Archaeology a burden on debt-stricken Greece

When the news bulletin in February announced that over 70 objects of inestimable value had been looted from the Olympia Museum, we might have thought that this was a regrettable but isolated occurrence. Apparently not. According to the Daily Star of Lebanon, Greece is struggling to preserve and protect the archaeological remains it has, let alone sanction any new archaeological digs. In consequence, illegal digs are beginning to flourish.

“Let us leave our antiquities in the soil,” Michalis Tiverios, a professor of archaeology at Thessaloniki’s Aristotelio University, told Ta Nea daily, “to be found by archaeologists in 10,000 A.D., when Greeks and their politicians will perhaps show more respect to their history.”

Read more:
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

Greek and Roman ankles

From a letter to The Times by R. J. Briggs

Several years ago I was told by the curator of a museum in Athens how to
identify an Ancient Greek statue from a Roman one. Because of the
mountainous topography of Greece the models used by Ancient Greek sculptors
were inevitably thin-ankled, those from Rome thick-ankled; climbing up steep
hills stretches the Achilles tendon. We then toured the museum identifying
the origin of statues using ankles as our criteria.

Painted statues again

This time it's The Times (dated tomorrow!) with ruminations about statues as the ancients knew them (and a picture):

We are so used to the white purity of ancient marble sculptures that we imagine the Greeks and Romans felt the same: certainly the artists and patrons of the Renaissance and later centuries believed that white was right. New research using strong raking light sources and beams of ultraviolet light has shown, however, that many Classical statues were gaudily painted in a plethora of colours.

“The ideal of unpainted sculpture took shape in Renaissance Rome, inspired by finds and early collections of Classical marble statues such as the Laocoön, discovered in 1506, said Dr Susanne Ebbinghaus of Harvard University, organiser of a recent conference on Gods in Colour. These were denuded of their painted surfaces by prolonged exposure to the elements, burial and often, most likely, a good scrub upon recovery.”

Michelangelo famously rated sculpture much higher than painting, and Vasari ignored polychrome decoration except on wood carvings, and the impact of statues such as Michelangelo’s David established white marble sculpture as the noblest of the arts, something that continued from the Renaissance into the neoClassical period of the 18th and 19th centuries and the establishment of an art-historical canon by Johann Joachim Winckelmann.

The idea of plain white marble seems to be earlier, however, if the figures of the Virtues and Vices in Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua are anything to go by: the Renaissance ideal existed, at least in painted portrayals of sculptures, from around 1300 in Assisi. Colour was indicated by texture in marble carvings, the smoothness of flesh allowing the inner tone of the stone to show through, while various roughenings suggested fabric and leather.

When ancient sculptures began to be unearthed early in the 19th century, such as those from the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina, excavated in 1811, significant traces of paint were visible. Reconstructions on paper of presumed original colour schemes engendered debate as to whether white marble was still desirable, and by midcentury John Gibson had created the Tinted Venus in emulation of Praxiteles.

However, “we have still not come to terms with the painted marble sculpture of Ancient Greece and Rome,” Dr Ebbinghaus said. A campaign of research led by Dr Vinzenz Brinkmann, of the Liebighaus museum in Frankfurt, has now tried to tackle the problem.

One of his main tools has been the use of strong raking light, which can show finely drawn incised sketches to guide the painter: a lion’s head on the shoulder guard of the famous Stele of Aristion in Athens is one example, and several Cycladic figurines from the Bronze Age have similar sketches two millennia earlier. The use of ultraviolet light can show up the “ghosts” of former painted areas.

Brinkmann and his wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, have produced copies of a number of Classical sculptures where such evidence is apparent, using natural mineral and plant pigments available to the ancient artists and identified by X-ray fluorescence, infra-red spectroscopy and other high-tech methods. The Aegina pediment sculptures used copper-based pigments such as azurite, Egyptian blue and malachite for blues and greens, cinnabar and ochre for reds, and also the plant extract madder.

A figure such as the Trojan Archer on the pediment explodes into a riot of colour, including polychrome trousers where the design stretches with the movement of the limbs and a bright yellow jerkin and cap. The Aristion stele uses cinnabar, madder, malachite, ochre and Egyptian blue, and the famous “Alexander Sarcophagus” in the Archaeological Museum, Istanbul, all of these, together with minium (red lead) and sienna.

