Apollo of Gaza
February 9, 2014 12:43 AM   Subscribe

Fisherman find an ancient Greek bronze statue in the waters off the coast of Gaza. Now the question is how it can be preserved and what its ultimate fate will be. Here Apollo is lying on Smurf sheets (photo from an Italian article). (Previously on underwater archaeology in the Mediterranean.)
posted by larrybob (38 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The story of the discovery of the statue is a little muddy. Here's a comparison of versions.
posted by larrybob at 12:51 AM on February 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Apollo is lying on Smurf sheets os not a sight I ever thought to gaze on.
(I mean, why did they even have classic Smurf sheets?)

That is a fascinating story, and I'm glad that they're keeping it safe (er... safe-ish) rather than smashing it or melting it down.
posted by Mezentian at 1:36 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems fairly obvious to me: the statue should be dried and boxed, while those classic Smurf sheets should immediately go to the Smithsonian or comparable for conservation and display.
posted by kinnakeet at 2:10 AM on February 9, 2014 [10 favorites]

Larrybob's link adds a fascinating angle to the story. There is one thing that is almost suspiciously absent from his analysis, though: Hamas is seen as a single entity, without internal opposing factions and individual power struggles throughout the organization.

Conjecture ahead!

I think the fishermen's story about the spies, the seizure, and the potential sale is mostly true. The discovery was found out by the spies, who reported it to their controller, and the news proceeded up the chain of command in their intelligence group, but at some point it stopped before it reached the Gaza Strip’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. Whoever is was that saw this as something far more rewarding both for Hamas and/or themselves, both politically and financially - trade in illegal art and antiquities is not only profitable, but a tried and true way to more easily move large amounts of money around without arousing suspicion.

So you have a senior intelligence officer, let's say, and on one hand he could hand it over to the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, and that would be it; or, he could try and sell it and use the situation to his personal advantage, and no one would really know. Now, that personal advantage could be used three possible ways.

One: Simply financial gain for himself, which I think is unlikely, as there would be too many that know already, and could use that info against him. If he just took the money and ran, where could he go? He wouldn't just be on the run from Hamas, but a large amount of intelligence organizations for other governments would be on the lookout for him too.

Two: Simply a loyal agent working to get the best financial gain for Hamas, and caring little for the historical value of the statue. Contacts are made, meetings are set up, the bidding begins, but is stopped by his superiors when they find out about it (through Jawdat Khoudary or others), and the official, streamlined government story is given to Businessweek.

Three: The sale is set up to increase his own personal political power, influence, and standing within Hamas, separate from his superiors. The plan was discovered, and Hamas just wrote the best story they could to cover it up, not only to present a good image politically and culturally, but also to remove any indication of internal problems.

Whatever really happened, it seems clear that there was some fundamental disconnect between the Hamas leadership and the intelligence agent Jawdat Khoudary talked to when the sale was first discussed. What were left with is a very rough story that clearly has been hastily sanded, shaped and molded to conceal the incorrect actions of a subordinate to achieve the best political result for Hamas.

But really, this is all off-the-cuff conjecture. As to the story behind the statue itself, I am eager to hear what can be discovered about its past. It's kind of odd that soon we'll know more about what happened about 1500-2200 years ago ago than what really happened back in September in Gaza.
posted by chambers at 2:15 AM on February 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

That really doesn't look like metal that has been immersed in salt water for centuries.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:55 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Joe in Australia: On the last page of the Businessweek article, it pretty clearly explains that since the building of the Aswan Dam, there has been beach erosion that is exposing the ruins of old seaside temples to the water. This statue would have been buried for centuries but only exposed to seawater relatively recently.
posted by graymouser at 3:40 AM on February 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

The odds of it coming from a temple are very slim, though - as the article says, bronze was far too valuable and was one of the first things to go when Rome flipped over into Christianity; aside from some major sites that suffered severe earthquakes (Delphi, for example) finding bronzes of any size is rare. It's possible the temple keepers buried it to keep it from being melted down, but most bronzes are from shipwrecks. Often those of Roman ships carrying treasures stripped from Asia and Greece in the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE before imperial admin cracked down on using the empire as your personal looting adventure.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:34 AM on February 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Apollo's gonna need a race car bed and some Garfield slippers if he's going to be ready for cartoons at 6:30!
posted by blueberry at 4:44 AM on February 9, 2014 [13 favorites]

That really doesn't look like metal that has been immersed in salt water for centuries.
Yeah, but remember, those Smurf sheets were probably like a 20/80 cotton/poly blend.
posted by blueberry at 4:48 AM on February 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I love that on metafilter our "THIS LOOKS SHOPPED. I CAN TELL BY SOME OF THE PIXELS AND FROM HAVING SEEN A FEW SHOPS IN MY TIME" comments come about archeological discoveries.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 5:51 AM on February 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

Sidenote: is there any actual indication that this is an Apollo statue? Is it just the parallel with the Piombino statue, or...? The hair almost reminds me of some of the statues from Herculaneum at the Museo Nazionale di Napoli but there's an interesting bit on the style here, also from Conflict Antiquities.

