Music on a Casket Music and Dance Depicted on the Tenth Century Bone Pula Casket Darko Komšo

Music is an art in which sound is deliberately organised in time and space and is – like dance – as old as the human race, a fact supported by the archaeological evidence. The [Croatian] word glazba comes from the Slavic glas [voice]. The word muzika has a somewhat more romantic origin. The Greeks held music to be the “art of the muse”, μουσική τέχνη (mousikē téchnē), of which only the first word, μουσική, has been retained, derived from the word muse (μούσα, mousa). The Latinised form musica has spread across the world. One of the most stunning depictions of music and dance in Croatia has been preserved on the tenth century Pula bone casket.

It is one of a group of some forty medieval caskets fabricated in Byzantine workshops in Constantinople. They are rectangular and are known as the “Rosette caskets” because of the floral ornamentation framing the relief decorated plates that form the sides of the boxes. For the most part the plates bear depictions of individual mythological figures – deities, heroes or putti (chubby male children, winged or not), and less often depicting group or mythological scenes. The Pula casket is numbered among the second group.

The Pula casket has a remarkable history. It was made in the mid tenth century in Byzantine workshops in Constantinople. It is unknown when exactly it arrived in the northern Adriatic. It was noted on the casket itself in 1846 that it was discovered on the 18th of January 1592 under an altar dedicated to St Catherine that once stood in St George’s church in Piran and that it contained the relics of unknown saints. It was held at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum through to 1884 and was returned to Italy in 1921, but not to Piran, but rather to the museum in Pula. During the Second World War it was transferred to the Museo Civico in Trieste, and was finally restored to the Archaeological Museum of Istria in Pula after 1945, where it is kept under inventory number S-344.

The Pula casket is a well-preserved rectangular wooden box with a sliding lid, with the sides plated with two large and two small bone plates bearing relief ornamentation, edged with bone strips bearing rosettes. The bone sections are attached to the wooden substrate with small round pegs. The box originally also had a small lock on the right shorter side. Between the figural fields and strips with rosettes are individual ivory inserts. Traces of gilding are still visible on the carving, as are traces of red, green and blue colour. The back side of the box originally bore a third large bone plate. A testimony to the casket’s history in Latin was installed in its place in 1846. The casket measures 31.0 by 17.0 by 13.1 centimetres and weighs 2,300 grams.

In terms of its iconography the Pula casket is very similar to the best-known casket of this kind, the Veroli casket kept at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. It is evident that the motifs were created from the same source, perhaps a unique book of proposed imagery used by various master craftsmen when fabricating these caskets and from various illustrated manuscripts. It can be hypothesised that the buyers, i.e. the commissioners, selected the plates after their own tastes.

The Pula casket depicts several scenes. The depiction of music and dance scenes are found on the large front plate and partially on the smaller plate on the right side. In general, musicians are a frequent motif on the Rosette caskets. The relief on the front side shows a Dionysiac retinue in a state of ecstasy, with dancing maenads accompanying a group of musicians. To the far left we see a winged male youth with a horizontally held flute (Greek plagiaulos). Next to him is a pair of dancers – a maenad with two burning torches and a winged centaur. To the right of this pair we see three figures: two naked dancing maenads, the one to the left holding in her hands a fluttering cloak and the one to the right with two burning torches. Between them is a winged person playing a pan flute with six joined pipes (Greek syrinx). To the far right is a winged Heracles playing a stringed musical instrument resting on his left leg, a type of small harp with eleven strings and an additional transversely placed handle.

This scene continues on the relief on the ride side plate, where at the left edge we see a partial depiction of a centaur playing a pan flute with five joined pipes. Riding the centaur is a putto playing a cymbal. As is evident from the description, the musical instruments visible on the front and right sides of the Pula casket are the horizontally held transverse flute, the pan flute, the harp and the cymbal.

The transverse flute (Greek plagiaulos)

The flute is a musical instrument numbered among the wind instruments. We differentiate the vertical and transverse flutes. In the transverse flute air is blown at the top side of the instrument and is played holding the hands on the sides. Its simplicity makes it one of the oldest musical instruments. This instrument is a frequent motif on caskets. Based on manuscript illustrations this type of flute is about sixty centimetres long and was played with the right hand. 

The harp

The harp is a string instrument played with the fingers. It is known of from ancient times in Asia, Africa and Europe. The oldest harps are dated to about 3500 BCE.

The harp on the Pula casket has eleven strings and is played while resting on the player’s leg. Scholars are frequently at odds as to whether the instruments depicted are harps or lyres. The harp and lyre are similar string instruments, differentiated by the method whereby they are played. The harp is played only by the fingers, while the lyre uses a massive pick (Greek plectrum). On all bone caskets this instrument is depicted as being played by the fingers. This is evidently a small harp, played while resting on a stand or on the player’s leg. A feature of this harp is the additional handle, held in the left hand. This specific type of instrument is depicted only on bone caskets and in the Paris Psalter, where the biblical King David sings psalms accompanied by the harp, further supporting the hypothesis that the instrument shown here is indeed a harp.

The pan flute (Greek syrinx)

This is a wind instrument consisting of from four to eighteen joined reed pipes. The ancient Greeks first used it, with its earliest traces on the Cycladic islands in the third millennium BCE. It was most often played by shepherds and there are various accounts related to the emergence of this instrument, the best known associated with the god Pan. In the Greek mythical accounts Pan, the patron of shepherds, was enamored with the nymph Syrinx. Fleeing Pan, Syrinx pleaded with Zeus for salvation – he transformed the Nymph into reeds. Enraged by his loss Pan smashed the reeds but was struck with remorse and kissed the reeds. When he discovered that his breath, passing through the reeds, could create sounds, he made the musical instrument that carries the lost Nymph’s name.

The cymbal (Greek kymbalon)

The cymbal is numbered among the percussion instruments, most often made of bronze and usually played in pairs. Cymbal is derived from the Greek word κύμβαλον (kymbalon), meaning “bowl” or “cup”. It has existed from ancient times and we find depictions on reliefs and paintings from the ancient civilisations of Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome. It is also often mentioned in the Bible.

1. The Pula “Rosette Casket” Origin (made): Constantinople?, 10th century Origin (found): Piran, Church of St George Location (collection): Archaeological Museum of Istria, Pula, inv. br. S – 344 Materials: Bone, ivory Dimensions: 31,0 x 17,0 x 13,1 cm Weight: 2.300 gr.


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 Music and Dance Depicted on the Tenth Century Bone Pula Casket


Carrarina 4, Pula

Window to the Past 27.01. - 05.03.2017.

Exhibition and text author: Darko Komšo

 Organizer and publisher:

Archaeological Museum of Istria

For the organizer and publisher:

Darko Komšo

Editorial Board:

Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Katarina Zenzerović

Set up author, graphic design: Vjeran Juhas

 Photographer: Goran Vranić  

3D videographer Boris Rumora -  ASAP, Pula

 Technical set up of the exhibition: Andrea Sardoz, Admir Dizdarević

 Translation in Italian: Elis Barbalich-Geromella

 Translation in English: Neven Ferenčić

Proofs: Adriana Gri Štorga, Milena Špigić, Sunčica Vrbanić Peruško

 Print: MPS Pula

 No. of copies: 700

Pula, 2017.

Typo3 site by Ulisys d.o.o. , 2010.