In 1931, as the Great Depression hit Canada, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto made an amazing acquisition. The museum, which was less than twenty years old and financially not well endowed, was about to embark on a major building expansion. Nevertheless, it managed to raise the equivalent of about 7 times the annual salary of an Ontario high school teacher at that time to buy a small, finely carved ivory figurine from an English dealer.
What made this object so special was that it was thought to have been made by the Minoans on Crete around 1600-1500 BC. The Minoans, a Bronze Age Aegean people pre-dating the ancient Greeks, had only recently been discovered in the early 20th century when British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans excavated the ‘Palace of Minos’ at Knossos. Following that discovery all major museums in Europe and North America were eager to own Minoan objects, and the ivory figurine was a particularly spectacular prize for the newly-founded ROM.
The figurine was authenticated by Evans himself (the Minoan expert) and he named it “Our Lady of Sports”, believing it to represent the goddess of the bull leapers. The figurine featured prominently in volume 4 of Evans’ influential publication The Palace of Minos where the unusual costume, a combination of bodice and ‘codpiece’, was compared to the male codpiece worn by bull-leaping acrobats in Minoan wall paintings. Small Minoan ivory figurines of male acrobats excavated at Knossos in 1902 were of a similar style and subject matter and demonstrated the Minoan fondness for ivory figurines.
The ROM ‘goddess’ was also likened to other ‘Minoan’ goddess figurines made of stone and ivory and with only vague provenance information, which started appearing on the art market in 1914 and were collected by museums such as the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston, the Walters Museum, Baltimore and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Unlike the ROM figurine, these figures wore long flounced skirts, and sometimes held snakes. Evans called them snake goddesses, relating them to two faience figurines excavated at the Temple Repositories at Knossos in 1903.
It seems too good to be true that all these figurines were spirited out of Crete at that particular time. Indeed, they have all been considered forgeries, the ROM goddess included. In his 2002 book The Mysteries of the Snake Goddess Kenneth Lapatin, formerly lecturer at Boston University, and now curator of antiquities at the Getty Museum, condemns the artifacts because of their lack of archaeological credentials, their suspiciously good state of preservation, and stylistic anomalies including their seemingly ‘modern’ facial features. While the snake goddesses were modelled on the faience figurines found at Knossos, Lapatin believes the ROM goddess was created to fulfil Evans’ desire to find evidence of female bull leapers in Minoan culture. He cites several anecdotal accounts of workshops set up in Crete in the early 20th century to produce fake ivory figurines and run by the same workmen employed by an oblivious Evans to excavate and restore the ancient remains. These accounts describe ivory fakes being manufactured both from ancient ivory that was discovered during the excavations, and from modern ivory that was artificially aged by being dipped in acid.
Although Lapatin’s argument for a thriving industry in Minoan forgeries is compelling, and he is not alone in suspecting the ROM goddess to be a forgery, there has not been any close study of the figure itself. It has been dismissed as fake by association with the other figurines, and because of the unique costume (which could have been a later addition), a combination of ‘female’ bodice and ‘male’ codpiece, unparalleled elsewhere in Minoan visual culture. For the first time, we are assessing the figure itself in an attempt to determine whether it was made in the 16th century BC, or the 20th century AD to capitalise on Evans’ discoveries.
The figure is carved from a single, unusually straight tusk identified as elephant ivory by the angle of the Schreger lines, the type of distortion and cracking along the growth cones, and the nerve line visible in x-rays. The arms were carved separately, and originally attached with dowels into square-section dowel holes. The opacity of the ivory and the scorch marks on the thighs and the remnants of the proper left hand indicate that it has been burnt. Perhaps as a result of the heat, the collagen in the ivory has completely degraded, and the figurine is no longer affected by changes in moisture. The figure is clothed in a bodice and codpiece costume, made of sheet gold secured with gold nails. It is possible that some or all of this gold is a later addition to enhance the value of the figurine for sale.
