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Snake Goddesses, Fake Goddesses Volume 54 Number 1, January/February 2001
by Kenneth D.S. Lapatin

How forgers on Crete met the demand for Minoan antiquities

[image] Arthur Evans, excavator of Knossos, believed that his "Boy God" figurine and the "Boston Goddess" once formed a group. Forgers based the pose of the "Boy" on a bull leaper known from fragmentary frescoes recovered from the so-called Palace of Minos and the "Goddess" on genuine faience figurines Evans found in the Temple Repositories at Knossos (reconstruction drawing by É. Gilliéron, fils, from The Palace of Minos). [LARGER IMAGE]

In late May 1903, toward the end of his fourth campaign at the palace of Knossos, Arthur Evans and his crew raised some of the gypsum slabs at a spot they had overlooked when they excavated two years before, revealing two large rectangular stone-lined cists. Inside, they found scraps of gold; fragments of worked ivory and rock crystal; bronze and stone implements; numerous bones and shells; clay impressions of seal stones; and fragments of faience inlays, plaques, and statuettes. Believing the objects had been transferred from a damaged shrine and deliberately buried in antiquity, Evans referred to the cists as the "Temple Repositories."

"For beauty and interest," Evans wrote in a preliminary report, these finds "equalled, and in some respects surpassed anything found during the whole course of the four seasons' excavations." Most striking were the remains of faience statuettes depicting bare-breasted female snake handlers. Fragments of as many as five were recovered. Two were quickly restored. Evans, whose notes were recently discovered in the archives of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, where he once served as keeper, commented on the "matronly bosom" of the larger figure. Applying Victorian notions of prehistoric matriarchy, he called her a "Mother Goddess." He dubbed the smaller snake handler a "Priestess or Votary." These figurines, heavily restored, were widely illustrated in popular as well as scientific publications of the day and immediately became icons of Minoan art and culture. The goddess eventually appeared on the frontispiece of Evans' monumental four-volume publication, The Palace of Minos, and remains among the most frequently reproduced pieces of ancient art.

Evans' work at Knossos captured the imagination of the public. He appeared to have found the truth behind early legends of Minos and the Minotaur, Theseus and Ariadne, Daidalos and Ikaros. He also constructed the civilization of the Minoans, as he called them, as a rival to the ancient Oriental societies of Egypt and Mesopotamia, a precursor to the Golden Age of Greece, and the earliest high culture of Europe. Minoan art quickly became desirable, and the demands of museum officials and private collectors eager to possess artifacts associated with this newly discovered civilization fostered the activities not only of illicit excavators and smugglers, but also forgers, who were soon producing "Minoan" stone carvings, bronzes, ivories, seal stones, and goldwork to satisfy this market. At least 14 unprovenienced "Minoan" goddesses made their way into museums and private collections, and many were subsequently extolled as masterpieces of ancient art. Technical, stylistic, and iconographic evidence, including comparisons with unequivocally genuine excavated material, however, indicates that all of these figurines are modern.

Kenneth D.S. Lapatin, president of the Boston AIA society, teaches ancient art at Boston University. He is the author of the forthcoming Chryselephantine Statuary in the Ancient Mediterranean World (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America