Marion True Resigns from Getty
Museum Curator Faces Looming Legal Problems
Last October Marion True resigned from her position as Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, a post she has held since 1986, amid accusations that she violated the museum’s conflict-of-interest policies. While purchasing a vacation home in the Greek islands in 1995, True secured a $400,000 loan with the assistance of a lawyer referred to her by one of the Getty’s main suppliers of ancient art. She neglected to report this fact to Getty authorities.
And that’s just the beginning of True’s professional and legal troubles. Last May Italian authorities handed down an indictment accusing True of conspiring to traffic in looted antiquities. The trial is slated to open in mid-November, in Rome.
On the same day that True tendered her resignation, Italian Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione announced that the Getty would repatriate three artifacts to Italy in the form of “a donation”—a legal formula permitting the museum to avoid acknowledgement of wrongdoing in the acquisition of the pieces. They include a fourth-century B.C. red-figured drinking vessel from the Greco-Roman settlement of Paestum and a funerary inscription from the Greek colony of Selinunte, both identified in an Italian police investigation as having been illegally excavated. The Getty will also return an Etruscan bronze candelabrum believed to have been stolen from a family collection.
Italian investigators claim that many items in the Getty, and in other museums, were restored before being sold to collectors or auction houses, which then sold or donated the works to museums. Police also claim they have found photographs in dealers’ warehouses showing dirt-encrusted artifacts (that is, artifacts that were recently dup up and were still unrestored) that have turned up in the Getty collection.
Italy seeks the return of a total of 42 items from the Getty, including a fourth-century B.C. stone sculpture of Aphrodite from Sicily, valued at $20 million when the Getty bought it in 1987.
“The case against True is about protecting Italian artistic patrimony,” said Maurizio Fiorelli, the lawyer representing the Italian state. If found guilty, True could be sentenced to five or six years in prison. (As of this date, she has not been extradited, and it is not clear whether she will be.) The Italian state will also be seeking compensation for expenses that it has incurred during its investigation of the case.
At the end of October, the Getty Museum became involved in yet another repatriation controversy, this time involving a renewed claim by the Greek government that three fourth-century B.C. objects purchased during True’s tenure at the Getty had been looted and illegally removed from Greece. In addition to the magnificent gold funerary wreath shown, a marble torso of a young woman and an incised grave stela, the provenance of an archaic votive relief purchased in 1955 by J. Paul Getty himself is also being questioned by Greek officials.—Sheri Jennings, Rome
More Bulgarian Treasures
Royal Tomb Yields Silver and Gold Artifacts
Last July archaeologists uncovered a royal Thracian tomb, complete with burial goods, in Zlatinitsa, Bulgaria, 180 miles east of Sofia. Greek pottery found in the crypt helped date the burial to 360–370 B.C.
The burial goods include a finely wrought silver rhyton (drinking vessel) shaped in the form of a calf’s head. The tomb also yielded gold jewelry, gold-and-silver horse trappings, armor fragments, two horse skeletons and the skeleton of a dog, which had been placed next to the corpse of a young man. The richness of the burial suggests that the tomb’s sole human occupant was a member of a Thracian royal family.
Roof Collapses at Akrotiri
On September 23 a portion of a massive, quarteracre steel roof covering the Akrotiri archaeological site on the Greek island of Santorini collapsed, killing one tourist and injuring six others.
Accusations continue to swirl about who is responsible for the disaster. Two engineers employed by the contracting firm that erected the roof allege that substandard materials were used. A team of experts from Greece’s Culture Ministry plans to issue a report on the accident by mid-January.
Akrotiri’s colorful Minoan-style frescoes were preserved by volcanic debris following a massive eruption in the 17th century B.C. The settlement’s inhabitants had earlier fled the site, probably after earthquakes coursed through the region prior to the eruption.
Akrotiri has been haunted by disaster in modern times as well. Spyridon Marinatos, the Greek archaeologist who discovered the site in 1967, fell to his death seven years later while inspecting excavation work there.
A Bird’s-Eye View of the Streets of Rome
Computer Technology Recreates Ancient Map, Piece by Piece
Little survives of the massive Forma Urbis, a 60-foot-wide, 45-foot-tall marble map of Rome created in the early third century A.D. by the emperor Septimius Severus. Once affixed to the wall of the Templum Pacis (Temple of Peace) in the heart of Rome, the map showed every structure and street in the city.
