CYRENAICA TERRACOTTAS   The Sanctuary of the Chthonic Nymphs at Cyrene
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Excavating the "Terracotta Garden," 1911. Photo: John Hay Archive, Brown University

Plan of Cyrene with the Sanctuary in orange

View of the Sanctuary, 1911. Photo: John Hay Archive, Brown University

                                   The Sanctuary of the Chthonic Nymphs at Cyrene: The Terracottas

     The Sanctuary of the Chthonic Nymphs was discovered in 1911 during excavations conducted at Cyrene by Richard Norton and a team of 8 men under the auspices of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In November of 1910 a Libyan had informed Norton of a large find of terracotta figurines that had been discovered in an onion garden on the north-east slope of the acropolis and, after lengthy negotiations, Norton succeeded in purchasing what was referred to as the "terracotta garden." Over the course of the month of April, more than 4,500 terracottas were brought to light. Unfortunately, during the vicissitudes of the Second World War in North Africa, most of these terracottas subsequently were lost. However, 20 figurines were brought to Swansea by Dr. Sladden, the expedition doctor, and 89 were sent to the Archaeological Institute of America from where they were transfered to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Moreover, in the late 1920s a photographic catalogue had been made of over 1000 of these figurines that has provided precious documentation for the typological range that was in use at the Sanctuary of the Chthonic Nymphs. This photographic catalogue, together with the figurines in Swansea, Boston, and at Cyrene itself, became the focus of the publication Il Santuario delle Nymphai Chthoniai a Cirene: Il sito e le terrecotte, Rome 2000 (M. E. Michele/A. Santucci, eds.).

     The Sanctuary of the Chthonic Nymphs was located at the north-east margins of the city on the upper slope of the acropolis but outside of the Hellenistic defensive walls. A rustic sanctuary rather than a monumental one, it was marked by a series of small, natural caves interspersed by irregular niches cut into the exposed rocky outcropping of the acropolis. Evidence suggests that small altars had been set up near these niches. Most of the figurines date from the late 5th to the later 4th centuries B. C., even though several from the Hellenistic period also were found. It is important to keep in mind that the site was only partially excavated and that much still remains to be explored.

     The greater majority of the Norton figurines represent female figures carrying silphium, a small cup believed to have held silphium, or a gazelle; some have a gazelle at their sides. Youthful beardless and older bearded male types also are numerous. Stylistically these terracottas present a rustic, unsophisticated sensibility, especially when compared to the terracottas from the Extramural Sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone at Cyrene. It is believed that they were expressions of a popular piety by an indigenous population and that the Sanctuary of the Chthonic Nymphs provided a sacred transition between the city and the countryside where the fertility of the countryside was protected by indigenous deities.