The following list is Part IA (Prehistoric Era – 399 CE) of my attempt to trace the history of human artistic endeavors by finding the best, most significant, and most highly-regarded works of visual art (primarily painting and sculpture) from all times and places and presenting them in chronological order. The seven Art History 101 lists contain every work of art that was on at least two of the 24 ‘Best Works of Art’ lists that I collected from the Internet and books. Although most of the resources available to me focused almost exclusively on the art of Western Civilization, the list does identify some of the most significant artworks produced by the artists of Asia, Africa and South America. Because I believe visuals are essential for discussing the visual arts, I have included images of the art works. (I have tried to use public domain images where possible. In other cases, I believe this is a fair non-commercial use for educational purposes. If there are copyright concerns, please let me know.) Each entry includes the date of the work, the artist’s name, the name (or names) of the work, the style or culture associated with the work, and the location where the work was produced. In addition, I have included a brief essay with description (including measurements), artistic materials used, background and interpretation. To see the rest of the Art History 101 series, click on the links below:
Part IB (400-1399 CE)
Part IIA (1400-1499)
Part IIB (1500-1599)
Part III (1600-1799)
Part IV (1800-1899)
Part V (1900-Present)
For a list of the greatest works of visual art organized by rank, that is, with the artworks on the most lists at the top, go here.
38,000 BCE – 1 BCE
c. 38,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel
[Upper Paleolithic; Germany]
In 1939, Dr. Robert Wetzel was excavating caves in the German Alps where people of the Aurignacian culture lived 45,000-35,000 years ago during the Upper Paleolithic Era when he noticed something unusual. In the Stadel-Höhle Cave in Hohlenstein, Wetzel and Otto Völzing found approximately 200 fragments of ivory from a mammoth tusk that showed signs of carving, but they had little time to study their find, due to the outbreak of World War II. No further study occurred for 30 years when, in 1969, Dr. Joachim Hahn was able to reassemble the ivory fragments into a standing figure with the characteristics of both a human and an animal (specifically, a cave lion). Hahn believed it was a male figure. Carbon dating of nearby organic material placed the approximate date of the figurine at 30,000 BCE. After more fragments were found in the previously-excavated material, Elisabeth Schmid conducted additional reconstruction in 1989. Schmid believed the figure was female. Then, in 2010, scientists returned to the original cave and found 1000 additional fragments. Scientists removed the glue and filler from the 1989 reconstruction and put the figurine together again with the new fragments included. The development of more sophisticated dating techniques has led scientists to revise the date of the figure to about 38,000 BCE, which would make the Lion Man not only the oldest zoomorphic sculpture ever found, but one of the oldest known figurative sculptures of any kind. The Lion Man was carved using a flint stone knife and stands 11.7 inches tall, 2.2 in. wide, and 2.3 in. deep, making it one of the largest figurines from this era. As for the purpose of the figurine, scholars have put forth various theories – some say it represents a man-lion god; others say it is a charm for hunting or avoiding predation; others believe it represents a shaman wearing a lion mask – but there is no consensus. The figurine is now in the Ulmer Museum in Ulm, Germany.
c. 30,000-28,000 BCE: Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Chauvet Cave
[Paleolithic; Ardèche, France]
The Chauvet Cave, which contains hundreds of paintings by Paleolithic humans, was discovered by three French speleologists led by Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994. Due to the fragile nature of the art, the cave is closed to the public, although Werner Herzog was able to bring in a film crew to make his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Almost all the paintings are of animals – 13 species are depicted, including some that are extinct. (See rhinoceroses in first image and horses in second image, above.) Unlike most cave paintings, a significant number of predator animals are depicted (e.g., cave lions, panthers, bears and cave hyenas), and there are scenes of animals interacting, such as two woolly rhinoceroses fighting. Some of the techniques used are also unusual. For example, the artists prepared the rock surface before painting by scraping off debris; they also etched around the outlines of some figures to create a three dimensional effect. In addition to animal figures, the artists made red hand prints and hand stencils, and painted abstract markings throughout the caves. While theories for the purpose of the paintings abound, the scientific community has been unable to reach consensus.
c. 28,000-25,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Venus of Willendorf
[Paleolithic; Gravettian; Austria]
During the Upper Paleolithic era (c. 28,000-18,000 BCE), the Gravettian culture flourished in parts of Europe. The culture is known for its many bone, stone, or clay statuettes of women, usually with large breasts, bellies, thighs, hips and buttocks, that are referred to as Venus figurines, even though they predate the Greco-Roman Venus mythology by many thousands of years. Many of the figurines are either headless or faceless. The 4.25 in. tall carved limestone figurine known as the Venus of Willendorf (see images above) was found in 1908 at a Paleolithic site in the Danube valley of Austria, near the town of Willendorf. The figure has the exaggerated features of the typical Venus figurine. It has no face, only streaks which may be hair, and no feet, so it could not stand by itself. There are traces of red ochre on the figurine, indicating it was once painted. The type of limestone used was not found locally, indicating the existence of a trade network. The purpose of the Venus of Willendorf and other Venus figurines is debated, but the sculptor’s emphasis on the female body’s sexual and childbearing characteristics has led many to conclude that this and other such figurines were fertility goddesses or otherwise played a role in fertility rituals. The Venus of Willendorf is now at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna.
c. 25,000 BCE: Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Pech-Merle
[Paleolithic; Gravettian; France]
The Pech-Merle cave in southern France runs for 1.2 miles and contains cave art from three different periods: Gravettian (25,000-20,000 BCE); Solutrean (20,000-15,000 BCE); and Magdalenian (15,000-10,000 BCE). The wall paintings include animals, human figures, hand stencils and many unexplained abstract markings. The highlight of the Gravettian period is a red and black painting of two spotted horses (see first image). Solutrean period art includes the Wounded Man, who has been punctured by numerous arrows or spears (a victim of war or punishment?) (second image) and the Black Frieze, a wall with many monochrome drawings of animals (third image). For many years, experts believed that the spots on the horses painted in Pech-Merle were symbolic, not realistic. But recently, scientists have discovered the gene for spotting in horses and now believe that spotted horses lived in Europe at the time that these paintings were made.
c. 23,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Venus of Laussel [Paleolithic; Gravettian; France]
In 1911, French physician J.G. Lalanne was exploring a natural shelter created by a rock overhang in the Dordogne Valley near Marquay in southwestern France, when he discovered a series of human figures carved onto the limestone wall. He also found a block of limestone on the cave floor that appeared to have detached from the wall, that contained a bas relief carving of a female figure once decorated with red ochre paint (see image above). Now known as the Venus of Laussel, the carving on the limestone block measures 17.5 in. high and depicts a nude female with some typical Venus figurine characteristics: exaggerated breasts, hips, buttocks and genitalia, no facial features, and no feet. One hand is pressed on her lower abdomen. The other, in a departure from Venus iconography, holds a device with 13 lines carved on it. Scholars have had lively debates about the meaning of the object and the 13 lines. Many believe the figure holds a hollowed-out bison horn which some interpret as a cornucopia and others as a musical instrument. A few experts believe the object is a crescent moon. As for the number 13, some have identified it as the number of days of the waxing moon; others note that it may stand for the 13 months, or menstrual cycles of the lunar year. As with many other Venus images, the carving has been dated to the Gravettian culture of the Upper Paleolithic. It is now in the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, France.
c. 24,000-22,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Venus of Brassempouy
[Paleolithic; Gravettian; France]
The Venus of Brassempouy is a partial figurine carved from mammoth ivory that was discovered in a cave near French village of Brassempouy in 1894, along with a number of other fragments of statuettes. The figurine consists of a head and neck measuring 1.44 in. tall, 0.87 in. deep and 0.75 in. wide. The figurine contains one of the very earliest representations of a human face, although the face lacks a mouth. The pattern of carvings on the top, side and back of the head appears to represent hair or a decorated hood. The figurine has been dated to the Gravettian culture in the Upper Paleolithic and is considered a Venus figurine, despite the absence of evidence about the body characteristics. It is now located at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France.
c. 23,000-21,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Venus of Kostenki [Paleolithic; Ukraine]
Kostenki refers to a series of more than 20 Paleolithic sites along the Don River in the Ukraine. In addition to dwellings made of mammoth bones, flint tools and bone implements, archaeologists have found a number of Venus figurines. Although a more primitive mammoth ivory figurine from Kostenki dates to 28,000 BCE, the one featured in the image above dates to 23,000-21,000 BCE. The figurine is 4 in. tall and made of limestone, with a head that bends toward the chest and is carved to show striations (possibly hair or a head covering) that completely obscure the face. The figure’s braceleted arms are pressed to its body, which possesses the large breasts and belly (possibly indicating pregnancy) common to Venus figurines. Unlike a typical Venus figurine, Venus of Kostenki appears to be wearing clothing or ornament draped around her neck and above her breasts, which then appears to tie in the back. Some scholars have identified this plait as one of the first depictions of woven plant-fiber cloth. The Venus of Kostenki is now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
c. 15,000-13,000 BCE: Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Lascaux Caves
[Paleolithic; Montignac, France]
During the Upper Paleolithic period between 17,000 and 15,000 years ago, humans painted almost 2000 figures in the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France. Most of the paintings depict large grazing animals such as deer and horses (see first image, above) using various mineral pigments, particularly black and red. There is one human figure (see third image, above) and a number of abstract or geometric designs. One of the black bulls or aurochs in the Great Hall of the Bulls is 17 ft. wide, the largest painted figure in cave art. (See Great Hall of the Bulls in second image, above.) Many theories have been proposed for the purpose of the paintings, including aiding in religious ceremonies, improving hunting success or documenting past hunts. Some scholars believe there are astronomical charts incorporated in the designs. The caves were discovered in 1940 by 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat and opened to the public in 1948. Due to the damage caused by carbon dioxide from 1,200 visitors per day, the caves were closed to the public in 1963. Since 1998, the art has been threatened by various types of fungus, including black mold.
c. 13,000-11,000 BCE: Unknown Artists: Cave Paintings, Altamira Cave
[Paleolithic; Solutrean/Magdalenian; Spain]
In 1879, amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was exploring the recently discovered Altamira Cave, near Santillana del Mar in Cantabria in the north of Spain, accompanied by his 8-yr-old daughter Maria, when his daughter shouted, “Daddy, there are painted bulls on the ceiling!” Together, the de Sautuolas had discovered the first known prehistoric cave paintings. The sophistication of the artwork was such that the traditional archaeological establishment rejected the notion that these remarkable paintings were made by primitive humans and de Sautuola was accused of forgery. It wasn’t until after other cave paintings were discovered that, in 1902, the Altamira cave paintings were accepted as authentic. Scholars believe that the cave was inhabited during two periods: the Upper Solutrean, about 16,500 BCE, and the Lower Magdalenian, between 14,500 and 12,000 BCE, and that most of the painting occurred during the latter period. The cave is best known for its polychrome paintings of bison and other animals on a ceiling, using pigments made from charcoal, ochre and haematite. By using the contours of the cave and using water to dilute the pigments into lighter and darker shades, the artists manage to create three-dimensional and chiaroscuro effects that were not rediscovered until the Renaissance. While most of the painting dates from between 13,000 and 11,000 BCE, when a rock collapse closed the entrance of the cave, scientists recently dated a claviform (club-shaped) marking to 33,600 BCE, long before the other dates given for habitation and painting of the cave. After years of tourism, the carbon dioxide in the breath of visitors began to damage the paintings, and Spain closed the cave in 1977, only to reopen it in 1982 with much restricted access. Recently, the associated museum created a complete replica of the cave and its paintings.
c. 11,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Ritual Scene, Addaura Cave
[Upper Paleolithic; Magdalenian; Monte Pelligrino, Sicily, Italy]
Engravings on the wall of Addaura Cave on Sicily’s Mt. Pellegrino tell a bizarre story, the meaning of which is disputed by archaeologists. An outer circle shows various animal figures, which surround a group of more than a dozen human figures. At the center of the group are two humans in awkward, probably painful horizontal positions – their heads are covered and they may be bound. Two of the standing humans appear to be wearing masks and are raising their arms. Theories abound. Some say the engravings show a religious ritual- the two central figures are being tortured or sacrificed and the two masked standing figures are shamans. But some find homoerotic connotations or even an acrobatics display. The engravings date to the Magdalenian period.
c. 18,000-10,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Bison Licking Insect Bite (Bison with Turned Head) [Upper Paleolithic; Magdalenian; France]
At some point between 18,000 and 10,000 BCE, a member of the Upper Paleolithic Magdalenian culture made a spear thrower out of a reindeer antler. The artist used the natural contour of the antler to carve a bison with his head turned back so it appears that it is licking or biting an insect bite on its back. In 1912, three boys found a 4.1 in. fragment of the spear thrower at Abri de la Madeleine in the foothills of the Pyrenees, at the spot where the Volp River disappears underground, near Tursac in Dordogne, France. It is now in the Musée des Antiquités Nationales, St. Germain-en-Laye, France.
c. 15,000-10,000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Bison, Le Tuc d’Audoubert [Paleolithic; France]
In the farthest reaches of Le Tuc d’Audoubert cave, near Ariège in the French Pyrénées, two clay sculptures of bison – a bull and a cow – lean against a rock. Each figure is 18 in. tall by 24 in. long and sculpted in profile. The clay was not fired and has cracked over the millenia. The artist had to bring the clay into the cave and used his or her hands and a sharp tool called a burin to mold the figures and etch details. The artist’s fingerprints are still visible in the surface of the clay. Some experts have ascribed spiritual significance to the figures, and the piece has also been called Altar of Bull and Cow Bison. At least one scholar has suggested that the artist intended to depict a bison mating ritual. In addition to the clay bison, the cave contains many wall paintings, including paintings of bison.
c. 6000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Seated Woman of Çatal Hüyük [Neolithic; Turkey]
The figurine known as the Seated Woman of Çatal Hüyük is made of baked clay and was sculpted in a large Neolithic settlement in southwestern Turkey. Archaeologist James Mellaart discovered the sculpture in 1961 while excavating Çatal Hüyük (also spelled Çatalhöyük), which was occupied from 7500-5700 BCE. Most scholars agree that the sculpture, which is 6.5 in. tall without the reconstructed head, depicts a fertile Earth Mother goddess sitting on a throne with arm rests in the shape of leopards or panthers, in the act of giving birth. The head and right arm rest were missing from the original, and have been replaced with restorations. The figure bears a striking resemblance to images of the Earth Mother goddess Cybele, a focus of worship in the 1st Millenium BCE. The figure is in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, in Ankara, Turkey.
