The “Apollo” of Gaza ~ Part II: Questions of Condition and Authenticity

In case you missed our previous installments:

In our previous installment(s) on the so-called “Apollo” of Gaza, we primarily questioned the apparently ever-developing story of the find as told by the fisherman of many names as reported by various news outlets. Now it is time to look at the statue itself and see if it’s possible, from the information we have been given, to discern whether this thing is a genuine antiquity or a fake.

At the outset, though, we should deal with another question related to provenance, specifically whether it was actually found in the sea or not. Despite the engaging story told by the fisherman, opinions on this seem to be divided. Our first opinion comes from the oft-quoted Jean-Michel de Tarragon of the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem, who seems to be one of the few academics consulted on the issue by the press:

The apparently pristine condition of the god suggested it was uncovered on land and not in the sea, he said, speculating that the true location of where it was unearthed was not revealed to avoid arguments over ownership.

“This wasn’t found on the seashore or in the sea … it is very clean. No, it was [found] inland and dry,” he said, adding that there were no signs of metal disfigurement or barnacles that one normally sees on items plucked from water.

An archaeologist from Gaza, Fadel al-Utol, agrees:

Young Gaza archeologist Fadel al-Utol said the statue, with its green patina, was unlikely to have come from beneath the waves.

“It is 90 percent intact and was probably found on land,” he told AFP. “If it had spent time underwater, the bronze would be blackened.”

“It’s more likely that the statue was found in an ancient temple in the Gaza area. We need to search and find out,” he said.

Utol said statues of such a size are rare, although a smaller example is held by the Louvre in Paris.

The Tourism Ministry folks are totally buying into the found-in-the-sea story (which can be spun in numerous ways, depending on how conspiracy-minded one is):

“We are not denying that the statue was found in the sea — as a matter of fact, that is a very authentic and real story,” Al-Burch said.

Jawdat Khoudary, who was one of the first ‘knowledgeable’ folks to observe the statue provides an interesting argument for it being found in the sea:

There’s no doubt the statue came from the sea, Khoudary says. Sitting in the lobby of his hotel on a December evening, he wraps his portly frame in a wool robe and warms his neck with a black-and-white keffiyeh, the emblem of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In his left hand he works a silver coin purchased minutes earlier from two beachcombing treasure hunters. One side of the coin, encrusted with black sand, bears the outline of a face. Khoudary says it’s Alexander the Great, who conquered Gaza in 332 B.C. en route to taking Egypt.

Khoudary lays out his grim reasoning as the lights go off and on, a result of Gaza’s fuel shortage. “I know how they excavate in Gaza, it’s by shoveling,” he says, making the motions of a mechanical backhoe with his hand. In his collection’s catalog, an entry for clay wine jars even lists “bulldozer trenches” as the method of discovery. Clandestine hunters usually dig until they hit something, a process that’s speedy but damages the finds. In the case of the bronze, however, “It’s not damaged,” he says. “It’s 100 percent from the sea.”

Not sure if we need to (cynically?) point out that the same logic could be used to suggest that the statue was never underground in the first place (i.e. It’s a fake).

The second ‘knowledgeable’ observer Bauzou disagreed, however (I’m still not sure of Bauzou’s first name):

Neither Humbert nor Bauzou believes Ghurab discovered the bronze underwater. “It does not come from the sea. It’s obvious,” Bauzou says. The giveaway, they say, is the lack of any sea encrustation or damage from hundreds of years underwater. Instead, they suspect the bronze came from a clandestine excavation somewhere on land. “This story has been fabricated to hide the real place where the statue was found so they can continue digging.”

To its credit, the lengthy Businessweek article (referenced above, of course) does try to weigh the apparent evidence for it not being found in the sea somewhat objectively:

It’s possible the fisherman’s story is an elaborate hoax. It is true the Apollo isn’t encrusted with barnacles, but not all submerged bronzes get crusty. Photos of the 1996 Croatian find and the 1964 Getty bronze show thick layers of sea growth, but the Riace bronzes from 1972 appear to have come ashore with skin as smooth as that of the Gaza bronze. It might be no coincidence they were found under similar conditions: in shallow water, partly buried in sand, by a swimmer.

