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Centaurs' Treasure

Thracian Treasures From Bulgaria At the Museum of Fine Arts Through October


O'N A WINTRY AFTERNOON 500 years B.C., the wounded shivered, winced, lips encrusted with black blood shuddered as the rain streaked graying skin filmed with red dust. Wind and water noises mingled with the swift shufflings of looters, moving away from one fallen from to another, muffled in dark woollen cloaks that flapped predatory as the ravens circled lower over the battlefield.

A Thracian warrior and his horse were both dead, the aristocrat's head lolling in the ditch, golden breastplate crumpled where the spear had struck, fist clutched tardily, forever, at the hilt of a jewelled dagger.

The Thracians were a tall, gray-eyed, fair race, renowned mercenaries in Homer's time, fearsome cavalrymen and deadly as centaurs. They were born guerrillas with a passion for ornament, especially gold. Ancient Thrace included what is now modern Bulgaria, south-east Yugoslavia, European Turkey and part of north-eastern Greece, but the Museum of Fine Arts' current exhibition of Thracian Treasures consists only of artifacts discovered in Bulgaria. It is a sumptuous collection of objects that were the compensation if not theraison d'etre for a savage and uncertain life.

Thracian men were famed for their martial valor over centuries--even the Romans admired their bravery and preferred them as gladiators (Spartacus was Thracian). Yet there was more to them than banditry alone, as this range of art works dating from around the 16th century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. proves. For Thrace was the land whence came Orpheus, mythical musician-king who enchanted the most ferocious beasts and defied Pluto, the king of the underworld; it was the country where the Horseman--a god combining aspects of Apollo, Dionysos and Asclepius--was at once the object of popular veneration and emulation. People and culture were sufficiently influenced by neighboring Greece, Persia, Western Europe and even Scythia to create a rich variety of artifacts, and yet the Thracians and their creations have always been mysterious.

It is often most difficult to fathom the characters of those who are superficially very similar to one and yet actually possess that single unknown quality that defies explanation. That is how many of Thrace's neighbors must have felt. The Greeks, for example, were both baffled and obsessed by the Thracians, and so labelled them "barbarians." The Trojan War was waged largely to gain control of Thrace's Hellespont (the Dardanelles). So there were definite strategic motives for heeding that nation. And yet it put forward, in some regions, what to the Greeks seemed bizarre notions, particularly about death.

Particularly about death. The Thracians embraced it. Not just in the manner of all good soldiers--by exceptional courage in war--but also when "honor" did not seem to demand it. For example, a dead warrior's wives would vie madly with one another for the privilege of being the one "favored" by being killed so as to join the husband in death. Then, too, a segment of the population, the Getai, told an interesting legend about resurrection. It seems that the god Zalmoxis told man that he would enjoy eternal life after death. When Zalmoxis died he was resurrected three years later, and though the Greek commentator Herodotus speculated that perhaps Zalmoxis had merely hidden in a prepared foxhole all that time during his "death," this primitive monotheism puzzled the writer greatly.

And since a large part of the insight one gains today into ancient cultures in general (and that of Thrace in particular) derives from the contents of burial mounds, it is well to consider this perspective when examining these works. Heroes and heroines of Greek and Persian mythology provide the subjects for many of the works, but the treatment departs often from the subject's "typical" interpretation.

For example, a mid-fifth century silver-gilt plaque of Nike, the Victory Goddess, from the Golyamata mound at Douvanli, is totally different in spirit from the famous Grecian golden Nike earring on permanent display in the museum. The Thracian piece is, first of all, virtually two dimensional by its nature, whereas the Greek version is a sculpture in miniature. Yet the Thracian Nike seems solid, almost archaic when compared with the delicacy and grace of the Athena Nike.

However, there is another object in the museum demonstrating that by 380-350 B.C. Thracian craftsmen could produce a similarly ornamental piece of jewelry. From a tomb at Urasta came a pair of gold earrings complete with rosettes, tendrils, and beads suspended--doubtless they were too heavy to wear every day (they were five cm. long)--but they still conjure up images of perfumed favorites in whispering silk: the same kind of romanticized seraglio as Ingres depicted.

The exhibits vary as widely in materials and forms as they do in age. There are model pottery cottages and figurines that date from the Bronze Age--heavy, clumsy clay and copper vessels. And then there are enchanting works like a bronze stag only 16cm. high, that dates from around 1000-700 B.C. and was discovered near Sevlievo. It is composed of the simplest forms--hardly more than a few cylinders, shaped to forms an abstraction of a stag, with a minimum of anatomical accuracy--and all the appeal of similar Scythian statuettes.

Snake bracelets, gold beads, earrings, shields and golden vessels that weigh two kilos apiece just a few of the other things that invite one, but perhaps the gold and silver rhyta are the highlight of the show. These are drinking horns in the shape of animal or human heads,and they were created in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. when Greek influence on Thracian art was strongest. One golden rhyton is decorated with reliefs of Hera, Artemis and Apollo around the rim and a billy goat at the base--the wine gushes from a spout in the goat's chest so one has to drain it all down at once.

It is difficult, though, to make rigid comparative judgments about the objects on display. The Corinthian helmets and hammered gold shields may intrigue some people more than reliefs of buxom goddesses, while others may be drawn to metal worked laurel wreaths used to honor the dead. And especially interesting is a silvered-iron mask of a man's face with rough cast-iron "hair" made in the first century A.D. More spontaneous in spirit is the bronze "Horseman" cavorting, only three inches high yet painstakingly, masterfully fashioned. Ostentation, heroism, eroticism and plain whimsy--all are here. Collections of such variety are rare indeed. Veritable treasures.

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