The two vessels represented in this extraordinary watercolour were excavated by Lusieri himself from a tumulus just outside Athens, off the road to the port of Piraeus, and they formed part of Lord Elgin's collection purchased by the British Museum in 1816. The circumstances of the find are documented in some detail. Lusieri's discovery of the tumulus is first recorded in a letter he wrote to Lord Elgin at the end of October 1802: 'Since I have found a tumulus which is larger than that said to be of Antiope, and since it has never been touched, I will excavate it as soon as I can'. From Lusieri's account book it can be ascertained that the work at the site began on 31st January 1803 under the direction of Feodor Ivanovitch, the figure draughtsman in Lord Elgin’s team. Sailors from the Diana the ship carrying Lord Elgin back to Britain, were detailed to assist, but the attempt was evidently abandoned a week later without success, and Lusieri was later scathing about it.
A more concentrated effort to excavate the tumulus, with a large team supervised by Lusieri himself, commenced on Boxing Day 1803 and continued until the end of April the following year, although the main prize, the double urn featured in this watercolour, had been discovered by the beginning of March. An entry in the account book for 6 March reads 'For an antique terracotta vase in which to place the ashes found in the vase at the tumulus'. Other payments are recorded for 'Two horses with a carriage to collect the vase found in the tumulus' (25 March): 'to three men who guarded the vase for two nights near the tumulus' (27 March) and a larger sum to 'the Owner of the land where the tumulus is' (3 April), presumably in compensation for the disruption caused by the dig.
Lusieri provided a detailed account of the discovery of the vases in a letter to Lord Eldin of 18 May 1804:
'In the excavation of the great tomb in the vineyards on the way to the Piraeus, which had been very badly begun, I found, ten feet below the general level, a large white marble vase, quite plain, seven feet in circumference, two feet three inches high. It contains another vase of bronze, very well worked, of four feet four inches in circumference and one foot and half an inch high. Inside the latter were some burnt bones on top of which was a branch of myrtle in gold with flowers and buds. The exterior vase, pressed down by the huge weight of the tomb, was broken, which prevented a perfect state of preservation of the inner vase. On the outside, beside the vase was another of alabaster, absolutely beautiful and much larger than anything I have ever seen of this kind, being one foot seven inches long and one foot in circumference ...
This tomb is in the form of a mound which is about 80 feet high and 250 in circumference, made with sand brought from the different streams which traverse the Athenian plain ... This sand was extremely fine and very compact. The vase was simply placed on the sand. I did not think it worthwhile to keep the bones, gathered them again in an antique earthenware vase, tightly closed, placed it in the same spot, and returned the tomb to its former state.'
The present watercolour was in all likelihood begun, and possibly completed, very shortly after the vessels were unearthed, for it shows the bronze dinos with its sealed lid still in place. An outline drawing showing the two urns in identical form, but smaller in scale was included in Lusieri's letter of 18 May quoted above, although, as we have seen, by early March the seal had been broken and the charred bones and gold sprig of myrtle discovered. There is no mention of this watercolour anywhere in Lusieri's correspondence, nor in his 'complete' list of works undertaken in Lord Elgin's service compiled in 1817-1819, and it seems likely that, proud of his discovery, he made it a private memento of his excavation of the tumulus. That he apparently parted with it to Lady Ruthven in 1819 was presumably due to force of circumstances.
This text was first published in Expanding Horizons: Giovanna Battista Lusieri and the Panoramic Landscape (2012).