c. 7000-6000 BCE: Unknown Artists: Plastered Human Skulls
[Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Period; Jericho, Palestine]
About 7000 BCE, people living in Jericho and other parts of the Levant (primarily Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Syria) changed the way they handled the bodies of deceased family members. They would bury the bodies beneath their homes but in at least some cases they would remove the head, clean it down to the skull and then use plaster, sea shells and paint to recreate the face of the dead relative. Archaeologists have speculated that this practice may be evidence of ancestor worship or possibly just a way to remember loved ones. At least 62 plastered human skulls dating from 7000-6000 BCE (and possibly older) are located in museums around the world, including: the British Museum, London; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge; the Royal Ontario Museum, the Nicholson Museum in Sydney and the Jordan Archaeological Museum in Amman (see images above).
c. 5000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Thinker of Cernavoda (Ganditorul)
[Neolithic; Hamangia Culture; Romania]
The Thinker of Cernavoda (also known as the Thinker of Hamangia and Ganditorul) is a sculpture of a sitting human figure resting his head on his hands in what appears to be a contemplative gesture. This and a companion figurine of a sitting woman (see image, above) were made by one or more artists of the late Neolithic Hamangia culture, which occupied much of what is now Romania and Bulgaria between 5250 and 4500 BCE. The Hamangian settlement at Cernavoda, where the figurines were found in 1956, contained a large necropolis, or cemetery. The Thinker is 4.5 in. tall and 2.9 in. across at the shoulders. It is made of terracotta, a ceramic made of clay, and is unglazed. Unlike many sculptures from the same period, the Thinker and the Sitting Woman contain no ornamentation or engravings; instead, their surfaces are smooth. They are also among the few prehistoric art objects that do not appear to relate to either fertility or hunting. Both terracottas are in the National Museum of Romania in Bucharest.
c. 3100-3000 BCE: Unknown Artist: Palette of Narmer
[Pre-Dynastic Period; Ancient Egypt]
Also known as the Great Hierakonpolis Palette, the Palette of Narmer is a 2.1 ft tall carved piece of siltstone takes the shape of a palette for grinding cosmetics but its larger than usual size may indicate that it was a votive offering. The palette, which shows the victorious Pharaoh Narmer wearing the crown of upper Egypt on one side and the crown of lower Egypt on the other, appears to celebrate the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt but it is not clear if the images depict an actual historical battle or serve as mythical or symbolic representation of unification. The palette also marks one of earliest examples of hieroglyphics. Art historians point out that even at this early date, the conventions of Egyptian art (legs and head in profile; body facing forward; mathematical precision) are already well established. The Palette of Narmer is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt.
c. 2900-2550 BCE: Unknown Artist: Tell Asmar Hoard
[Early Dynastic I-II; Abu Temple; Tell Asmar; Iraq]
The Tell Asmar Hoard is a group of 12 small statues discovered in the ruins of an ancient Sumerian temple to Abu, a fertility deity, in what is now Iraq. According to one theory, the temple was closed to the public, but worshipers could bring statues representing themselves to bring prayers to the god. The statues range from 8 to 23 inches tall; 10 are male; and most are made of gypsum (with seashells and stones for the eyes). Most of the statues have inscriptions with the name of the worshiper or the prayer request. The statues of the Tell Asmar are the most famous of the many hundreds of votive statues known from the same period. The statues are located in the National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad; Oriental Institute, Chicago, Illinois; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
c. 2570-2550 BCE: Unknown Artist: Statue of Chephren (Khafre Enthroned)
[Old Kingdom; Ancient Egypt]
The fourth Egyptian Pharaoh of the Old Kingdom’s Fourth Dynasty, who built the second pyramid at Giza, is known by many names, including Khafra, Khafre, Khefren and Chephren. Little is known about him except that Egypt was peaceful, prosperous and united during his reign. Some believe the face on the Great Sphinx belongs to Khafre. The life-size diorite gneiss Statue of Khafre (which measures 5.5 ft. tall, 3.1 ft. long and 1.9 ft. wide) was designed as a vessel for the pharaoh’s ka (soul) after death. The statue (see first image above), which is carved in the round (in contrast to relief), is not a portrait but a timeless ideal of an ageless, perfect, man-turned-god. Protecting Khafre’s head from behind is Horus the hawk-god (second image, above). Khafre wears the nemes headdress and the uraeus (symbol of the cobra-god) on his forehead. His throne is made of two stylized lions and engraved on it are the symbols of a united Egypt: lotus plants (for Upper Egypt) and papyrus plants (for Lower Egypt). The dark stone used to carve the statue came from quarries 400 miles away – proof of Khafre’s power, influence and ability to coordinate the work of hundreds. The statue is now in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.
c. 2600-2400 BCE: Unknown Artist: Ram in a Thicket [Sumerian; Iraq]
In 1928-1929, while excavating a grave in the Royal Cemetery of Ur, the ancient capital of Sumer in modern-day Iraq, archaeologist Leonard Woolley discovered a pair of statuettes, each 16.5 in. tall, made of a variety of materials. Although the figures were damaged and their wooden cores had rotted, he was able to preserve them sufficiently for restoration. Although the animals depicted appear to be goats, the sculptures reminded Woolley of the story in the Book on Genesis in which Abraham, about to kill his son Isaac, sees a ram caught in a thicket, and he named each statuette Ram in a Thicket. Each goat is covered with gold leaf over a wooden core. Their ears are made of copper and their horns and the fleece on their shoulders is made of lapis lazuli. The fleece on their bodies is made of shell. Their genitals are gold and their bellies are silver. The tree and flowers are covered in gold leaf. The artist used bitumen to glue the parts to each other. Each goat stands on a small pedestal decorated by a mosaic made from shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli. Silver chains that originally attached the goats to the trees have completely decayed. Art historians believe that the two figures may have faced each other and that the tubes rising from their shoulders supported a bowl or other object. One of the figures is in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia (see first image, above). The other is in the British Museum in London (see second image above).
c. 2600-2400 BCE: Unknown Artist: Standard of Ur [Sumerian, Iraq]
When a member of Leonard Woolley’s archaeological team found a badly fragmented and decayed wooden box covered with mosaics in the grave of Ur-Pabilsag, a Sumerian king, Woolley was able to preserve the crumbling artifact by placing wax on the soil after removing each piece of the box. The result of this painstaking process was a nearly complete impression of the mosaics, which then was used to reconstruct the artifact. Woolley identified the box as a standard, a type of flag, but later research is inconclusive on the question of the purpose of the object. One theory is that it was the sound box for a musical instrument. After reconstruction (which involved some guesswork), the box measures 19.5 in. long by 8.5 in. deep at the base. The width of the box narrows from bottom to top, creating a trapezoid (see second image, above). Both long sides contain three levels of mosaics made from shell, limestone and lapis lazuli, using bitumen as glue. One side contains the story of a war victory (see first image, above); the other is a banquet or feast (see second image, above). The depiction of chariot movement on the bottom row of the war mosaic is particularly inventive. The end panels show imaginary animals. In both large mosaics, the king is depicted in the top row; he is larger than anyone else and he breaks through the frame, demonstrating his power. Note that the chariots have solid wheels – spoked wheels had not yet arrived in Sumer – and the animals pulling the chariots are donkeys or onagers, since domesticated horses had not yet reached Mesopotamia. The Standard of Ur is now located at the British Museum in London.
2600-2400 BCE: Unknown Artists: Stonehenge [Neolithic; England]
Stonehenge is a prehistoric monument set on Salisbury Plain in the west of England that is composed of earthworks and numerous stones. The original circular earth bank and ditch, with an opening to the northeast, date to 3100 BCE, while erection of most of the stones probably occurred between 2600 BCE and 2400 BCE (see third image, above). Further rearrangements of the smaller bluestones continued until 1600 BCE. The purpose of Stonehenge is much debated among scholars. Some say it is an astronomical observatory due to its alignment with the summer solstice; others that it is a temple for sacred rites of healing or death. There is evidence of many prehistoric burials at or near the site and a long avenue that connects it with another prehistoric site. The standing stones at Stonehenge appear to be descended from an earlier tradition of standing timber structures, remnants of which have been found at Stonehenge and elsewhere. The builders switched from timber to stone in about 2600 BCE, beginning with bluestones measuring about 6.6 ft. tall, 3-5 ft. wide and 2.6 ft. thick. Later, the builders began using much larger sarsens, made of limestone, to create the famous sarsen circle. (See first and second images, above.) Given this history of working with wood, it is not surprising that the techniques used to link the stones come directly from carpentry. Mortise and tenon joints allow the horizontal lintel stones to fit snugly atop the standing stones. In addition, the lintels themselves were fitted to each other using tongue and groove joints. The stones were dressed to create either a smooth or dimpled surface. To maintain perspective, each standing stone widens toward the top and the lintels are shaped to curve slightly. The surfaces of the stones that face the inside of the circle are smoother than the outer surfaces. There are 30 standing stones and 30 lintels (many of them fallen) in the 108-ft diameter circle. Each standing stone is 13 ft. tall, almost 7 ft. wide, 3.5 ft. thick and weighs 25 tons. The lintels are 10 ft. long, 3.2 ft. wide and 2.6 ft. thick. Those who have studied the ruins do not believe that the circle of stones was ever completed, despite numerous imaginative paintings to that effect. Inside the stone circle were five trilithons (each consisting of two standing stones capped by a lintel) arranged in a horseshoe shape. (See second image, above.) These are larger than the stones in the circle, ranging from 20-24 ft. tall. At the very center lies a stone known as the Altar Stone, which dates to the time of the bluestones. At the northeastern entrance stood Portal Stones, only one of which remains, although it has fallen (see third image, above). Farther from the circle are four Station Stones and the Heelstone, which is located beyond the entrance. How the prehistoric people moved the heavy stones from locations that ranged from 10-125 miles away is the source of much speculation but no certainty.
c. 3300-2300 BCE: Unknown Artists: Cycladic Figurines
[Early Cycladic I, II; Aegean; Greece]
About 3300 BCE, people living in the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea began sculpting human figures out of marble. They continued to make the objects for the bevy 1000 years. Different styles and subjects evolved, but the most typical Cycladic figurine is a female with her arms folded in front of her and an etched pubic triangle. Some of the figures are naturalistic but many of them are stylized and schematic. Experts debate the meaning and use of the figures. All were found buried in tombs. Some link them to the older Venus figurines and call them idols, but most dispute that characterization. The figurine in the first image is a Spedos type from the Early Cycladic II period (c. 2600-2400 BCE) and it is attributed to the Bastis Master. Measuring 24 3/4 inches tall, it is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The figurine in the second image is from Syros, Greece and dates to 2600-2300 BCE. It is 18 inches tall and is now at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens.
c. 2400-2200 BCE: Unknown Artist: Head of an Akkadian Ruler (Sargon, King of Akkad) [Akkadian; Iraq]
Sargon of Akkad conquered the Sumerian city-states in the 23rd and 22nd Centuries BCE and formed a united empire, based in the city of Akkad, where he reigned from c. 2334-2279 BCE. The dynasty he founded ruled even longer. The Akkadian empire included Mesopotamia, parts of Iran, Asia Minor and Syria. In excavations of the ruins of the Assyrian city of Nineveh in present-day Iraq, archaeologists found a bronze head of an Akkadian king measuring 12 in. tall and dating to c. 2400-2200 BCE. Some scholars believe the head, which is wearing the traditional wig-helmet of Sumerian rulers, was attached to a full-body statue of Sargon. Others believe it is Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin. There are significant signs of intentional damage to the head, indicating a possible political motivation by subsequent conquerors to deface symbols of Akkadian power. The head is now in the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad.
c. 2350-2200 BCE: Unknown Artist: Victory Stele of Naram-Sin
[Mesopotamia; Akkadian; Iraq/Iran]
The grandson of Sargon of Akkad, Naram-Sin led the mighty Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia at its height, c. 2254-2218 BCE. The Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, a pink sandstone block standing 6.6 ft. tall and dated c. 2230 BCE, commemorates Naram-Sin’s defeat of the Lullibi, a tribe in the Zagros Mountains. Naram-Sin towers over his enemies and his own troops and wears the horned helmet of a deity (see second image above). The story is told in successive diagonal narrative lines, an innovation over the boxed stories then standard. The Elamites stole the stele in the 12th Century BCE, breaking off a portion in the process, and brought it to Susa, in what is now Iran, where it was discovered in 1898. The Victory Stele is now in the Louvre in Paris.
c. 2700-1900 BCE: Unknown Artist: Mohenjo-Daro Seals [Indus Valley; Pakistan]
A highly urbanized culture known variously as the Indus Valley, Harappa or Indus-Sarasvati civilization flourished in what is now India and Pakistan from 2600-1900 BCE. In 1922, Indian archaeologist Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay discovered the ruins of the city of Mohenjo-Daro, a major Indus Valley civilization urban center, in what is now Pakistan. Excavation of these ruins uncovered large numbers of seals containing carvings of pictographic scripts and bas relief carvings, usually of animals, occasionally humans or animal-human composites (see first image). There are at least 400 different signs on the seals, but scholars have so far been unable to decipher them. Most of the seals, which range in size from 0.75 to 1.75 in. square, are carved of a soft stone called steatite and then baked. Some seals have a loop on the reverse side, allowing users to carry the seals around their necks. Scholars believe that the seals were used to make impressions in wax to identify one’s possessions or were used in commercial transactions. The Pashupati Seal depicts a man or god who may be a precursor of the Hindu deity Shiva (see second image). The five seals shown in the images above are located at the National Museum in New Delhi, India.