THE ‘GODDESS’ AT THE ROM 1931-2012
Little is known about the figurine before she came into the museum, one of the reasons she has been doubted. The ROM bought her from Charles Seltman, a lecturer in Greek art at Cambridge University who also sold antiquities to several museums. Although Seltman was not a particularly reliable judge of authenticity (several of his artefacts were fake), he obviously believed the ROM figurine was genuine, since he included her in his own publications decades after he had made the sale. The undated photographs he provided “before any mending or mounting was done” are the earliest evidence we have for her appearance. She is remarkably intact, missing only both legs below the knee, the proper right arm (although the right hand survived), and a few nails in the costume. A section of the bodice was detached, and some leg fragments had been crudely lumped together.
By the time she arrived at the ROM on 9th February 1931 she had been slightly, but skilfully reassembled and looked very much as she does today, judging by the illustration in The Palace of Minos, which was prepared before she left England. The missing proper right arm had been replaced with a wooden replica to which the original ivory hand had been attached using plaster of Paris. Tubes of a tin alloy had been installed in her thighs to accommodate a mount and cracks in her thighs had been filled with plaster of Paris. These old repairs were of excellent quality and are still firm. The whole figure, both the ivory and the plaster, had been consolidated with gelatine. Cracks in the head and torso were also consolidated with shellac, which overlaid the gelatine.
The figurine was immediately exhibited as a Minoan goddess, and remained a star of the ROM collection in the antiquities galleries for over sixty years, despite questions being raised as to her authenticity. During those years she was rarely off public display and the conservation work carried out was limited. No records survive of this early conservation by the museum, and it can only be deduced from the later appearance of the figure.
The subsequent work was of a lesser quality than the original 1930s restoration. Gritty fills on the legs overlaid some of the ivory itself. A finer, very soft, lead-white fill was used on cracks in the face and torso. A repair to the proper left arm using a Plexiglas rod (polymethyl methacrylate) probably dates to the 1960s (Plexiglas became commercially available in 1933 but was rarely used for museum mounting before the 1960s). The originally square left arm hole was also modified to fit the circular plastic rod using a strip of tin. A final treatment probably dating to the 1970s was a semi-opaque film coating which overlaid everything else, including dirt, in what appears to have been soluble nylon. By the 1980s this was peeling badly.
In 1983 the goddess was sent to conservation for cleaning. The shellac and soluble nylon had discoloured and become insoluble. However the gelatine beneath was still soluble, and all coatings could be removed simultaneously by swabbing with warm distilled water, a treatment which was possible only because the collagen had degraded, so did not swell with moisture. At this time the earlier fills overlying the ivory were also tidied up. Even after cleaning, the cracks remained discoloured and those across the face badly distorted the facial expression. To minimize this effect, cracks in the face and the bosom were filled and partly remodelled, using polyethylene glycol wax tinted with titanium white, a treatment that can easily be removed. The whole figure was finished with a thin coat of polyethylene glycol so that future soiling could be cleaned with water or organic solvents.
Although Bronze Age Aegean specialists were already querying the authenticity of the goddess, nothing was found during the 1980s treatments to indicate that the ivory or its carving was modern. The cracking pattern, for example on the eyelid, strongly suggested that the piece was carved before the ivory had warped and split, and therefore was not the product of modern carving on a piece of ancient ivory. The figurine had clearly been exposed to heat, but the ivory had also suffered damage resembling erosion to some areas such as the breasts and hair, but not to others, for instance the thighs and face.
This damage could be the result of the natural ageing processes – perhaps being caught in a fire, then dripped on –
but the possibility remains that fresh ivory could be artificially aged after carving, either chemically or with heat.
In January 2001 an article published by Lapatin in Archaeology magazine proclaimed that the snake goddess at the Boston MFA, and other ‘Minoan’ figurines including the ROM goddess, were fakes. The ROM kept the goddess in the gallery, but modified the display, acknowledging the possibility that it might be modern and asked visitors to judge for themselves. When the new Bronze Age Aegean gallery was created in 2005, the figurine was not included and was consigned to the museum storeroom.
