It's impolite to ask a lady her age

One of the most famous pieces of ancient Greek art may be a recent Swiss fake

Everything that is wrong and right about archeological interpretation and its often subjective motives rests within a 16-centimeter-tall statuette called the Snake Goddess. Long regarded as the most precious artifact of 16th-century BC Minoan art, she has minded her own business for the past 84 years in hallowed residence at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. But the snake-handling goddess's origin – her archaeological "findspot" – remains unverified.

Questions over her origin commenced almost from the beginning in 1914 when curator Lacey Caskey announced the statue's arrival from Crete in either a cigar box or a soap tin for a bargain price of $950.

With the publication of this thorough and devastating deconstruction by Kenneth Lapatin, president of the Boston Society of the Archaeological Institute of America, one must conclude that the Bronze Age beauty is not only a fake, but, more revealing, has been used to perpetuate an "idealized past."

Consensus has been reached, however, as to the Snake Goddess's beauty: In her chryselephantine elegance of delicately carved gold and ivory, the lady is a looker. Tongue-flickering serpents entwine around her outstretched arms, while she cuts a sensuous figure in a "wide skirt with multiple flounces or tiers, a belt encircling her narrow waist ... a tight-fitting short-sleeved bodice or jacket cut so low as to expose her ample breasts, one of which retains a golden nipple."

But it's her face – damaged on the left side either by centuries of wear or a forger's acid bath to create the impression of wear – that captures art historians' hearts. The lips pout, the eyes are deep-set with drilled pupils, and her countenance is summarized as "modern," that is, as independent of the restrictive patriarchal bondage of the ancient world.

Yet, Lapatin writes, these facial features are important clues that point to, if not a forged piece of art, perhaps "something in between, pastiches of ancient artifacts reworked ... to make them more appealing to contemporary viewers and buyers." After all, "eyes with drilled pupils and canthi ... do not appear in ancient statuary before the second century AD."

This mystery has one major suspect: Sir John Evans (1851-1941), a wealthy English archaeologist and mastermind behind the excavation of the Palace of Minos in the late-19th century at Knossos in Crete. Lapatin accuses him of creating a false context for everything Minoan. Indeed, his multivolume "The Palace of Minos" reveals his motives. Evans places King Minos's society of bull leapers, snake handlers, and ivory artists on the same rarefied cultural plane as "ancient Egypt, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia ... a starting-point and the earliest stage in the highway of European civilization."

Indeed, every find Evans and his crew excavated and restored provided a context for his unproven beliefs that still exist among many academics and other learned folk who should know better. For example, the athleticism, regal nature, and feminine dominance read into the Snake Goddess and many other female deities adorning figurines, pottery, and frescoes unearthed – often illegally – at Crete have resonated with today's goddess movement.

Lapatin argues effectively that even if we assume, as Evans did, "that Minoan Crete was a matriarchy ... there is little to indicate that women in cultures whose religions focus on female deities necessarily enjoy particularly high status." Consider Athena in Athens and Mother Mary of Rome, he reminds readers.

Domino effect

History is elusive in our human hands. Even when brought before rigorous scientific standards, vagueness persists. Carbon dating has been done on leftover fragments of the Snake Goddess (and other questionable "authentic" Minoan pieces that reside in many museums) with inconclusive results. But to simply accept the Snake Goddess as authentic, Lapatin warns, is to encounter a "slippery slope."

This has a domino effect on all museum treasures because many of these "unprovenienced objects were employed to confirm the authenticity of still more dubious pieces."

A Swiss goddess?

So where did the Snake Goddess come from? Lapatin hints at a brilliant Swiss painter named Emile Gillieron. Hired by Evans to help with the restoration of the Palace of Minos and its many broken artifacts (some in indistinguishable fragments), Gillieron quickly let his imagination take over. He "recreated entire compositions, fashioning a picture of Minoan life that conformed to contemporary tastes."

Gillieron adopted Evans's romantic vision of history and did not concern himself with pesky standards of authenticity. On one restoration of a Minoan fresco, "a monkey gathering saffron was restored as a 'Blue Boy.' " Details, details.

The Swiss artist and his son soon turned to selling copies of his restorations, such as stone vessels and statuettes. Our friends at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts were regular buyers. "In 1911, three years before the mysterious advent of the Snake Goddess ... 22 of the Gillierons' 'Minoan' creations arrived in Boston."

Could the Snake Goddess be the work of Gillieron? Ah, there is nothing like a good mystery.

• Stephen J. Lyons is the author of "Landscape of the Heart" (Washington State University Press).

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