Earthquakes, Sculpture and the Archaeological Record

Tumbled columns on the Northern Street
Earthquake “rubble” at Northern Street, Scythopolis (Beit Shean). Photo: TMK, May 2009.

Archaeoseismological research typically focuses on urban landscapes (see, for example, Andrew Wilson’s recent piece on Aphrodisias, or my own humble contribution on the Lykos Valley). Late antique assemblages of earthquake rubble at sites, such as Scythopolis (above), indeed show very nicely how earthquakes could affect urban life in devastating ways.

What is much less systematically discussed in scholarship is the impact of earthquakes on the sculptural landscape of ancient cities and sanctuaries. After all, statues were often placed in relatively exposed locations – such as on pedestals and bases – that would have made them prone to both direct and indirect effects of earthquakes. This point – that I have impressionistically explored in a contribution to this volume – is very nicely underlined in the image below of a “survivor” from the 8.3-magnitude earthquake that struck Stanford University (and the surrounding communities) on 18 April 1906.

Fallen statue of Louis Agassiz, Stanford main quad, photo: Frank Davey, 1906.

Graphs, Statues and Social History

Chronological overview of the dedication of confederate monuments, by Southern Poverty Law Center. Large version available here.

I first became aware of this graph of the chronological distribution of confederate monuments last year when Jen Trimble gave a virtual paper for our sculpture seminar. Not all of these monuments are statues, but many are…..The graph has since then appeared in Alexander Bauer’s JSA paper, “Itineraries, iconoclasm, and the pragmatics of heritage“. It was first published as part of a fantastic resource by the Southern Poverty Law Center: “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy.”

The graph is a really nice representation of the social contexts in which a specific group of (modern) sculpture was dedicated and is as such a wonderful resource for studying statues as social history. In the context of the ancient world, it resonates with the slightly more crude graph below that represents the slow, steady decline in numbers of new imperial portrait statues and that is taken from a classic long review piece by Bert Smith (and which since then has been followed up in work by the Last Statues of Antiquity project).

What these graph don’t do, of course, is to represent how people have engaged with individual statues after the singular moment of dedication, a topic that we began to discuss in more detail in our volume, “The Afterlife of Greek and Roman Sculpture“, published a few years ago, and on which future research will hopefully provide new ways of representing using both quantitative and qualitative methods.

The “end” of imperial portrait statues as illustrated by Smith 1985, Fig. 1.

Safeguarding Statues in WWII

With colleagues, I am doing work on a group of sculptures now in the small archaeological museum in Agrinio. The sculptures were excavated in the 1920s, long way before the current Agrinio museum opened, and for fifty years or so they were housed in Athens. While looking into their history of display (and restoration), I was reminded of the extraordinary images from 1940-41 when the heroic staff of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens worked hard to keep the collection safe from harm. Statues (and other objects in the museum) were sealed and buried in underground pits. Incidentally, some of the sculptures treated in this way originally had been found in pits (e.g. the Sounion kouroi recovered by Staïs in the early 20th century). The sculptures were not freed or “excavated” again until June 1946. The museum made a collection of photos of these efforts available here, some highlights of which I showcase below.

PhD Life and the Pandemic

The trials of PhD student life during the pandemic, by PatríciaMMarcos on Twitter.

I sympathise with all PhD students out there who have to navigate the current pandemic landscape and finish their dissertations. Some useful words of advice and (possible) encouragement on the process may come in a post from Michael Shanks, arguing for a “pragmatic basis of evaluation.”

Given the current conditions, this seems more relevant than ever – some excerpts from Shanks, with my emphases:

Writing a dissertation is a rite of passage in the academy and it is far too much surrounded in mystery, hype, and misunderstanding. So I am going to cut though to pragmatics, because I think this is the best mindset to adopt in what can be a daunting challenge as a graduate student – when some hold that a dissertation is meant to be a report on research that is to be considered significant in one’s chosen disciplinary field!

It’s best to hold that a dissertation is meant to display competency in the research process, rather than adding somehow to a body of knowledge that might be associated with a disciplinary field.

I hope this helps all of us – because we actually never cease to be graduate students, if we are honest with ourselves. We are always vulnerable, uncertain, learning – and the more you know the more you realize how much there is to learn.

Cross-Marked Ancient Sculpture: A New Case from Patras

Cross-marked Naiskos
Cross-marked naiskos in the Patras Archaeological Museum. Photo: TMK.

Very long ago, I published a paper based on data from my dissertation, a small corpus of ancient sculpture on which one or more crosses had been carved or incised somewhere on their body. I have recently posted an update to this corpus on my Academia page, including the above naiskos in the very nice Patras Archaeological Museum that has no less than three crosses (can you spot them all?). Many thanks to Eirini Chioti for the reference to its publication. There are some further close-ups on Flickr, if you like that sort of thing.