In the fourth century B.C., many of the map’s marble slabs were stripped from the temple wall and reused in the construction of other buildings or burned in kilns to make lime.
Now, however, the map is being reconstructed, with the aid of computer imaging. A team of Stanford University computer scientists and Italian archaeologists from Rome’s Museum of Roman Civilization has created three-dimensional views of each of the map’s extant fragments (about 1,200 marble pieces, representing 10 to 15 percent of the original surface, and including the fragment shown). Scholars use imaging techniques to reconstruct missing portions of the map by searching for matches among the broken side surfaces of the fragments—much like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle without having all of the pieces.
“This project shows the power of computers to build archives of ancient artifacts,” Stanford University professor Marc Levoy told Archaeology Odyssey. “We’re publishing all our raw field data online as soon as we get it. This means that everybody has the same information we do [http://formaurbis.stanford.edu/index.php]. It’s a new way to do archaeology.”
In the past year alone, the Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project has successfully matched more than 20 pieces of the map—as many matches as had been found in the previous 20 years.
Although my interest lies principally in pharaonic art before 500 B.C.E., an intriguing bust dating late in the Ptolemaic Period (323 B.C.-30 B.C.) continues to captivate me. The artifact may or may not be a life-sized portrait of the eternally fascinating Cleopatra VII, Egypt’s last pharaoh and perhaps the most famous woman in history.
I was quite happy to live with this piece as “a Ptolemaic queen or goddess” (written on its label for many years) until I attended an exhibition at the British Museum in 2001 called “Cleopatra of Egypt.” One of the busts in the exhibit, on loan from the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, had been newly identified by British scholars as Cleopatra VII. This excited me, because our bust, which was purchased in Egypt around 1907 by our museum’s founder, C.T. Currelly, bore a very close resemblance to it. I was convinced that our queen, too, must be Cleopatra.
I managed to corner Sally-Ann Ashton, assistant keeper in the Department of Antiquities at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum, and author of the chapter “Identifying the Egyptian-style Ptolemaic Queens” in the exhibition’s catalogue, to discuss the Royal Ontario Museum’s piece. She agreed to look at photos and, using the same criteria as that for the Alexandria bust, concluded that we very likely had an Egyptian-style portrait of Cleopatra. (I might add the “Egyptian-style” means a highly idealized sculpture that bears little, if any, resemblance to the living person.) As we all know, art historical analysis is not absolutely certain, but until some new scholar presents a compelling argument to the contrary, I continue to be thrilled by the presence of this great queen in the Egyptian gallery of the Royal Ontario Museum.—Roberta L. Shaw, Assistant Curator, Near Eastern and Asian Civilizations Department, Royal Ontario Museum
Tree of Paradise: Jewish Mosaics from the Roman Empire
Through June 4, 2006
This exhibit features 21 mosaics and several dozen Jewish ritual items that explore the history of ancient synagogues from Tunisia to Turkey.
Mummy: The Inside Story
Through February 12, 2006
Visitors can view the sarcophagus of a 2,800-year-old priest and a reconstruction of his face. Life-size statues, architectural pieces from Karnak and tomb furnishings are also showcased.
Style and Status: Imperial Costumes from Ottoman Turkey
Through January 22, 2006
On display are Ottoman silks used as furnishings, clothing and ecclesiastical objects. The ornate and intricate silks are among the finest Islamic art ever produced.
Hatshepsut: From Queen to Pharaoh
San Francisco, CA
Through February 5, 2006
Nearly 300 items from the reign of Hatshepsut, Egypt’s legendary 15th-century B.C. female pharaoh, are displayed in this exhibit, including ceremonial weapons, large stone statues, decorative wooden objects and jewelry made of gold and carnelian.
Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs
Museum of Art
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Through April 23, 2006
Tut’s back. Egypt’s 14th-century B.C. king, whose tomb was famously discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, was buried amid treasures, many of which are on display in the U.S. for the second time in nearly 30 years.
Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption
Through March 26, 2006
The body casts, frescoes, mosaics, gold coins and jewelry in this exhibit offer new insights on how the citizens of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Oplontis lived and died until the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
Fine Dining in Pompeii
At a recent press conference in Rome, Italian archaeologists showed photographs of a formal dinner service composed of 20 pieces of ancient silver hollowware, weighing nearly nine pounds, discovered five years ago near Pompeii.