c. 2100-1900 BCE: Unknown Artist: Shaft-Hole Axe-Head
[Bactrian; Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan]
Toward the end of the 3rd Millenium BCE, a Bronze Age culture known as the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex flourished in a region now occupied by parts of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The inhabitants of this region practiced agriculture, engaged in trade with civilized cultures in places such as the Indus Valley, Iran and Mesopotamia, and made art. Their artistic and technological achievements included architecture, metal tools, ceramics and jewelry. Archaeological investigation of the Bactrian-Margiana complex has unearthed a number of treasures, including a 5.9 in. long shaft-hole axe head made of silver and gold foil and dating to about 2000 BCE. The remarkably detailed sculpting, both three-dimensional and relief, shows a figure with a human body but the head and talons of a bird grabbing a wild boar with one hand-talon and a winged dragon with the other. The boar’s bristly back curves to form the axe blade. Because the scene is depicted on both sides of the axe head, the bird-hero appears to have two heads. The materials used (silver and gold instead of bronze) and the level of craftsmanship lead some scholars to believe that the object had a ceremonial purpose and was not meant for practical use. It is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
c. 1792-1750 BCE: Unknown Artist: Stele of Hammurabi [Babylonian; Iraq]
The Stele of Hammurabi contains the law code of a Babylonian king who reigned in the 18th Century BCE. Standing 7.3 ft tall and made of diorite, the stele contains a relief sculpture of Hammurabi (standing) receiving the code from the sun god Shamash. The scene shows Hammurabi’s power by depicting the king as equal in size to the god and communicating with him without an intermediary. The stele was discovered in 1901 in the ruins of Susa, in modern Iran, where it had been taken as loot from Mesopotamia. Written in the Akkadian language using cuneiform script, the stele is at the Louvre in Paris.
c. 2000-1600 BCE: Unknown Artists: Frescoes, Akrotiri, Thera
[Minoan; Santorini, Greece]
Akrotiri was a Minoan city on the island of Thera (now the Greek island of Santorini) that arose during the late Neolithic and flourished during the Bronze Age. Although some evidence of the ruins was uncovered as early as the late 19th Century, it was not until the 1967 excavations of Spyros Marinatos that the world discovered the true extent of the five-acre settlement and the excellent state of its preservation. Numerous buildings have been excavated, and many of the buildings have paintings on their walls with both abstract designs and representations of humans, animals, plants and buildings (see first image, above showing lilies and swallows). Many of the paintings appear to depict religious rituals (such as a youth bringing fish as a sacrifice, see third image), while some represent scenes from everyday life. These latter paintings have provided archaeologists with a wealth of information about how the residents of Akrotiri lived. One of the rooms contains a frieze of a sea voyage, including a detailed portrait of a Minoan town, perhaps Akrotiri (see second image), that runs along all four walls. To paint on the stone walls of Akrotiri’s buildings, the artists would first lay down a mud-straw mixture, then add a thin coat of lime plaster, and finally add one or more layers of fine plaster. Some of the paintings were made on wet plaster (fresco) and others on dry (secco). The many bright pigments were derived from minerals. Some of the geometric designs are so exact that scholars have speculated that the artists used a mechanical device. Some of the frescoes share characteristics in common with the art of Minoan Crete and Ancient Egypt (particularly the stances of the figures). In fact, the Egyptian papyrus and antelope pictured on two of the frescoes are not found on Thera or any nearby islands. Life in Akrotiri came to an abrupt halt at some time before 1600 BCE, when a series of earthquakes led the residents to evacuate, taking what they could carry. Shortly thereafter, Thera’s volcano erupted, covering the city with volcanic ash and preserving it for Professor Marinatos. Although some of the frescoes remain intact at the site, which is open to the public, many of them have been removed to be displayed in various museums, such as the Fisherman, shown in the third image above, which is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
c. 1650-1600 BCE: Unknown Artist: Snake Goddess [Minoan; Knossos, Crete]
Archaeologists working in the ruins of the Minoan palace at Knossos discovered several figurines made out of a glazed ceramic known as faience. One of the statuettes depicts a female holding a snake in each hand. Snakes may have been household protectors or symbols of reincarnation (based on the shedding of their skins) and this may be a snake goddess or snake-God priestess. Some experts believe the exposed-breasts and ornate dress depict actual contemporary Minoan fashion. The significance of the feline head ornament is not known; it may be a later addition. Measuring 13.5 inches tall, the statue is now at the Archeological Museum in Heraklion, Greece, on the island of Crete.
c. 3000-1500 BCE: Unknown Artist: Flame-Style Vessels [Middle Jomon Period; Japan]
From about 12,000 BCE to 300 BCE, a hunter-gatherer culture known as the Jomon inhabited the islands of Japan. The Jomon people produced some of the world’s first pottery, much of it decorated with cord-marks from rope, which gives the Jomon their name (Jomon means ‘cord-markings’ in Japanese). By the time of the Middle Period (3000-1500 BCE), Jomon potters had begun crafting elaborate flame-style vessels, so-called because of the tongues-of-fire decorations around the rims. The first image above shows a flame-style vessel, dating to c. 2500, that measures 24 in. tall by 22 in. wide. It is housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The vessel in the second image above, dating to c. 3000-2000 BCE, is in the Umataka Jomon Museum in Nagaoka city, Niigata Prefecture, Japan.
c. 1550–1500 BCE: Unknown Artist: Mask of Agamemnon [Mycenaean; Greece]
German-American businessman and self-taught archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann became famous in 1873 for finding the ruins of a city in Turkey that he claimed was Troy, the scene of the Trojan War and Homer’s Iliad. On his next expedition, he went to the ruins of Mycenae, where, according to Ancient Greek historian Pausanias, the remains of Agamemnon, the Greek leader against the Trojans, were buried. In 1876, Schliemann discovered two large graves at Mycenae containing the remains of a number of individuals, as well as weapons and other artifacts. Five of the bodies had gold funeral masks covering their faces. One of these masks, measuring about 12 in. high, was more elaborately carved than the others. The mask consists of a thick sheet of gold that was heated and then hammered against a piece of wood. The artist then used a sharp tool to carve the details. Holes in the ears probably held twine to attach the mask to the head. Schliemann decided that this more sophisticated mask, with the beard and handlebar mustache, was the face of Agamemnon himself. Unfortunately for Schliemann, the date of the graves is about 300 years prior to the probable date of the Trojan War. In recent years, some scholars have questioned the authenticity of the mask, based on Schliemann’s prior unethical behavior (for example, the ‘Troy’ he found was probably not the real Troy) and significant differences between the mask and other Mycenaen funeral masks and sculpture. Others have defended the mask as a genuine example of Mycenean art. The Mask of Agamemnon, as it is still called, is now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
c. 1550-1450 BCE: Unknown Artist: Harvester Vase
[Minoan; Neopalatial; Agia Triada; Crete, Greece]
The Harvester Vase is not a vase; it is a ritual vessel that was most likely used in Minoan religious ceremonies. Made of black steatite and measuring 18 in tall, it was found at the Agia Triada palace site on the island of Crete. It was originally covered in gold leaf. The low relief sculpture depicts a procession of farm workers who carry harvesting tools and sing along to the sound of a musical instrument. A robed man with long hair and a stick leads the parade. The Harvester Vase, which is considered a masterpiece of the Neopalatial style, is now in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, in Heraklion, Greece on the island of Crete.
c. 1450 BCE: Unknown Artist: Toreador Fresco (Bull-Leaping Fresco)
[Minoan; Knossos, Crete]
Archaeologists excavating the ruins of the Minoan palace of Knossos found in the rubble fragments of a large fresco of a running bull and three human figures: a woman grabbing the bull by the horns, a man balancing upside down on the bull’s back; and a second woman behind the bull. Experts disagree about the meaning of the scene: Does it represent a sporting activity? Is it a religious ritual? The consensus is that the actions of the figures would not have been physically possible but that the fresco is meant to refer to some activity involving humans jumping onto or over bulls. (Trying to grab a chafing bull by the horns would most likely lead to a goring. Even if someone managed to get a grip on the horns, the bull would toss his head sideways, not straight back.) Because the scene was made by painting on raised areas of stucco, it has qualities of both a bas relief and a fresco. Measuring 30.8 in tall by 41.1 in wide, the Toreador or Bull-Leaping fresco is now at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Greece, on the island of Crete. Random Trivia: The bulls involved in the Minoans’ games/rituals were not today’s domestic stock but the much larger wild aurochs, the species that was eventually domesticated. An auroch bull stood six feet tall at the shoulder, significantly larger than today’s bulls.
c. 1500-1400 BCE: Unknown Artist: Vaphio Cups
[Minoan or Mycenaean; Vaphio, Greece]
Archaeologists excavating a beehive-style grave at Vaphio in what is now Laconia, Greece discovered among the items deposited with the body two cups made of gold, now known as the Vaphio Cups. Each cup consists of two plates of gold: a smooth inner plate and an outer plate worked into low reliefs using a metalworking technique known as repoussé. One cup shows bulls grazing; the other shows the hunting of bulls (one bull charges two men; a second is caught in a net; and a third bull runs away). (See second image above for a drawing showing the scenes if they were laid flat.) The cups are 3.5 in tall and have been dated to c. 1500-1400 BCE. Experts are not sure if the cups were made by the mainland Mycenaean culture or are from the more artistically-advanced Minoan culture on Crete. At least one scholar believes one cup is Mycenaean and the other is Minoan. The Vaphio Cups are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
c. 1400-1300 BCE: Unknown Artist: Lion Gate, Hattusa
[Hittite Empire; Boğazkale, Turkey]
When the Hittites made Hattusa their capital at some point after 1600 BCE, they built on the ruins of a settlement that had been occupied by another group, the Hattians, who called it Hattush, until it was destroyed about 1700 BCE. During the period of 1600-1400 BCE, the Hittite Empire grew through conquests to encompass much of what is now Turkey and the Middle East. At some point near the height of the empire (possibly during the reign of Suppiluliuma I, c. 1344–1322 BCE), the Hittites constructed a massive wall around their city, with several prominent gates. The Lion Gate is named for the two enormous carved stone lions that greet the visitor (see first image). Another gate is decorated with sphinxes (see second image). The style of the carvings has much in common with Mycenaean art of the same period in Greece. Hattusa thrived until shortly after 1200 BCE when it was destroyed by a conquering force (possibly the Assyrians) and eventually abandoned.
c. 1390-1350 BCE: Unknown Artist: Nebamun Hunting Fowl in the Marshes
[New Kingdom; Ancient Egypt]
In 1821, Greek grave-robber Giovanni d’Athanasi discovered in Thebes, Egypt the tomb of a minor official (“a scribe who counts the grain in the granary of divine offerings”) named Nebamun, who lived in the late 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, about 1350 BCE. The walls of his tomb-chapel contained exquisitely painted scenes, meant to represent the happiness of the afterlife. Using a crowbar, d’Athanasi removed several of the scenes from the walls and sold them to a collector, who brought them to the British Museum. Because d’Athanasi was unhappy with his fee, he never told anyone where the grave was located and took the secret to his grave. One of the most remarkable scenes, painted a secco with paint on dry plaster, is known variously as Nebamun Hunting Fowl in the Marshes, Nebamun Hunting in the Marshes, Fowling in the Marshes, and Nebamun Hunting Birds. Measuring 2.7 ft. tall by 3.2 ft. wide, the painting shows Nebamun on a boat in the marshes, hunting birds. His wife and daughter are present. A cat with a gilded eye, who may represent the Sun-god, also hunts for birds. A caption in hieroglyphics states that Nebamun is enjoying himself and seeing beauty. A matching scene with Nebamun catching fish is known only from photos. The hunting scene is not meant to be realistic or historical – Nebamun’s wife is dressed for a party, and their daughter would not normally join a hunting expedition. Instead, the painting shows an idealized family outing in the afterlife. The panel is in the British Museum in London.
c. 1353-1334 BCE: Unknown Artist: Akhenaten and His Family (Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their Children) [New Kingdom; Ancient Egypt]
When Amenhotep IV became Egypt’s ruler during the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom, he ushered in dramatic changes. First, he rejected the polytheistic religion that had governed Egyptian life for millennia and introduced a monotheistic religion centered on Aten, the sun god. In honor of this paradigm shift, the pharaoh changed his name to Akenhaten. A third change took place in art. Instead of the formal, idealized portraits and scenes of the past, artists of what became known as the Amarna period represented figures (including the royal family) more realistically and in less formal settings. The relief sculpture known as Akenhaten and His Family is an example of sunken relief, in which shapes are defined by carving a sunken line around the outline. The relief showing the figures of Akenhaten, his wife Nefertiti, and three of their children shows more realism in depicting bodies and shows the leader in a very informal environment while Aten shines his light on them. Certain older traditions remain: all the figures are presented in profile and the children are depicted as miniature adults. The relief is made of limestone and measures 12.2 in. high by 15.3 in. wide. It is in the collection of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.
c. 1345 BCE: Thutmose (attrib.): Bust of Queen Nefertiti [New Kingdom; Ancient Egypt]
In 1912, while excavating the workshop of Egyptian sculptor Thutmose in Amarna, Egypt, German archaeologists led by Ludwig Borchardt found a painted bust of Nefertiti, queen of Egypt and wife of Akhenaten, who ruled from 1352 to 1336 BCE. (There is some evidence that Nefertiti herself may have ruled Egypt, either with her husband or after his death.) The bust is composed of a limestone core with painted layers of stucco; it is 19 inches tall and weighs 44 pounds. There is no inlay in the left eye (see second image), which supports that theory that this bust was a sculptor’s modello that was kept in the studio to be used as the basis for other portraits of the queen. The “Nefertiti cap crown” is recognizable in other portraits of the queen. The cobra symbol, or uraeus, on her forehead has been damaged. According to experts, the bust with its slender neck and very large head, does not possess many of the attributes of the new Amarna style that developed under Akhenaten, but hearkens back to more Classical forms. CT scans reveal that earlier versions of the bust show a much older queen, with wrinkles on her face and neck and a swelling on her nose, but that the final layers of stucco eliminated these flaws. After discovering the bust, Borchardt brought it back to Germany, where it has been ever since, despite requests from Egypt to repatriate it since the 1930s. There is considerable controversy over the removal of the bust from Egypt. There are allegations that when Germany and Egypt divided up the finds of Borchardt’s dig, the Germans downplayed or actively disguised the nature and value of the bust, showing Egyptian officials only a poorly-taken photograph and ensuring that it was thoroughly wrapped up when Egyptian authorities conducted an inspection. To complicate matters, at the time, Egypt was under the control of European powers. The Bust of Nefertiti is now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, where the queen has her own room.