Cross-marked Naiskos
Close-up of cross-marked figure. Photo: TMK.

Omphalic Obsessions

Where is the centre of the ancient world? This is not only a question for globalisation, network or core-periphery debates in archaeology and ancient history, but is also relevant to the study of ancient conceptions of sacred geography.

Temple of Apollo, Delphi
The Temple of Apollo, Delphi, Oct 2020. Photo: TMK.

Specifically, the idea of Apollo’s sanctuary at Delphi as the “centre of the ancient world” is a common trope in both modern scholarship – as seen most recently in the title of Michael Scott’s excellent and very useful Princeton volume on the history of Delphi, and ancient texts from Pindar to Plutarch. However, the concept itself and its relationship to the omphalos (or navel) stone(s) at Delphi typically plays an only minor role in contemporary scholarship. In fact, it is relatively rarely taken all that seriously outside the works of the “Cambridge Ritualists” (Jane Harrison, A.B. Cook, et al.), Mircea Eliade, and the more, well, fringy stuff on Greek cosmovision and ‘Great Alignments’. All of this is to say that it’s a daunting topic with multiple historiographical layers in addition to a complex iconography.

I’ve been thinking about the omphalos again recently when trying to revise a paper for publication in the proceedings from a very enjoyable conference on “The Stuff of the Gods” organised at the Swedish Institute in Athens all the way back in 2015.

I discuss the omphalos (and its various textual and material re-incarnations) as part of a history of replication, concluding that it may be productive to approach it as an aspect of ancient Greek mythistory – a phrase taken from the work of the Israeli historian Joseph Mali – a very particular synthesis of history and myth that is crucial to how communities define themselves:

At one scale, the omphalos was simply a geographical trope that expressed the religious authority of Apollo and his sanctuary. We can even speculate that it was invented in the early history of the sanctuary in order to promote its Panhellenic ambitions. However, at another scale, it was translated into a singular object with a particular mythistory, and decisions were made about the choice of materials, size and decoration that were used to represent a whole series of different claims to religious authority. I have here argued that these choices were significant and are important for our understanding of the self-representation of the sanctuary. The histories of the concept and the thing were clearly intertwined, although not necessarily always aligned. Even when building on traditions and explicitly referring back to earlier authorities (especially Pindar), each textual, visual or material representation of the omphalos constituted a re-invention of the thing itself that in (more or less) subtle ways could emphasize different aspects of the powerful concept of the navel of the earth. 

Jen Trimble on Iconoclasm and the Modern Materialities of Ancient Sculpture

Back in June last year, in the aftermath of the fall of Colston and US debates about confederate statues, we had Jen Trimble (Stanford) talking to us via Zoom about “Carving, Recarving, Deforming, Destroying: Modern Materialities of Ancient Sculpture.” The recording of her lecture is available here:

Julius Lange: A (Classical) Art Historian in a Small Country

In the little volume, Classical Heritage and European Identities: The Imagined Geographies of Danish Classicism (2019), we presented a brief history of Danish classical archaeology. Our main focus was fieldwork and especially the excavations at Bodrum (ancient Halikarnassos), so much was obviously left out. An important figure that we didn’t cover was Julius Lange (1838-96), who was professor of art history at the University of Copenhagen, but who first trained as a classical philologist.

In the introduction to his most well-known work, Billedkunstens Fremstilling af Menneskeskikkelsen i dens ældste Periode indtil Højdepunktet af den græske Kunst (The Depiction of the Human Form in Visual Art from the Earliest Period to the Zenith of Greek Art) (1892), Lange presents some interesting reflections on the parameters of archaeological/art historical research in Denmark in the late 19th century. This was before the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek opened its doors in 1906 and certainly also reflects the long process of re-defining the Danish nation-state after the defeats of the 1864 war with Prussia. I here provide a rough translation (pp. 5-6):

The Task and the Approach

When an art historian in a small country is not content with synthesising what the large countries accomplish in science, but wants to make an independent contribution to its development, he is badly placed. By a new contribution to science, one typically means an exhaustive as possible treatment of a specialty – meaning art history, a single grand artist or a single people’s art in a specific period. But what a small country like Denmark itself contributes in terms of art historical topics that have a universal point of view is not much….

To immerse oneself in the world historical development of art that at any time has been decisive for art in the small country itself, one lacks great study material within its borders – the rich museums or those monuments of the past that designate stages on the road of global evolution [“Verdensudviklingens Vej”]. If one has the opportunity to travel a lot in the world, one is aided to a certain degree, but in the actual research [“Specialforskning”] in a specific country’s art – for example, that of Italy, the Netherlands, or France – the foreigner will easily come up short against the children of the country itself – unless he wants to become an expatriate. The large nations have in addition their mighty institutes for archaeological and historical research that are so important to larger, scientific undertakings.