With that in mind, it is useful to compare (as others have done, most notably Sam Hardy: the Apollo of Gaza: less innocent origins, equally problematic destinations) the find condition of those other statues which were plucked from the sea to get an idea of what we might expect to observe.

Here’s the Croatian Athlete at the time of discovery(I have another post mentioning this one in another context … stay tuned; Sam Hardy’s article above has a different photo):

Department of Underwater Archaeology of Croatia, via UNESCO

Department of Underwater Archaeology of Croatia, via UNESCO

… Here’s the Getty’s ‘Victorious Youth”

via the Getty

… Finally, one of the famous photos of one of the Riace Bronzes:

This one was all over the internet a short while ago; this copy comes from oldhistoricalphotos.com

This one was all over the internet a short while ago; this copy comes from oldhistoricalphotos.com

This is possibly an important detail … if the “Apollo” of Gaza did actually come from the sea and came out looking, patina-wise, like the Riace Bronzes, then the frequently-mentioned concerns about its current condition probably are  even more concerning now (given that we haven’t had any news reports of any conservation help actually being given). The CNN coverage of February 15 mysteriously downplayed the deterioration:

A green spot — a sign of decay — has formed on the leg of the statue, which is exposed to the air.

A (single?) green spot? Anyone who has seen any of the photos has seen a statue that seems to be suffering from the early states of ‘bronze disease’ (or something similar), which can be the result of emerging from the sea and being exposed to air, or it can be the result of highly humid conditions (which does appear to be the case in Gaza … check the weather network for today’s humidity there). It’s difficult to tell whether there has been any change as seen from the two previously-mentioned photos (taken perhaps two weeks apart):

A picture taken in Gaza on Sept. 19, 2013 shows a 2,500-year-old bronze statue of the Greek god Apollo discovered by Palestinian fishermen in August (Gaza's Ministry of Tourism/AFP)

A picture taken in Gaza on Sept. 19, 2013 shows a 2,500-year-old bronze
statue of the Greek god Apollo discovered by Palestinian fishermen
in August (Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism/AFP)

ppna

… but it seems noteworthy that the more recent one seems to come from a place which is likely air-conditioned, which would, in theory, slow down the progress of deterioration. Then again, the Businessweek article concluded thusly:

The Apollo is in a Hamas Interior Ministry office, somewhere in Gaza, being kept away from sources of humidity, he says. It is propped up in a corner.

In regards to condition, we should also draw attention to another photo that was making the rounds from the ‘Smurf blanket’ phase:

Rear view of the statue, via the BBC

Rear view of the statue, via the BBC

What’s interesting in this photo is that the back of the statue (including the head)— which was, of course, in contact with the blanket/mattress and not really exposed to air — is largely free from any signs of the green patina. Does this give us an indication of the original condition? Or did moving it on and off the mattress do something to the patina (unlikely).  If it does indicate the original condition,  according to our timeline, all that green patina would have accumulated in less than a month and we can only hope that something more than ‘propping it up in a corner of an office’ is being done about it.

Outside of conservation issues, the statue itself raises a number of questions. A photo from the Palestinian Tourism folks which accompanied the Businessweek article (and appeared elsewhere) seems to touch on many of them:

Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquitiesvia Businessweek, but it is also available elsewhere

Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities via Businessweek, but it is also available elsewhere

A major item that has been bugging me from the outset is the reported weight of this thing: 450 kg/1000 pounds. Why does it weigh so much? Although it is roughly the same size (possibly a bit smaller), it is almost double what each of the Riace Bronzes weighs, and if it is the actual weight, it probably suggests a rather massive core, which certainly wouldn’t be in line with traditional statue construction methods of the time (as far as I’m aware).

