Artemision Bronze Analysis Essay

“Thank God for Vesuvius; thank God for shipwrecks.” Bondo Wyszpolski’s comment on the exhibition Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World at the Getty Museum accurately sums up an art historical reality: bronze artwork of antiquity rarely survived the vicissitudes of history, except by mere chance. The contribution of Pompeii together with a handful of other sites is well known and recognized; the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, for example, with its exquisite bronze portraiture “catapulted the study of bronzes from antiquarian pastime to art historical discipline,” presenting an excellent archaeological context in which the Hellenistic art of portraiture could be well appreciated and understood. By contrast, the yield from the depths of the sea covers a considerably longer time span and is mostly the result of unintentional acts, resulting in a testimony that is far more ambiguous. The pursuit of context remains a major issue for most bronzes recovered underwater.

The Mediterranean Basin forms the largest reservoir of bronze statuary, and a kind of reservoir that will not run out anytime soon. Scholars tend to link the bronzes recovered from the sea to shipwrecks, dated to the Late Republican and Early Imperial periods. This notion, often perceived as true a priori, is contingent upon a perceptual framework that dominated scholarly thought for more than a century. Yet, after a hundred years of underwater research, examples of solid shipwrecks carrying bronzes are very few, with a large number of “ghost-wrecks” remaining evasive and tenaciously resisting discovery. This very fact reveals one of the weaknesses of early discoveries: while much ink has been spilled over analyzing styles, musculature, drapery, and rendering, the exact locations where those masterpieces were found are poorly documented and have fallen into oblivion. Those infinitesimal details that could lead directly to the findspots were left unpublished because they were regarded as either unimportant or self-evident. Furthermore, recent finds suggest a much more nuanced story in the dating of bronzes loaded on board.

Shipwrecks do indeed present evidence for the advance of archaeological studies that no other terrestrial or underwater site can possibly provide. They offer an opportunity to trace the nexuses between trade, trade routes, commercial strategies, shipping, and ship-management. But doubtless their most salient quality is the range of intact artifacts they provide in connection with their existence per se in space and time. As self-contained and self-organized units, they offer a unique possibility to study bronzes in a transitional context, completely independent of the historical topography of terrestrial sites. This “disconnected reasoning” is well appreciated by scholars, who are often inclined to dovetail wrecks with certain historical events recorded in written sources.

Although underwater archaeology as an open-water activity was initiated in the Aegean in the nineteenth century, certain discoveries were made even earlier, when the sea was still considered insurmountable. Bronze statues were traditionally raised from the sea by fishermen dragging their nets. This phenomenon, as old as some of the raised statues themselves, was illustrated for the first time on a relief from Ostia, found in the vicinity of the temple of Hercules and dated around 70 BC (fig. 3.1). Commissioned and dedicated to the temple by the haruspex Caius Fulvius Salvis, the relief depicts six fishermen pulling up a supernatural statue of Hercules Promachos in their net. It is not well understood if the episode depicted is an accident or a deliberate act.

The earliest reported example of a bronze statue raised by nets in the Aegean is the “Berlin Youth” or “Apollo,” a headless corpus of a youth dated in the late first century BC, said to have been retrieved by Italian fishermen from the sea off Salamis in the Saronic Gulf in 1878. Very little is known about the circumstances of the discovery. The youth passed into the Sabouroff collection and in 1884 was acquired by the Antikensammlung in Berlin.

A few years later, in 1899, a bronze statue of another god was discovered in the shallows of the modern village of Agios Vasileios, in southern Boeotia, affixed to an inscribed base that identified the figure as Poseidon. The statue, dated in the very late Archaic period and restored in the 1970s, was placed on permanent display in the Athens Archaeological Museum.

The history of the Antikythera wreck discovered shortly thereafter, in 1900, is well known. The Greek state, though on the verge of bankruptcy and just recovering from war, nevertheless undertook and completed one of the most remarkable archaeological operations ever. Thanks to a group of sponge divers from the island of Sími, most of the wreck’s cargo was raised, bringing to light some of the most dazzling masterpieces of ancient sculpture. This historic research opened a long archaeological dialogue, renewed several times during the twentieth century and prolonged well into the twenty-first. Apart from leading the way and triggering the underwater excavation of the Mahdia wreck several years later, the Antikythera wreck demonstrated for the first time the potential of underwater archaeological research. The site remains under investigation 115 years after it was first discovered: no other project undertaken by the Hellenic Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities has been more time-consuming in organization, more complex in application, more demanding in resources, and more celebrated by the press than the “Return to Antikythera” project, the first attempt to reevaluate this historic shipwreck and excavate it according to modern procedures.

The resonance of the 1901 research did not last long, however. Technological limitations, ignorance, and a series of unfortunate international circumstances seriously affected any further steps toward establishing a discipline. For the following half century, shipwrecks were considered suitable only for salvage operations: any other retrieval from the sea remained accidental until the 1950s.

Nevertheless, the recovery of some of the most famous masterpieces of art worldwide is dated to this early twentieth-century period. In June 1925 a complete bronze statue of a youth known as the “Marathon Boy” was raised during a fishing operation in the southern Euboean Gulf. Konstantinos Rhomaios, to whom the piece was handed in the port of Rafina, was not keen to delve deep into the details of the discovery: he contented himself with the information provided. “The statue was found,” he writes, “in the Marathon Bay, between the coast and some tiny island.” The information was never cross-checked, although he reports that there was evidence available from other eyewitnesses. The nickname agalma (statue) was adopted among the local fishermen to define the findspot. Ironically enough, the nickname survived in records and lists of toponyms, but there is no living memory of where it is.