1333-1323 BCE: Unknown Artist: Funerary Mask of Tutankhamun
[New Kingdom; Ancient Egypt]
Tutankhamun was an 18th Dynasty Egyptian pharaoh who ruled from 1332-1323 BCE, during the New Kingdom. He ascended to the throne at age 9 and died 10 years later at age 18. His tomb was discovered nearly intact by Howard Carter and George Herbert, Earl of Carnavon, in 1922. The tomb contained the pharaoh’s mummy, encased in three coffins fitted inside one another. Inside the innermost case, the explorers found the funerary, or death mask. Made of solid gold inlaid with colored glass and semiprecious stones (including obsidian, quartz, and lapis lazuli), the mask is 21 in. tall by 15.5 in. wide and includes representations of the goddesses Nekhbet (the vulture) and Wadjet (the cobra), the nemes (the striped head cloth of the pharaohs) and the traditional false beard. The mask was designed to ensure that the pharaoh’s soul, or ka, would recognize his body and return to allow his resurrection. The mask is at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.
c. 1300-1200 BCE: Unknown Artist: Lion Gate, Mycenae [Mycenaean; Greece]
The Mycenaean civilization that dominated Greece, the Aegean and much of the eastern Mediterranean from 1600-1100 BCE takes its name from the walled citadel of Mycenae in Argolis in the Greek Peloponnese. Excavations have discovered tombs filled with costly treasures, indicating a wealthy ruling class. The Lion Gate at Mycenae is the only large extant monumental sculpture from the Mycenaean period. The main (and for a time, the only) gate to the city of Mycenae, the gate features a triangular sandstone block with a relief sculpture depicting two lions facing a Minoan-style pillar. The lions’ heads were carved separately (probably of different materials) and have been lost, so it is not clear if the lions are male or female. Architecturally, the carved block serves as a relief triangle that protects the huge lintel below by diverting some of the pressure from the blocks on either side. The Lion Gate was built in the 13th Century BCE, at the height of Mycenaean power and influence, but invasions beginning about 1200 BCE (scholars disagree about the invaders’ identities) led to a rapid decline followed by the Greek “dark ages” from about 1100-800 BCE. Random Trivia: The ruins of Mycenae (including the Lion Gate) have been known since antiquity; Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias wrote about them (and their purported link to the Trojan War) in the 2nd Century BCE. Ancient people believed that only a race of giant cyclops could lift the enormous stones to create the walls and Lion Gate, which led archaeologists to use the term “Cyclopean” to describe the architectural style.
c. 1150-1050 BCE: Unknown Artist: You Vessel in the Shape of a Feline (La Tigresse)
[Shang Dynasty, China]
During the Shang (c. 1600-1046 BCE) and Zhou (c. 1046-256 BCE) Dynasties, Chinese artists created many yous, a type of vessel with a knobbed lid and a swinging handle used to hold alcoholic beverages and possibly other liquids, possibly for offering sacrifices. Some yous were zoomorphic, including the late Shang Dynasty You Vessel in the Shape of a Feline, also known as La Tigresse), which is in the collection of the Cernuschi Museum of Asian Arts in Paris. The feline you is made of dark green bronze and measures 12.7 in. tall, 9.3 in. long and 9.2 in. wide. The open-mouthed feline stands on its two back paws and embraces a tiny human figure with its front paws. Against a background of square spirals, a common design feature of late Shang Dynasty carving, therre are a number of dragons. Standing on the you’s lid is a goat with large ears and horns, while the back of the handle contains depictions of unusual animals with pointed ears and curving bodies. While the you dates to the time of the Shang Dynasty, several anomalies have led archaeologists to conclude that it came from Hunan, which was not part of the Shang Kingdom farther north.
c. 1500-1000 BCE: Unknown Artists: Olmec Colossal Heads (17)
[Olmec Culture; Mexico]
The Olmecs of Gulf Coast Mexico were the first civilization of Mesoamerica. Flourishing from 1500-400 BCE, the Olmecs were the precursors of the Maya and the Aztecs. The artistic legacy of the Olmecs includes 17 basalt boulders carved into colossal heads, most of which were made between 1500 and 1000 BCE. Each head has individualized facial features and a unique headdress. Most scholars believe they represent Olmec leaders. The heads range from 5 to 11 feet tall and from 6 to 50 tons. They were found at four locations, with 10 heads found at San Lorenzo lined up in two rows. The colossal heads shown in the images above are: (1) San Lorenzo head #1 in the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa; (2) San Lorenzo heads ## 3 and 4 in the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. The facial characteristics of some of the heads have led some to speculate that the Olmecs had roots in Africa, although there is little evidence to support this theory. Scholars have traced the source of the basalt boulders to the Sierra de Los Tuxtlas, nearly 100 miles away. How the Olmecs transported the massive stones through forests and swamps without wheeled vehicles is a mystery. All 17 heads are still in Mexico: Museo de Antropología de Xalapa in Xalapa (7); Parque-Museo La Venta in Villahermosa (3); Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City (2); Santiago Tuxtla plaza (2) Museo Comunitario de San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán in Texistepec (1); Museo del Estado de Tabasco in Villahermosa (1); and Museo de Sitio Tres Zapotes in Tres Zapotes (1).
c. 900-700 BCE: Unknown Artist: Lioness Devouring a Boy
[Phoenician, Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud, Iraq]
While excavating the ruins of Nimrud, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire in the 9th and 8th Centuries BCE, in what is now Iraq, archaeologists found two nearly identical ivory carvings of a lioness attacking and eating a boy. One is in the British Museum; the other was in the Baghdad Museum until looters absconded with it in 2003. The carving, which measures 4 in. high by 4 in. wide, was found at the bottom of a well in the ruins of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, an Assyrian king who reigned from 883-859 BCE. The carving appears to be part of a piece of furniture, perhaps a throne, and is carved in the Phoenician style, indicating that it was made in a Phoenician city, in present day Lebanon, and came to Assyria as a gift or as the spoils of war. The carving is detailed – the boy appears to be African and has armlets and bracelets containing jewels. Above the boy and lion is an elaborate carving of lilies and papyrus plants. There are traces of significant decoration, much of it lost: much of the ivory was covered with gold leaf overlay and inlaid with bits of red carnelian and blue lapis lazuli, including a bit of lapis on the lioness’s forehead. Where the lapis is gone, there are traces of the blue mortar used to attach it. The boy’s gold leaf skirt is still partially intact, as are the gold-trimmed curls of his hair. Some have interpreted the scene, particularly the lioness’s embrace of the boy and the position of the boy’s head, as having maternal or even erotic overtones. A further clue to interpretation is the lapis lazuli mark on the lioness’s forehead, which may refer to a Phoenician goddess who sometimes took the form of a lion.
c. 710-705 BCE: Unknown Artist: Human-Headed Winged Bulls (Lamassu)
[Neo-Assyrian Empire; Iraq]
A lamassu or shedu is a winged, human-headed bull god whose image was used to protect the entrances to the palaces of Assyrian kings during the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which flourished in northern Mesopotamia (parts of modern day Iraq, Syria and Turkey) from 911-605 BCE. Assyrian king Sargon II, who reigned from 722-705 BCE, decided to build a new capital city at Dur-Sharrukin (modern day Khorsabad). The main entranceways to Sargon II’s palace were protected by pairs of lamassu, carved in high relief out of blocks of gypsum alabaster, and ranging from 13.8 to 16 ft. tall. The intimidating lamassu were intended to frighten intruders and convey the king’s power as well as serve as architectural supports. While the lamassu at Sargon’s palace all follow the same basic pattern, there are some variations. Some of the lamassu look straight ahead, while some look to the side. Some have the hooves of bulls, while some have lions’ paws. In all cases, the bulls have five legs – this allows them to appear steady and firm when viewed from the front, but striding forward when seen from the side. There are at least four lamassu from Sargon II’s palace on display in museums: (1) a pair of forward-facing lamassu at the Louvre, measuring 13.8 ft. tall by 14.3 ft. long (first and third images); (2) a sideways-facing lamassu at the Louvre (second image); and (3) a sideways-facing lamassu at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago measuring 16 ft. tall by 16 ft. long (fourth image). Sargon II’s plans for Dur-Sharrukin were never completed. The king was killed in battle in 705 BCE and his successor moved the capital to Nineveh, abandoning Dun-Sharrukin to the desert sands.
c. 645-635 BCE: Unknown Artists: Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions (Lion Hunt Frieze)
[Nineveh, Assyria; Iraq]
Ashurbanipal was the last powerful king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. He ruled from 668 until his death in about 627 BCE. The empire collapsed less than 20 years later. Since the mid-10th Century BCE, the Assyrians had controlled a huge portion of the Middle East, including all or part of 13 modern nations. Ashurbanipal is referred to in the Hebrew Book of Ezra as Asenappar, and some say he is the figure known elsewhere as Sardanapalus. His capital, Nineveh, located along the Tigris River in what is now northern Iraq, was destroyed by Assyria’s enemies in 612 BCE. When British archaeologists excavated the ruins of Nineveh in 1853, they discovered an elaborate frieze from the North Palace, depicting the king hunting and killing lions (in one case in hand-to-paw combat, see first image), as well as a banquet celebrating a military victory. Showing the king conquering lions not only documented his sporting activities, but also symbolized his power to protect his people from their enemies. The sculptor also shows true sympathy for the noble beasts as they struggle to fight back, even when pierced by multiple arrows (see second image). The relief sculptures, which are known as Ashurbanipal Hunting Lions, the Lion Hunts of Ashurbanipal, or simply the Lion Hunt Frieze, are now in the British Museum in London.
c. 600-580 BCE: Unknown Artist: New York Kouros (Metropolitan Kouros)
[Archaic Period, Ancient Greece]
During the Archaic Period, beginning in the late 7th Century BCE, Greek sculpture took a giant leap forward with the creation of the first large, free-standing statues, the kouros (Greek for ‘male youth’). The earliest examples of these life-size (or larger) marble sculptures of nude boys or young men owed much to Egyptian art, including their striding stance, arms held straight at the sides and somewhat idealized bodies, some of which used the grid pattern of the Egyptians to maintain symmetry. On the other hand, uniquely Greek features also appeared: the figures were usually nude and more attention was paid to realism, such as the way the figure’s weight was balanced on its feet. These statues were found in temples and sanctuaries and may have been offerings to the gods in the likenesses of actual individuals. The kouros in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (image shown above) is 6.3 ft. tall and has long beaded hair. It dates to the Early Archaic Period, when the Egyptian influence on Greek sculpture was still strong.
c. 575 BCE: Unknown Artist: Ishtar Gate [Babylon; Iraq]
In about 575 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II, King of the Babylonian Empire and destroyer of the First Temple in Jerusalem, ordered the construction of a new gate in the north section of the city of Babylon, to be dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. The gate had two sections – the front gate smaller than the one behind it – and was constructed of glazed blue bricks, with bas reliefs of aurochs (young bulls) and dragons (see second image) with giant cedar doors. The road leading into and out of the gate was lined by 50-ft.-tall walls made of glazed brick and decorated with lions and geometric designs. In an inscription plaque on the gate, Nebuchadnezzar II explained the purpose of the project: “Both gate entrances of Imgur-Ellil and Nemetti-Ellil following the filling of the street from Babylon had become increasingly lower. Therefore, I pulled down these gates and laid their foundations at the water table with asphalt and bricks and had them made of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars length-wise over them. I hung doors of cedar adorned with bronze at all the gate openings. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder.” Beginning in 1902, a German expedition led by Robert Koldewey began excavating the ruins of Babylon in Iraq and found the remains of the fabled Ishtar Gate and the processional way leading into the city. Over the next 12 years, the material was brought to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, where the smaller, frontal portion of the gate was reconstructed using the original bricks, with the project completed in 1930. The reconstructed Ishtar Gate measures 47 feet high and 100 feet wide; the reconstruction does not include the cedar doors. The larger, second gate remains in storage.
c. 570-560 BCE: Unknown Artist: Kore (Hera of Samos) [Ancient Greece]
In 1875, archaeologists discovered a 6.3 ft tall marble statue of a female not far from the ruins of the temple to Hera on the island of Samos in Greece. A carved inscription states that the statue was a gift to the temple from Cheramyes, an Ionian aristocrat. At first, experts believed that the statue was intended to depict Hera herself, but in the 20th Century, at least three other similar statues (all missing their heads) have been found with the same inscription, indicating that the figures were intended to represent female servants of the temple. The figure is shown wearing three garments: a thin pleated linen tunic known as a chiton; a thicker garment made of wool known as a himation, and a veil that presumably draped over the head. The sculptor has rendered the garments in skillful detail so as to show the contours of the body underneath. The statue is now at the Louvre in Paris, which refers to it as Kore from the Cheramyes group.
c. 530 BCE: Unknown Artist: Peplos Kore [Archaic Period; Ancient Greece]
Carved from white Parian marble, this 3.8 ft. tall statue, the Peplos Kore (kore = girl, young woman; peplos = the woolen garment worn by the figure over her chiton) was probably a votive offering to one of the gods in the temples on the Acropolis in Athens, where it was found in the late 19th Century. Like most ancient statuary, the figure was originally painted in bright colors and adorned with jewelry. Traces of the paint remain on the marble, which has inspired some museums to experiment with casts of the original statue to recreate what it may have looked like. The version in the second image, which restores the figure’s left arm and gives her a protective head covering called a meniskos, is from the Museum of Classical Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, England, UK. The painted version in the third image is from the Stiftung Archäologie in Munich, Germany. The original Peplos Kore is located in the Acropolis Museum in Athens.
c. 515 BCE: Euphronios & Euxitheos: Euphronios Krater (Sarpedon Krater)
[Ancient Greece; Etruscan Italy]
Ancient Greek artist Euphronios was famous for painting scenes on pottery, but only one of his works has survived intact – the Euphronios Krater (also known as the Sarpedon Krater. The terra cotta krater, a bowl used to mix wine with water, measures 18 in. high and 21.7 in. in diameter with a capacity of 12 gallons and was made by potter Euxitheos. One side of the krater depicts the death of Sarpedon in the Trojan War, with the god Hermes directing Sleep and Death to carry Sarpedon’s body to Greece for burial (see first image). The other side shows 6th Century Athenian youths arming themselves for war (see second image). Euphronios was considered a late Archaic painter and member of the Pioneer Group, known for its naturalistic style and anatomical accuracy. The krater was apparently looted from an Etruscan tomb near Cerveteri, Italy in 1971 and purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1972. In 2006, after it became clear that the item was stolen, the Met agreed to return the krater to Italy, where it was put on display in 2008 in the National Etruscan Museum in Rome.