The graphic marvels that the feet are intact, but what seems to be more interesting is that they are not only intact, but are attached to their original base. I’m sure someone can correct me on this, but finding bronzes of this size still attached to their base is pretty rare. I’d be very interested to know whether the base was cast with the feet or whether it was later attached.

Two other items on the graphic raise other questions. We are told that three fingers are missing — we know the fisherman had one, his “cousin” (or jeweller) had one too. How did the third go missing? And what happened to the thumb? We also wonder about the eye and are unsure whether it was always missing or was gouged out/fell out later (more on the surviving eye in a bit). In one of the news reports, it “sounds” like it was something that happened later, but that might be just one of those things that comes during the translation of an interview:

Ahmed Elburch, an official at the Hamas-run Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Gaza, says he last saw the statue in October. He was concerned about its condition, he says, as the colour appeared to be changing, and one of the eyes had been cut out.

That said, over the past few weeks a number of us (namely, Sam Hardy, Vernon Silver, Justin Walsh, and myself) have engaged in an on-again, off-again discussion of the statue on Twitter and much of what follows is the result of those discussions. Stylistically, as several, including Sam Hardy have noted the head of the statue seems to have great affinities with a head from Herculaneum, which includes the very interesting ‘dreadlocks’ hair treatment, although they seem a bit more ‘orderly’ along the brow (the photo, by the way, comes from an article by Carol Mattusch on early bronze statuary which is definitely an appropriate read for this: Changing Approaches to Classical Bronze Statuary)

via INAH ... in the above-referenced article

via INAH … in the above-referenced article

The twisty curls also appear in another head from Herculaneum, albeit flatter and in a clearly non-Apolline context (as Vernon Silver reminded me). Here’s Ptolemy Apion in the Naples Museum:

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

In passing, we should note that the condition of the ‘free’ curls on the Gaza example is probably one of the best bits of evidence that the fisherman’s story of the recovery of the statue (by the ‘cartwheel technique’) is less-than-truthful. I have a very difficult time believing that those curls would have survived recovery according to his description.

As long as we’re looking at the head, I’m wondering if I’m the only one who finds the face of the statue to be somewhat strange. In some of the photos, depending on the angle, it does seem to be a reasonable ‘Greek’ visage, but in others (especially straight on) it does not and is certainly not the ‘idealizing’ sort of thing one might expect. The aforementioned ‘bronze disease’ also has almost ‘outlined’ a certain part of the face, which makes it look like it was somehow attached to a faceless head. I’m honestly not sure if that is the case or if that’s just an illusion caused by the deterioration, but clearly it would be an oddity. Indeed, when I first saw the outline, it struck me that this looked more like the face of a Roman cavalry mask than anything else. Here are the “headshots” from the BBC:

via the BBC Magazine

via the BBC Magazine

Also worth noting about the head is that it really isn’t unusual that a bronze might have lost its inlaid eyes (which were usually made from glass paste or other materials). What is interesting here, however, is the one eye that remains in the head is apparently blue and made from some sort of stone (maybe; not sure if a trained ‘eye’ determined that or not).

The pose of the statue is one which comes close to many statue styled an “Apollo” or “Kouros” or “Ephebe” but the closest analog seems to be the so-called ephebe of Selinunte, now in the Palermo Museum (tip of the pileus to Justin Walsh and Adrian Murdoch for helping me track this one down, there’s a huge version of the photo if you click on it):

via trapani tourism

via trapani tourism

The Ephebe from the ‘House of the Ephebe” in Pompeii also seems to have affinities both in terms of height and pose, sort of (and we might wonder if the Gaza statue carried something in its now largely broken left hand, but seems to be the product of a more-talented artist:

via the Getty

via the Getty

Another stylistic analog, but again the product of a better artist, would be the somewhat smaller (1.15 m) Piombino Kouros, originally from Etruria but now in the Louvre (this is a cast from Cambridge’s archive):

