(left) Inscription of the time of Emperor Septimius Severus which was found in 1950 at Algiers; (centre) spout portraying a Gorgon from a fountain at Hippo Regius (Annaba); (right) stela with Baal/Saturn at the top
The Museum is on the
ground-floor, and is open at the same
times as the Library. (..) The museum,
however, does not possess any very
great interest for the visitor. Some of
the best sculptures and mosaics have
been removed to Paris.
John Murray - Handbook for Travellers in Algeria and Tunis - 1878
The first public collection of antiquities of Algeria was installed in 1838 in a section of the former barracks of the Ottoman Janissaries. In 1848 it was moved to a small building in Moorish style and eventually in 1863 to its current location, a small palace which had belonged to Mustapha Pacha, Dey of Algiers in 1798-1805. The premises were soon not large enough to contain all the findings which occurred in the whole country and a number of museums were opened in the main provincial towns or near the archaeological sites. Today the museum is even more in need of additional space to properly display its collections, for example that of ancient inscriptions.
The museum houses also some works of art which French archaeologists found at Carthage and Uthina before France established a protectorate over Tunisia in 1881.
Statues of Demeter/Ceres (left) and Neptune (centre/right) from Caesarea Mauretaniae (Cherchell)
There are a few
pieces of ancient sculpture, amongst
others a torso of Venus, found at Cherchell; a statue of Neptune, larger than
life-size; a group of a Faun and Hermaphrodite. Murray
Some of the best known exhibits of the museum are among the first French findings in Algeria. They were moved to Algiers before the creation of the Museum of Cherchell. The statue of Neptune was found in 1856 and it perhaps came from a temple in the harbour of the town. That of Demeter/Ceres is one of two similar statues (the other one is at Cherchell). In the Greek myth Demeter was often associated to Poseidon/ Neptune, whereas Ceres, her Roman counterpart, was worshipped as goddess of agriculture.
Venus (left) and Hermaphroditus with a Faun (right) from Caesarea Mauretaniae (Cherchell)
Antique statues are not very common in Algeria;
there must be a particular reason for so great a
number of them, and such beautiful ones, to be
found in a single city. This cause is not difficult to
discover; evidently it was Juba and his wife, the
charming Egyptian, who made the collection.
They wished to import into their improvised capital art treasures from Greece. At that epoch,
Greek artists invented scarcely any new types; they
seemed to have lost the gift of creating; but they
always possessed great skill of touch, and could
cleverly reproduce antique masterpieces.
Gaston Boissier - Roman Africa, Archaeological Walks in Algeria and Tunis - 1898 - Translation by Arabella Ward
It is difficult to say whether the large marble statues of Caesarea Mauretaniae were imported when the town was the capital of the Kingdom of Mauretania or after 40 AD when it became the capital of the Roman province of Mauretania Caesariensis. In both cases it was the richest town of Algeria and that which had closest contacts with the Greek/Roman world. The subjects of these statues were among those most popular in the Hellenistic period and eventually in the Roman one. You may wish to see a statue of Venus with Pan and the Sleeping Hermaphroditus of the first Borghese collection.
(left) Sarcophagus of Bellerophon found in 1934 at Azeffoun, ancient Rusadus, east of Algiers; (right) head of Medusa, a Gorgon
A limited number of sarcophagi have been found in Algeria and they appear to have been made abroad; the marble of this large sarcophagus comes from quarries located in the eastern part of the country and the sarcophagus is therefore assumed to be the product of a local workshop. The depiction of Medusa had an apotropaic (averting bad luck) purpose and it can be seen on other sarcophagi (e.g. at Antalya) and also in large buildings (e.g. the New Forum of Leptis Magna or the Shrine to Apollo at Didyma) .
Sarcophagus of Bellerophon: (above) reliefs on the lid; (below-left) detail of the front; (below-right) relief from the side showing a hunter (the reliefs have different depths similar to sarcophagi at Porto)
According to the Greek myth Bellerophon was asked by the Lycian king Iobates to do him the service of destroying Chimera, a fire-breathing monster. Before setting about his task, Bellerophon caught and tamed Pegasus, a winged horse. He then overcame Chimera by flying above her on Pegasus' back, riddling her with arrows, and then thrusting between her jaws a lump of lead which he had fixed to the point of his spear. Chimera's fiery breath melted the lead, which trickled down her throat, searing her vital organs. The two scenes on the lid show Bellerophon leaving to begin his chase of Chimera (left) and being greeted by Virtue after having killed the monster, the lion's head of which lies on the ground (right). The relief on the box is related to Bellerophon too, but a detail shows the head a Roman soldier between those of two barbarian warriors. Rusadus, the town where the sarcophagus was found was a Roman military base and this might explain why a Roman soldier was portrayed. His helmet is decorated with a scorpion, the zodiacal sign of Emperor Tiberius and of the Praetorian Guard. The sarcophagus does not bear an inscription, but perhaps the important person for whom it was made had been an officer of the Praetorian Guard.
