“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
She’s definitely smiling.
There may not be all that much we can say about her, but that she’s smiling is certain. And although we will never be sure what that smile means, it stands as an example for an entire historical period of ancient Greek culture. It is known as the “Archaic Smile”.
What we are looking at is the head of a small (under life-size) female statue, on display in the Archaeological Museum at Miletus in Western Turkey. It was discovered quite recently, in 2007, during excavations at the sanctuary of Aphrodite on Zeytintepe (“Olive Hill”), just outside the ancient city. It clearly belongs to the Archaic period of Greek sculpture, which lasted from the late 7th to the early 5th century BC, and stylistically it can be dated more precisely to about 550 BC.
At that time, Miletus (or Miletos) was the most important Greek city in Ionia, the central region of Western Asia Minor. Founded, according to legend, by settlers from Athens and itself founder of multiple colonies, especially on the shores of the Black Sea, Miletus was a major centre of trade and contact. Arising from these factors, it gained a prominent role in science, culture, art and architecture. Amongst its most famous sons were the philosophers Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes, the historian and geographer Hecataeus, whose works (now lost) predate even those of Herodotus, as well as Hippodamus, father of urban planning.
Our head must be part of a kore, the typical Archaic Greek female statue, representing a girl or young woman standing in a formal stance and clad in fine clothing (our example wears a kind of veil) – unlike the male equivalent, the kouros, which usually depicts a nude young man. Originally, details on both male female and male statues would have been painted in bright colours. Korai and kouroi were very widespread throughout the Archaic Greek World, from Asia Minor via Mainland Greece to Sicily. They are found in multiple settings, such as cemeteries. public squares and especially in sanctuaries, such as our example from Miletus. In that context, we tend to assume that they were votive offerings, set up as gifts to the respective god or goddess. Thus, our example, found at a shrine for Aphrodite, was almost certainly placed there in honour of the goddess of love. Along with the whole sanctuary and the entire city, it was probably destroyed during the Persian sack of Miletus in 494 BC.
There is no agreement as to whom such figures were meant to depict. Thus, our little head could be that of the goddess herself, or of an individual, e.g. the daughter of its sponsor, or it could be seen simply as an idealised image of female beauty. In spite of its relatively small size, our example can be seen as quite typical of its time. Only some details distinguish it from its sisters, e.g. in the Acropolis Museum at Athens, among them the relatively round and flat face, which may be an indication of an Eastern influence on Milesian sculpture, hardly a surprise in a city that formed an interface between West and East. Other sculptures and figurines of the period found at Miletus display similarly mixed traits.
Be that as it may, there can be little doubt that the head’s most striking feature is one it shares with nearly all Greek sculpture of its time: the “Archaic Smile”. Occurring on free-standing statues, reliefs, architectural sculpture and clay or metal figurines, that enigmatic expression is a hallmark of Archaic art. Again, there is no consensus as to its meaning. It has been suggested to embody a general idea of well-being and spiritual as well as physical health, to indicate a sense of aloofness and distance from the every-day world of mortals, or to represent an actual formalised facial expression appropriate to specific situations. At the end of the day, it is up to us, the viewers, to read the Archaic Smile as we see fit.