Statuary, #takeaknee, and Warrior Women: a Classical Intersection?

This is one of those blog posts that I felt compelled to write primarily because it brings assorted conversations from social media — Classical and otherwise — together in what strikes me as a very interesting way. We’ll begin with what was a big topic in the archaeological world a week or so ago, namely, that a DNA study of a  well-known Viking burial excavated back in 1889 (from Birka and designated Bj 581) suggests that, despite the burial containing plenty of male-warrior-associated grave goods (an axe, spear, arrows, shields, etc.), that the occupant of the grave was a woman. As might be expected from such a sensational claim, there has been skepticism based on the apparent lack of evidence of ‘strenuous activity’ from the bones and the like which one would expect to see on the remains of a warrior. While I suspect the academic jury is still out on that score, in the wake of that find, Natalie Haynes asked what is hopefully the logical followup question in a piece in the Guardian:

The question that these finds raise, of course, is: how many women might we have overlooked in what have been traditionally perceived as male roles in the past?

Setting that question aside for a moment, we should also mention that plenty of posts on social media this past weekend bore the hashtag: #takeaknee, in reference to the anticipated protests of a certain world leader’s direction that professional athletes who did not stand during the national anthem (because they were protesting, of course) should be fired. One prominent Classicist — Sarah Bond — posted a very intriguing piece of statuary as a sort of Classical precedent (and in anticipation of her just-posted item at Forbes on sporting events as protest sites in the ancient world). Here’s the image, usually labelled the “kneeling barbarian”:

It’s currently in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and has an interesting history. Here’s a chopped up excerpt from Maddalena Cima, Eugenio La Rocca, Horti Romani (183-184 via Google books):hortiromani1hortiromani2



As mentioned above, there are (at least) two other, similar statues, all thought to be from the same monument. The other two are in the archaeological museum in Naples:

Kim Hartwick, Gardens of Sallust (p. 127) mentions the possibility that there is a fourth one somewhere as well. As can be seen, they are made from the same Pavonazzetto marble. Taken together, according to the official description of one of the statues at the Museo archeologica Nazionale di Napoli:

… the statue may have been part of a single monument, consisting of a large metallic tripod held up by the three statues, built on the Palatine Hill in Rome to celebrate the victories over the Parthians in 20 BC: the kneeling position of the defeated barbarians would fall perfectly within the political and religious restoration programme undertaken by Augustus. Finally, it is worth noting that the use of coloured marble is typical in the sculptures of exotic characters while simultaneously alluding to the conquest of the remote lands from which these stones originated.


Now here’s where it became very interesting for me. Months ago, Sarah Bond reminded us how many ancient statues were altered prior to their landing in museums and how that fed (and feeds) into the predisposed notions of various groups. As such, it does not surprise us to read that all these kneeling barbarians have been very much altered from their original condition. It is most obvious in the example from Copenhagen, where the head clearly doesn’t fit quite right and the arms seem to have been augmented with marble that matches the platform the barbarian supports. Interestingly, the nero antico marble of the head and hands for the Copenhagen piece was — as mentioned above — chosen for this because that’s what the previously-found pair in Naples had. Perhaps even more interesting, as Barbara E Borg notes in A Companion to Roman Art (p 127), the head and hands of the Naples versions are also modern restorations. In other words, we don’t really know what the faces and hands looked like (perhaps we did once?).

So — without resorting to creating derivative works from the above photos — imagine all of them without the nero antico heads and hands. With those gone, one important thing worth noticing is the very high belt, which is clearly not at the level a male warrior would wear it. The tunic itself appears to be knee-length. There are also boots which come to mid-calf; I’m not certain that one can confidently say the statue is wearing ‘pants’ but there might be some sort of ‘legging’ depicted. It is also worth noticing that every one of these statues has rather enhanced/round breasts for a male warrior — even accounting for the stereotypical ‘femininity’ often ascribed to depictions of Persians, which these statues are sometimes identified as. Taken together, high belt and breasts look very much like they belong to a woman. Throw in the leggings and the knee length tunic, along with the dappled effect of the marble and it strikes me that these ‘kneeling barbarians’ might actually have originally been kneeling Amazons!

Given the extent to which sculptures — especially in the 18th-19th centuries — were altered to conform to then-current, usually Winckelmann-inspired, notions of what Classical statuary should look like, we should probably expect restorations to be influenced by ‘cultural expectations’ of the era. In this case, I’d suggest the restorers were clearly influenced by one of the most famous statues of that time  — the dying Gaul/gladiator/Galatian(we’ve all seen ‘that face’ before) which was one of the must-see items for the Grand Tourists. That Amazons might be depicted  by an ancient sculptor without a bare breast or being wounded/killed in battle probably did not fit their ancient world view.

So does our group of ‘kneeling barbarians’ comprise a(nother) case where our modern interpretations of a sculpture have been driven by a much-dated, possibly gender-biased,  restoration aesthetic?


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