Enfant à l'aiglon, boy of the eagle, was the name given to a bronze statue in a postage stamp issued in Algeria in 1952. It most likely portrays Ganymedes and Jupiter: Ganymedes was the most beautiful youth alive and therefore chosen by the gods to be their cup-bearer. It is said that Zeus, desiring Ganymedes also as his bedfellow, disguised himself in eagle's feathers and abducted him.
From Robert Graves - The Greek Myths.
There are also some
good fragments of mosaic work, including a Bacchus, and a piece of inlaid
While ancient statues, reliefs, sarcophagi and other works of art found in Algeria rarely depart from traditional patterns and were often imported from other parts of the Roman Empire, the making of floor mosaics, similar to what occurred in neighbouring Tunisia, achieved excellent levels, although the collection of the Museum of Algiers cannot be compared with that of the Bardo Museum at Tunis.
The use of coloured floor mosaics by far prevailed over that of black and white ones, contrary to what occurred in Rome where the latter were often chosen even for very luxury buildings e.g. Terme di Nettuno at Ostia or Villa Adriana.
Winter and Spring, details of the Mosaic of the Four Seasons from Ain Beida near Timgad (IInd century AD)
The wealth of Roman Algeria was based on farming and the Four Seasons were a perfect subject for showing the yields of agriculture. The subject was a very popular one throughout the whole Roman Empire and it can be found even in the decoration of synagogues. The Four Seasons were usually inserted inside a medallion and were distributed around a central image, thus creating a mosaic with five focal points.
Detail of another Mosaic of the Four Seasons having Bacchus at its centre
By and large in the Roman world a floor mosaic maker was not regarded as an artist; this is proven by the fact that his per day pay was established in a decree issued by Emperor Diocletian to control inflation. The decree however identified a specially skilled craftsman (pictor imaginarius) who was entitled to a higher per day pay. While the depiction of the Four Seasons was often very repetitive and conventional, some pictores imaginarii developed new approaches as the above mosaic shows (the depiction of Bacchus brings to mind that of saints).
Amphitrite or a Nereid from Kalâa des Béni Hammad
Depiction of sea creatures was another very popular subject (see the mosaics at Villa del Casale in Sicily which were most likely made by craftsmen from northern Africa). Amphitrite, Neptune's wife, was usually depicted in a chariot together with her husband as at Utica. Her portrait at Bulla is among the finest mosaics ever made.
Marine subjects: (left) Oceanus with Nereids from Setif; (right-above) a Nereid from Aumale Auzia south of Algiers (among the first mosaics of the museum); (right-below) boy riding a dolphin inside an acanthus scroll
The mosaic found near Setif had an apotropaic purpose in addition to the decorative one.
A vast head of Oceanus spans the full height of the mosaic panel, and dwarfs the Nereids that flank him. Lobster-claws and antennae on his forehead are unsurprising. Flashes of green and grey in his hair produce a rather striking image, but it is the intense focus in his eyes that makes the mosaic particularly arresting. The reason for this immovable stare, iconographically different from his often-dreamy gaze, is revealed in the inscription that accompanies the image.
James Hunter - The iconography of the mask of Oceanus in mosaics of the Roman Empire
The inscription invokes the power of the staring mask against the hostile forces of envy: At this divine spectacle, may envy burst from spite, and may insolent tongues cease to murmur. In the love of the arts we surpass our fathers. It is a joy to see this marvellous work shining in our homes. Translation by A. Ward
Royalty and love do not sit well together, nor stay long in the same house. So the father and ruler of the gods, who is armed with the three-forked lightning in his right hand, whose nod shakes the world, setting aside his royal sceptre, took on the shape of a bull, lowed among the other cattle, and, beautiful to look at, wandered in the tender grass. In colour he was white as the snow that rough feet have not trampled and the rain-filled south wind has not melted. The muscles rounded out his neck, the dewlaps hung down in front, the horns were twisted, but one might argue they were made by hand, purer and brighter than pearl. His forehead was not fearful, his eyes were not formidable, and his expression was peaceful. Agenor's daughter marvelled at how beautiful he was and how unthreatening. But though he seemed so gentle she was afraid at first to touch him. Soon she drew close and held flowers out to his glistening mouth. The lover was joyful and while he waited for his hoped-for pleasure he kissed her hands. (..) At one moment he frolics and runs riot in the grass, at another he lies down, white as snow on the yellow sands. When her fear has gradually lessened he offers his chest now for virgin hands to pat and now his horns to twine with fresh wreaths of flowers. The royal virgin even dares to sit on the bull's back, not realising whom she presses on, while the god, first from dry land and then from the shoreline, gradually slips his deceitful hooves into the waves. Then he goes further out and carries his prize over the mid-surface of the sea. She is terrified and looks back at the abandoned shore she has been stolen from and her right hand grips a horn, the other his back, her clothes fluttering, winding, behind her in the breeze.
