Photograph by John E. Coleman
Photograph by John E. Coleman

An Ancient Artifact’s Hidden Meaning

Animals and astronomy provided the clues.

This story appears in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

When pieces of an ancient two-handled cup were found in Greece in 1990, archaeologists could identify the animals painted around its circumference but were unable to work out their meaning. The odd menagerie, including mammals, a reptile, and an arachnid, wasn’t a typical decoration, such as a hunting scene.

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Some two decades later, when University of Missouri Ph.D. student John Barnes saw the reconstructed cup in a museum, inspiration struck. A stargazer since childhood, he thought the animals might be symbols of constellations. “A hundred people can look at an artifact and each bring something different to it,” he says. “In this case, I brought astronomy.” What he sees: The tail end of a bull is Taurus, a snake is Hydra, a hare is Lepus, a dog is Canis Major, a scorpion is Scorpius, a dolphin is Delphinus, and a lion is Leo.

The cup was likely a votive object, offered in a temple in the city of Halai in about 600 B.C. Barnes believes the constellations may even be grouped according to seasons, connecting the cup to specific celebrations on the annual religious calendar.