Two reconstructed bronze projector components holding a glass "slide," from the Ancient Cinema exhibition.
Most historians trace the history of cinema to the early 19th century, with the invention of the Phenakistoscope, in 1832, and the Zoetrope, two years later. Henry Jesionka’s “Ancient Cinema” presents speculative evidence from an extraordinary archaeological discovery in Zadar, Croatia, that may set the history of cinema back almost two thousand years.


The collection of metal and glass objects featured in “Ancient Cinema” may very well be the remains of a first century A.D. “Graeco-Roman” film projector. 

Jesionka, a Canadian artist currently living in Graz, Austria, was visiting the Hrelic flea market in Zagreb, Croatia, in Spring 2011, when he spotted an unusual bronze object. Badly corroded, the object had a flat, tapered surface and two opposing vertical features, one of which had a groove or slot. The flea market vendor had no idea what the object was but he directed Jesionka to the place where it was unearthed, near a lagoon in Nin, just north of Zadar.

Visiting the spot described by the vendor, Jesionka discovered a cache of related artifacts: coins with Latin inscriptions, fragments of a clay lamp, and a ceramic chest filled with hand-painted glass tablets. The objects were subsequently cleaned, analyzed and studied.

Roman "cinema" coin, from the Ancient Cinema exhibition.
One of the coins discovered at Nin features an unusual image of a sun surrounded by rectangular shapes. Inscriptions on the coin make reference to “Sol Indiges,” an early Roman cult of the sun. Fragments of the clay lamp contain a similar image, as does the clay chest filled with glass. Jesionka wondered how these objects were related. He carefully pieced together several of the shattered glass tablets from the clay box. They bore strikingly similar images of a Roman woman pouring water from an amphora. Because they were hand-painted, however, each image had slight variations. Were they, in fact, sequential? Jesionka produced replicas of a few of the images and, to his great suprise, they appeared to be animated when he flipped through them.
Jesionka inserted one of the glass replicas into the slot in the bronze object he originally purchased at the Hrelic flea market. It fit.

Was the bronze object part of an ancient image projector? Was the clay lamp the source of illumination? Were these objects used in an ancient Roman cult worshipping the sun?Jesionka had more questions than answers, but he set about fabricating and reconstructing a “Graeco-Roman” film projector, using the image on the coin discovered at Nin as a blueprint. A working model of the projector is featured in the “Ancient Cinema” exhibition, projecting what may be the world’s first animated short subjects.

Sequence of four Roman glass "slides," from the Ancient Cinema exhibition.
Jesionka was trained as a filmmaker, not an archaeologist, and some have questioned both his interpretation of the evidence and the veracity of his reconstruction, which uses an electrical motor and LED light source. Jesionka is nonplussed. “Who determines the context in which an artifact is displayed,” he asks, “or how is it used to tell a story?”

Martin Goodman, one of the leading scholars of Roman culture, makes a similar point in his recent book, The Roman World 44 BC - AD 180: “In all this mass of evidence [from antiquity] a crucial question and a source of continuing conflicting interpretations is how much to take at face value. What is involved must be not just the collection and collation of evidence, but an attempt, with sympathy but without uncritical acceptance of ancient evaluations, to interpret that evidence in a framework of a plausible model of how the Roman Empire might have worked.

Scale model of the ancient Roman projector mechanism (without slides).
“It cannot be stressed too emphatically,” Goodman writes, “that the only certain fact about the ancient world is that most information about it has been lost. What survives does so mostly through the preferences and prejudices of those—mostly Christian monks—who in Late Antiquity and through the Middle Ages copied the manuscripts on which our texts are based. Imagination and empathy are essential to achieve even a glimpse of the lives of people long dead. Thus, all historians accept that attempted reconstructions of the past can never be allowed to ignore or contradict the surviving evidence without at least plausible justification for such a procedure, but it is equally misleading to allow credence only to those statements about the past for which direct evidence happens to survive.” (1)


Notes:

  1. Goodman, Martin, The Roman World 44 BC - AD 180, London: Routledge, 1997, pp. 7-8