Those three statues—the Berlin Youth, the Poseidon, and the Marathon Boy—were all single objects retrieved from the sea and lacking a definite context. The obvious and most self-evident reasoning—that they once belonged to the cargo of ships that never reached port—was generally accepted without further investigation. This is not, however, the only reasoning. Even Rhomaios in his 1925 report remained circumspect in recognizing a wreck under every statue raised from the sea. In fact, a large number of excerpts culled from ancient writers declare that ancient bronzes could have been submerged underwater in antiquity for a variety of reasons. They could result from an act of “dumping,” or jettison (the legal term for goods or equipment thrown overboard from a ship when in danger); from geophysical phenomena (earthquakes, inundations, etc.); or from an official symbolic condemnation of the memory of a certain person (damnatio memoriae). “Dumping,” or jettison, no doubt, was a common practice, since it was expedient to heave things overboard when a ship was in danger. References to jettison of all kinds abound in ancient sources, and we can assume that the things dumped into the sea were the heaviest on board.

After Antikythera, the first bronzes directly linked to a shipwreck came from the sea off Artemision, the narrow strait separating Euboea from the Pagasetic Gulf, and once the site of a famous sea battle between the Persians and the Greeks. The first piece to be drawn up in fishing nets in 1926 was the left forearm of Zeus of Artemision, one of the most celebrated works of ancient Greek art. The find was reported to the Department of Antiquities, and initially no further action was taken. Two years later, in September 1928, a boat was reported to be performing illicit salvage operations in the same area. Concerted action led to the investigation of the suspected boat and confiscation of a newly broken right arm of a statue. A heavy cable was attached at that very moment to something that the divers and crew were about to pull up. Over the next few days, the authorities towed the remaining body of Zeus ashore onto the beach of Pefki.

The incident triggered outrage among the press and the public, who reprimanded the department for its idleness. Pressure mounted to undertake a more intensive investigation of the site. A new mission was pioneered by the ephor (magistrate), Nikos Vertos, an enthusiastic land archaeologist who, unfortunately, could not dive and therefore could not be directly involved in underwater work. Diving in those days was still difficult and dangerous, and archaeologists could not possibly meet the demands of such operations. To quote a passage from George Bass, they “stayed instead on deck and gratefully accepted the artifacts handed up to them by hired divers.” The exclusion of scholars from the finds’ archaeological context had a serious impact on our understanding of early shipwrecks. Yet Vertos’s official report, precise in its facts and accurate in its diction, remains today the main source of information regarding the Artemision shipwreck. The expedition lasted less than three weeks and was undertaken at the wrong time of the year, and thus confronted extreme weather conditions. The divers unearthed and pulled up the forepart of the body of a horse and the statue of a small boy. A short expedition resumed work in the spring of 1929, before the project ended due to the lack of adequate diving equipment. Efforts to locate the rear part of the horse failed, and Vertos insinuated that the piece had been washed away into a deep channel. This missing part appeared several years later, in 1936, caught by fishing nets in a spot several kilometers west of the wreck site, near the town of Oreoi. Even at such an early stage of underwater investigation, there was clear evidence of a fact that would prove an ongoing issue even seven decades later: bronzes discovered underwater, no matter how heavy, tend to get dismembered and separated from their postdepositional context as a result of secondary human action.

There is no official record indicating that anyone saw the wreck site again, and all later attempts to relocate the site—by Jacques Yves Cousteau (1976, 1982), Willard Bascom (1993), and Shelley Wachsmann (2006)—failed to yield any results. Details or schedules about the exact findspot again are lacking in the archives. Probably the site was silted over without leaving visible remains.

The statue of the horse and jockey was reassembled, and after extensive restoration went on display at the National Museum of Athens. The original artist and the circumstances under which the work was created are unknown. Seán Hemingway has suggested that it may have been plundered from Corinth in 146 BC by the Roman general Mumius during the Achaean War and given to Attalus as a share of the booty, but lost while in transit to Pergamon. Christos Piteros connected the wreck with the plundering of Chalkis by Mithridates’s general Archelaos after the defeat of their coalition by Sulla in 86 BC and his escape back to Pergamon.

After the delivery of the last part of the Artemision assemblage, almost half a century passed without any significant new finds in Greece. The only exception was the confiscation by the port police of a bronze statuette depicting Artemis, raised during illegal operations in 1959 from the sea off Mykonos (fig. 3.2). According to the statue’s drapery and style, it should be dated in the Early Hellenistic period.

Several bronzes have however been reported found off the coast of Asia Minor, modern Turkey. The “Lady from the Sea” was found in 1953 by fishermen dragging their nets along the coast of Arap Adasi, not far from the Knidos peninsula, at a depth of around 100 meters (330 ft.). They brought the bronze to the village of Bitez, near Bodrum, and abandoned it on the beach. There, neglected and covered with marine incrustations, it remained for several weeks until it attracted the attention of George E. Bean, a British professor at Istanbul University; he had the bronze removed to Izmir, where it was cleaned and housed. The work is usually dated in the first half of the third century BC. Extensive underwater surveys conducted in the area failed to link the bronze to any specific context.