The corrosion does look remarkably good compared with a lot of other bronzes. Even the Riaci needed some restoration and conservation, though at least it's got access to that now. If it is at least partly genuine, at least it's calling attention to the absolutely appalling state of antiquities in Gaza: looting, black market sales, little to no conservation/supplies/external help, no education, and the exciting times the one museum collection (I think owned by the man in the article?) will be and has been bombed and damaged. With no secure find site-- and shipwrecks aren't that subtle, usually, and neither are temples, there could be something demarcating the area-- this guy is just another contentious, poorly documented, orphaned artifact.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:26 AM on February 9, 2014

Oh. Smurf sheets!

Not obscure archaeological terminology, then.
posted by Catch at 6:28 AM on February 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

Hah, sorry, I missed Mattusch's and the commentator's suggestion that this might gave been a tray bearer, not an Apollo-- sorry, no tea yet! (The brief article he links to on classical bronzes is worth a look if you want to see more bronzes.) So....seaside villa to add to the temple hypothesis? (Inland villa?)
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:43 AM on February 9, 2014

That really doesn't look like metal that has been immersed in salt water for centuries.

Not the greatest of pictures, and as said above, probably buried in sand. By way of comparison, however, I give you a Riace bronze before cleaning
posted by IndigoJones at 7:37 AM on February 9, 2014

Metafilter: Apollo is lying on Smurf sheets
posted by rocketman at 8:24 AM on February 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

“A bronze of this size is one of a kind,” says Giacomo Medici, a dealer whose 2004 conviction in Rome for acting as a hub of the global antiquities trade led to the repatriation of works from the world’s biggest museums and richest collectors, including the Getty and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. If the Apollo could be sold, such a statue would bring “20, 30, 40 million euros, maybe more, 100 million for the highest quality,” Medici says, speaking by phone from house arrest at his villa north of the Italian capital. “You could make it a centerpiece of a museum or private collection.”

"We double-checked, and he was not, indeed, calling from 1518."

I was surprised at the crtitcism of the right hand as clumsy in the Vladimir Stissi quotes in the article jetlagaddict linked, because that's one of the parts I found most elegant and charming. Of course, I've only had a few art history courses and I'm not a qualified archaeologist.

My first thought was that is did look a bit like the Piombino Apollo.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:40 AM on February 9, 2014

Eyes: One missing
Not only did they get the god wrong, they got the entire pantheon wrong. This is Odin!
posted by Flunkie at 8:50 AM on February 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeah, it's quite funny to see him being used as a source given his history-- "well, goodness, if I were back selling looted materials internationally, I'd look for buyers in this totally made-up range!" The other bronze mentioned was the one from Buffalo, right? So that was from a reputable collection, even if it's not with controversy itself.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:51 AM on February 9, 2014

The likelihood of the fisherman discovering the bronze just as it becomes exposed to the sea and before encrustment takes place seems very small indeed.
More likely it was unearthed.
posted by Colonel Panic at 9:13 AM on February 9, 2014

The discovery story involves dozens of random eyewitnesses maybe even an entire village. If it's a fake story it wasn't well thought out.
posted by stbalbach at 9:39 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's an entire village in a place with idiosyncratic access though: If the story is indeed fake, I don't think Hamas would be very worried about one of the villagers e-mailing the New York Post with the scoop.
posted by Dr Dracator at 10:13 AM on February 9, 2014

Still stuck at reading the name Medici in conjunction with the story and context.
posted by infini at 11:08 AM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think Hamas would be very worried about one of the villagers e-mailing the New York Post with the scoop.

Yeah thanks for that strawman. But there are other more plausible scenarios that are not so easily waved off.
posted by stbalbach at 11:28 AM on February 9, 2014

It looks like the fingers on the right hand are bright and smooth, which suggest that it's been touched a lot in the past. If so, the statue would have been in a public place.

Hard to tell from the photos though.
posted by Thing at 11:48 AM on February 9, 2014

The ancient Mediterranean is pretty awesome
posted by rosswald at 12:35 PM on February 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks for posting this - the stuff about Hamas's handling of it is really interesting and wow, what a dilemma for the museum/conservation world.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:44 PM on February 9, 2014

Ha, I wrote a paper about Jawdat Khoudary and the politics of Palestinian archaeology a few years ago. Glad to hear he's still fighting for the objects in his own bombastic way.
posted by oinopaponton at 1:31 PM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Greymouser wrote: On the last page of the Businessweek article, it pretty clearly explains that since the building of the Aswan Dam, there has been beach erosion that is exposing the ruins of old seaside temples to the water. This statue would have been buried for centuries but only exposed to seawater relatively recently.

