Courtesy of National Museums Liverpool, World Museum
Ash chest with the inscription
To the Shades. Cornelia Staphyle, freedwoman of Lucius, well deserving.
The chest was of Cornelia Staphyle. It is possible that the ash chest did not have an inscription in antiquity or that the original one was erased, because in Monumenta Matthaeiana it has a different inscription (to Fabia Felicula). Michaelis doubted the authenticity of the inscription and it was also thought to be a copy taken from a vase in the Vatican. The spacing of the letters does not suggest that the inscription was incomplete but that it was added later to the chest. The vase from the Vatican it was copied from simply read CORNELIA LL STAPHYLE. The form of the letters is similar to other inscription from the Blundell's collection of ash chests that appear to be modern like the ash chest of Rutilia Romana 59.148.333, Oppia Thisbe and Calidia Ursilia.
The decoration is mainly on the front with the sides smoothened and the back left roughtly worked. The small rectangular clamp near the top centre of the sides and the top edge of the chest are shaped to hold a lid. The cavity is large. The upper front corners of the chest have ox skulls (bucrania), with only the front of their faces carved. Ivy branches hang from their horns and they cross the lower centre front underneath the inscription panel, tied to a ribbon with a bow to the front. Small garden birds are to the lower corners, the birds face the corners and peck at ivy berries. Near the side edges at the front hang ribbons ( taeniae). On top and bottom of the front of the ash chest there is a fascia moulding. The inscription panel is framed with the usual undecorated cyma but the sides of the ash chest are undecorated.
Motifs such as bucrania, ivy brances and small birds were commonly used on ash chests from the Hellenistic times and also decorated altars and allunded to sacrifices. Ivy was particular popular for ash chests as evergreens defy the usual cycle of life and death. Ivy was also associated with Dionysus but the motifs of this ash chests are not particularly Dionysiac. The birds do not have a symbolic significance but enhance the impression of the idyllic landscape and lush surroundings. Blundell in his Account saw a rose budding at the top of the ivy spray and explained it as symbolic 'of the the dissolution and regeneration, to shew the perpetual rotation of matter'.
The relief is shallow but the carving is detailed and careful with little use of the drill. The ivy leafs are well modelled, the bunches of the berries are large and abundant and symmetrically arranged at the central axis of the front.
The motif of the crossed ivy brances was used for most of the 1st century AD and bucrania were common at the earlier part of the 1st century AD and less later on. The style of the ivy brances because of the limited use of the drill but the details carving and uncluttered effect is closest to the the pieces of the Claudian or early Flavian period.