Ten years later, in 1963, the half-broken bronze statue of a young African was pulled from the sea by sponge-draggers at a depth of 100 meters (330 ft.), not far from the modern city of Bodrum. Preserved from the hips up and retaining both arms, it might represent a groom and might have been part of a Hellenistic honorary monument. A bronze figurine of Isis-Fortuna was netted in the same area that same year, leaving open a hypothesis that both works may have originated from the same wreck.

The latest reported statue from the coast of Turkey is the life-size bronze of a runner discovered at the Bay of Nemrut, near the ancient city of Cyme (Kyme). The work represents an athlete, probably the victor of a footrace. Somewhat awkwardly composed and schematically muscled, he is remarkable for the individual features of the face. It is evidently a portrait, but it might also echo a famous high Classical statue, Myron’s Ladas, which inspired numerous epigrams praising its sense of swiftness; this work has unfortunately not survived, even in replica. The face’s individuality and hairstyle suggest a Late Hellenistic or even an Early Imperial Roman date.

The next find was again in Greek territorial waters, in Spring 1979: the bronze equestrian statue of a male was delivered by fishermen to the authorities, from the sea near the island of Ai Stratis (Agios Efstratios), in the northern Aegean. It was immediately identified as Augustus on the basis of the emperor’s portraits on coins. Statues like this were probably promoted by Roman state policy and distributed to the provinces to serve the aims of imperial propaganda. There is evidence of another bronze cuirassed equestrian statue from the same area, suggesting that the presumptive wreck may have carried a number of such sculptures. A small part of a bronze statue was delivered to the Ephorate of Underwater Antiquities in 1981; it was never published and has lain forgotten ever since in the storerooms (fig. 3.3). It exhibits the right thigh and the pteryges (“feathers”) of the lower part of a cuirass of another life-size equestrian statue, possibly a companion or general of Augustus, although there is no clear evidence that the two bronzes originate from the same site.

The most monumental bronze statue to be raised from the sea, known as the “Lady of Kalymnos,” was pulled up by a fishing boat in the sea east of the Greek island of Kalymnos in 1994 from a depth of about 120 meters (390 ft.). It is a Hellenistic variation of the statue type known as the Large Herculaneum Woman. Variants of this type were used during the Hellenistic period to portray women from the middle and upper classes, queens, and even goddesses; it exemplifies the ideal of the demure, respected lady of that era. On the basis of the idealized facial features and the similarity with works such as the Ackland Head, the Lady of Kalymnos could, in all likelihood, be dated within the third century BC. The manner of representing the veil covering the head and hair very much recalls the portraits of Ptolemaic queens on coins. An identification of the Kalymnos Lady as Arsinoë III has recently been suggested by Olga Palagia, based on the similarity of the facial features to those of a bronze head in Mantua.

The delivery of the Lady of Kalymnos to the Hellenic Archaeological Service and the stupendous reward granted for it had a huge impact on the community of local fishermen and resulted in an unexpected chain reaction: for the next twenty years, parts of statues were delivered to the department, some of them newly found and raised from the sea, others that had been stored for years in Kalymnian cellars. Dragging nets for the recovery of bronzes was for a while considered much more profitable than fishing. We can only imagine the damage inflicted to ancient shipwrecks in the deep. Whatever entered the Archaeological Service after 1994 was very fragmentary and of highly questionable origin.

A fragment of a bronze dolphin was salvaged in 1997 in the waters off the north Dodecanese island of Leipsoi. It has a broad, curved forehead and a wide, raised snout that correspond to the widespread iconographic convention for Hellenistic dolphins. Iconographic parallels with dolphins in comparable representations allow this sculpture to be dated in the Hellenistic period.

A bronze head slightly larger than life-size was found in the sea northwest of Kalymnos in 1997. The head is a portrait of a mature bearded man wearing a kausia, the felt hat worn at the Macedonian court and used by the Diadochoi as a distinctive sign of their origin. The head is gently tilted with separated lips and eyes looking slightly upward—two features known from the iconography of Alexander the Great. But it also has some personalized characteristics such as a short, curly beard, mustache, short hair, and deep horizontal and vertical wrinkles in the middle of the forehead. These characteristics suggest that it is a portrait of a well-known man, a face that was to be immediately recognizable.

Two identical bronze legs, right and left, were also found in the sea south of Kalymnos during 1997 and 1999, albeit in different locations, some nautical miles apart. Their knees are bent, and the lower legs slope gently downward, like the legs of a rider who, like all ancient equestrians, did not use stirrups. The shoe is an almost perfect match with the krepis, a sandal that, according to Pliny the Elder, was worn when traveling on foot or horseback. Feet wearing identical shoes are likewise found in Hellenistic bronzes, especially statues of riders, with all known examples dating to the third and second centuries BC. A fragmentary piece of a third leg was lifted from the sea northwest of Kalymnos, suggesting the existence of at least two mounted bronze figures, but the evidence for combining the findspots was highly controversial.