I've been following this story since last October, and the consensus seems to be that the maritime story is unlikely. If you go back and read Businessweek's suggestion about the Aswan dam, the guy they quote does not even mention the statue: he's talking about erosion in general. The non-Gazan experts they cite both say that it can't have come from the sea.

I don't know why the Businessweek article is pushing the maritime origin so heavily. In defense of that claim it says that
the Riace bronzes from 1972 appear to have come ashore with skin as smooth as that of the Gaza bronze [...]
But that's not the case. From IndigoJones' link, here's one of the Riace bronzes before cleaning. This seems to have been taken after the initial removal of encrustation: I haven't found a photo of the way it looked before, but one side of the head was literally a block of calcification. And these bronzes were actually in remarkably good shape! Here's the photo from the OP for comparision. There are possibly some bits of encrustation, but it's hard to be sure.

Here's another recovered maritime bronze, the Statue of a Victorious Youth. Here's how it looked before restoration. You can see that the Gazan statue is very, very much cleaner and in remarkably good shape - even a pedestal is attached. That's surprising, because it's a mechanically weak point. The Riace bronzes don't have a pedestal like that: they have hollow feet, which supported the statue via flowed lead tenons that were once inserted in (what I presume was) a stone base. How was the Gaza statue kept upright? I long for better photos; could it be that there are screw holes in that rectangular base?
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:05 PM on February 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Another thing to consider is that there are a host of factors both internal (variations in the copper/tin ratio, additional impurities, etc) and external (salinity and acidity of the water, the makeup of the sand that covered it, and exposure to the elements before it was submerged) that affect the rate and manner of the cortification/patination process. In addition, we have no way of knowing when it was first submerged - it could have been found elsewhere in the area, and then lost or deliberately hidden there decades, centuries, or a millennia ago.

Thorough analysis of the patina can provide a great deal of information that at least can show some chronology of the events, such as how long it was exposed to the desert environment before it was submerged by examining the different layers of cortification. Between the different kinds of corrosion and examination of the remains any marine life that attached themselves to it over the ages within different layers, researchers should be able to construct a plausible chronology of the statue's history.
posted by chambers at 8:10 PM on February 9, 2014

Oh, sure. In fact, if it's authentic then it's quite possible that it was deliberately sunk, as an act of iconoclasm.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:42 PM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

(I mean, why did they even have classic Smurf sheets?)

The Phrygian cap was associated with the god Attis, whose priests were eunuchs. I think the sheets suggest that the statue might actually be Attis.
posted by homunculus at 9:28 PM on February 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Guys, guys, I think we may be on to the archaeological discovery of the century. Or the millennium.

Look at the guy bending down in this engraving of King Jehu (maybe) of Israel offering tribute to Shalmaneser III of Assyria. OK, now compare it to this image. It's no coincidence. This sheet may be an authentic Biblical artefact!
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:59 PM on February 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Another writeup with yet more contradictory details from the Jerusalem Post: Mystery surrounds discovery of Apollo statue in Gaza

If you follow the story you can see that the statue's weight has increased from seventy or eighty pounds in October to one thousand pounds and now 500 kg (1,100 lbs). The reason for this is that, as the article says,
archaeologists have not yet been able to get their hands on the work of art, and instead are relying on a few blurred photographs of the virtually intact god, laid out incongruously on a blanket emblazoned with Smurfs cartoon characters.
I think it's wise to remain agnostic about the statue for now: antiquity-faking is a huge industry and there are lots of alarm bells ringing about this find: its provenance, its nature, and that suspiciously-regular rectangular stand. Call me a paleopedantic pooh-pooher, but I think researchers would do well to start looking through garden supply catalogues.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:53 PM on February 12, 2014

Additional thoughts on the visible corrosion and form from Paul Barford: here.

The face is....well, it's certainly different. Hopefully soon we'll have better answers.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:45 AM on February 14, 2014

Here's a BBC story with new (?) photos: The Apollo of Gaza: One fisherman's amazing catch

OK, looking at the photos ... does anyone here still think it may be authentic? It has springs for hair.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:54 PM on February 20, 2014

VTSilver's Twitter account has had periodic updates on the Apollo of Gaza. One recent question with an image: what does an apparent rectangular patch say about its origins?
posted by larrybob at 10:19 PM on March 8, 2014

« Older mega-culture   |   How it's made, when it's not made in the human... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments