The Ryedale Horde and Why the Old Still Shocks

Author James Cahill considers a recently uncovered trove of Roman bronzes, and the multivalent meanings of unearthed artefacts

BY James Cahill in Frieze London & Frieze Masters , Frieze Week Magazine | 15 OCT 22

The Ryedale Horde, a recently discovered trove of bronzes from Roman Britain, were acquired by a British museum at last year’s Frieze Masters. As the trove goes on display to the public, James Cahill — academic and author of art history-inflected new novel Tiepolo Blue — considers the multivalent meanings of unearthed artefacts.

When the Venus de Milo was hauled from the ground in 1820, it rapidly became one of the most famous classical sculptures in the world. And yet, apart from its findspot – a farm on the island of Milos – nothing was known about the armless figure. Even her identification as Venus, the ancient goddess of love, has been disputed. Broken and enigmatic, she became a projection for modern fantasies. In his 1911 ode to the statue, ‘To the Venus de Milo’, French sculptor Auguste Rodin praised her as a paragon of realism, while the critic Walter Pater would declare in The Renaissance (1873) that ‘some spirit in the thing seems always on the point of breaking out’.

An ancient goddess, a modern spirit. The fragmentary classical statue, rediscovered at the dawn of modern art, was a prime instance of the ‘shock of the old’ – the capacity for classical antiquity to resonate with contemporary life and art. This was, of course, the basis of literary and artistic modernism. The Greco-Roman tradition is a revenant, haunting the twentieth century avant garde, from the deathless Sibyl who hovers over T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ – published a century ago this year – to Salvador Dalí’s Venus de Milo with Drawers (1936), in which a plaster replica of the statue has become a stack of pompom-decorated sliding compartments.

The Ryedale Bronzes, photography by David Aaron Ltd
The Ryedale Bronzes. Photograph: David Aaron Ltd

Dalí’s half-open drawers are like so many invitations: to grasp, open and fill. So too the gaps of the Venus de Milo – her incompleteness, her lack of definitive subject or known author – have only added to her allure. Rodin’s essay sees the statue appropriated as a metaphor for the artist’s own memory and ideals: ‘The antique is my youth itself, which surges still in my heart and hides from me the fact that I have grown old.’

A more modest discovery, the unearthing in May 2020 of the Ryedale Horde, was another, quieter, example of the shock of the old. As COVID-19 spread around the globe, a pair of metal detectorists in North Yorkshire came across four pieces of metal in a field. The objects that emerged turned out to be Roman decorative metalwork: a conical weight; an equine figurine, which probably formed the handle of a device; a miniature horse and rider, representing a god such as Mars; and – most striking of all – a small bust of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, likely once the crowning glory of a sceptre, used in the rituals of the Imperial Cult, which celebrated the emperors as divinities.

A creative interpretation of the objects in the Ryedale Hoard, Photographs: David Abrahams, Set Design: Hella Keck.
A creative interpretation of the objects in the Ryedale Hoard. Photograph: David Abrahams; set design: Hella Keck

The objects were acquired by the antiquities dealer David Aaron, who displayed them at Frieze Masters in 2020. With the support of individual donors, including Richard Beleson, and the Art Fund, the trove was acquired or the nation by the Yorkshire Museum, where it has gone on display this year. When I first set eyes on the little bronze emperor, I thought not just of ancient Rome, but of the faces painted by Pablo Picasso, especially the staring eyes of the five nude sex workers in Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907), and the series of 58 variations that Picasso painted after Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) in the late 1950s. In many of those paintings, the face of the artist at the far left of the composition acquires a staring, cross-eyed, quizzical intensity not unlike that of the 1,800-year-old gaze of the bronze Marcus Aurelius.

I first came across Picasso’s series as a 21 year old on a trip to Barcelona. The image of the Roman emperor takes me back – meanderingly, tentatively – to my younger self. It’s an incidental link, and anachronistic, but looking at art can be like that. For Rodin, the Venus de Milo had the power to collapse time, rousing ‘all the joys of my early manhood.’ An ancient object can draw you back to an earlier version of yourself – or reveal you to yourself in a new light sometimes by way of later works of art that the object somehow presages.

There’s a scene in my novel, Tiepolo Blue (2022), in which the main character – an art historian in his early 40s – walks into central London one evening and stumbles upon a replica of the Venus de Milo. But it isn’t a faithful recreation: ‘The plaster has been doused with a substance that resembles pigeon shit: rivulets of black, white and glistening green streak down the body from head to foot. Venus’s midsection – that lovely point where she swivels within her drapery – has been cut out and replaced with an alien object.’

The character who witnesses this spectacle, Don Lamb, has lived a cloistered existence. But, as his life unravels, he begins to experience works of art – ancient and modern – in rebarbative, revelatory ways. Art is no longer something merely for him to analyse and rationalise: it’s a sensual, allusive force that has the power to touch those parts of his memory, his psyche and his imagination that he didn’t realise existed. Perhaps we all have a Ryedale Hoard, of one kind or another, deep inside us.

‘The Ryedale Hoard: A Roman Mystery’ is currently on view at the Yorkshire Museum, York, UK.

Main image: The Ryedale Bronzes. Photograph: David Aaron Ltd

James Cahill is a writer and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Classics at King’s College London. His first novel is Tiepolo Blue (Sceptre, 2022). He lives in London, UK.