In 2006 a fragmentary body of an armored rider was raised from waters south of Kalymnos (fig. 3.4). The rider wears a type of leather cuirass that corresponds to a spolas over a short-sleeved garment, and over it a chlamys, which is fastened at the right shoulder and runs across the chest to fall freely down the back. The bottom part of the armor is decorated with a band of incised pairs of spiral motifs, while the lower edge exhibits a double line of pteryges. The cuirass is tied at the waist with a cloth belt that crosses at the back and then fastens in an intricate knot at the center front, imitating the “Persian girdle” worn by Alexander the Great.

The most complete piece of this group appeared in 2009: the full bust of an armored horseman, preserved from the neck down to the flaps of the cuirass (fig. 3.5). The head, both legs, and the horse are missing. The figure exhibits the same kind of cuirass as the rider found in 2006. The visible right shoulder strap is decorated with a relief of a winged thunderbolt. The left shoulder strap is hidden by the chlamys, which, fastened on the right shoulder, folds over the chest and falls back, covering the entire back. Clearly, the horseman held the horse’s reins with the left hand. The right hand is raised forward in a gesture of greeting. A strap hangs from the neck, down the left side of the cuirass, and is decorated with a plate incised with an archaistic female figure. The cuirass is tied at the waist with the exact same Persian-girdle manner as the find of 2006. Unlike its former companion, the whole work is fully decorated with minor details: a griffin under the armpit, a line of flying birds on the belt, and double spiral motifs at the lower edge of the thorax. The pair of legs raised in the 1990s have been securely associated with the figure. The attribution of the head with a kausia to the one or the other rider torso, however, remains less certain.

The two horsemen are of similar size, wear the same type of clothes and armor, were found in the same waters, and reasonably should be attributed to the same shipwreck. However, the exact archaeological context is still lacking. The dating of the riders can be based only on stylistic and typological criteria: the style of the clothing, the double row of flaps, and the knotted belt are all known already from a fourth-century BC rock relief depicting the general Alketas on the funerary monument at Termessos in Lycia. The elaborate belt (cingulum) on each of the two armored riders appears in depictions of the Diadochoi and is adopted later by the Romans, who used it to indicate that the wearer held an official post. Stylistic analysis of some details of the clothing, and the striking resemblance of the bent legs and leather shoes to an example found in a well in the Athenian Agora, suggests a date from the third to the mid-second century BC.

Up to now it has not been possible to identify the head with a kausia with any certainty. It has, however, been suggested that it represents a famous Macedonian king. On grounds of iconographical resemblance with a much worn marble head from the island of Kos, Palagia suggests that it is Philip V, the penultimate ruler of the Antigonid dynasty.

Concerning the conditions of transport and loss of the statues retrieved from the sea near Kalymnos, we can only make assumptions. A terminus ante quem for the date of the bronzes is provided by an intact stamped amphora, part of the same catch with the horseman recovered in 2006, partially covered with calcareous deposits containing a high percentage of copper oxides. This fact clearly demonstrates that the armored figure and the amphora were in the same underwater environment for a long time. It is a typical example of a Knidos-type amphora, which, on the basis of shape and the two stamps, can be dated approximately between 78 and the end of the first century BC.

Among the late finds originating from the Aegean there is also a life-size bronze statue of a nude male, raised in 2004 from a depth of almost 450 meters (1,475 ft.) in the area west of Kythnos in the Cyclades. The entire head, the right arm from the shoulder, the right leg from the knee down, and part of the back are missing. The nudity, the equipoise, and the musculature of the body suggest a robust athlete, perhaps a discus thrower. The dating of the bronze is still very uncertain and depends on its potential relationship with a shipwreck found in the same area, loaded with a mixed cargo that contained, among other items, Chian amphorae of the late fourth or early third century BC.

The latest accession in this long series of bronzes found underwater is a head of a young male figure that was delivered to the department by a spear-fisherman in late summer 2015 (fig. 3.6). It was collected in shallow waters in front of the village of Agia Pelagia in the island of Kythera, south of Peloponnese; according to the existing evidence, it is not connected to any shipwreck remains. The rendering of the hair in shallow relief might indicate a Late Hellenistic, if not Early Roman, variation of an earlier prototype.

Any catalogue of bronzes retrieved from Greek or Turkish territorial waters inevitably remains incomplete: we lack information about the numerous bronzes that worked their way through illegal transactions directly into private collections or appeared out of nowhere on the international market. Ownership of art is de facto sanctioned by time. After aging a few years in private collections and then taking advantage of less strict legislation, they may well end up in collections of well-respected institutions. The repatriation in 2002 of a young male nude, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, is one of the very few that made its way back. The sculpture allegedly was found somewhere in the Ionian Sea, perhaps off Preveza, but as in most such cases, there is no definite information. No doubt, there are many more.

While complete or dismembered statues may at any time rise from the deep to the full glare of publicity, investigators of shipwrecks on the coastal zone tend to conceal any trace of more valuable or uncommon cargo. As of summer 2015, the number of ancient wrecks surveyed in Greek territorial waters exceeded two hundred. Yet the number of wreck sites containing bronzes has remained stable for almost a century: Antikythera and Artemision, two of the very first wrecks ever investigated, were the only known examples until 2010. In that year a series of unexpected finds came to light during the opening of some trial trenches on a Late Hellenistic shipwreck in the southern Euboean Gulf, off the island of Styra, at an accessible depth between 40 and 45 meters (131–47 ft.). Several fragmentary pieces of bronze statues of natural size were unearthed by removing the upper sediments: a part of a nude calf, parts of folded drapery, and the selvage of a garment displaying a zone of inlaid reddish cooper (fig. 3.7). From the same wreck, two intact bronze legs of a table or couch decorated with busts of sirens and acanthus leaves were also recovered (fig. 3.8). Luxury furniture is seldom found in ancient shipwrecks, with the only other known examples reported in the wrecks from Antikythera and Mahdia, both known for their cargo of bronzes.

