Celeste Farge, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum
Many of the objects in Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art have fascinating histories which, because they don’t form part of the essential narrative of the exhibition, are not mentioned in the labels and catalogue. For me, the most compelling is the story of the discovery of the bronze statue of an athlete, most probably a wrestler, and one of the star pieces of the exhibition generously lent by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia.
This statue is extremely rare, for very few life-size bronzes have in fact survived. Most were destroyed in late antiquity when they were valued more as scrap metal than as artworks and were melted down for other uses, such as in the manufacture of weapons and armour and the minting of coins. Occasionally a chance discovery, usually from the seabed, resurrects such masterpieces. This bronze statue, dating from around 300 BC, was found by a Belgian tourist diving off the coast of Croatia near the island of Lošinj.
In a carefully planned operation, with additional expertise and financial support from the Oxford Maritime Trust, it was raised in 1999 after having been in the sea for more than 2000 years. The surrounding area was then searched for other finds by using a pneumatic suction pipe, metal detectors and a remote operated device complete with camera but, although some amphora fragments and part of an anchor were found, the only significant item recovered was the base of the statue. It seems, therefore, unlikely that this statue was from a shipwreck. It may perhaps have been thrown overboard to lighten the load when the ship carrying it ran into difficulty during a storm.
The statue needed six years of conservation work eradicating soluble salts and harmful chlorides, removing layers of maritime encrustations, consolidating cracks and breaks, and building an internal support, to restore it to the exceptional condition it is in today. Extensive research on the statue was conducted to gather information on matters concerning the production techniques and composition. The statue had been constructed using the indirect lost wax process and cast in seven separate parts – the head, torso, legs, arms and genitals. Various factors indicate that ancient Greek casting techniques had been used, such as the low lead content, and the skill of the craftsmen is demonstrated in the application of hundreds of small patches to repair casting flaws before the final chasing and polishing and in the precision of the joins.
Remnants of a mouse nest, including straw, fig seeds and cherry stones (with bite marks!), were found inside the left forearm of the statue. At some point after its manufacture, the statue must have toppled over (the weight-bearing leg had been weakened when the clay core in the mould shifted causing bubbles and an unequal thickness of the bronze) damaging the figure’s left sole and right calf, and it is through these areas that the mouse would have been able to crawl in and out. The organic material deposited by the mouse has been carbon dated and the oldest material was found to date from around 50 BC.
It was a thrilling moment when the statue arrived at the British Museum accompanied by a team of guards, conservators and art handlers. It travelled inside a purpose-built hexagonal cage, designed to allow the statue to be moved with ease particularly during conservation work, but also during transport and hoisting onto its plinth.
Known as the ‘apoxyomenos’, which literally means ‘the scraper’, the statue would originally have had in its hands a strigil – a metal implement used for scraping the oil, dust and dirt from the body after exercising and before bathing. Bizarrely, in antiquity this mixture was collected and used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. In fact, this gloop from the bodies of victorious athletes was especially prized for its healing properties. Statues, like this one, were erected in honour of prizewinning athletes but also as dedications to the gods, for it was believed that the victorious athletes had been favoured by them. Sanctuaries and gymnasia abounded with such statues ensuring the heroic status and, in a sense, immortality of the victors. Although the name of this athlete is no longer known, the fame of the statue lives on.
For more information, see http://www.h-r-z.hr/en/index.php/djelatnosti/konzerviranje-restauriranje/metal/222-hrvatski-apoksiomen
Last chance! Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display until 5 July 2015.
Sponsored by Julius Baer
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE