Dr Paul Roberts, a NADFAS Accredited Lecturer, is the newly appointed Sackler Keeper of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum. He studied at the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield and Oxford and lived in Italy for several years. He was the driving force behind the major exhibition “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum“. He was also co-curator at the recent Ashmolean Exhibition, “Stroms, War and Shipwrecks; Sicily and the Sea – the history of Sicily through shipwreck”.
You recently joined the well-known Ashmolean Museum in Oxford as Sackler Keeper of Antiquities, how are you finding the new role? What is a typical day like?
Yes – eighteen months now, but I already feel part of the Ash – it’s a great Museum. Think of the V&A, the British Museum and the National Gallery amalgamated, appropriately scaled and you have the Ash!
As for my role, it sounds a cliché to say’ “no two days are the same…” but they really aren’t! In the Antiquities Department I head up a team that cover Ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, Mesopotamia, Britain and Cyprus, with all the different initiatives that study of the collections and the cultures that made them, brings about. Gallery displays, exhibitions, acquisitions (when we have the chance – and the funds!), publications and many others. Fundraising is an important part of my role, involving engagement with potential funding bodies and individuals. Then there is travel; invitations to speak at home and abroad, conferences and courier duty – accompanying objects form our collections, which are requested by museums abroad. Very rewardingly, there is also the opportunity for research on objects in our collections and on fieldwork farther afield. I am currently working on publications of my fieldwork in Italy and Libya. So the job is wonderful – and wonderfully varied.
As the curator of the recent exhibition ‘Storms, War & Shipwrecks, Treasures from the Sicilian Seas’ can you tell us more about this?
I co-curated the exhibition with the wonderful Alexandra Sofroniew. It is a ground-breaking exhibition telling 2000 years of the history of Sicily through the work of maritime archaeologists in the waters around Sicily, and covering life at sea, migration, trade, and naval warfare. The exhibition presents over 150 objects from the Bronze Age to the Arab-Norman period, recovered from shipwrecks or as chance finds, and gives a fresh and unexpected view of the island’s history and diverse inhabitants. Digital reconstructions and models bring to life ancient warships and merchant ships and the day-to-day life of their crews, while thought-provoking displays provide insight into the methods, techniques and personalities behind the discoveries.
How did the discovery of the Byzantine “flat pack church” come about?
In the early 1960s a German archaeologist called Gerhard Kapitän began excavating a Byzantine-period shipwreck off the coast of a fishing village called Marzamemi near Syracuse. He and his team found the remains of a huge navis lapidaria, in Latin a ‘ship for stone,’ loaded with hundreds of architectural pieces. On closer examination the archaeologists realised they had discovered pieces of a church interior, comprising the entire nave – formed of 28 white Proconnesian marble columns with capitals and bases, a choir screen and even a complete ambo (early pulpit) in striking green Verde antico marble, from northern Greece. Using pioneering air-lift technology, involving great bags filled with air, Kapitän raised hundreds of fragments of this ‘flat-pack’ church to the surface.
Without giving too much away, can you tell us any other details about the 200 spectacular and unusual objects rescued from the bottom of the sea?
It’s difficult to know where to begin – there is such a variety. Some are the objects you might expect – such as amphorae – those great big terracotta transport jars (with the pointed bases) used for oil, wine and other commodities. But other objects are more surprising – a statue of a Phoenician, hauled up in a fisherman’s net, a Greek warrior’s helmet, a bronze foot from a life-size statue of an elephant and, of course, a church!
You are joining Aegean Odyssey on Historic Spain, Sicily and Italy in May 2017, what subjects will you be speaking about?·
With all the beautiful destinations on that trip there’s a lot of choice. I’ll be talking about the island of Sicily – its early history through sites such as Motya, Agrigento and Segesta, then its roman, Arab and Norman heritage and the beautiful sites of Piazza Armerina, Palermo and Monreale. As we near Italy I’ll look at the amazing buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum which have told us so much about ordinary romans.
Is there a particular port of call you are looking forward to visiting the most and why?
Ah – that’s a difficult one! Sorrento is so pretty and the gateway to Pompeii and Herculaneum, but Palermo is so rich and grand – and approaching it from the sea is so memorable.
Are you able to give readers a preview of the next big project you will be working on?
In 2017 I’m helping to bring an exhibition to the Ashmolean on five of the world’s great faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. Called Empires of Faith, it looks at how the structure and imagery of these great faiths crystallised in the first millennium AD to become recognisable today. We’ll see how Empires and states shaped the religions and vice versa and how they influenced each other. Objects range from mosaics and sculptures to beautiful illustrated manuscripts. It will be a beautiful show.
We are delighted that Paul will join us on baord Aegean Odyssey in 2017 – ‘Historic Spain, Sicily & Italy’ departing May 11, 2017.