of which also appears with upraised arms as a symbol of power), it is important to acknowledge that this statuette might serve a similar function.

Do you know anything else about this figurine or the other terracotta figurines found on Crete?

1One relatively recent discussion on the Minoans and opium is by Helen Askitopoulou, Ioanna A Romoutski, and Elini Konsolaki, “Archaeological Evidence of the Use of Opium in the Minoan World” in International Congress Series 1242, (December 2002): 23-29. Article can be found HERE.

2 We also know that ancient cultures would ingest the “juice” of opium, and some think that smoking opium was another method of intake. See P.G. Kritikos and S.P. Papdaki, “The History of the Poppy and of Opium and Their Expansion in Antiquity in the Eastern Mediterranean Area,” in Journal of the Archaeological Society of Athens: 1967. Available online HERE.

3 Ibid.

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Bull’s-Head Rhyton: Blood and a Second Sacrifice

Bull's-Head Rhyton, c. 1550-1450 BCE (Minoan). Steatite with shell, rock crystal, and red jasper. The gilt-wood horns are restorations. Height 12"

This past quarter, one of my ancient students did a research project on the Minoan rhyton of a bull’s head (found at the Archaeological Museum in Crete). This student found an article by Jeremy McInerny in the Winter 2011 edition of Penn Museum’s Expedition magazine  (.PDF link). This article, which is dedicated to the imagery of bulls and bull-leaping in the Minoan world, had some interesting information about this rhyton.

A rhyton is a type of vase or container which contains liquid that often is used in libation ceremonies. In the case of this bull, the rhyton is filled when liquid is poured into the bull’s neck. Then, during libation rituals, the bull’s head would be tilted forward so that liquid spew from the bull’s mouth. Although the liquid that filled rhytons is unknown (wine and water are some possibilities), I like another suggestion that McInerny mentions. He discusses how scholar Nanno Marinatos has argued that these containers actually held blood from sacrificial animals.1

McInerny explains further that these rhytons would have been like representations (or “portraits”) of the animals whose blood they contained. He writes, “The [rhytons of bulls’-heads] would have been the centerpiece of any gathering at which they were used. If such a gathering were the feast following a sacrifice at which the bull was consumed or its meat distributed, a formal libation from a vessel imitating the bull’s head would have constituted a ritual re-enactment of the bloodletting that began the sacrifice. The savagery of the animal’s slaughter was replaced with the formal dignity of the libation. The disposal of the rhyton after the ceremony amounted to a second killing.”2

The bull long fascinated ancient cultures, and I like this connection between the bull rhyton and animal sacrifices. I like to discuss with my students how this Minoan bull looks much more naturalistic than the representations of bulls which previously were created in the ancient Near East (such as the Sumerian bull’s head lyre). Given this argument about how rhytons were “portraits” of bulls that were symbolically slaughtered, I think that this emphasis on naturalism is quite appropriate. Perhaps the naturalism would have heightened not only the act of the “second” ritualistic killing, but also would have better represented and embodied the power of the bull itself.

1 Jeremy McInerny, “Bulls and Bull-Leaping in the Minoan World,” in Expedition 53, no. 3 (Spring 2011): 8. PDF of article available HERE

2 Ibid.


Excavation Sites for Prehistoric and Ancient Female Figurines

Various (mostly) prehistoric “Venus” figurines. (1) Willendorf’s Venus (Rhine/Danube), (2) Lespugue Venus (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (3) Laussel Venus (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (4) Dolní Věstonice Venus (Rhine/Danube), (5) Gagarino no. 4 Venus (Russia), (6) Moravany Venus (Rhine/Danube), (7) Kostenki 1. Statuette no. 3 (Russia), (8) Grimaldi nVenus (Italy), (9) Chiozza di Scandiano Venus (Italy), (10) Petrkovice Venus (Rhine/Danube), (11) Modern sculpture (N. America), (12) Eleesivitchi Venus (Russia); (13) Savignano Venus (Italy), (14) The so-called “Brassempouy Venus” (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (15) Hohle Fels Venus (SW Germany). Image from article, “Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?” by Alan F. Dixson and Barnaby J. Dixson (2011).

Yesterday I had a student ask about the excavation sites for so-called “Venus” figurines from the Paleolithic period. This student wondered if the physical location of the site (or the other objects excavated at the sites) could give us more understanding about how the “Venus” figurines originally functioned. I thought this was a great question. Although I knew that some figurines were found in caves or domestic sites, I thought that I would find more information about the specifics regarding the excavation sites and findings.

I didn’t find nearly as much information as I had hoped (there may be more information hidden away in technical archaeology journals), but I did pull together a few interesting finds. It is interesting to see how several figurines are associated with domestic sites or found alongside animal bones. Would these bones have been food for these people or sacrifices for religious rituals? Perhaps both? Other female figurines are found in caves, sometimes with other objects and animal bones, too.

I know that the following list isn’t comprehensive by any means. (I also threw a Neolithic and a Minoan female figurine in the list, just to make things fun.) I plan on adding to this list as I come across new information and findings. If you want to add a another figurine to the list, or more details regarding the excavation of these figurines, feel free to leave a comment!

Photograph of the Hohle Fels Cave. Red arrow indicates where the “Venus” of Hohle Fels was discovered in September 2008.

