Ancient Ivory Relic Unearthed with Unique Christian Imagery

Experts have unearthed a 1,500-year-old ivory pyx beneath an altar in an abandoned hilltop settlement in a remarkable archaeological discovery.

The Western Journal reported that this rare Christian artifact provides fresh insights into the artistic and religious symbology of late antiquity.

In 2016, the excavation unveiled two Christian churches and various dwellings around a central cistern adorned with personal items and religious artifacts.

Among these discoveries was the intricately carved ivory box or pyx, found under the altar in a side chapel, capturing the attention of historians and archaeologists alike.

The imagery on the pyx is both profound and unique. One side depicts Moses at Mount Sinai, a seminal Old Testament event where he receives the divine laws.

Gerald Grabherr, a prominent archaeologist involved in the study, explained the significance, noting, "This is the typical depiction of the handing over of the laws to Moses on Mount Sinai, the beginning of the covenant between God and man from the Old Testament."

Depiction Of Christ's Ascension Breaks Conventional Boundaries

The other side of the pyx presents a more uncommon portrayal: the Ascension of Christ into heaven, depicted not conventionally but with a two-horse chariot known as a biga.

This representation, previously unseen in Christian iconography, suggests a fascinating blend of cultural influences during that era. "The depiction of scenes from the Old Testament and their connection with scenes from the New Testament is typical of late antiquity," remarked Grabherr, adding, "However, the depiction of the Ascension of Christ with a so-called biga, a two-horse chariot, is extraordinary and previously unknown."

The rarity of such artifacts adds to the significance of this finding. Only about 40 known ivory boxes similar to this pyx exist worldwide, with the last discovery occurring nearly a century ago.

According to Grabherr, "We know of around 40 ivory boxes of this kind worldwide, and as far as I know, the last time one of these was found during excavations was around 100 years ago."

Conservation Challenges Due to High Humidity

Preserving this artifact posed significant challenges due to its compromised condition. Unearthed from a damp marble shrine, the pyx had absorbed moisture, making it extremely delicate to handle.

Ulrike Töchterle, a member of the conservation team, highlighted the precarious state of the pyx, stating, "Ivory, especially ivory stored on the ground like in the marble shrine, absorbs moisture from its surroundings and is very soft and easily damaged in this state."

The high humidity at the excavation site further complicated preservation efforts. Töchterle noted, "Due to the very high humidity of 90 percent in the marble shrine immediately after salvage, the risk of condensation and mold formation was very high." The subsequent drying process was meticulously managed to prevent further damage, spanning an extensive two years to complete.

The discovery's context raises questions about the circumstances leading to the artifact's concealment and the eventual abandonment of the site. By 610 A.D., the collapse of the Roman Empire and subsequent Slavic invasions reshaped the region's religious landscape, prompting the Christian community to flee, leaving many sacred items behind. "It's something of a mystery why the ivory pyx was left where it was, especially since a reliquary like this is normally taken away as the 'holiest' part when a church is abandoned," observed Grabherr.

Future Plans: 3-D Reconstruction of the Pyx

The conservation team plans to create a 3-D reconstruction because some parts of the pyx are too distorted for traditional restoration methods.

This modern technique will allow scholars and the public to appreciate the artifact's original craftsmanship and intricate designs, bridging a gap in history that has remained closed for centuries.

In conclusion, the discovery of this ivory pyx has not only unveiled a unique piece of Christian iconography but also opened a window into the religious and cultural exchanges of late antiquity.

The intricate depictions of biblical scenes provide a tangible link between the Old and New Testaments, enriching our understanding of the period's artistic and theological discourse.

As conservation efforts continue, this artifact promises to offer deeper insights and provoke further scholarly discussions on early Christian art and culture.

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