Bronzes, however, constituted only a small part of the total cargo of the Styra shipwreck. The main cargo was a consignment of north Peloponnesian (Sikyonian) amphorae and tableware (fig. 3.9). The nature of this complementary cargo of bronzes cannot be fully understood until the completion of the excavation. They could represent booty from the devastation of a town; the luxury belongings of an official who was travelling to or from his post; or even art objects ordered by a Roman patron. And considering the historic circumstances, fragmentary bronzes may well also have been collected as scrap and transported by sea on their way to the foundries that operated incessantly during that period to meet the demands of war.

The Styra shipwreck clearly demonstrates that shipwrecks loaded with bronzes do not necessarily differ from any other carrier of the period. Scholars have made much of the heavy construction of the hulls from the Antikythera and the Mahdia shipwrecks. No doubt, the Antikythera ship was a huge vessel with characteristics that only exceptionally large ships of the Roman era presented. However, the rest of the consignment shipped together with statuary and luxury items does not differ significantly from any other cargo circulating in those years between the Aegean Sea and the Adriatic Sea. The Antikythera wreck provided Rhodian, Koan, Ephesian, and Lamboglia II amphorae. Knidian amphorae were probably carried together with the bronzes recovered from the wreck off Kalymnos, as yet undiscovered. Amphorae are also reported from the Kythnos wreck, and mixed consignments can be traced even back to the early fourth century BC, with the Porticello shipwreck being the most characteristic example. Instead of indicating aberrant times, these mixed consignments seem to insinuate nothing out of the ordinary.

These facts clearly demonstrate that common boats, loaded with all kinds of commodities, were used to load the bronzes and make crossings. The correspondence of Cicero, in a letter written from Rome in March of 67 BC, seems to verify that. Cicero orders his agent, Titus Pomponius Atticus, to find him Megarian statues, Pentelic herms, and any other statue suitable for a lecture hall and colonnade. Closing his letter, he underscores that “if a ship of Lentulus is not available put them aboard any [ship] you think fit.” It seems that any ship seaworthy and safe enough could have been used to transport works of art. If we push this argument to its extreme, any shipwreck, any amphora carrier dated between the years 150 BC and AD 50 could have carried bronzes.

Shipwrecks transporting bronzes remain elusive no matter the time, means, and funds invested in tracing them. Several good reasons for this should be mentioned. Doubtless, the great depth to which these wrecks sank increases the operational cost of any underwater survey, and as such, it is not often expected to be prolonged to the final exhaustion of any possibility offered by a certain area. The dynamic underwater environment in several areas is now hiding and now unveiling traceable remains over and over again. Secondary, postdepositional removal of bronzes may also draw underwater investigation several miles away from the original spot of a wreck. False or deliberately misleading information also has its share in the failure of many missions of the past. While amateur divers have too often been flung into the breach between illusion and reality, professional fishermen remain very reluctant to provide accurate information, for fear of a possible generalized ban on the use of dragged nets in their traditional fishing fields. State policy must also claim a fair share of blame. While Hellenic law encourages and rewards the handing over of antiquities and information, bureaucratic procedures are often stalled by officious public servants with no interest in achieving a sensible balance between underwater archaeologists and local communities of fishermen: rewards can be delayed for years and this creates an additional ambience of mistrust.

Defining an archaeological context remains today the most crucial issue for the majority of bronzes retrieved underwater. Bronzes without context can still serve the history of art, but our understanding of the conditions of transit are relegated to the sphere of assumption. A subsequent need to relocate and investigate anew historic wrecks of the past is slowly being fulfilled. The painstaking documentation of the remains of the Antikythera shipwreck, now under excavation, will partly address that. The relocation of the remnants of the Artemision wreck is evoking a reconsideration of the date and circumstances of the ship’s transit. Experience has shown that only fully excavated shipwrecks and detailed study of all of the material on board can provide the kind of information that will allow scholars to link those wrecks to specific historical episodes.


Ancient Greek sculpture is the sculpture of ancient Greece. Modern scholarship identifies three major stages. Frequent subjects were the battles, mythology, and rulers of the area historically known as Ancient Greece.


Ancient Greek monumental sculpture was composed almost entirely of marble or bronze; with cast bronze becoming the favoured medium for major works by the early 5th century; many pieces of sculpture known only in marble copies made for the Roman market were originally made in bronze. Smaller works were in a great variety of materials, many of them precious, with a very large production of terracotta figurines. The territories of ancient Greece, except for Sicily and southern Italy, contained abundant supplies of fine marble, with Pentelic and Parian marble the most highly prized, along with that from modern Prilep in Macedonia, and various sources in modern Turkey. The ores for bronze were also relatively easy to obtain.[1] Marble was mostly found around the Parthenon and other major Greek buildings.

