Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Friday, February 27, 2009

"Column Wreck" Yields Unique Discoveries

The waters of the Mediterranean hold countless treasures from the ancient world.  When most people think about travel in ancient Greece or Rome, they conjure up images of sword and sandal films with their chariots and famous Roman roads.  True, both of those this did exists, but sea travel was the "rapid transit" of the day.  If you had great distance to travel, boarding a ship was your best bet.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you're an archaeologist) sea travel was also very dangerous.  Coast Guard safety regulations certainly did not exists and weather prediction was far from an exact science.  Still, intrepid ancients boarded ships and sailed off. Many ended their journey safely, but it's the ships that didn't make it to their destinations that intrigue us today.

A recently published discovery off the coast of Turkey has once again shown us what lies beneath the waves.  This ship, dubbed the "column wreck," contains the remains of a massive marble Doric column.  Such things have been found in the past, but this wreck is different.  Not only has the location of the marble quarry for this column been identified, but the destination of the column has been ascertained as well.  The column was destined for the Temple of Apollo at Claros.  Claros has a history dating back to the seventh century BCE and was prosperous throughout ancient history.  That this column never made it to Claros probably didn't surprise anyone back then.  Sea travel, while it was quick and enabled you to transport large quantities of goods or people, was none the less very dangerous.  That danger was probably never far from the minds of anyone who held stake in maritime commerce, but it's those loses that enrich the archaeological record today.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

A New Museum, Sans Star Attraction

It's official; the new Acropolis Museum in Athens is scheduled to open on June 20th.  It is definitely an exciting day for Athens and the whole of Greece.  The new museum has been much anticipated; ushering in a new era of Greek cultural patrimony.  Stunning architecture aside, the museum promises to serve the diverse preservation needs of its collection.  The opening of the new museum, though, will be marred by the conspicuous absence of it's star exhibit, the Parthenon Marbles.

As I've mentioned before, and as the media mentions all the time, the Parthenon (or Elgin) Marbles were removed from Greece in the early 19th century at the behest of Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin.  At the time, and ever since, the removal of the marbles was seen as controversial.  To this day, the debate rages on over the legality of the purchase and removal.  I've stated my opinions on the matter in a previous post, but let me summarize again.  I don't care whether or not the marbles were stolen two hundred years ago.  The British have been relatively good stewards of the marbles (aside from some dubious restoration techniques performed by the British Museum).  I believe that the marbles have been better off in England than in Greece, but I also believe that times have changed and that the Greeks are much more serious about, and have the capital to support, the preservation of their rich cultural heritage.  The new Acropolis Museum is proof that Greece is investing in its future by investing in its past.  The British need to realize that they are in possession of stolen property, and the only right thing to do is return it.

As for the marbles themselves, the various architectural elements that make up the Parthenon Marbles are indeed masterpieces.  The pediment and metope sculptures are of superb quality and the frieze is a stroke of Phidian brilliance.  Anyone who has ever had an art history class has seen pictures of the marbles before, and their significance and beauty are unrivaled.  The Parthenon Marbles that remain in Athens will be displayed at the museum along with displays highlighting the missing pieces.  Let's hope that one day soon, all the pieces will be reunited.