27 June 2009

A Missing Acropolis Marble

There is no image for this posting because photography was forbidden but imagine a wonder dancing, to unheard music.

The Acropolis Museum is being opened during a series of carefully orchestrated receptions and lectures. It is a remarkable building and details can be read elsewhere. What appears to be the main point of the openings is the emphasis on the Elgin Marbles, and this is demonstrated visually by placing plaster copies of them amid the carvings that have survived in situ.

The Elgin Marbles are a problem I will not solve: at least they can be seen. I am much more concerned with Greek marbles, in Greece, kept unseen.

A few months ago, a group of us had the priviledge of seeing an extraordinary collection of sculpture in the apotheke of the museum of Astros. Despite guidebook recommendations, this museum has been closed for a number of years and the Greek Archaological Service seems to have no interest in reopening it, so the very real treasures it contains might just have well been left in the ground.

We had 10 minutes in the apotheke, thirty of us in a crowded humid space too low for some to stand up straight, photographs were forbidden, and there was too much visual wealth to grasp in too little time. The apotheke houses the best of the treasures found at the villa of Herodes Atticus in nearby Eva-Douliana by archaologists George and Theodore Spyropoulos over the last seventeen or so years. It is a singularly unattractive site for a villa. Four years ago the Supreme Archaological Council (who makes up these names?) announced that this villa was to become an open-air museum: it has not happened.

This Astros apotheke holds the surviving marbles from the villa. Two are especially memorable.

The first is an amazing stone that appears to be the casualty list from the battle of Marathon. The inscription is written in boustrephon and diagonally, and was acquired by Herodes Atticus when he honored his home town of Marathon by constructing a great tumulus over the burial site of the Athenian dead.

This is to make a point. Herodes Atticus, who had more money than God, did a great deal of building across Greece which allowed him innumerable sources of art for the swollen collections at his various villas, including those at Marathon and Kefissia. These sources for his collections included the Acropolis of Athens.

The second marble in the apotheke is a dancing girl so lovely that there was a pain in my heart for the rest of the day, so fiercely did it leap in response to her. She whirls, one foot up for an instant, and I have never seen lovelier motion in marble. In about 420, the sculptor Callimachus carved her as one of a dozen dancing girls for a stoa on the Acropolis opposite those rather hunky caryatids. Herodes Atticus selected the girls for his villa. It is possible that she is not as wonderful as I remember: the lighting was bad, the time short, but I truthfully cannot say that in his place I would have left them alone.

This wonder of a dancing girl, surely one of the loveliest of the Acropolis marbles, remains unseen in a back corner of the humid apotheke.


  1. One of the archaeology staff, at the time when we saw the Marathon stone, told us that it was written in boustrophedon and diagonally, and I repeated that above. Now that we have pictures of the stone, I see we were incorrectly informed.
    Surely the archaeological staff should be better educated about their own holdings. We also learn now that this stone was excavated at some time between 1980 and 2001. No one who has not seen the apotheke of some museum can conceive of the bulk of treasures kept hidden and unpublished for generations. Surely "preserving the national heritage" does not mean acting as dogs in mangers. All the yammering about the Elgin Marbles does not make up for the lack of responsibility for the apothekes.

  2. There is no evidence that Herodes Atticus removed the Marathon casualty list from Marathon. The fact that it was found in his villa means nothing. The villa survived until the 5th c. AD. Any one of the later owners could have taken it.
    In addition, the dancing girl is not by Kallimachos. It is a copy of an acroterion of a Greek temple. The original was removed to Rome and is in the Palatine Museum.

  3. Thank you very much for this information. I wrote what our group was told when George Spyropoulos showed us the apotheke.


I will not publish Anonymous comments.