Saturday, October 11, 2014

Early Falconry Art in Portugal

I saw an interesting Roman mosaic last week at an archaeological site in southern Portugal. It depicts a falconer on horseback carrying a raptor on his gauntleted fist. It's difficult to determine the exact species, but the bird's long, barred tail suggests that it might be a Eurasian Sparrowhawk or perhaps a Goshawk. The tail is far too long for a falcon. There's also another bird flying above him. As far as I know, no evidence exists that the Romans ever practiced falconry—although Pliny the Elder once wrote about seeing people in Thrace (what is now Bulgaria) flushing birds for their trained hawks to catch. The mosaic dates from the 5th or 6th century A.D. and is inset in the floor along with several other mosaic illustrations in an area where people would walk to a baptismal font. (This is an early Christian site.) Later, when the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula, they built a village over the site. These mosaics had been buried for centuries. 

I also saw a falconry-related ceramic bowl in a small museum of Islamic art in Mertola, Portugal. It depicts a raptor grabbing the head of a gazelle as a dog attacks its body. Arab falconers used to train Saker falcons to chase gazelles, striking them repeatedly in the head, slowing them enough so their salukis could catch them. This piece is probably at least 1,000 years old.

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