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10 Ancient Art that is Unique and Interesting

6. Aztec Calendar

The Aztec Calendar (created sometime between 1502 to 1528 CE) is the most famous work of Mexican sculpture where motifs are carved representing time and cosmology as understood by the Aztecs. The stone was used as a tool to control the population by the Aztec elites.

Aztec Calendar
Image credit: Shutterstock

The Aztec Empire was ruled by the Mexicas who lived in the Valley of Mexico. During the reign of Moctezuma II, they built a state-sponsored monolith sculpture out of basalt and named it Cuauhxicalli Eagle Bowl.

The motifs carved on the surface of the stone were central to the cosmic theory of the Aztecs and were tied to warfare, bloodshed, and the relationship between man and the supernatural.

The figure in the center is believed to be the solar deity Tonatiuh. It represents the current era, and the four squares surrounding the deity represent the four previous eras or Sun.

This stone monument was not a functioning calendar. Instead, the calendrical glyphs were used to establish the relationship between time and cosmic conflict. This sacred relationship was used to justify warfare and maintain control over the larger population.

The Cuauhxicalli Eagle Bowl of the Aztecs is today known as the Aztec Calendar or the Sunstone. (1, 2)

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7. Lion-Man

The Lion-Man is a 40,000-year-old lion-headed figurine and the oldest known sculpture of an animal. It has been estimated that it would have taken more than 400 hours to make the 12.2-inch-tall figurine and was most likely used as a part of some ritual.

Lion-Man
Lion Man from three angles. Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 40,000 years old. Image credit: Ulmer Museum via blog.britishmuseum

In August 1939,  geologist Otto Völzing discovered fragments of a mammoth ivory figurine during the excavation of the Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in Germany. Thirty years later, archaeologist Joachim Hahn assembled the fragments to reveal a statue with both human and animal features.

Lion Man
Image credit: Thibodaux Parg via Wikipedia

Over the years, more pieces were found and added making the final piece 12.2 inches tall.

The sculpture is known as the Lion-Man. It has the head of a cave lion with a partly cat-like and partly human body. This makes it the oldest known figurine of a supernatural being that does not exist in the physical form, carved some 40,000 years ago.

With the Ice Age tools available at the time, it would have taken more than 400 hours to create  Lion-Man. This suggests that it held more meaning for the community than just a piece of art. Also, the wear on the body indicates that it was rubbed and passed around probably for some ritual. (1, 2)

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8. Winged Victory of Samothrace

Honored as a masterpiece of Hellenistic art, the Winged Victory of Samothrace is a 200 BCE marble sculpture of the Greek Goddess Nike. The flowing drapery blows life into the 8.01-foot-tall statue, creating a sense of action as if the goddess were descending from above.

Winged Victory
Image credit: muratart/Shutterstock

The Winged Victory of Samothrace is one of those rare sculptures of the Hellenistic period that have survived in the original. It is an 8.01-foot-tall statue of the Greek Goddess of Victory, Nike, made from Parian and Thasian marble.

It was discovered in 1863 and since then the reason for its creation is debated. Whether it was erected as an offering to the gods or to celebrate a naval victory is still unconfirmed.

Currently residing on top of the grand Daru staircase in the Louvre Museum, the sculpture is among the most celebrated ancient sculptures in the world.

Its flowing drapery, sculpted with great skill and detail, makes it visually stunning. It gives the goddess a sense of action as if she is floating in the air, descending on the prow of a ship.

(1, 2)

9. Hidden Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots

In 2017, a  ghostly portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots was found hidden under a portrait of a Tudor aristocrat through X-ray photography. It is believed the painter Adrian Vanson must have felt threatened to be painting the Queen in the political turmoil that followed her execution in 1587.

Secret portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots
An x-ray view showing the portrait of a woman believed to be Mary, Queen of Scots. Image credits: National Galleries of Scotland via The Guardian.com

Caroline Rae, a conservator at the  Courtauld Institute of Art was looking at the works of Dutch portraitist Adrian Vanson through X-ray. This is when he discovered an image of Mary, Queen of Scots, hidden under the portrait of a nobleman John Maitland.

Though Maitland’s portrait is an important and valued picture, the circumstances nevertheless pose the question of what made the painter bury the Queen’s unfinished portrait under that of a nobleman?

The most likely explanation is the political turmoil surrounding Mary. Her Catholic background posed a threat to the protestant leaning Royalty of England. As a consequence, she was executed in 1587.

It was not the best time to be painting the executed queen. Vanson must have felt threatened and would have hastily covered the portrait with that of John Maitland’s, dated just two years after the execution.  (1, 2)

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10. Frescoed Wall from the House of Livia

The four walls of the dining room of Empress Livia Drusilla (58 BCE–29 CE) are painted with magnificent frescoes, alive with fruiting and resting birds on branches of palms and pomegranates. The painting is so detailed that scholars were able to identify many of the species depicted. The walls were decorated with the imaginary garden as the room was partially underground (to provide relief in the scorching summer) and had no window into the garden above.

House of Livia
Image credit: Pavel Kirichenko/Shutterstock

On April 30, 1863, an excavation at the site of the house of Livia Drusilla, wife of emperor Augustus, led to a stunning discovery – a dining room enclosed with frescoed walls alive with images of exotic flora and fauna.

The room, partially underground, had no windows, and so an imaginary garden was painted all over the walls. The detail on the painted walls is so profound that scholars were able to identify a great number of the species depicted.

Some of the identified vegetation are date palms, oleander, English oak, and Italian cypresses.

In the garden, doves, partridges, and goldfinches are seen eating fruit and resting on them.

The room was originally excavated at Prima Porta, but the ceiling had collapsed and so the frescoes were detached and relocated at Palazzo Massimo in Rome. (1, 2)

Also read: 10 Interesting Rock Art From the Ancient World

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