“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.
Out of the many extraordinary objects we enjoy showing to our guests, this is one of the most arresting – and one of the most easily overlooked. It was my privilege only a few hours ago to introduce my guests on the ongoing Cruising the Dodecanese to it.
It is one of the finest pieces of miniature sculpture in any Greek museum, only 14.5cm (5.7″) in height. Dating to the late 7th century BC, it was found in the great sanctuary of Hera (or “Heraion”) on the island of Samos and is now on display in the superb archaeological museum at Vathi, the island’s main harbour and administrative capital.
What we are looking at is a stylised but very detailed depiction of a young man, in a somewhat unusual posture: his fists clenched beside his thighs and his lower legs folded upwards behind the knees. He is shown entirely nude, with the exception of a patterned belt, two earrings, an elaborate decorated headband and the bands holding together his carefully tressed hair on either side of his face. He was carved from a single piece of ivory, with only a few details – now missing – added as inlays in other materials, such as metal or semi-precious stones. Those include his eyes, perhaps his eyebrows, the ornaments on his headband, and his pubic hair.
All this is for certain. We can also be quite sure of the figure’s geographic origins: it belongs to the so-called “Daedalic style”, which appeared on Crete around 650 BC, borrowing many influences from Egypt and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Daedalic sculpture is mostly of modest or miniature scale, but it foreshadows the rapid development of monumental sculpture that took place in mainland Greece and the Aegean during the subsequent 6th century, in what is now known as the “Archaic Period”.
Beyond these basic facts, there are far more things about our ivory friend that we do not know and that are open to guesswork, conjecture and speculation. They include his original purpose, the reason he was laid down on Samos, some 280km (170ml) from Crete as the crow flies, as well as the meaning of his odd posture.
Obviously, context is a major factor here, as it is for any archaeological find. The Heraion of Samos was one of the most significant religious shrines in the entire Aegean at the time. Considered the birthplace of the goddess Hera, the Heraion was one of the first Greek sanctuaries to have a built temple, already in the 8th century BC, originally constructed of wood but later replaced with increasingly elaborate stone versions, culminating in the construction of one of the most famous and most monumental Ionian temples in the 6th century BC.
A century’s worth of archaeological excavations at the Heraion has produced an extraordinary wealth of finds, literally thousands of objects, paralleled only by major religious centres like Olympia in the Peloponnese, Delphi in Central Greece and, of course, the Acropolis of Athens. Beyond sheer numbers, what is most striking about the find assemblage from the Heraion is its unusually wide range of geographic origins, illustrating the sanctuary’s “international” appeal and the island’s position on multiple major trade routes. The Heraion has yielded material from all parts of Greece and the Aegean, from Crete, Cyprus, Italy, Spain, the Balkans, Anatolia, Egypt, North Africa, the Levant, Persia and even the Caucasus. That’s why the ivory boy can be described as “easily overlooked”: he shares his glass case with many other wondrous items, in a room containing a whole series of such cases. All or most of these objects are probably votives, precious items gifted to the sanctuary as offerings to the goddess Hera, probably in hope of gaining her favour and protection. Whether he was dedicated by a Cretan visiting Samos, a local or foreign traveller who had acquired him on Crete, or any other such constellation, is a question that can never be answered.
That leaves some final questions about the ivory youth. What is he, and what (if anything) does his posture mean. The youth is pierced by several dowel holes, including one that goes vertically into his head, indicating that he was originally part of a larger and more complex object. Traditionally, scholars have been inclined to think that he may be the side support of a musical instrument, an ancient lyre, in which case he ought to have been one of a pair. In that case, his posture could be read as a leap forming part of a dance, perhaps even one in the honour of Hera. There is, however, no full consensus on this – it has also been suggested that he may be part of a piece of furniture, or of a stand for a vessel made of some precious metal, in which case he maybe shown kneeling in supplication.