The Sculptor’s Workshop at Aphrodisias

One of the most important Roman-period archaeological digs in the last 40 years is without a doubt Aphrodisias in Turkey. The excavations have revealed not only a wide range of public buildings, including a Sebasteion, a Bouleuterion, a stadium and a temple of Aphrodite, but also some of the most important Roman sculpture found in recent years. The Carian city was home to a sculptural “school”, whose customers came from all over the empire. The signatures of Aphrodisian sculptors can be seen on several extraordinary works, such as the Esquiline group and the centaurs from Hadrian’s villa.

The “Old Fisherman” in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Photo: TMK, October 2002. The head has later been found, but is now in the Aphrodisias Museum (see below).

One of the early finds from Aphrodisias is this torso known as the “Old Fisherman”, a common Hellenistic statue type, that was found in 1904 in the Baths of Hadrian. It is now in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. In 1989, during excavations in the Portico of Tiberius a head was found that Kenan Erim, the site’s excavator, suggested would fit the torso. And sure enough, in 1991 a cast of the torso proved to fit the head in Aphrodisias perfectly.

The Berlin body re-united with the Aphrodisias head in Oxford (casts). Ashmolean Museum Cast Gallery. Photo: TMK, March 2004.

This little story of the “Old Fisherman” is mainly anecdotal. What is more exciting about the excavations at Aphrodisias is that they provide the context for such works as the “Old Fisherman” and many others. The (alas, mainly unpublished) finds from the sculptor’s workshop, including tools and unfinished statuary, give insights into how Roman sculptors worked. The workshop was located in a stoa near a major public square, and it is likely that some of the finished pieces were exhibited in front of the shop, not completely unlike the modern shops selling garden sculpture in Italy and France. Marble blocks were brought in from the local quarries, where preliminary carving had already been carried out. Its production was highly specialized, since very few relief fragments and no sarcophagi were found in the workshop, and ideal (also known as late mythological) and portrait sculpture were its main output.

The Aphrodisias workshop is the one of the best known Roman sculptural workshops. However, studies of Roman sculpture continue to be based around art history and epigraphy. We know that there were similar workshops at Ephesus, Perge, Constantinople and other cities in Asia Minor, and in Greece they are known in the Athenian Agora and on Delos. Future work will helpfully be able to pinpoint the characteristics of as well as the similarities and differences between these different sculptural “schools” from an archaeological perspective.

R.R.R. Smith. 1996. “Archaeological research at Aphrodisias 1989-1992”, in: C. Roueché & R. R.R. Smith (eds.) Aphrodisias Papers 3. Ann Arbor, MI.
Julie A. Van Voorhis. 1999. The Sculptor’s Workshop at Aphrodisias. Unpublished PhD dissertation, New York University.

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