c. 530-500 BCE: Unknown Artist; Sarcophagus of the Spouses [Etruscan; Italy]
This terracotta sarcophagus featuring a married couple reclining at a banquet was discovered in the 19th Century at the necropolis of Cerveteri (known as Caere at the time). Unlike ancient Greeks and Romans, Etruscan men and women dined together – a fact the Greeks and Romans found scandalous. The sculpture shows some classic Etruscan features (elongation, gesturing limbs, attention to the upper body) but also some Greek influence (almond eyes, smiles), possibly due to immigration by Ionian Greeks. Measuring 3.7 feet tall by 6.2 ft long, the Sarcophagus of the Spouses is now in the National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia in Rome. Another similar sarcophagus from the same site is now in the Louvre in Paris (see third image).
c. 490-480 BCE: Unknown Artist: Fallen Warrior (Dying Warrior), Temple of Aphaia [Early Classical Style; Aegina, Ancient Greece]
At least three temples were built on the hilltop site of the ruins of the Temple of Aphaia in Aegina, Greece, and votive figurines found at the site indicate it may have been a place of worship since the Bronze Age. The Dying Warrior is a Classical-style marble sculpture measuring 5.8 ft long that originally decorated the eastern pediment of the most recent temple, which was built in the early 5th Century BCE. The soldier was located on the far left side of a battle scene with Athena in the center (see second image). Contrast the more realistic depiction of the Dying Warrior with a wounded soldier statue from the older, Archaic-style western pediment (see third image). The Dying Warrior and other pediment statues from the Temple of Aphaia were removed from the site in the early 19th Century and are now in the Glyptothek in Munich, Germany. Random Trivia: Aphaia was a Greek goddess associated with fertility and agriculture; unlike most deities, who had multiple temples, she was worshiped at only one location: the temple at Aegina.
c. 480 BCE: Kritios (attrib.): Kritios Boy [Early Classical Period, Greece]
The free-standing marble nude known as Kritios Boy (for its resemblance to the work of Greek sculptor Kritios) marks the end of the Archaic Period and the beginning of the Early Classical phase of Greek art. Unlike the kouros, with its stiff stance, idealized symmetry, direct gaze and impersonal smile, Kritios Boy, well below life size at 3.8 ft. tall, stands in a contrapposto pose (the first known to art history), with all his weight on one leg, the other free to bend, and all the anatomically accurate shifts of muscle and bone that accompany such a stance. The non-smiling figure does not meet the viewer’s eye, but seems lost in thought, perhaps about to move. The torso and legs were discovered in 1865 in a ceremonial dump on the Acropolis, after Athens was desecrated by the Persians, but the head, which appears to have been severed deliberately, was found 23 years later some distance away. The statue is now at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, not far from where it was found. Some art historians have connected the rise of lifelike sculpture celebrating the perfectability of the human form at about this time (c. 480 BCE) with political developments in which the city-state of Athens has developed democratic government and, in 490 BCE, united the other Greek polities to defeat the Persians.
c. 478 or 474 BCE: Unknown Artist: Charioteer of Delphi
[Early Classical; Ancient Greece]
One of the rare extant bronze sculptures from the Classical Period of Greek art, the Charioteer of Delphi was originally part of a multi-piece sculptural group including horses and other figures, fragments of which remain. The group is donated to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi by Polyzalus of Gela, Sicily to thank the gods for the victory of his chariot in the Pythian Games of either 478 or 474 BCE. Because it was buried after a rockslide in the 4th Century BCE, the figure is remarkably intact and includes the glass/onyx eyes and silver eyelashes, as well as portions of the reins. The statue was made in the “severe” style of early classical Greek art. The very realistic bare feet face forward but the rest of the figure angles toward the right. The teenaged charioteer’s expression is introspective (see detail in second image). Measuring 5.9 ft tall, the Charioteer of Delphi is now at the Delphi Archaeological Museum in Delphi, Greece.
c. 518-465 BCE: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Persepolis
[Achaemenid Empire, Persia]
The Persian city known as Persepolis (in modern day Iran) was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire from about 515-330 BCE. Archaeologists believe that Cyrus the Great (reigned 559-530 BCE) selected the site of the city, but that Darius I (reigned 522-486 BCE) began construction of many of the city’s buildings, including the Apadana Palace, although some of these were completed during the reign of Darius’s son, Xerxes the Great (reigned 486-465 BCE). Gray limestone was the primary building material. In the center of the city is a large stone terrace with staircases leading to the top, on which several buildings were located. At the center of the terrace, on an elevated platform, stood the Apadana Palace, an immense audience hall, with 72 columns with sculpted capitals and two monumental staircases. Throughout the city, relief sculptures are carved into the limestone, particularly along the various staircases. The stairs to Apadana Palace depict a ceremonial procession of vassal states bringing culturally-appropriate gifts to the king. The relief sculptures shown above are: (1) Darius I receiving tribute, a relief from the Treasury Building, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Tehran; (2) relief on the Apadana stairs showing the earth (shown as a bull) fighting with the sun (shown as a lion) on Nowruz, the vernal equinox when, according to the Zoroastrian religion, the powers of the lion and bull are equal; (3) a Mede in traditional costume following a Persian in the ceremonial procession on the north stairs of Apadana Palace; (4) the Bactrian delegation, with their two-humped camel, in the ceremonial possession on the southern wall of the eastern stairs at Apadana Palace. Despite the efforts of Darius, Xerxes and his son Artaxerxes, the glory of Persepolis was short-lived. In 330 BCE, Alexander the Great invaded the city and looted it, after which he burned it down. A small community lingered on for a short time, but eventually the site was abandoned.
c. 470-460 BCE: Unknown Artist: Ludovisi Throne [Ancient Greece]
The Ludovisi Throne is not a throne. It is a set of three relief sculptures, possibly made by Greek artists in Sicily about 470-460 BCE, on three sides of a block of white marble, which has been hollowed out in the rear. The central panel, which measures 2.9 ft. high by 4.6 ft. long, shows either Aphrodite rising from the sea, with two of the Fates providing a veil, or Persephone returning from Hades. The panel on the left shows a girl with her hair in a kerchief playing a double flute called an aulos (second image). This relief, which measures 2.7 ft. high by 2.2 ft. long, is the oldest Greek sculpture of a nude woman and one of the only depictions of a woman crossing her legs. Scholars have noted that the position of the figure’s right leg is anatomically impossible. On the right panel, measuring 2.8 ft. high by 2.3 ft. long, a veiled woman takes incense from a box to offer it in an incense burner (third image). The piece was part of the Ludovisi family collection for many years; it is now in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome. A number of facts have led some scholars to doubt the authenticity of the piece. The iconography is unlike most relief sculpture of the same era. On the other hand, an exact replica of the Ludovisi Throne fits perfectly into a gap in the foundation of an Ionic temple to Aphrodite near Locri, Italy, dating to about 480 BCE.
c. 460 BCE: Unknown Artist: Artemision Bronze (Zeus/Poseidon of Artemision)
[Early Classical Period; Ancient Greece]
Archaeologists have discovered very few Classical Greek sculptures because most of the statues from that period were made of bronze, which was later melted down for reuse. One of the few Greek bronze sculptures that survived was found at the site of an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Cape Artemision in Greece in 1926. The 6.9 ft. tall bronze statue of a nude male is a depiction of either Zeus about to fling a lightning bolt or Poseidon about to pitch his trident (most scholars favor the Zeus interpretation based on the angle of the arms and the concern that a trident would obscure the god’s face). The figure’s eyes, eyebrows, lips and nipples would likely have been filled with various materials (bone, silver, copper, etc.) for a more dramatic appearance. The figure was carved in the Early Classical or Severe style that preceded the Classical style of the later 5th Century. Scholars praise the work for the sense of strength, balance and movement and the close attention to the anatomy of the nude male body. To emphasize the sense of imminent movement, the unknown sculptor has made the arms longer than they would be if anatomically correct, a choice that was only available to the artist when working with bronze – had this been a marble statue, the arms would have fallen off without supports. The figure’s head has become a Greek cultural symbol, featuring on a postage stamp and bank note. The statue is located in the National Archaelogical Museum in Athens.
480-450 BCE: Unknown Artists: Wall Paintings, Tomb of the Leopards
[Archaic/Early Classical; Etruscan; Tarquinia, Lazio, Italy]
The Tomb of the Leopards is an Etruscan burial chamber located in the Necropolis of Monterozzi in Tarquinia, Italy. The main wall depicts a banquet scene with three well-dressed dining couples and two nude servants (first image). One man holds up an egg, a symbol of life after death. The presence of trees indicates that the banquet is taking place outdoors. Above the banquet are the two leopards that give the tomb its name. The left wall shows dancing musicians (see second image), while the right wall shows a formal procession. The overall sense is one of joy and revelry, not grief and morning. Art historians believe the banquet scene was painted by someone familiar with Classical Greek art and shows a more advanced style, while the the side walls were painted in the older Archaic style (presumably by a different artist).
460-450 BCE: Myron: The Discus Thrower (Palombra Discobolus)
[Ancient Greece/Ancient Rome]
The Discobolus (also known as The Discus Thrower) was a bronze mid-5th Century BCE Greek sculpture by Myron. The original is lost and is known only by Roman copies, the most famous of which is the 5.1 ft. tall Palombara Discobolus (shown above), which dates from the 1st Century CE and was discovered in 1781. Adolf Hitler bought it in 1938 and brought it to Munich. It was returned to Italy in 1948. The statue is known for its depiction of athletic energy and a well-proportioned body as well as rhythmos, a quality of harmony and balance. According to one critic, Myron creates a sense of balance and order by having the discus thrower’s arms and back create two completely congruous intersecting arcs. On some copies of the statue, the head has been improperly restored in a position facing down instead of looking back toward the discus.
c. 450-440 BCE: Polykleitos: Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer)
[Early Classical Period; Ancient Greece] marble copies: 120-50 BCE
In the mid-5th Century BCE, Greek sculptor Polykleitos created a bronze statue of an athletic young man carrying a spear (The Spear Carrier, or Doryphoros) to demonstrate his theory of the canon, in which each part of the human body is proportional to every other part. The figure depicts an anatomically realistic contrapposto stance, with the body in motion and all the weight on the front (right) foot. (The spear would have been in the figure’s left hand and resting on his left shoulder.) The original bronze has long been lost but it is known by the many marble copies, including a number from Ancient Rome. The first image above is considered the best-preserved marble copy from the Roman era. Standing 6 feet 11 inches tall, it is now at the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale, Naples. It may have been found in Pompeii or Herculaneum, although there is some dispute about this. Another excellent Roman copy, though not quite as well preserved, is at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minnesota (see second image). Both marble copies date to c. 120-50 BCE. Random Trivia: The weight of the marble requires a carved tree trunk support at the base and a connecting rod at the wrist, neither of which would have been necessary in the much lighter bronze original.
c. 447-440 BCE: Phidias: Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin)
[High Classical Period; Ancient Greece] marble copy: 200-250 CE
The Athena Parthenos is now-lost colossal statue of the goddess Athena made by Phidias for the Parthenon in Athens, where it remained until it was removed by the Romans in the 5th Century CE, never to be seen again. The statue, which stood 38 ft. tall, is considered the greatest achievement of Phidias, the most acclaimed sculptor of Ancient Greece. The statue showed Athena standing, wearing a helmet (which may or may not have depicted a Medusa) and resting her left hand on her upright shield. In her right hand she held a winged Nike – there is a dispute about whether there was a support for her hand. She wore a peplos garment, which was tied by two snakes. She may or may not have had a spear. The original statue had a wooden core, which was covered by bronze plates, which were covered by removable gold plates, while Athena’s face and arms were made of ivory. Of the many copies that have been made, one of the most faithful is considered to be the much smaller Varvakeion Athena (3.4 ft. tall), which dates to 200-250 CE and is in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens (see image above).
c. 443-438 BCE: Phidias (?): Parthenon Frieze [High Classical Period; Ancient Greece]
The Parthenon Frieze is a low-relief marble sculpture that originally decorated the upper portion of the interior of the Parthenon, a temple on the Acropolis in Athens dedicated to Athena. According to Plutarch, Phidias oversaw the work, which consisted of 114 marble blocks, each 3.3 feet high and totaling almost 44 feet in length. There are two parallel lines of reliefs depicting 378 gods and humans, including all the Attic tribes, and 245 animal figures. Scholars disagree about whether the scene depicted in the frieze is contemporary, historical or allegorical. Large portions of the frieze were destroyed by Venetian bombing in 1687, when the Ottomans used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine. In a controversial series of events, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, removed much of the frieze between 1801 and 1812; as a result, a large part of the Parthenon frieze is now in the British Museum as part of the Elgin Marbles. Although many have argued for the return of the frieze to Athens, where portions of it remain, most scholars have concluded that the UK acquired it legally.
c. 438-432: Unknown Artist: Three Goddesses [High Classical Period; Ancient Greece]
Sculptural group of three goddesses that was originally located on the right side of the east pediment of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. The central scene depicted in the east pediment is the birth of Athena, who emerged from the head of her father Zeus as a full-grown warrior. (See reconstructed east pediment in second image, from Acropolis Museum in Athens.) The reconstruction of the Parthenon’s east pediment sculptures is based on the 1674 drawings of French artist Jacques Carrey, who visited the site 13 years before the Venetian bombardment of the Parthenon in 1687. (The drawings are now in the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris. See third image.) Unfortunately, the central figures of the east pediment had already been destroyed by 1674, so the reconstruction contains a significant amount of speculation. The three females on the right, who are spectators at the miraculous birth, have been tentatively identified as (from left): 1. Hestia or Leto; 2. Dione, Themis or Artemis; and 3. Aphrodite, reclining). The statues, which are made of pentelic marble, are now at the British Museum in London. Random Trivia: The horses depicted on either end of the pediment rising up over the horizon symbolize the coming of dawn, the time when Athena was said to have been born.
