A charioteer lost in a marsh

One fall afternoon, 25 years ago, a guard at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was horrified to discover that a beautiful treasure had been stolen. The treasure was a small, gold earring, a sculpted charioteer driven by two horses. Made 2,300 years ago, it was called Nike (NEE-kay) after the Greek winged goddess of victory. All over the country and abroad, newspapers described the little treasure. The police, at first, had no clues to lead them to the thief. But several months later a 25-year-old man confessed that he had stolen the earring. The problem was that he couldn't remember exactly where he had hidden it. He led the police to a marshy area behind the museum. There, he said, in an old egg carton inside a tin can, he had buried the earring somewhere near a tree and ``hidden from the road.'' But as hard as he tried he couldn't remember exactly where it was.

Why was the earring so valuable? If you melted it into a puddle of gold, the little bit of metal was worth less than $20 in 1963.

The little earring was valuable because it showed the extremely fine skill of a sculptor in depicting natural motion in the 4th century BC. At this time, Alexander the Great was spreading Greek culture into India and through the Persian Empire to Egypt. With only the simplest of tools and no magnifying glass, the artist who made the earring carefully formed each of the 130 pieces, then melted the edges to join them.

The sculpture is valued as art, too. All the pieces fit together beautifully. The graceful lift of the wings and the downward beat of the horse's front legs become a composition, or arrangement, that suggests a circle. The Nike controls the horses as the wind seems to blow her dress, or chiton (CHEE-ton).

Even though the earring is only two inches high, it looks as beautiful as a big statue. It's a wonder that so much motion and vitality can be found in a thing so small. The face of the woman is clear, sharp and looks like faces you might see today.

But where was the earring hidden?

Two archaeologists, Profs. Emily and Cornelius Vermeule, had an idea. They took Mrs. Vermeule's students from a Boston University class to the marsh to look for the earring. (Archaeologists are scientists who are trained to look carefully in the earth for buried objects from times past.) They dug up an area around the tree, but found nothing.

One student, Florence Wolsky, kept looking. She looked for a more ``hidden spot'' and came upon some eight-foot-tall reeds. In the fall they had been leafy. Now there were bare. Two had been broken off and stuck in the ground. Maybe they pointed in the direction of the buried earring.

She walked in that direction. Just a little farther, where the slope of the riverbank ended, and down from the tree, she dug gently in the earth with a screwdriver. She struck a rusty tin can.

Florence took the can to the museum laboratory, where it was opened carefully. Everybody held his breath. The delicate sculpture was lifted out of the soggy cardboard egg carton inside the can. One of the little wheels looked damaged, but when Mrs. Vermeule touched it lightly, it sprang back into place. It spun freely on its axis, just as it had for 2,300 years. Everybody cheered.

Now Nike drives her shining horses safely in a new case in the museum. Nearby is an ancient Greek victory wreath of golden olive leaves. Together they remind us that beautiful objects, tiny or big, are put in a museum for everyone to enjoy.

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