Both marble and bronze are fortunately easy to form and very durable; as in most ancient cultures there were no doubt also traditions of sculpture in wood about which we know very little, other than acrolithic sculptures, usually large, with the head and exposed flesh parts in marble but the clothed parts in wood. As bronze always had a significant scrap value very few original bronzes have survived, though in recent years marine archaeology or trawling has added a few spectacular finds, such as the Artemision Bronze and Riace bronzes, which have significantly extended modern understanding. Many copies of the Roman period are marble versions of works originally in bronze. Ordinary limestone was used in the Archaic period, but thereafter, except in areas of modern Italy with no local marble, only for architectural sculpture and decoration. Plaster or stucco was sometimes used for the hair only.[2]

Chryselephantine sculptures, used for temple cult images and luxury works, used gold, most often in leaf form and ivory for all or parts (faces and hands) of the figure, and probably gems and other materials, but were much less common, and only fragments have survived. Many statues were given jewellery, as can be seen from the holes for attaching it, and held weapons or other objects in different materials.[3]

Painting of sculpture[edit]

By the early 19th century, the systematic excavation of ancient Greek sites had brought forth a plethora of sculptures with traces of notably multicolored surfaces, some of which were still visible. Despite this, influential art historians such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann so strongly opposed the idea of painted Greek sculpture that proponents of painted statues were dismissed as eccentrics, and their views were largely dismissed for more than a century.

It was not until published findings by German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann in the late 20th and early 21st century that the painting of ancient Greek sculptures became an established fact. Using high-intensity lamps, ultraviolet light, specially designed cameras, plaster casts, and certain powdered minerals, Brinkmann proved that the entire Parthenon, including the actual structure as well as the statues, had been painted. He analyzed the pigments of the original paint to discover their composition.

Brinkmann made several painted replicas of Greek statues that went on tour around the world. Also in the collection were replicas of other works of Greek and Roman sculpture, and he demonstrated that the practice of painting sculpture was the norm rather than the exception in Greek and Roman art.[4] Museums that hosted the exhibit included the Glyptotek Museum in Munich, the Vatican Museum, and the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, et al. The collection made its American debut at Harvard University in the Fall of 2007.[5]

Development of Greek sculptures[edit]


It is commonly thought that the earliest incarnation of Greek sculpture was in the form of wooden cult statues, first described by Pausanias as xoana.[6] No such statues survive, and the descriptions of them are vague, despite the fact that they were probably objects of veneration for hundreds of years. The first piece of Greek statuary to be reassembled since is probably the Lefkandi Centaur, a terra cotta sculpture found on the island of Euboea, dated c. 920 BCE. The statue was constructed in parts, before being dismembered and buried in two separate graves. The centaur has an intentional mark on its knee, which has led researchers to postulate[7] that the statue might portray Cheiron, presumably kneeling wounded from Herakles' arrow. If so, it would be the earliest known depiction of myth in the history of Greek sculpture.

The forms from the geometrical period (c. 900 to c. 700 BCE) were chiefly terra cotta figurines, bronzes, and ivories. The bronzes are chiefly tripod cauldrons, and freestanding figures or groups. Such bronzes were made using the lost-wax technique probably introduced from Syria, and are almost entirely votive offerings left at the Hellenistic civilization Panhellenic sanctuaries of Olympia, Delos, and Delphi, though these were likely manufactured elsewhere, as a number of local styles may be identified by finds from Athens, Argos, and Sparta. Typical works of the era include the Karditsa warrior (Athens Br. 12831) and the many examples of the equestrian statuette (for example, NY Met. 21.88.24 online). The repertory of this bronze work is not confined to standing men and horses, however, as vase paintings of the time also depict imagery of stags, birds, beetles, hares, griffins and lions. There are no inscriptions on early-to-middle geometric sculpture, until the appearance of the Mantiklos "Apollo" (Boston 03.997) of the early 7th century BCE found in Thebes. The figure is that of a standing man with a pseudo-daedalic form, underneath which lies the inscription "Μαντικλος μ' ανεθε̅κε ϝεκαβολο̅ι αργυροτοχσο̅ι τας {δ}δε-κατας· τυ δε Φοιβε διδοι χαριϝετταν αμοιϝ[αν]", written in hexameter. The Latinized script reads, "Mantiklos manetheke wekaboloi argurotoxsoi tas dekatas; tu de Foibe didoi xariwettan amoiw[an]", and is translated roughly as "Mantiklos offered me as a tithe to Apollo of the silver bow; do you, Phoibos [Apollo], give some pleasing favour in return". The inscription is a declaration of the statuette to Apollo, followed by a request for favors in return. Apart from the novelty of recording its own purpose, this sculpture adapts the formulae of oriental bronzes, as seen in the shorter more triangular face and slightly advancing left leg. This is sometimes seen as anticipating the greater expressive freedom of the 7th century BCE and, as such, the Mantiklos figure is referred to in some quarters as proto-Daedalic.


Inspired by the monumental stone sculpture of Egypt[8] and Mesopotamia, the Greeks began again to carve in stone. Free-standing figures share the solidity and frontal stance characteristic of Eastern models, but their forms are more dynamic than those of Egyptian sculpture, as for example the Lady of Auxerre and Torso of Hera (Early Archaic period, c. 660–580 BCE, both in the Louvre, Paris). After about 575 BCE, figures such as these, both male and female, began wearing the so-called archaic smile. This expression, which has no specific appropriateness to the person or situation depicted, may have been a device to give the figures a distinctive human characteristic.