The Renaissance idealisation of monochrome sculpture would have startled the Ancients, Ebbinghaus said. “Just as the colour reconstructions of ancient statues startle us today. It is difficult to imagine a fully coloured sculpture, complete with additions in other materials such as metal, or eyes inlaid with glass.”

Lessons from the restoration of the Parthenon

Explorator draws attention to an lengthy article in the Smithsonian Magazine about the restoration of the Parthenon and discoveries that the restorers have made.

Worth a look if you are teaching Greek architecture.

Painted statues, by Mary Beard

See her blog here.

Several of the examples posted on this blog in December 2004 are used to illustrate her piece.

Praxiteles exhibition without Praxiteles?

Mary Beard has been to see the Louvre exhibition and recommends that we do the same, even though the one and only undoubted original isn't there. (Come to think of it, I've seen the Hermes doubted – and I've just referred back to Mary's blog and see she says so too.)

Read her blog here, and take note of her useful practical advice:

Praxitèle runs till the summer and is really worth a visit. You can book tickets on-line which lets you go into the museum by the little entrance in the Passage Richelieu, off the rue de Rivoli – and so avoid the queues of Da Vinci Code fans and others entering via the main pyramid entrance.

Useful booklet on Greek pots now on line

One of the excellent series on the ancient agora published by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens is now on line as pdf, with all the pictures. It is Pots and Pans of Classical Athens by Brian Sparkes and Lucy Talcott, and was first published in 1951. Professor Sparkes' name is an indication of its quality.

You can find it here.

I hope the website has got the necessary permissions…

Acknowledgements to PhDiva for the link.

Black figure vase with chariot

This popular picture is often downloaded. To conserve blog bandwidth it is now lodged on PhotoBucket, but still freely available:


The sprint was the top event for athletes, but for the wealthy it was the chariot race. Then, as now, it took serious money to train a team for this event.

Alcibiades, the brilliant and unstable aristocrat of 5th century Athens, felt he had brought glory not only to himself and his political career, but also to his city, by getting several wins in the Olympics.

If you were tyrant of the Sicilian city of Syracuse, and won, you commissioned the best poet to write an ode in your honour. Pindar was the best known of these poets.

This particular pot looks to me (I took the picture a long time ago) like a Panathenaic amphora, one of the big jars filled with olive oil which were given as prizes in the games at Athens (not the Olympics – you only got a wreath there for winning). If  this is a Panathenaic amphora, then on the other side there is a picture of the
goddess Athene in armour. The event that the prize was given for was always pictured on one side of the amphora, and the patron goddess of Athens on the other.

Propylaea to have a new capital

An AP report which Explorator found here tells how two sculptors took over two years to carve a 2.2-ton ionic capital for the Propylaea on the Acropolis at Athens. Apparently the Propylaea is being extensively restored, and will be seen in renewed glory next year.

There's a photo, too. It will take me a while to get used to the ultra-clean lines of the undoubtedly authentic new capital. It look almost Disney-like. But that's the sort of building that the Athenians saw in 432 BC.

Coloured Parthenon

Explorator led me to this from

“A recent cleaning operation by laser revealed traces of haematite (red), Egyptian blue and malachite-azurite (green-blue) on the sculptures of the western frieze,” senior archaeologist Evi Papakonstantinou-Zioti told AFP.

While archaeologists had found traces of the first two colours elsewhere on the temple years ago, the malachite-azurite colouring was only revealed in the latest restoration process, Papakonstantinou-Zioti said.

Given the testimony of ancient writers, it is not unlikely that the Parthenon's trademark columns were also coloured, she added.

We knew about coloured statues (see photos on this blog), but coloured columns are startling to me.

The subject reminds me of my first visit to Greece, when my friend Mark and I were being shown round the Agora museum by an Athenian with whom Mark had some sort of link, I can't remember what. In those days, the late fifties, a sculpture with remains of red paint was on open display under the museum portico. Mark's Athnian acquaintance read the notice about the paint, calmly chipped a flake off with his thumbnail, and said “Oh yes, so there is.”