Yet, the position in a smaller country is not entirely without its advantages too. Here the principle of the division of labour is felt less fiercely; the researcher is less bound to his specialty and can devote more study time to the principal cases that it involves and carry all specialities. He has an easier task of pursuing a point of view that appears to him to be true and fruitful, even it has not penetrated the work of the leading nations. When he is thoroughly at home with the material of his topic, he is more free in choosing other methods and viewpoints than those that are common (even sometimes very despotically common, even if many in their quiet minds are in doubt about their validity); he does not need to waste time or work on discussions of every utterance on every topic. While he has the advantage of being able to draw on what science has achieved elsewhere, his lonely position helps to discard much that does provide true progress. Nor is he excluded from cultivating specialities, although he must use them in a different way and in a different meaning than usually.”

Monumenta and Monuments for the 21st Century

This blog has been dormant for a long time (eleven years!). It is unlikely to become a lively platform with frequent posts, but (re)launching a blog is at least something that appears to be a relatively sensible activity during a global pandemic.

Over the last couple of years, I have become involved in the editorial side of the Brill series, Monumenta Graeca et Romana, dedicated to “the material and visual culture of the Greek and Roman world from later prehistory to Late Antiquity.” The volumes are nice: hardback, A4-format, and with plenty of colour illustrations. We have just published a volume on “New Approaches to Ancient Material Culture in the Greek and Roman World”, edited by Kate Cooper. I would really like the series to publish further volumes of this kind that set new, innovative agendas for the field and participate in broader theoretical debates in archaeology and beyond.

Before taking on the editorial role, I must confess that I had no familiarity with the deeper history of the MGR series that goes back to the early 1960s. My main familiarity with it in fact came from much later volumes, such as Eric Varner’s dissertation book on damnatio memoriae (2004) and Brian Madigan’s tome on Roman ceremonial sculptures (2012).

The series was first founded by Herman F. Mussche (1928-2014) who was professor of archaeology at the University of Ghent and excavated at the site of Thorikos in southern Attica. In the Preface to Civil and Military Architecture, Mussche describes the aim of the series (confusingly published as MGR vol. 2, even if it preceded vol. 1 by fourteen years): “to supply ample documentary evidence in all fields of the Pre-Hellenic, Hellenic, Etruscan and Roman civilisations. This documentation is to cover well-known monuments, as well as recent finds and unreported remains and objects. The text if restricted to a concise technical commentary for quick guidance and a succinct bibliography of the sources: the excavation reports, or, in default of these, the most authoritative publications.” This grand ambition was to be completed over the course of 30 fascicles (in ten volumes), “containing well over 500 pages of reading-matter and 5000 pictures.” The preface also briefly outlines Mussche’s methodology of autopsy: “With a few exceptions, I took the photographs myself, always aiming to preserve a maximum of objectivity.”

MGR II.2 (1963).

The back cover of Civil and Military Architecture presents an outline of the the volumes that were planned to appear in the series:
I. Pre-Hellenic Civilisations.
II. Greek Architecture (with individual fascicles on religious architecture, civil and military architecture, and technical problems, reconstructions, plans.
III. Greek Sculpture.
IV. Greek Pottery.
V. Greek Minor Arts.
VI. The Etruscans.
VII. Roman Architecture.
VIII. Roman Sculpture.
IX. Romain Painting and Pottery.
X. Roman Minor Arts.

All of this is, of course, very conventional and reveals a typical hierarchy in the ordering of material; architecture, then sculpture, painting, pottery and, finally, a smattering of Kleinkunst, often taken to mean bronzes. To my knowledge, the project was never completed, and those three fascicles that did appear (the first in 1963 on civil and military architecture (II.1), the second in 1967 on bronzes (V.1) and the third and final in 1968 on religious architecture (II.2)) received fairly mixed reviews (see, for example, E.W. Marsden in JHS 86 (1966), 293-4).

Is there anything to learn from this ill-fated project in the dusty publication history of classical archaeology? Perhaps….it’s certainly an interesting starting point to reflect on the development of the field since the 1960s, and some of the ways in which people have followed or rejected the “let the monuments speak for themselves”-kind of logic that is implicit in Mussche’s preface. The age of “innocent” monuments is certainly over (think of Colston and the excellent work done by Monument Lab).

What should “monument”-based volumes then look like in modern classical archaeology? One advantage of the MGR series is the large-scale, hardback format, and the liberal provision of images that are usually both above and beyond what Anglo-Saxon academic presses are willing to take on (certainly without subventions). If the catalogue raisonée has a future, MGR may well be a good avenue for it. The disadvantage, of course, is the price tag of individual volumes that make them out of reach for a wider public. I would be happy to hear from anyone with ideas how to develop the series and how it may help to advance new approaches to ancient visual and material culture.