Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Strange Saga of the Akkadian Libation Vase

My father -in-law, who worked for the Davenport City Sewer Department before he retired, would sometimes bring back some strange items from the world below. And surely the strangest was this heavy stone vase. Kathleen took possession of it, as she recognized it as something ancient, or at least a reproduction of something ancient. When she first showed it to me, she said it was probably a museum-quality reproduction of something very old from the Near East.

After watching too many episodes of The Antiques Road Show, she began to think she may have a real ancient relic. She had identified it as a libation vase, and thought it might be Akkadian. But why would something that ancient end up in the sewers of Davenport, Iowa? Actually there was a plausible reason: Davenport was once home to a museum called A Little Bit O' Heaven, which housed an eclectic collection of art and kitsch assembled by B.J. Palmer of the Palmer Chiropractic School (now the Palmer College of Chiropractic). One visitor to the museum recalled that he saw a magnificent Buddha next to a plaster frog. Sadly, A Little Bit O' Heaven closed in 1973. (Kathleen and I blew our chance to see it--it cost $3.00 per person in 1973, the equivalent of $14.38 in 2008, according to The Inflation Calculator.) In any case, the vase might be something Palmer would want, especially as a triumph over medical doctors, who would envy his possession of something with a caduceus design. And someone who stole it and had no knowledge of its value might indeed throw it down a sewer grate.

After doing some online research, I discovered that Kathleen was right all along: it had to be a museum-quality reproduction--the original is in the Louvre.

it's the libation vase of King Gudea of Lagash, (ruled circa 2144-2124 B.C.). Under Gudea, Lagash was a semi-independent city-state in the Akkadian empire. The vase seems to be the first use of the caduceus, which later became the symbol of the medical profession.It seems likely that our vase is a reproduction, perhaps from the Louvre, of Gudea's vase. Whether it was discarded by its owner, most likely a medical doctor, or stolen and then discarded, we don't know. My father-in-law found it sometime in the 1960s or early 1970s. Who knows how long it had been there before.