The Satala "Aphrodite"
Since 1873, the so-called Satala Aphrodite has lived at the British Museum. Born in the 2nd-1st c BCE, she is wrought of bronze while her eyes were originally inlaid with precious stones. She is Anahita, or Anahid in Armenian, the Iranian goddess that embodied fertility and love, health and wisdom.
It is more than likely that in antiquity she was honored and revered as the cult statue of a goddess. The truth is, there is no knowing to whom this head belonged with certainty given the way it came to light on the antiquities market. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that her findspot is described as the following: “Asia,Turkey,Black Sea Region (Turkey),Gümüşhane (province),Satala” (Britishmuseum.org, Accessed September 24, 2017).
Although Satala, or Sadak, is located in modern-day Turkey, its geolocation had historically been associated with Armenia: from the Orontid kingdom of Armenia from the 6th c BCE; to its designation as the province of Armenia, subject to Imperial Rome; and if art historical analytic dating is to be trusted, at the time of the bronze head's creation, Satala was part of the territories of the Artaxiad Dynasty who ruled the Kingdom of Armenia by the 2nd c BCE. Indeed, even at the time of the bronze head’s discovery, when explorer J.G. Taylor wrote of the town in his “Journal of a Tour in Armenia, Kurdistan, and Upper Mesopotamia” Satala was centrally located in a region politically and culturally recognized as Armenia. Satala only recently changed to the hands of the Turkish government when over a million Armenians were displaced and exterminated by the Ottoman Turks during the Armenian Genocide.
It is striking the ways that modern nationalism and histories inflect and steer the course of historical narrative. Populations and politics of landscapes inevitably change over time, and there is nothing inherently “Armenian” about the bronze head. Yet the erasure of the head’s historical context raises scholarly and ethical stakes for the role of the art historian, archaeologist, and museum (Meskell 2010). The head offers a critical opportunity to discuss religious and artistic practices throughout the Artaxiad kingdom. Moreover, the bronze head is part of modern Armenian cultural heritage, as much as it is part of the Greek cultural imaginary. Therefore, it is in these contexts, both the Hellenistic period Artaxiad Dynasty and in the context of 19th and early 20th century history of modern Armenia, that the "Satala Aphrodite" might productively be analyzed. To ignore these two historical facts not only facilitates historical amnesia, but also re-enacts the violence at the heart of ethnic cleansing from 1915-1922.
Of this monumental bronze head, the poet Peter Balakian discusses these issues of erasure and violence in his 2016 "Head of Anahit/British Museum." In this erotically charged and mournful poem, he longingly writes:
“I’m gazing at the head of Anahit—Armenian/ goddess of fertility and love—/(no more local than the Brooklyn Bridge)/ staring at the green and red paint still speckled on her bronze head./ I love her serpentine upper lip, her eyes of black space—/I stare into the screw hole in her neck/ the two curlicues of hair on her forehead//her august throat; her dense acanthine hair.”
Balakian, Peter. "Head of Anahit/British Museum." POETRY, Volume 208, Issue 5, pp. 476-479.
Meskell, Lynn. 2010. "Human Rights and Heritage Ethics." Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 4, pp. 839–860.
Taylor, J.G. "Journal of a tour in Armenia, Kurdistan and Upper Mesopotamia, with Notes of Researches in the Deyrsim Dagh, in 1866." Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, vol.38 (1868) pp.281–361