CURRENT INVESTIGATION 2013-2014
The case for the ROM goddess being a fake of the early 20th century has remained untested. The figurine was condemned by association with other suspect pieces also without excavation records. Her unique appearance sets her apart from these other ivory figurines, but it has also raised suspicions on stylistic grounds. However, unique finds are not uncommon when dealing with an ancient culture with relatively little material surviving. The archaeologically- attested Minoan ivory figurines that do survive vary widely as to style and technique. The ‘Palaikastro Kouros’, a Minoan composite ivory figurine unparalleled in composition and technique, could not have been imagined before its excavation in east Crete in 1987-1990.
Since archaeological and art historical approaches to the style and technique cannot resolve the question, we are now embarking on a more thorough material examination than the goddess has ever received. The first step was to remove much of the gold clothing, study the surface of the ivory and x-ray the figurine.
This showed the internal composition, revealing that the entire figure, apart from the detachable arms, was carved from a single piece of ivory. Removing the gold costume exposed some unusual features. Beneath the belt, the ivory carving echoes the pattern of the gold, while patterns of wear on the hair suggest that gold bands are missing. However, the ivory beneath the collar, the bodice and the codpiece have no corresponding carving or wear, which is suspicious. It is also not clear why so many nails (16) have been used to attach such a thin sheet of very malleable metal. Some are presumably decorative, as suggested by the remains of rosettes on the headdress, but it is striking how deep and firmly attached the nails are for a cosmetic procedure.
The next step will be to test the ivory and gold. In recent decades the concern with countering the illegal trade in the ivory from elephant poaching has resulted in the development of a range of tests designed to date and source ivory. Unfortunately, the absence of original collagen in the ROM figurine, and the contamination from organic consolidants completely rule out radiocarbon (C14) dating. Similarly, contamination and the current lack of comparative data prevent the use of DNA or stable isotope analysis to identify species, origin and habitat of the elephant. However, we can use X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) and Raman spectroscopy to examine the mineral content of the ivory.
One Chinese comparison of ancient and modern ivories suggests that modern pollutants, such as mercury, are significantly higher in modern ivory. We also hope to study the structural composition caused by collagen loss, and to compare it with reliably provenanced mammoth and Egyptian ivory.
The gold will be examined to determine its composition and whether it contains any traces of modern alloys. The sheet gold conforming to carving in the ivory will be compared to the other gold, since differences in composition may indicate two different periods of manufacture. Three nails were certainly added in the 1930s, based on the earliest photographs of the figurine, and there are at least two different nail-making techniques present.
Finally we will experiment with ivory samples in an attempt to replicate artificially the aged appearance of the ivory. This will be of particular interest since the erosion on the ROM figurine varies over the surface, indicating that it was not simply dipped in acid, as described in the Cretan forgery workshops. It remains to be seen whether a similar appearance can be achieved artificially within a time-frame that would be acceptable to a forger.
This investigation is very much a work in progress and we are eager to receive feedback from the Conservation community. Suggestions would be greatly appreciated. To follow our progress and get in touch visit the project webpage at http://www.rom.on.ca/minoan-goddess.
All images in this article are Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM
Kate Cooper joined the ROM in May 2012 on a two-year Rebanks Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. Her research, which builds on her Ph.D. work, focuses on the ancient uses and appreciation of figure-decorated archaic Corinthian pottery. As well as pursuing her own research, Kate has day-to-day museum tasks, including working with Paul Denis in the Greek and Roman section on curatorial matters, and taking part in the running of ROM public events such as Ancient Rome and Greece Weekend and National Archaeology Day at the ROM.
Before coming to the ROM, Kate was at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (UK), she has also worked in the Greece and Rome Department at The British Museum, London.
Julia Fenn is Senior Conservator, Ethnography at ROM. Born in South Africa she has a BA in Archaeology from Cape Town University and a post-graduate Diploma in Archaeological and Ethnographic Conservation at the Institute of Archaeology in London University.
She has taught and practiced conservation on three continents, working in Turkey, Egypt, Israel and South Africa before settling in England at the British Museum Research Laboratory. She currently works in the conservation department at the Royal Ontario Museum and her specialisations include masks, leather, adhesives and historic plastics.