c. 460-420 BCE: Unknown Artist: Riace Bronzes (Riace Warriors)
[Ancient Greece; Riace, Italy]
In 1972, vacationing Roman chemist Stefano Mariottini was snorkeling off the coast of Calabria, near Riace, when he saw an arm sticking out of the sand at the bottom of the sea. When he touched it, he realized it was made of metal, and he called the police. Mariottini had stumbled upon two 5th Century BCE bronze statues made in Ancient Greece, in near perfect condition. There is no agreement about the identity of the sculptor, but there is no doubt that the statues are prime examples of the transition period between the archaic and early Classical styles of Greek sculpture. Statue A is a young warrior standing 6.7 ft. tall and was created about 460-450 BCE. Statue B, which was sculpted about 430-420 BCE, is a mature warrior standing 6.4 ft. tall. Both figures are nude, bearded males portrayed in a contrapposto pose with their weight on their back legs. Their eyes are made of calcite, the teeth of silver and lips and nipples of copper. They are missing their spears and shields, as well as helmets or other headgear. The sculptor has included so many realistic features that the idealized geometry and anatomical anomalies are not obvious. There is no consensus about who the warriors represent, but some have suggested they come from a group of statues representing the Seven Against Thebes at Argos or Athenian warriors in the Battle of Marathon monument at Delphi. How the sculptures arrived at Riace is also not clear. They may have been booty from the Roman occupation of Greece, or perhaps they were being brought to a Greek temple in Italy.
c. 450-400 BCE: Unknown Artist: Basse-Yutz Flagons [Celtic/La Tène; France]
While digging at a construction site in 1927 near the eastern France town of Basse-Yutz, workers stumbled upon the grave of a wealthy and important member of a Celtic tribe, dating to about 450-400 BCE. At that time, a thriving but illiterate rural Celtic culture occupied Northern Europe and the British Isles, with trading ties to Greece and the Etruscans of Italy. Among the artifacts found in the Basse-Yutz grave were two nearly identical copper-tin alloy flagons with lids and spouts for pouring beer, wine or mead, each measuring 15.7 in. high (see first image). The flagons contain elaborate decorations, including bits of Mediterranean coral and red glass. The original color scheme, with red coral and glass against a gleaming copper-colored background, would have been quite dramatic. The coral has since faded to white and the copper has acquired a green verdigris patina. The lid includes metalwork in the shape of dogs and a duck, which is placed so that when liquid is poured, it appears to be swimming (see detail in second image). The basic flagon design comes from the Etruscans, as does the idea of a handle in the shape of a dog. The palmette designs beneath the spout, which became a Celtic trademark, originally came from Egypt by way of Greece. But the specific combination of elements is new and scholars regard these as among the best examples of Early Celtic (also called Early La Tène) art. By using these flagons at a feast or banquet, the owners would have demonstrated their wealth, good taste and appreciation for the both the high culture of southern Europe and the newly-developing artistry of the Celts. The Basse-Yutz Flagons are now in the British Museum in London.
c. 357-350 BCE: Leochares, Bryaxis, Scopas of Paros, & Timotheus: Amazon Frieze, Mausoleum of Halicarnassus [Ancient Greece, Turkey]
One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (in what is now western Turkey) was built to house the tombs of Persian satraps (or governors) Mausolus and his wife-sister Artemisia. According to Pliny the Elder, Artemisia brought in Greek architects to design the structure and four Greek sculptors – Leochares, Bryaxis, Scopas of Paros and Timotheus – to carve statues and relief sculptures. The Mausoleum was completed in about 350 BCE, and may have survived into the early Middle Ages, but a series of earthquakes beginning in the 13th Century completely destroyed it. In 1402, the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem used the ruins as a quarry for building the Castle of St. Peter in Bodrum. The relief program included three friezes, which would have been painted: (1) the Centauromachy, in which the Lapiths battle with the Centaurs at the wedding feast of Pirithous; (2) the Amazonomachy, which shows the journey of Herakles and Theseus to Themiskyra, where they battle with the Amazons, a race of warrior women (see images above); and (3) chariot races. The Amazon frieze, which is the best preserved of the three, is regarded for its action sequences, with many flying draperies (see images above). The frieze is now located in the British Museum in London.
c. 340 BCE: Unknown Artist: Antikythera Ephebe (Youth of Antikythera)
[Classical Period; Ancient Greece]
Because bronze is useful in making weapons, most Greek bronze statues were melted down and “repurposed” long ago. Most of those that survived but were exposed to the elements have also been destroyed. It is only the rare discovery of a buried or shipwrecked sculpture that has allowed us to see the truly great art of Greek bronze statuary. One of the first such fortuitous discoveries (for us, not for those on the ship) was that of a shipwreck off the coast of Greece near Antikythera that yielded a number of treasures, including a bronze statue of a young man in contrapposto pose who was once holding a spherical object in his right hand. The statue was in pieces that were poorly reconstructed in 1901 and 1902 but then disassembled and redone in the late 1940s and 1950s to the great satisfaction of art historians. Debate rages about the identity of the figure, but no theory fits all the facts. A significant faction believes the figure is Paris, shown as he gives Aphrodite the Apple of Discord with his right hand and a bow in his left. (If correct, this may be the statue by Euphranor that is described by Pliny.) But, naysayers point out, typical Paris iconography shows him wearing a cloak and a Phrygian cap. Another faction holds that the statue shows Perseus holding the head of Medusa by her hair in his right hand and the sickle he cut it off with in his left. The problem: Perseus is missing his typical chlamys cloak, winged sandals and the magical helmet that made him invisible. A third, less numerous group of scholars says that the figure is Heracles, young and beardless, holding the Hesperidean apple. Standing 6.4 ft tall, the Antikythera Ephebe (or Antikythera Youth) is now at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Random Trivia: Historians of science and technology recognize the Antikythera shipwreck as the source of the famous Antikythera Mechanism, a complex gear-operated calendar and astronomical device.
c. 350-330 BCE: Praxiteles (?): Hermes and the Infant Dionysus
[Late Classical Period; Ancient Greece]
According to Greek myth, Zeus impregnated a mortal woman named Semele. When he revealed his divinity to her, she died of shock, but Zeus saved the unborn child by sewing it inside his thigh. When the baby – the future god Dionysus – was born, Zeus gave him to Hermes to hide from his wife Hera with the mountain nymphs. Hermes played with Dionysus while transporting him, at one point teasing the infant by holding a bunch of grapes outside his reach. This story became a favorite of Classical Greek artists. In 1877, German archaeologist Ernst Curtius was excavating the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece, when he discovered a partial marble statue of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus (also known as Hermes of Praxiteles or Hermes of Olympia) in excellent condition, including a massive limestone and marble base. Over the years, additional pieces of the statue have been found but most of Hermes’s right arm is missing, as are Dionysus’s arms (except for his right hand). It is presumed that the missing pieces show Hermes holding the grapes from the story, and Dionysus reaching for them. The statue, made of high quality Parian marble, stands nearly 7 ft. tall (12 ft. with the base). The front of the head and torso are highly polished, although the back and other areas seem unfinished. There is also evidence that the statue was painted and that parts were covered in gold leaf. Based on the style and a comment by writer Pausanias in the 2nd Century CE, the work has been attributed to famous sculptor Praxiteles, although many scholars dispute that conclusion. If accurate, this would be the only known original Praxiteles work. There is little question, however, that the statue exhibits many elements of the Late Classical style for which Praxiteles was known. There is a naturalism, intimacy, almost sentimentality that are absent from earlier Classical art. Hermes stands in an unbalanced, exaggerated contrapposto that is almost an S-curve and the entire composition shows a sensuousness of form and playfulness of subject that was not previously associated with portraits of the gods. The piece is now at the Archaeological Museum at Olympia, Greece.
350-330 BCE: Praxiteles: Aphrodite of Knidos (Aphrodite of Cnidus; Venus Pudica)
[Late Classical Period; Ancient Greece] marble copy
The lost statue known as Aphrodite of Knidos (or Cnidus), or Venus Pudica was considered the crowning achievement of Late Classical Greek sculptor Praxiteles. Made for a temple in the Greek city of Knidos, the marble statue was believed to be the first life-size nude female sculpture. The goddess Aphrodite has just laid her drapery aside and modestly holds her hand over her genitals as she prepares for a ritual bath that will restore her purity. The figure stands in a contrapposto pose, and the statue is designed to be viewed from all sides. Famous even in the 4th Century, the statue’s home of Knidos became a tourist destination. According to legend, a young man found the goddess of love so arousing that he broke into the temple at night and tried to copulate with her. Unfortunately, the original was destroyed in a fire about 475 CE, but not before many copies were made by Roman sculptors. Based on descriptions of the original, scholars believe that the copy most faithful to the original is the statue known as the Colonna Venus, located in the Museo Pio-Clementino (see image above). Visitors may now observe the statue in full, although during the 19th and early 20th centuries, in an excess of modesty, the Vatican covered Aphrodite’s legs with tin draperies.
c. 340-330 BCE: Unknown Artist: The Marathon Boy (Ephebe of Marathon)
[Late Classical Period; Ancient Greece]
The Greek bronze sculpture known as Marathon Boy or Ephebe of Marathon was found in the Bay of Marathon in the Aegean Sea in 1925 and is now located at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. A boy, perhaps a victorious athlete or the god Hermes, stands and looks at something in his left hand, while his right hand either holds another object or leans against a column. The pose is an exaggerated contrapposto or S-curve that is reminiscent of Praxiteles and his school. The inset eyes of the 4.3 ft. tall statue add to the boy’s expressiveness (see detail in second image).
c. 350-320 BCE: Leochares: Apollo Belvedere (Apollo of the Belvedere; Pythian Apollo)
[Late Classical Period; Ancient Greece] marble copy, 120-140 CE
The original Greek bronze attributed to Leochares is lost, but a Roman marble copy of Apollo Belvedere from 120-140 CE may be seen in the Vatican’s Museo Pio-Clementino. Standing 7.3 ft. tall, the statue shows the god Apollo just after shooting an arrow (the bow is missing), possibly killing the Python, the serpent of Delphi. Scholars have praised the unusual contrapposto pose, in which Apollo is depicted both facing front and in profile, and the way in which the hanging cloak sets off the god’s physique. A missing right arm and left hand were replaced during the Renaissance by a pupil of Michelangelo’s. Strangely, the critical reputation of the piece, which was discovered in 1489, reached a peak in the 18th Century, and has been declining ever since. Nevertheless, the figure had a significant influence on other artists, including Albrecht Dürer, Antonio Canova and Jean-Francois Millet.
c. 370-310 BCE: Lysippos: The Farnese Hercules (The Farnese Herakles)
marble copy by Glykon (c. 218 CE) [Ancient Greece]
The Farnese Hercules is a marble sculpture made in the early 3rd Century CE by Glykon of Athens for the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. It is an enlarged copy of a 4th Century BCE bronze original by Lysippos, which is now lost. The sculpture shows a weary 10.3-ft.-high Hercules resting on his club, over which is draped the skin of the Nemean lion (referencing his first labor); behind his back he holds the immortality-giving apples of the Hesperides (referencing his eleventh labor, see second image). The statue was rediscovered in 1546 (in various pieces) and was soon thereafter purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who placed it in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. It remained there until 1787, when it was moved to its current home in Naples at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Many marble and bronze copies have been made, both full-sized and miniature, including some from ancient times. An older but much smaller (1.4 ft tall) bronze copy, from either 3rd Century Hellenist Greece or 1st Century CE Rome, known as Hercules Resting, was found at Fogliano, Umbria, Italy in the late 19th Century and is now in the Louvre (third image). Random Trivia: When the Farnese Hercules was first discovered, it was legless, so Guglielmo della Porta was commissioned to sculpt legs in 1560. Even though the original marble legs were soon discovered nearby, Michelangelo persuaded the Farnese family to keep the new legs to prove that contemporary sculptors were just as good as those of ancient times. The della Porta can be seen in a print made from an engraving by Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius, who visited Rome in 1592 (see fourth image). The original legs were not restored to their owner until 1787.
c. 250 BCE: Unknown Artist: Lion Capital of Ashoka [Mauryan Empire; India]
Ashoka the Great ruled (and expanded) the Mauryan Empire, which, at its peak, encompassed almost all of what is now India and Pakistan, as well as parts of current-day Iran and Afghanistan. During Ashoka’s 36-yr. reign (268-232 BCE), he erected a series of stone pillars at important Buddhist sites. The pillars average 40-50 ft. tall and weigh up to 50 tons each. Many of the pillars contain inscribed edicts and capitals in the form of carved animals. Many of the pillars and capitals were destroyed by Muslim iconoclasts. Nineteen pillars and six animal capitals remain, including the Lion Capital of Ashoka from Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh (see image above). The Lion Capital consists of four lions standing back to back on a base with an elephant, a bull, a horse, a lion and 24-spoked chariot wheels in bas relief, atop a bell-shaped lotus. There is evidence that a Wheel of Dharma was originally placed atop the carved lions. Some scholars believe the Lion Capital shows the spread of Dharma or the Maurya Empire in all four directions. Others say it symbolizes the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The Lion Capital is the national emblem of India, and the base on which the lions are standing is depicted on the Indian flag. Including the base, the Capital stands 7 ft. tall. It is located at the Archaeological Museum in Sarnath, India.
c. 230-220 BCE: Unknown Artist: Dying Gaul (The Dying Galatian)
[Ancient Greece] marble copy
First misidentified as a Dying Gladiator, the statue now known as Dying Gaul or Dying Galatian is believed to be a 1st or 2nd Century CE Roman copy, in marble, of a Greek bronze original from 230-220 BCE. The statue commemorates the victory of Attalos I, in defense of Greeks living in Pergamon (on what is now the Turkish coast) against Celtic migrants from Gaul who settled in nearby Galatia. Measuring 3 ft. tall by 6.1 ft. long by 2.9 ft. deep, the statue shows a mortally wounded Gaul (a puncture wound is visible in his lower right chest) lying on his shield, with a sword, belt and trumpet beside him. (See first image – photo courtesy of Jean Pol Gradmont). He is nude except for a metal neck ring, or torc. While the sculpture reminds the viewer that the Greeks were victorious, it also shows respect and compassion for the fallen adversary, who hovers between life and death. The Dying Gaul has undergone a number of revisions since its discovery at the Villa Ludovisi outside Rome in the early 1600s: the left leg has been reassembled from several pieces, for example, and the Gaul’s original long hair had broken off, leading 17th Century artists to ‘rework’ it. (See second image. For more on the restorations, go here.) The emotional depth of the piece made it a favorite of artists and art lovers. Artists engraved and copied it, thus giving many more a chance to see it. Lord Byron commented on it in Child Harold’s Pilgrimage and Thomas Jefferson included it on a list of potential acquisitions for a planned Monticello art museum. Despite Jefferson’s dream, the Dying Gaul remains in Rome, at the Capitoline Museums.
c. 220 BCE: Unknown Artist: The Barberini Faun (Drunken Satyr)
[Hellenist Greece/Ancient Rome]
Faun was the Roman term for a satyr, a supernatural creature – part human, part beast – that lived a life of revelry and debauchery at the drunken orgies of Dionysus. The faun here (we know he is not human by his tail – see second image) is not peacefully asleep but drunkenly passed out (see third image with detail of face). Either a Hellenist Greek original or a Roman copy, the Barberini Faun is a marble sculpture standing 6.3 feet tall that was found in pieces in the moat of what had been Hadrian’s Mausoleum (now Castel Sant’Angelo) in Rome in the 1620s. According to the historian Procopius, the Roman defenders had thrown down the statues from Hadrian’s Mausoleum onto the invading Goths during the siege of Rome in 537 CE; art historians have speculated that the Barberini Faun (also known as the Drunken Satyr) was one of the statues so used. The sexually provocative pose – which leads the viewer’s eyes directly to the faun’s genitals – was controversial, but did not prevent the statue from being highly regarded, even in the 17th Century. The much-restored sculpture (a replacement left arm was installed and then removed, for example) is now in the Glyptothek in Munich, Germany.
