Heady Research

Creighton Joslyn Connection

Over the past 10 years, Creighton faculty and students have been presenting on a variety of topics relating to the Joslyn Art Museum’s collection through the CU@Joslyn public lecture series.

The program has allowed Creighton students to comb through the Omaha museum’s vault, making discoveries, presenting and publishing on pieces the Joslyn has held — but usually not displayed — for decades.

“To be able to do this kind of work in Omaha, at Creighton, has been really incredible,” said Sarah Copeland, one of the students involved in the research of the two Roman sculptures. “I think people might say that’s something you could only do at an East Coast school or in Europe. But here we were, holding something that’s 2,000 years old in our hands.”

Heady Research

Creighton students work to unravel the mysteries behind two stone portraits in the Joslyn Art Museum’s Roman art collection

Left to right, Creighton students Sarah Copeland, Ashley Weed and Joseph Baronovic, along with faculty member Gregory Bucher, Ph.D., Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, with the pieces they examined at the Joslyn Art Museum.

As cases of mistaken identity go, this one was head and shoulders — and still another head — above the rest

Last summer, Creighton undergraduates Ashley Weed, Sarah Copeland and Joseph Baronovic, along with their professor, Gregory Bucher, Ph.D., of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies, were examining several pieces in the Joslyn Art Museum’s Roman art collection when they came across what looked to be a statue of a young boy.

The head-and-shoulders marble portrait of a child somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8, perhaps crafted in the 1st century A.D., was something of a rarity. The Imperial Roman stonecutters who made the piece were not known for expending much effort on such baubles when the work’s subject was so young and lacked social standing.

“It looked like such a beautiful piece,” said Copeland, a senior from Omaha majoring in classical languages. “But when we got a closer look at it, we saw the cracks, the strange colors in it. Something was just off.”

In that closer look, the students’ initial excitement over their backroom find gave way to skepticism.

For having weathered a reputed two millennia being knocked about Europe and the United States, the stone looked remarkably well preserved. There were also, quite literally, some cracks beginning to show in the head’s story.

“We saw that the head was not entirely made of ancient stone,” Weed said. “Too shiny. Something that would not have been fabricated in ancient times. (There were) cracks in putty that were binding different pieces together. There were just too many things that pointed to this being a pastiche.”

The Creighton team deduced it was an imitation, most likely made in the early 20th century, in Rome, by a craftsman looking to make a quick buck off an unsuspecting tourist.

Disappointed by their first find, the students moved on.

Sitting on another storage shelf in the Joslyn was a head from another portrait, this one of a baby at most 2 years old, again, another ostensible lacuna in Roman portraiture. If older children were unlikely to be the subjects of stone portraits, infants and toddlers were even less apt to become so immortalized.

Sculpted as he was during the Julio-Claudian Era of the 1st century A.D., Weed’s hypothesis on the toddler’s identity is that he may just be Tiberius Gemellus, the grandson of Emperor Tiberius.

“In the Julio-Claudian period, there’s an emphasis on youth and a harkening back to the Golden Age in Greece,” Weed said. “We’d seen other portraits of Tiberius’ grandson and this one just started to look a lot like that to us. The literature, the style, it just seems to match.”

While Bucher said the identity can’t be wholly confirmed, the students and their mentor continue to visit the piece using their own heads to piece together the mystery.