Translation by Anthony S. Kline.
Mosaic portraying Daedalus, Pasiphae and the fake cow from Ain Beida
The finest mosaics decorated the rooms where the landlords received their guests. In the Victorian age the apparently unassuming scene shown above would not have been regarded as an appropriate subject to touch on in a respectable household.
Minos wished to reign over Crete, but his claim was opposed. So he alleged that he had received the kingdom from the gods, and in proof of it he said that whatever he prayed for would be done. And in sacrificing to Poseidon he prayed that a bull might appear from the depths, promising to sacrifice it when it appeared. Poseidon did send him up a fine bull, and Minos obtained the kingdom, but he sent the bull to the herds and sacrificed another. But angry at him for not sacrificing the bull, Poseidon made the animal savage, and contrived that Pasiphae, Minos' wife, should conceive a passion for it. In her love for the bull she found an accomplice in Daedalus, an architect, who had been banished from Athens for murder. He constructed a wooden cow on wheels, took it, hollowed it out in the inside, sewed it up in the hide of a cow which he had skinned, and set it in the meadow in which the bull used to graze. Then he introduced Pasiphae into it; and the bull came and coupled with it, as if it were a real cow. And she gave birth to Asterius, who was called the Minotaur.
Apollodorus - The Library - Book 3 - Translation by J. G. Frazer
Mosaic and ivory relief depicting Hercules: (left) with his wife Deianira; (right) fighting with an Amazon
Sallust (..) was an educated, intelligent man, very anxious to learn, and although
he had not as yet written any of his historical works,
he was very curious to know the past. Caesar had
entrusted to him the government of Numidia, and
in this position he found the means of satisfying his
curiosity. In order to be well informed as to the
origin of the peoples he was governing, he conceived
the idea of consulting them themselves. One of
their kings, Hiempsal II, had written a history of
them, in which he told whence they had come.
Sallust translated the passage and has preserved it
for us: "In the beginning," said King Hiempsal in just about
these words, "Africa was inhabited by the Gaetuli and
the Libyans, barbarians, who lived on the flesh of animals, and, like beasts, browsed on the grass of the fields.
But later, Hercules having died in Spain, the various
nations that composed his army, and which had lost
their leader, could not understand one another and
separated. Among them, the Persians, Medes, and
Armenians crossed the strait, reached the coast of Africa,
and settled along the shores of the sea. The Persians
established themselves nearer the Ocean, mingled little
by little in marriage with the Gaetuli, and as, from a spirit
of adventure, they crossed frequently from one country
to another, they assumed the name of Nomads or Numidians." (..) There was at that time a
bold, insinuating people, everywhere widely scattered, in Africa as elsewhere, who questioned nothing, who professed to be ignorant of nothing, who
possessed a number of wonderful stories about
themselves, and who gave of these generously to
others: these were the Greeks. It was so natural
for them to invent stories, that they filled not only
their own history with them, but that of all peoples.
From a few words which they heard spoken, their
rich imagination created a whole legend; and,
having once created it, they told it with so much
grace that one could never forget it. It is evident
that here, this intervention of Hercules and his
army (..) have a turn much more Greek than Numidian.
The most one can admit is that these stories arose
from some half-forgotten local tradition, and that
there was, for instance, in the ancient religion of the
country, which we scarcely know, some god, who (..) might have
been likened to Hercules. That which would go to
prove this is the fact that Hercules became the
protecting divinity of the dynasty of Massinissa,
that these kings had his image stamped on their
coins, and that they gloried in being called Heraclidae. Boissier
Mosaic depicting the hunting of wild animals from Castellum Tingitarum in western Algeria
This mosaic shows an activity which became an economic resource for the Roman provinces of northern Africa. A mosaic found at Hippo Regius shows the techniques employed for catching the animals alive and another one at Villa del Casale shows how they were moved to Rome and other important towns to take part into venationes. The inscription is very inconsistent with the subject and it suggests that the mosaic decorated baths. It says: I often wash my body into a "siliqua", most likely a bathtube. The image used as background for this page shows a detail of another mosaic depicting a hunting scene.
Lol or Caesarea Mauretaniae (Cherchell)
Cirta or Constantina
Castellum Tidditanorum (Tiddis)
Hippo Regius (Annaba)