246-208 BCE: Unknown Artists: Terracotta Army [Qin Dynasty; Xi’an, China]
The Terracotta Army consists of approximately 8,000 unique, life-size sculpted soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, 150 cavalry horses, and various pieces of armor, weapons, and non-military figures and implements (see first image). They are part of an immense burial complex for the Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and were intended to protect the emperor in the afterlife. The archaeological treasure was discovered in 1974 by a group of farmers digging a well. Each terracotta warrior has a unique face (see second image). Position and uniform are consistent with the rank and special skills of each soldier. The figures were constructed in separate pieces in workshops by government laborers and local craftsmen, then assembled and painted (very little of the paint remains), then arranged in the tomb according to rank and duty. Although most of the figures are made of terracotta, items such as a 1/2 life-size team of horses and chariot are made of bronze, silver and gold (see third image).
c. 200-190 BCE: Unknown Artist: Winged Victory of Samothrace (Nike of Samothrace)
Created in Greece during the Hellenistic period, the severely damaged depiction of the goddess Nike, or Victory, standing 8 ft. tall, was discovered in 1863 on the island of Samothrace, now a part of Greece but then belonging to the Ottoman Empire. The head and arms have never been found, but portions of the right hand were located and are on display in a separate case in the Louvre in Paris. Only the left wing is original; the right wing is a symmetrically identical version of the left, made of plaster. Scholars praise the statue for its combination of motion and stillness, and the realistic rendering of the drapery. According to one theory, the sculpture was meant to honor a sea battle and represents the goddess as she descends from the sky, hand cupped to her mouth, ready to deliver a victory shout to the fleet. The second and third images show possible reconstructions of the original.
c. 180 BCE: Unknown Artists: Pergamon Altar Frieze [Ancient Greece]
The Pergamon Altar Frieze is carved in high relief around the base of the Pergamon altar, a massive structure constructed in the ancient city of Pergamon in Asia Minor (now Turkey) during the reign of King Eumenes II in the 2nd Century BCE. The altar and its friezes are among the most significant works of Hellenistic art. The largest frieze (made of Proconnesian marble and measuring 7.5 ft. tall by 370.7 ft. long) depicts the Gigantomachy, a battle between the Giants and the gods of Olympus. The first image shows Hecate fighting Klytios, on the left, and Artemis fighting Otos, on the right. The second image shows Athena in battle. Another, smaller frieze on the inner court walls shows scenes from the life of Telephus, legendary founder of Pergamon. The altar and friezes were excavated by Carl Humann between 1878 and 1886. By arrangement with the Turkish government, he brought them to Germany, where the various fragments were restored and put on display in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
c. 200-100 BCE: Unknown Artist: The Three Graces [Hellenistic; Ancient Greece] marble copy
The Three Graces (Charites in Greek, Gratiae in Latin) – Aglaia (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Abundance) – are minor goddesses who served as the handmaidens of Aphrodite. The Three Graces was a Greek sculpture created in the 2nd Century BCE depicting the Graces as nude girls, posed so that the two on the ends face one way while the one in the center, draping her arms over her companions, faces the other direction. Drapery-covered water jars frame the trio and provide support. Art experts have noted the flatness of the composition and speculate that the model for the Greek sculptor may have been a fresco or bas relief. The Greek original has been lost and is only known by Roman marble copies made in the 2nd Century CE, the most faithful of which are missing the figures’ heads and many of their arms and stand about 4 ft. tall. Despite the serious damage, the arrangement and setting of this piece set the standard for future depictions of the Graces in art through the centuries. There are 16 full-size Roman copies of the Three Graces, two of which can be found in the Piccolomini Library, which is attached to the Cathedral of Siena, Italy, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
130-100 BCE: Alexandros of Antioch: Venus de Milo (Aphrodite of Milos)
[Hellenistic; Ancient Greece]
The Venus de Milo is a Greek marble sculpture of Aphrodite (Roman name Venus) made by Alexandros of Antioch in the 2nd Century BCE during the Hellenist period. It stands 6.7 ft. tall. The statue was found by a Greek peasant, Yorgos Kentrotas, and a French naval officer, Olivier Voutier, in the ruins of the ancient city of Milos on the Aegean island known variously as Milos, Melos or Milo, then part of the Ottoman Empire. At the time it was discovered, the statue was in several pieces, which included part of the left arm and the left hand holding an apple, as well as a plinth with an inscription by Alexandros. By the time the French bought the statue from the Turks and brought it to the Louvre in Paris, the arms had disappeared. Then, soon afterwards, the plinth with Alexandros’ inscription also vanished, presumably because the Hellenistic time frame was considered less prestigious than an older Greek provenance. Scholars have been searching for the missing pieces ever since.
c. 100 BCE: Unknown Artist: The Battle of Issus (Alexander Mosaic) [Ancient Rome]
Visitors stepping into the entrance hall of the House of the Faun in Pompeii between 100 BCE and 79 CE (when the city was buried in volcanic ash) would have seen an enormous floor mosaic showing the victory of Alexander the Great over Darius III, King of Persia, in 333 BCE at the Battle of Issus. Measuring 8.9 ft by 16.8 ft, the style of the floor mosaic has convinced experts that it is a copy of a 3rd Century BCE Hellenist painting. Alexander is at left, while Darius is at center right. (See detail with Alexander in second image.) The mosaic was rediscovered in 1831 and is now presented on a wall at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. Random Trivia: Roman mosaics of this period are known for their bright colors, but because mosaics are not painted, but are composed of tiny pieces of colored stone (in this case, marble), the palette of the artist is dependent on what colored stones naturally exist.
c. 100-75 BCE: Unknown Artist: Bronze Portrait Head, Delos [Hellenist; Ancient Greece]
Found in the palaistra (wrestling school) on the island of Delos in 1912, this 1 ft-tall bronze head was probably part of a full-body statue commemorating an athlete. It is one of the few portrait heads with the original eyes intact. The depiction shows a realism of expression and emotion combined with a seriousness that characterize Hellenist Greek sculpture. The head is now at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto.
c. 350-50 BCE: Unknown Artist: Battersea Shield [Celtic; England]
The Battersea Shield is not an true shield, for two reasons. First, this bronze sheet is only a facing that would have been attached to a wooden shield. Second, even with the wooden shield behind it, this small, elaborately decorated but extremely thin bronze facing (with no visible battle damage) was almost certainly not meant to go into battle. (See first image.) Instead, art historians believe the Battersea Shield was designed for display and also perhaps as a votive offering. This last purpose may explain why the 2.5 ft. tall by 1.1 ft. wide Celtic artifact was dredged from the River Thames in London in 1857, since a common Celtic method of making an offering was to throw the object into the river. The shield is decorated in classic Celtic La Tène style, with many circles and spirals. The decorative elements are confined to three roundels with highly worked bronze, repoussé decoration, engraving, and enamel. Within the roundels are 27 small round compartments in raised bronze with red cloisonné enamel and opaque red glass. (See second image.) While the shield appears to be a single piece, it is actually composed a several different parts, with hidden rivets holding it all together. The Battersea Shield is now located in the British Museum in London.
c. 75-50 BCE: Unknown Artist: Head of a Roman Patrician [Ancient Rome]
Marble portrait head showing realistic features of an older man. Now in Palazzo Torlonia, Rome.
c. 60-40 BCE: Unknown Artist: Frescoes, Villa of the Mysteries
[Pompeii, Ancient Rome]
The Villa of the Mysteries is a Roman villa located near the ruins of Pompeii in southern Italy. The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE covered it with many feet of volcanic ash and tufa, preserving it for future generations. When the villa was excavated in 1909, a remarkable series of frescoes was discovered in one of the rooms, the triclinium. The frescoes are nearly 10 feet tall and run around the four walls of the room for a total of 56 feet. The meaning of the frescoes is subject to debate: some scholars believe they depict the initiation of a young woman into a Dionysian cult; others say it shows marriage rituals.
c. 20 BCE: Unknown Artist: Augustus of Prima Porta [Ancient Rome]
Probably a later marble copy of a bronze original. 6.7 feet tall. Found in the ruins of the house of Livia, Augustus’s wife, in Prima Porta, Italy. The sculptor was much influenced by the Doryphoros of Classical Greek artist Polykleitos. Because Augustus is portrayed with some divine features, some experts believe the date of the statue is much later, during Titus’s reign in the First Century CE. The figure hanging onto Augustus’s toga is Cupid, who is riding on a dolphin, a reference to the claim that Julius Caesar (and Octavian, his nephew) were descended from Venus. The breastplate may depict the return of the Roman legionary eagles (aquilae) by Mark Antony and Crassus (see detail in second image). Now in Vatican Museums.
c. 42-19 BCE: Agesander, Athenodoros & Polydorus: Laocoön and His Sons (Laocoön) [Ancient Greece/Ancient Rome]
According to Pliny the Elder, he observed a marble statue of Laocoön and His Sons in the home of the future emperor Titus between 70 and 79 CE that was made by Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydoros, three sculptors from the Greek island of Rhodes. In 1506, a marble statue that seemed to match the one described by Pliny was discovered in a Roman vineyard beneath the remains of the Baths of Titus. The group, which measures 6.8 ft. tall, 5.3 ft. wide and 3.7 ft. deep, shows Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being attacked by sea serpents, as related in several Greek myths and the Aeneid, in punishment by pro-Greek gods for uncovering the secret of the Trojan Horse (see two views of the group in first and second images). The style is considered Hellenistic “Pergamene baroque” and a figure in the Pergamon Altar Frieze bears a striking similarity to the figure of Laocoön here. The sculpture had an enormous influence on the Renaissance artists who saw it, particularly in the way it depicted the suffering of the characters. Scholars disagree about the date of the piece. Some believe it is a marble copy dating to 14-37 CE of a bronze original from c. 150-140 BCE. Others believe it is an original work created some time between 50 BCE and 68 CE. Based on an unscientific survey of websites, the majority view is that it is an original sculpture made between 42 and 19 BCE. Laocoön and His Sons was purchased by the Vatican and is now at the Museo Pio-Clementino in Rome. Various restorations have been proposed over the centuries, but most changes have not been permanent. The right arms of the figures, which were missing, were replaced by replicas for certain periods. In 1540, for example, the Vatican gave Laocoon a new right arm that extended upward. In 1906, Ludwig Pollak discovered part of a marble arm in a Roman builder’s yard near the spot where the original statue was found. He gave it to the Vatican. In 1957, the Vatican’s experts finally decided that the arm, which was bent, belonged to Laocoön, so it replaced the extended arm that had been added in 1540 (see third image showing previous pose with extended arm).