Three types of figures prevailed—the standing nude youth (kouros, plural kouroi), the standing draped girl (kore, plural korai), and the seated woman. All emphasize and generalize the essential features of the human figure and show an increasingly accurate comprehension of human anatomy. The youths were either sepulchral or votive statues. Examples are Apollo (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), an early work; the Strangford Apollo from Anafi (British Museum, London), a much later work; and the Anavyssos Kouros (National Archaeological Museum of Athens). More of the musculature and skeletal structure is visible in this statue than in earlier works. The standing, draped girls have a wide range of expression, as in the sculptures in the Acropolis Museum of Athens. Their drapery is carved and painted with the delicacy and meticulousness common in the details of sculpture of this period.

The Greeks thus decided very early on that the human form was the most important subject for artistic endeavour. Seeing their gods as having human form, there was no distinction between the sacred and the secular in art—the human body was both secular and sacred. A male nude without any attachments such as a bow or a club, could just as easily be Apollo or Heracles as that year's Olympic boxing champion. In the Archaic Period the most important sculptural form was the kouros (plural kouroi), the standing male nude (See for example Biton and Kleobis). The kore (plural korai), or standing clothed female figure, was also common; Greek art did not present female nudity (unless the intention was pornographic) until the 4th century BCE, although the development of techniques to represent drapery is obviously important.

As with pottery, the Greeks did not produce sculpture merely for artistic display. Statues were commissioned either by aristocratic individuals or by the state, and used for public memorials, as offerings to temples, oracles and sanctuaries (as is frequently shown by inscriptions on the statues), or as markers for graves. Statues in the Archaic period were not all intended to represent specific individuals. They were depictions of an ideal—beauty, piety, honor or sacrifice. These were always depictions of young men, ranging in age from adolescence to early maturity, even when placed on the graves of (presumably) elderly citizens. Kouroi were all stylistically similar. Graduations in the social stature of the person commissioning the statue were indicated by size rather than artistic innovations.

  • Dipylon Kouros, c. 600 BCE, Athens, Kerameikos Museum.


The Classical period saw a revolution of Greek sculpture, sometimes associated by historians with the popular culture surrounding the introduction of democracy and the end of the aristocratic culture associated with the kouroi. The Classical period saw changes in the style and function of sculpture, along with a dramatic increase in the technical skill of Greek sculptors in depicting realistic human forms. Poses also became more naturalistic, notably during the beginning of the period. This is embodied in works such as the Kritios Boy (480 BC), sculpted with the earliest known use of contrapposta ('counterpose'), and the Charioteer of Delphi (474 BC), which demonstrates a transition to more naturalistic sculpture. From about 500 BCE, Greek statues began increasingly to depict real people, as opposed to vague interpretations of myth or entirely fictional votive statues, although the style in which they were represented had not yet developed into a realistic form of portraiture. The statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, set up in Athens mark the overthrow of the aristocratic tyranny, and have been said to be the first public monuments to show actual individuals.

The Classical Period also saw an increase in the use of statues and sculptures as decorations of buildings. The characteristic temples of the Classical era, such as the Parthenon in Athens, and the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, used relief sculpture for decorative friezes, and sculpture in the round to fill the triangular fields of the pediments. The difficult aesthetic and technical challenge stimulated much in the way of sculptural innovation. Most of these works survive only in fragments, for example the Parthenon Marbles, roughly half of which are in the British Museum.

Funeral statuary evolved during this period from the rigid and impersonal kouros of the Archaic period to the highly personal family groups of the Classical period. These monuments are commonly found in the suburbs of Athens, which in ancient times were cemeteries on the outskirts of the city. Although some of them depict "ideal" types—the mourning mother, the dutiful son—they increasingly depicted real people, typically showing the departed taking his dignified leave from his family. This is a notable increase in the level of emotion relative to the Archaic and Geometrical eras.

Another notable change is the burgeoning of artistic credit in sculpture. The entirety of information known about sculpture in the Archaic and Geometrical periods are centered upon the works themselves, and seldom, if ever, on the sculptors. Examples include Phidias, known to have overseen the design and building of the Parthenon, and Praxiteles, whose nude female sculptures were the first to be considered artistically respectable. Praxiteles' Aphrodite of Knidos, which survives in copies, was often referenced to and praised by Pliny the Elder.

Lysistratus is said to have been the first to use plaster molds taken from living people to produce lost-wax portraits, and to have also developed a technique of casting from existing statues. He came from a family of sculptors and his brother, Lysippos of Sicyon, produced fifteen hundred statues in his career.[9]

The Statue of Zeus at Olympia and the Statue of Athena Parthenos (both chryselephantine and executed by Phidias or under his direction, and considered to be the greatest of the Classical Sculptures), are lost, although smaller copies (in other materials) and good descriptions of both still exist. Their size and magnificence prompted rivals to seize them in the Byzantine period, and both were removed to Constantinople, where they were later destroyed.

  • Kritios Boy. Marble, c. 480 BC. Acropolis Museum, Athens.