The cache was found in a wicker basket in an ancient hotel-spa complex about a half mile outside Pompeii’s walls. It includes serving bowls, embossed wine cups, a large decorated platter and an elongated serving spoon. The decoration on one of the silver cups suggests the playful atmosphere of the complex’s dining rooms: A chicken (rather than the more usual deity) standing on an altar is being fed grapes by a modestly dressed matron who holds more fruit in her skirt-front.
The hotel first came to light in 1959, during the construction of a four-lane highway linking the cities of Naples and Sorrento. Archaeologists conducting a preconstruction survey found wooden tablets that in ancient times had been coated with a layer of wax and used for recordkeeping. From scratchings on the wood, made when the stylus used to incise the wax penetrated below the wax layer, scholars learned that the tablets recorded business transactions of the Sulpicii, a family of bankers who apparently owned the hotel-spa complex.
Additional evidence that the Sulpicii were involved with the ancient complex turned up in 2000, after officials decided to widen the highway. During the preconstruction survey, archaeologists from the University of Naples uncovered the hotel’s roomy kitchen, where marble panels marked with the name “Sulpicii” were found leaning against a counter—an indication that the hotel-spa was still under construction when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. At least five private dining rooms with elaborately decorated walls and sophisticated fountain systems were also excavated (three more chambers remain to be explored), as well as stairways that probably led to bedrooms upstairs.
The hotel silver was likely stashed in the wicker basket as ash and pebbles rained down on Pompeii. According to a member of the University of Naples team, Antonio De Simone, “When we found the wicker hamper full of hardened mud, at the top I could see the decorated rim of one of the largest silver platters.”
Such finds are rare. More than a hundred ancient silver pieces were found in 1895 in a cistern at a wine estate at Boscoreale, a few miles inland from Pompeii. The private contractor who excavated the villa sold that service to the Rothschild family, which kept some of the pieces. The rest went to the Louvre, where they can be seen today.
Another service of 118 pieces was found inside a wooden box that had been buried for safekeeping in the atrium of a Pompeiian townhouse known as the House of Menander. That service is now on view in Naple’s National Archaeological Museum.
The discovery of the hotel-spa silver service is the first of its kind since the 1920s. Restoration of the silver objects and the fragile wicker basket is nearing completion, and the items will go on permanent display at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples in 2006.—Judith Harris, Rome
An Ethiopian Orthodox priest blesses one of three segments of a fourth-century B.C. obelisk that finally arrived in Axum, Ethiopia, last April, after an absence of 68 years. The 78-foot-tall, 200-ton monument was seized by Italian troops in 1937 and erected in central Rome.
Although thousands of Ethiopians greeted the obelisk upon its return, they won’t be viewing the reconstructed monument any time soon. The day after the last section of the obelisk arrived in Axum aboard a cargo plane, archaeologists announced that ancient burial chambers had been discovered at the site where the obelisk was to be re-erected.
What’s in a Name?
The word we use to refer to the fine-grained black volcanic rock known as “basalt” is of ancient Egyptian origin. During the third millennium B.C., a dark gray-green sandstone quarried in Egypt’s Wadi Hammamat was called bekhen. By the Greco-Roman period, however, the name for the same rock was transliterated as basanites. A transcription error in a copy of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History published during the Middle Ages rendered the word as basaltes. Since Pliny described basaltes as having a “dark color” and the “hardness of iron,” readers mistakenly assumed that basaltes was the volcanic rock that today we call “basalt.”—James A. Harrell, Professor of Geology, University of Toledo
Fourth century A.D.
2 feet high
Archaeologists found this head of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine (306–337 A.D.), while clearing an ancient drainage system in the Roman Forum last summer.
The well-preserved head was identified as Constantine by comparing it with coin portraits and two other statue heads in Rome’s Capitoline Museums. Archaeologists believe it was once part of a complete statue of the emperor.
How the head wound up in the sewer remains a mystery. It may have been removed from the statue by pagan Romans disgruntled with the emperor’s embrace of Christianity, or perhaps it was used to serve some structural purpose in the sewer. The head’s humble location preserved it from the looting of the Forum that occurred following the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century A.D.
After being restored, Constantine’s head will go on display in a Rome museum later this year.
Marion True Resigns from Getty