13-9 BCE: Unknown Artist: Relief Sculptures, Ara Pacis Augustae [Ancient Rome]
The Ara Pacis Augustae, or Altar of Augustan Peace, was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 CE to commemorate the return of Emperor Augustus from military victories in Hispania and Gaul. The altar is dedicated to the goddess Peace, and sends a message that Augustus has brought a Golden Age of peace, prosperity and abundance, with a subsidiary message that the Emperor is pious and supports the state religion. The altar is surrounded by a precinct, with two long side walls and two partial front and back walls with large open entrances. Two tiers of relief sculpture friezes adorn each side of the outer precinct walls. The lower portion of the friezes on all four sides consists of spiraling vegetation in coherent patterns, along with frogs, lizards, birds and other wildlife, to show harmony in nature (see third image). The upper panels on the front and back (east and west) walls consist of allegorical or mythological scenes of peace and abundance, including a panel on the east wall interpreted as a goddess (possibly Peace, Italia, Tellus, or Venus) with twins amid a scene of fertility and prosperity (see first image). The upper friezes on the north and south walls consist of a procession of figures, possibly representing the event dedicating the altar itself. The figures in the procession are not idealized but are individual portraits of Augustus and his family, members of the Senate and members of the priestly colleges (see second image). There are non-Romans depicted, and also children, which was unusual in Roman art. The Ara Pacis Augustae was built in a section of Rome located on the flood plain of the Tiber River. Over the centuries, it was gradually buried under more than 12 feet of silt. The altar was rediscovered in the early 20th Century; its resurrection was used by Mussolini as a symbol of Italy’s resurgence under Fascism. A major reconstruction was undertaken to piece together the existing fragments, and sculptors were brought in to carve new reliefs where there were gaps, creating much controversy. In 2006, a new Ara Pacis Museum building was designed to protect and house the altar.
c. 150-1 BCE: Unknown Artists: Gundestrup Cauldron
[Iron Age; Celtic/Thracian(?); Denmark]
The Gundestrup Cauldron is a silver Iron Age bowl 27 in. in diameter and 16.5 in. tall that was discovered in a peat bog near the town of Gundstrup, Denmark in 1891. The cauldron was in pieces when it was found; one piece of the outer layer of panels was missing and archaeologists had to decide how to assemble the remaining seven exterior panels, five interior panels and one base panel (see first image). The exterior panels show alternating male and female busts, along with other figures, usually animals (see second image). The interior panels show an assortment of scenes filled with symbols, including a man with a broken wheel, a cadre of soldiers and the killing of three bulls. One of the interior panels shows a antlered man or god holding a snake in his hand (see third image). The base of the cauldron depicts a large bull, two dogs and a woman holding a sword. The cauldron is made primarily of silver from France and Germany, but there are also significant amounts of gold for gilding, English tin for soldering, and Mediterranean glass for the figures’ eyes. The cauldron was constructed over a long period of time; at least three different silversmiths worked on it, using materials of differing quality. The cauldron was repaired numerous times with inferior materials prior to its discovery. Experts in the history of silverworking have declared unequivocally that the techniques used on the cauldron were not known in the Celtic world at the time the object was made, but are consistent with the sophisticated silversmithing skills of the Thracians, who lived in an area that occupied parts of present-day Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. On the other hand, the designs on the cauldron are consistent with Celtic mythology and depict Celtic helmets and a Celtic war trumpet, or carnyx. One theory is that Celts who lived near Thracians commissioned a cauldron with Celtic imagery from Thracian silversmiths, although it is not clear how the cauldron traveled to Denmark. Other archaeologists believe that the cauldron’s imagery represents a type of international mix of characters and symbols. The Gundestrup Cauldron is in the collection of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
c. 100-1 BCE: Unknown Artists: Gateways (Toranas), Great Stupa of Sanchi
[Satavahana Period; India]
The Great Stupa of Sanchi is an ancient Buddhist site in Madhya Pradesh, India. While most experts date the four gateways (or toranas) to the 1st Century BCE, during the Satavahana dynasty, some scholars believe they date to 180-160 BCE. First image: Carvings on the northern gateway. Second image: Eastern gateway, with stupa in background. Third image: Detail of the eastern gateway with Shalabhanjika Yakshi figure.
c. 11-1 BCE: Unknown Artist: Frescoes, Villa of Agrippa Postumus
[Ancient Rome; Italy]
The wealthy citizens of Ancient Rome built villas along the coast of the Bay of Naples, some of which were preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. Among the most magnificent was the villa of Agrippa, the friend and son-in-law of Emperor Augustus, in the town of Boscotrecase. In 11 BCE, Agrippa died and left the villa (also known as the Imperial Villa and the Villa of Augusta) to his infant son Agrippa Postumus, although the household was run by Julia, Agrippa’s widow. Around this time, Julia had the villa extensively renovated, which included painting numerous frescoes on the walls of the bedrooms, or cubicula. The frescoes, which were likely painted by Roman artists, are among the finest examples of the Third Style, which flourished during the reign of Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) and emphasized decorative whimsy and elegant weightlessness over realism and the illusion of depth and substance. The villa was discovered in 1903 during construction of a railway line and excavations occurred until 1906 when the villa was again buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The frescoes were removed and placed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Archaeological Museum in Naples. Shown in the first image above is detail from the central panel from the north wall of Cubiculum 16, known as the ‘red room.’ The second image shows a fresco of a ceremony occurring outside a tower.
82 CE: Unknown Artist: Arch of Titus [Ancient Rome]
A triumphal arch on the Via Sacra in Rome, built by Emperor Domitian to honor the military victories of his older brother Titus, particularly the suppression of the Great Revolt by the Jewish people, culminating in Roman victory at the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. A relief in the interior passageway of the arch depicts Roman soldiers returning with the Spoils of Jerusalem. The arch is 50 ft high, 44 ft wide and 15.5 ft deep. First image: Spoils of Jerusalem relief. Second image: the Arch of Titus.
c. 69-96 CE: Unknown Artist: Portrait of a Flavian Woman (Fonseca Bust)
Marble bust showing fashionable 1st Century CE hairstyle. Now at Musei Capitolini in Rome.
113 CE: Apollodorus of Damascus (?): Trajan’s Column [Ancient Rome]
Trajan’s Column (shown full length and in detail, above) was built to celebrate Roman Emperor Trajan’s victories over the Dacians in 101-102 CE and 105-106 CE. The column itself, which consists of 20 marble drums, each 11 feet in diameter, is 98 feet tall; with the pedestal included, it rises 125 feet from the ground. A bas relief showing the events of the Dacian Wars spirals around the column for a total of 625 feet of sculpture, with nearly 2,500 figures depicted, including 59 representations of Trajan himself with his troops. There is a spiral staircase inside the column that leads to an observation deck. In antiquity, a statue of Trajan topped the column, but it disappeared during the Medieval period. Pope Sixtus V put a bronze statue of St. Peter atop the column in 1587.
c. 173-176 CE: Unknown Artist: Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius [Ancient Rome]
Standing nearly 14 feet tall, this bronze statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius avoided being melted down because early Christians mistakenly believed it depicted Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. To protect it from the elements, the statue is now in the Musei Capitolini; a replica stands in its former location in the Piazza di Campidiglio.
190-192 CE: Unknown Artist: Commodus as Hercules [Ancient Rome]
Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius and famously portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in the movie Gladiator, became co-emperor of Rome with his father in 177 CE until his father’s death in 180 CE, when he became sole Roman Emperor. By all accounts, Commodus was a cruel and inept ruler who overindulged in drink and sex, squandered public funds, lost territory, and pointlessly tortured or killed many of his citizens. Commodus was obsessed with Hercules, and believed he was the reincarnation of the Greek hero. For amusement, he would dress as Hercules and fight gladiators in the Colisseum, but only after his adversaries had their swords blunted. After a number of failed assassination attempts, a group managed to overthrow Commodus in 192 CE by having one of his wrestling companions strangle him in his bath at the age of 31. The new Emperor then sought to purge Rome of any sign of Commodus and his reign. One item that escaped the purge is a marble bust of Commodus as Hercules (also known as Portrait of Commodus as Hercules, and Bust of Commodus as Hercules), standing 4.4 ft. tall, which was hidden in an underground room beneath the Horti Lamiani (Lamian Gardens) complex in Rome and was discovered in 1874. The portrait shows what appears to be a hungover emperor with the traditional Herculean attributes: the skin of the Nemean lion, worn as a veil, its paws tied on his chest, the golden Hesperidean apples, and his trusty club. Beneath the bust is a complicated series of symbols: a globe with the signs of the zodiac (possible reference to important points in Commodus’s life), two cornucopiae (showing that Commodus has brought abundance), two marine Tritons (evidence that Commodus had become a god), and an Amazon shield and two Amazon warriors (only one remains) (Amazonius was one of the many names Commodus gave himself, or possibly a reference to one of Hercules’ labors – defeating the Amazons). The sculpture was designed as propaganda to create an image of the Emperor in the public’s eye. The bust is now in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, part of the Museo Capitolini in Rome.
c. 500 BCE-200 CE: Seated Figures [Nok Culture, Nigeria]
The Nok culture thrived in parts of what is now Nigeria between 500 BCE and 200 CE. Among the finest Nok artistic creations were many terracotta sculptures of seated Nok figures. The sculptures were made of baked clay and covered with a layer of slip for smoothness. They were hollow and coil built. Most of the faces have triangular pierced eyes with overlapping eyelids, but every head is unique. Many of the figures have elaborately detailed hairstyles and jewelry. A number of the figures depict seated dignitaries or leaders, which are identified by the stools raising them above the ground and their downward gaze. Some examples are shown above: (1) Seated Dignitary, measuring 36.25 in. high, 11 in. wide, 14 in. deep, in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota; (2) Seated Figure, measuring 14.75 in. tall, located in the Louvre/Musée du Quai Branly in Paris; (3) Seated Dignitary, measuring 2.1 ft. tall, located in the Barakat Gallery, Beverly Hills, California; (4) Seated Figure, measuring 23.4 in. tall, 12 in. wide, 11 in. deep, located in the Muzeion in Dallas, Texas.
c. 25-220 CE: Unknown Artist: Flying Horse (Galloping Horse; Flying Horse of Gansu) [East Han Dynasty, Gansu Province, China]
An ancient Chinese legend tells of a heavenly steed that can run so fast it can fly, overtaking even the birds. A bronze sculpture of a horse found in a general’s tomb in China’s Gansu Province in 1969 and dating to the East Han Dynasty (25-220 CE) may depict this legend in three dimensions. Measuring 13.6 in. tall by 16.1 in. long, the statue shows a horse galloping through the air, angled slightly upward, letting out a joyful neigh, while one hoof treads on a swallow flying through the air. The swallow, who appears quite startled at this intruder into his airspace, also provides the base upon which the 17.6 pound statue is perfectly balanced. Scholars have noted that the horse’s legs accurately reflect their positions in a gallop. The statue is known by many names including Flying Horse, Flying Horse of Ganzu, Galloping Horse and the unwieldy but highly descriptive Bronze Galloping Horse Treading on a Flying Swallow. The Flying Horse is now located in the Gansu Provincial Museum in Lanzhou City, China.
c. 100 BCE-250 CE: Unknown Artists: Relief Sculptures, Great Stupa of Amaravati
[Buddhist Era, India]
Legend has it that the Buddha himself preached at the future site of the Amaravati Stupa in Andhra Pradesh, India in 500 BCE, but historical records only begin in the 2nd Century BCE, when Dharanikota, near Amaravati, became the capital city of Satavahana Empire, which reigned over a large portion of central India from 230 BCE to 220 CE. Work reportedly began on the stupa (a hemispherical building used to house relics and as a focus of meditation) during the reign of Mauryan King Ashoka the Great in the 3rd Century BCE, but the building was not complete until c. 200 CE. When complete, the Great Stupa was estimated to be 88.6 ft. tall and 160 ft. in diameter. The structure of the Stupa was adorned with both freestanding statues of the Buddha and relief sculptures carved into limestone slabs that depict stories from the life of the Buddha and the Jakata stories. The Amaravati sculptural style is considered unique, in part because trade with Ancient Rome gives some of the work a Greco-Roman influence. Art historians identify four separate phases of sculpture at the site: (I) 200-100 BCE; (II) 100 CE; (III) 150 CE and (IV) 200-250 CE. The first image shows a relief from c. 200-250 CE that was located on the drum of the stupa shows a traditional Buddhist stupa, with lions at the gateway, dharmachaka (spoked wheel) capitals on the pillars and various figures worshipping. The second image, from c. 100-150 CE, shows a relief from a pillar in the railing that surrounded the stupa, depicting the story of Queen Maya’s dream. Both reliefs are now at the British Museum in London. When Hinduism became the dominant religion in central India, the Great Stupa suffered neglect, so that when British explorers visited it in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Some of the stone had been reused in local buildings; others had been burned for lime. Many of the sculptures found their way into museums in India (especially the Government Museum in Chennai) and elsewhere, particularly the British Museum, which has about 120 Amaravati pieces in its collection.
c. 250-260 CE: Unknown Artist: Ludovisi Sarcophagus [Ancient Rome]
Also known as the Great Ludovisi Sarcophagus, the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus and the Via Tiburtina Sarcophagus, the Ludovisi Sarcophagus is a 5-ft. tall Roman burial container made of Proconnesian marble. The scene of Romans battling the Goths is sculpted in very high relief, with overlapping figures and many elements completely free of the background surface. The sarcophagus was discovered in 1621 and takes its name from its first modern owner, Ludovico Ludovisi. Carved at a time when the Roman Empire was in crisis, the design and details are considered unclassical or anti-classical, with highly expressive facial expressions and postures, especially among the defeated barbarians. The Ludovisi Sarcophagus is now located in the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome.
c. 315: Unknown Artist: Constantine the Great (Colossus of Constantine)
Gigantic statue of Emperor Constantine, only fragments of which remain. A composite constructed from wood, bronze and marble, the statue was probably 40 feet tall (the head alone is 8.2 feet tall – see first image). It once stood in the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum. The remaining marble pieces are now located in the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in the Musei Capitolini, Rome. Second image: the right hand.
c. 315 CE: Unknown Artist: Arch of Constantine [Ancient Rome]
The Arch of Constantine is a triumphal arch built in 315 CE to commemorate the victory of Emperor Constantine over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. Located between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill in Rome, the marble and brick arch is 68.9 ft. tall, 84.9 ft. wide and 24.3 ft. deep. There are three archways: the center archway is 37.7 ft. high and 21.3 ft. wide; each of the two lateral archways is 24.3 ft. tall and 11.1 ft. wide. Each face of the arch is divided by four Corinthian columns made of Numidian yellow marble. The original carving on the arch, particularly the historical frieze along the tops of the lateral archways, shows a decline in artistic skill and technique since the 1st Century CE. Either to associate Constantine with good emperors of the past, or in recognition of their own inadequacy, the artists incorporated portions of other emperors’ reliefs and statues into the arch, in some cases reworking the faces of the other emperors (Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius) to resemble Constantine. (See second image, with older roundels of Emperor Hadrian and more recent frieze below.) A bronze inscription has been lost, but the remaining spaces for the letters allow one to read the Latin statement. The inscription’s statement that Constantine was “inspired by the divine” has been interpreted by some as a politic way of referencing the emperor’s unexpected conversion to Christianity at Milvian Bridge in 312 CE.
c. 359 CE: Unknown Artist: Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus
[Early Christian; Ancient Rome]
Junius Bassus was a senator and official of Emperor Constantius II (son of Constantine the Great). He is said to have converted to Christianity on his deathbed and his sarcophagus is one of the earliest examples of Christian art. The relief sculptures include scenes from both the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible. It is now located in the museum beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The image above shows the front of the sarcophagus, which is decorated on all sides.
To see Art History 101, Part IB (400-1399), go here.