from the Cambridge Casts Archive

Perhaps related to this notion that the Gaza “Apollo” is the product of a less-talented artist is an observation which came up just last week: a photo which clearly shows a square hole on the back of one of the legs or upper arms (Sam Hardy has recently dealt with the confusion many of us had trying to figure out where this ‘hole’ is: Is it an arm? Is it a leg? What the hell is that hole?). Similar squares on other ancient bronzes usually indicate the site of a repair done in ancient times. Depending on where it is, however, it might also indicate where a statue attached to something else for stability purposes. If it is on the upper arm, it seems to be a patch. If it’s on a leg, it could be a patch or an attachment spot. Until some genuine conservationist/art historian gets an in-person look at the statue, I doubt we’ll know for sure.

I’m also not sure how much should/can be read into the above observations (I can’t really call them evidence) that all of the analogs for the Gaza “Apollo” seem to come from southern Italy/Sicily. As far as I’m aware, most of the bronzes which have survived to this point come from that part of the world. At the same time, Herculaneum for a long time was the site of numerous thefts, including a spectacular break in in the early 1990s, although no large scale statuary seems to have gone missing in that one (tip o’ the pileus to Dorothy King for help with that reference). Whatever the case, it’s obviously highly improbable that a statue might have been taken from southern Italy to Gaza to create a provenance, and then suddenly be subject to deterioration.

Which brings us to the bigger question: is the Gaza “Apollo” genuine or is it a clever fake? It’s interesting, I think, to note that the head from Herculaneum and the Piombino Kouros are considered in the category of ‘ancient fakes’ (I.e. Fakes/replicas made in antiquity to appeal to a contemporary market). Even so, I keep hemming and hawing on this issue and I still can’t come down firmly on one side or the other. The provenance strikes me (and most critical observers, it appears) as obviously manufactured. The weight, the face, and the survival of the base of the statue also combine to lead me to think there’s something very much amiss with this one. I’m still not too sure about the hair treatment either. Why Hamas (or whoever is in possession of it) is not giving scholars access to it to do some basic conservation and examination is puzzling and doesn’t lend any confidence to claims of authenticity. Despite all those considerations, it still seems possible that it is genuine and perhaps an archaizing sort of thing like the head from Herculaneum or possibly simply the product of a crappy artist. The whole situation is clearly being mishandled and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t hear anything more about this one for a year or two, if at all.

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2 thoughts on “The “Apollo” of Gaza ~ Part II: Questions of Condition and Authenticity

  1. Very good analysis! A few additional remarks which I partly already have posted elsewhere:

    the square patch and hole does belong on the lower right arm I think, and has all the appearances of an ancient repair covering the worst part of a cracked elbow. There seem to be a few more such patches on other limbs, but they are badly visible on the photos we have. There also is a very clear one under the chin. The statue may have been damaged and repaired extensively in antiquity, either during production or much later — or a forger used the repairs to hide some inadequacies of his work.

    The square patch under the chin is not in a place where one expects something to have been attached, but is far too visible for being a repair. Who has been clumsy here?

    There are some definite oddities in corrossion patterns, especially the clean parts on the back of the head are suspicious. Their very neat borders suggest they are the result of cleaning, that is, taking away corrosion. Completely clean unpatinated parts are not impossible, but they would not be so nicely delineated.

    As to the lack of specialist access. I do not see many specialists volunteering to go to Gaza. Of course, the Gaza authorities could send detailed photos around. They might even have done this. However, since the legal authority in charge of the statue would be the Palestinian authority on the West Bank, a permit from their archaeological authorities would be needed to do anything official with the statue. Anything done on request of only the Gaza authorities (who are not a recognized legal entity) would simply be illegal. This may well explain the unwillingness of the Louvre, which seems to have been approached from Gaza, to offer any comment.

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