  • Family group on a grave marker from Athens, National Archaeological Museum, Athens


Main articles: Hellenistic art and Phidias

The transition from the Classical to the Hellenistic (or Hellenic) (Hellenic is not the same era as the Hellenistic) period occurred during the 4th century BCE. Greek art became increasingly diverse, influenced by the cultures of the peoples drawn into the Greek orbit, by the conquest's of Alexander the Great (336 to 323 BCE). In the view of some art historians, this is described as a decline in quality and originality; however, individuals of the time may not have shared this outlook. Many sculptures previously considered classical masterpieces are now known to be of the Hellenistic age. The technical ability of the Hellenistic sculptors are clearly in evidence in such major works as the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Pergamon Altar. New centres of Greek culture, particularly in sculpture, developed in Alexandria, Antioch, Pergamum, and other cities. By the 2nd century BCE, the rising power of Rome had also absorbed much of the Greek tradition—and an increasing proportion of its products as well.

During this period, sculpture again experienced a shift towards increasing naturalism. Common people, women, children, animals, and domestic scenes became acceptable subjects for sculpture, which was commissioned by wealthy families for the adornment of their homes and gardens. Realistic figures of men and women of all ages were produced, and sculptors no longer felt obliged to depict people as ideals of beauty or physical perfection. At the same time, new Hellenistic cities springing up in Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia required statues depicting the gods and heroes of Greece for their temples and public places. This made sculpture, like pottery, an industry, with the consequent standardisation and (some) lowering of quality. For these reasons, quite a few more Hellenistic statues survive to the present than those of the Classical period.

Alongside the natural shift towards naturalism, there was a shift in expression of the sculptures as well. Sculptures began expressing more power and energy during this time period. An easy way to see the shift in expressions during the Hellenistic period would be to compare it to the sculptures of the Classical period. The classical period had sculptures such as the Charioteer of Delphi expressing humility. The sculptures of the Hellenistic period however saw greater expressions of power and energy as demonstrated in the Jockey of Artemision.[10]

Some of the best known Hellenistic sculptures are the Winged Victory of Samothrace (2nd or 1st century BCE), the statue of Aphrodite from the island of Melos known as the Venus de Milo (mid-2nd century BCE), the Dying Gaul (about 230 BCE), and the monumental group Laocoön and His Sons (late 1st century BCE). All these statues depict Classical themes, but their treatment is far more sensuous and emotional than the austere taste of the Classical period would have allowed or its technical skills permitted. Hellenistic sculpture was also marked by an increase in scale, which culminated in the Colossus of Rhodes (late 3rd century), thought to have been roughly the same size as the Statue of Liberty. The combined effect of earthquakes and looting have destroyed this as well as any other very large works of this period that might have existed.

Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek culture spread as far as India, as revealed by the excavations of Ai-Khanoum in eastern Afghanistan, and the civilization of the Greco-Bactrians and the Indo-Greeks. Greco-Buddhist art represented a syncretism between Greek art and the visual expression of Buddhism. Discoveries made since the end of the 19th century surrounding the (now submerged) ancient Egyptian city of Heracleum include a 4th-century BCE depiction of Isis. The depiction is unusually sensual for depictions of the Egyptian goddess, as well as being uncharacteristically detailed and feminine, marking a combination of Egyptian and Hellenistic forms around the time of Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt.

In Goa, India, were found Buddha statues in Greek styles. These are attributed to Greek converts to Buddhism, many of whom are known to have settled in Goa during Hellenistic times[11][12].

  • Ancient Greek terracotta head of a young man, found in Tarent, ca. 300 BC, Antikensammlung Berlin.

  • Female head partially imitating a vase (lekythos), 325-300 BC.

  • Bronze portrait of an unknown sitter, with inlaid eyes, Hellenistic period, 1st century BC, found in Lake Palestra of the Island of Delos.

  • Gravestone of a woman with her child slave attending to her, c. 100 BC (early period of Roman Greece)






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  • Stele, R. Web. 24 November 2013.


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  • Stanwick, Paul Edmund. Portraits of the Ptolemies: Greek Kings As Egyptian Pharaohs. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.
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External links[edit]

  1. ^Cook, 74-75
  2. ^Cook, 74-76
  3. ^Cook, 75-76
  4. ^Gurewitsch, Matthew (July 2008). "True Colors". Smithsonian: 66–71. 
  5. ^October 2007, Colorizing classic statues returns them to antiquity: What was really on that Grecian Urn?Harvard University Gazette.
  6. ^The term xoanon and the ascriptions are both highly problematic. A.A. Donohue's Xoana and the origins of Greek sculpture, 1988, details how the term had a variety of meanings in the ancient world not necessarily to do with the cult objects
  7. ^[1]Archived February 27, 2005, at the Wayback Machine.
  8. ^The debt of archaic Greek sculpture to Egyptian canons was recognized in Antiquity: see Diodorus Siculus, i.98.5-9.
  9. ^Gagarin, 403
  10. ^Stele, R. Web. 24 November 2013. <>
  11. ^Gazetteer of the Union Territory Goa, Daman and Diu: district gazetteer, Volume 1. panajim Goa: Gazetteer Dept., Govt. of the Union Territory of Goa, Daman and Diu, 1979. 1979. pp. (see page 70). 
  12. ^(see Pius Melkandathil,Martitime activities of Goa and the Indian ocean.)
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