  • Venus of Hohle Fels (at least 35,000 BCE) : Excavated in September 2008 in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany (see image above). The figurine, which was carved from a mammoth’s tusk, was discovered in six fragments. A flute was also discovered at this site, which currently is the oldest known instrument in the world.
  • Venus of Dolní Věstonice (29,000 − 25,000 BCE): Discovered in 1925 in a layer of ash. The figurine was broken into two pieces. Figures of animals, as well as 2,000 balls of burnt clay, have been found at the Dolni Vestonice site. The majority of these finds were located at the dugout of central fire pit at the site.
  • Venus of Laussel (20,000 − 18,000 BCE): Discovered in 1911 by physician J. G. Lalanne. The figure is found in a rock shelter, carved onto a piece of fallen limestone.
  • Venus of Willendorf (28,000 − 25,000 BCE): Excavated in 1908 by Josef Szombathy in a loess deposit (fine-grained material that has been transported by the wind). More technical information about the excavation and layer deposit is found here.
  • “Venus II” from Willendorf (see suggested reconstruction here): Discovered in 1926 by Joseph Bayer. This figurine was found in a pit, lying on top of the jaw of a mammoth. This figurine is probably older than the “Venus of Willendorf.” The deep pit where “Venus II” was found went from level nine to level five. The original “Venus” of Willendorf was excavated at level nine.
  • Venus of Lespugue (24,000 − 22, 000 BCE): Discovered in the cave of Lespugue in 1922.
  • Gagarino Venus (c. 20,000 − 1,700 BCE): Excavated between 1926-1929. These figures were found in a house pit. The walls of the pit were lined with rhinocerous and mammoth bones.
  • Kostenki Venus (23,000-21,000 BCE): This term is actually a misnomer (beyond the already-problematic nickname of “Venus”) since there was a group of “Venuses” discovered at this site. The most famous one, however, is an mammoth-bone statuette discovered in 1957 by Zoya A. Abramova. Kostenki refers to 20 Paleolithic sites along the Don River in Ukraine.
  • Minoan “Snake Goddess” (c. 1600 BCE): Discovered in 1903 by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. One of the “snake goddess” figurines was located at the “palace” of Knossos in a cist (repository) on the floor of a small room (near the “Throne Room” and “Room of the Charior Tables”). Sir Arthur Evans believed that this snake goddess (and the other objects found in the cist) formed part of a cult shrine. Evans identified the figurine traditionally identified as a “Snake Goddess” in art history textbooks as a votary of the snake goddess.

Snakes in Ancient Art Hiss-tory

Each of my classes this quarter has its own distinct personality. My ancient art students are especially curious, and I love the questions that they raise in class. And for some reason, a lot of our recent topics have meandered (or perhaps slithered?) toward a discussion of snakes. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, since snakes held symbolic significance in a lot of ancient cultures. Here are some of the works that we have been discussing at length (and some topics that we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks):

I can’t even express how much I love the Minoan Snake Goddess (shown left, c. 1700-1550 BCE, image courtesy Flickr via Xosé Castro). This was one of the first statues that I loved as an AP art history student in high school. A few weeks ago, my students and I discussed how the snake could have held multiple symbolic associations for the Minoans. Snakes are associated with rejuvenation in many ancient Mediterranean cultures, since snakes can rejuvenate themselves by shedding their skin. Snakes are also associated with resurrection, since they can move both above and beneath the ground.

Last week, when discussing Hellenistic art, a student asked why Alkyoneos (depicted in part of the Gigantomachy frieze at the Altar of Zeus, Pergamon, c. 175-150 BCE) was entwined with a snake. (We were also looking at another Hellenistic sculpture, the Laocoön (1st century BC), and the student noticed a visual similarity between the writhing snakes.) I had never paid attention to the Alkyoneos snake before, but discovered that the snake helps the viewer to identify that Alkyoneos is battling with the Olympian goddess Athena. The snake aids Athena in her victory, similar to how serpents aid the Olympian gods (specifically Athena, according to some accounts) in the killing of Laocoön, the Trojan priest.

Athena was often identified with snakes (I joked with my students that she might have been a Parselmouth). Not only was the snake associated with wisdom (which was one of Athena’s attributes), but snake also served as the symbol for Erectheus, the mythical king of Athens. As the patron goddess of Athens, it makes sense that Athena would also be associated Erectheus (and Athens) through the snake symbol. Athena was depicted with a snake in the monumental “Athena Parthenos” statue by Phidias (original dated 438 BC, see reconstruction from Royal Ontario Museum here).

In about a week, I’ll be talking about snakes with my ancient art students again, this time in connection with the Etruscans. Scholar Kristen Lee Hostetler recently explored how snake imagery is found in depictions of Etruscan demons (such as the wall painting of the demon Tuchulcha, Tomba dell’Orco II, Tarquinia, last quarter of the 4th century BC; shown left). It appears that snakes (specifically the extremely poisonous adder) were feared by the Etruscans. Hostetler points out that the distinct adder markings are noticeable in the demon imagery1. In addition, some of these Etruscan demons have blue flesh (as seen in the “Tomb of the Blue Demons” in Tarquinia, late 5th – early 4th century BC), which is reminiscent to the skin discoloration caused by an adder snakebite.2

Earlier in the quarter, my students and I have discussed the significance of the enraged uraeus snake in Egyptian pharaonic imagery (as can be seen in the funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, c. 1327 BCE). The snake is a reference to the Wadjet, the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt. According to mythology, the pharaoh sat at coronation to receive his crown from this goddess.3 The cobra was one of the earliest of Egyptian royal insignia.

Do you have a favorite work of art which includes snake imagery? It’s interesting that snakes have obviously fascinated (and intimidated) the human race for so many centuries. I can think of many other examples, even extending outside the realm of ancient art. Biblical images of Eve with snakes have been popular in Christian art for centuries. Snakes can also appear in conjunction with the Virgin; my favorite Baroque example is Caravaggio’s Madonna with the Serpent (1606 CE).

1 Kristin Lee Hostetler, “Serpent Iconography,” in Etruscan Studies 10, no. 16 (2007): 203.

2 Ibid., 206.

3 Nancy Luomala, “Matrilineal Reinterpretation of some Egyptian Sacred Cows,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982), 27.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.