Temple of Zeus horse frieze raised from seabed off Sicily

A large marble relief believed to have been part of the frieze of the Temple of Zeus in Agrigento, Sicily, has been recovered from the seabed off the coast of the resort town of San Leone two miles south of Agrigento’s famous Valley of the Temples. The relief features a rampant horse, an iconographic representation associated with Zeus whose chariot was drawn by the Four Winds in the form of horses. Its dimensions and composition suggest it was a detail from the timpanum, the relief over the front entrance to the temple.

The Temple of Zeus was erected by the tyrant Theron, ruler of the Greek colony of Acragas (now known as Agrigento) and a large part of Western Sicily from 488 B.C. to 473 B.C. He built the temple after his victory in the Battle of Himera in 480 B.C. Ancient sources note that the timpanum pediment had a pair of prancing horses.

The relief fragment is made of a massive block of Proconnesian marble and is 6.5 feet by 5.2 feet and more than one foot thick. It lay at a depth of 30 feet and had previously been documented as an underwater archaeological artifact, but it had never been closely observed and the record described it as an unfeatured basin. In October 2022, divers explored the object, photographing it extensively and creating a highly detailed 3D photogrammetry composite image. The photographs captured the real significance of the piece, revealing the carving of the horses.

Relief recovered from the seabed. Photo courtesy BCsicilia.Sicily’s Superintendency of the Sea ordered the piece be recovered so that the thick layers of concretions could be cleaned off and its details uncovered. It took three attempts to successfully recover the heavy relief. (Turbulence in the sea foiled the first two attempts.)

19th c. pearl shells unearthed in French Polynesia

An archaeological team from the University of Sydney has discovered pearl shells connected to the French colonization of Polynesia in the 19th century. The three complete pearl shells were found under an iron axe head at the site of missionary school on Aukena, one of the Îles Gambier of French Polynesia. The intact shells are evidence of how the missionaries trained schoolboys to process saltwater oysters for export.

In collaboration with members of the local cultural association Te Ana Pouga Magareva, the team excavated priests houses and a boy’s school associated with missionary churches on the islands of Aukena and Akamaru. At six different sites excavated in October and November 2023, the team unearthed more than 1,500 objects from daily use items — plates, bowls — to consumables — medications, alcohol — and remains from meals of fish, bird and shellfish.

The richest trove of finds came from the priests’ house at the Church of Notre Dame de la Païx at Akamaru. Hundreds of fragments of glass were recovered at the site, equating to dozens of bottles of gin, champagne and wine, as well as perfume and medicine imported from France, Britain, and the Netherlands.

Another distinctive find was hundreds of complete and fragmented pearl shells (from the Pinctada genus), which were cultivated to be worked into objects like buttons and decorative inlay, offering a glimpse into the island’s former pearl shell industry. […]

Traditionally, in French Polynesia, pearl shells were used for fishing lures, tattooing needles, pendants and figurines. By the 1840s, they were harvested en masse and exported around the world. The missionary endeavour in Mangareva was supported by Polynesian people cultivating and preparing thousands of tonnes of the valuable shells.

The iron axe and oyster shells found at the boys’ school on Aukena indicate the children in the school were being trained not just to make saleable finished pearl shell goods for export, but to farm the oysters, raise them to useable size, harvest and process them.

Excavations at Akamaru, Aukena and Mangareva will continue next year.

Smallest Neolithic pot of its kind found in China

Archaeologists excavating the Peiligang site in Xinzheng, Henan Province, eastern China, have discovered a Neolithic pot that is the smallest of its kind. This type of small-mouthed, pointed-bottom amphora-like vessel is one of the characteristic artifacts produced by the Neolithic Yangshao culture. Dating to around 7,700 years ago, this example also the earliest of its kind, pushing back the history of this form by several centuries and providing new evidence about their origin.

The bottle is about 10 cm (four inches) long, smaller than more typical examples of this style. and was found this summer in an excavation of the Neolithic burial area on the west bank of the Shuangjie river which flows north-south through the western section of the Peiligang site. About 20 new tombs were unearthed in the excavation of the burial area. Few grave goods were found and most of them were agricultural tools, usually a combination of a shovel and sickle. A handful of sharpening stones and stone objects were also unearthed from these tombs. The small pot was discovered in Tomb M48.

The Yangshao culture occupied the middle areas of the Yellow River from between 5000 to 3000 B.C. The Yangshao people cultivated crops, supplementing their diets by hunting and moving on to new settlements when the land was no longer productive. The excavation uncovered evidence of pre-Yangshao peoples having lived and worked at Peiligang — ostrich egg beaded ornaments, animal bone fragments, clam shells, pottery fragments, quartz and flint lithics — in the Late Paleolithic.

An early-stage pottery kiln unearthed this year reveals that the Paleolithic Peiligang culture produced pottery at the site and provides new information about transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic cultures in the area. Archaeologists believe the small pot may have been used to make koji, a rice wine fermented using the monascus mold (red yeast mold), a process that the Paleolithic settlers of the Peiligang site had already learned.

German museum weirdly asks Italy to give back the Discobolus

The Discobolus Palombara, also known as the Discus Thrower, was discovered in 1781 at the Villa Palombara on the Esquiline Hill, one of the palaces of the princely Massimo family. It was a 1st-century A.D. marble copy of a famous 5th century B.C. bronze by the Athenian sculptor Myron of Eleutherae. The original was probably cast for the city of Sparta. The pose of the athlete captured at the moment of maximum coiled tension just before he spins around and releases the discus introduced a new dynamism into Classical sculpture that was widely admired and copied for centuries.

The original was long lost, known only from ancient sources, when the Discobolus Palombara was unearthed. It was the first version of the famous work to be discovered. It is life-sized (many copies are reduced in scale) and is the most complete of any the copies that were later found. It caused an immediate sensation and vaulted into the small club of the greatest surviving works of antiquity.

The sculpture was classified as a work of exceptional national interest by Italy’s 1909 cultural heritage law which made it illegal to export, but in the mid-1930s, the Lancellotti-Massimo branch of the family had financial problems and declared they would sell the Discobolus for the princely sum of eight million lire. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was interested, but ultimately balked at the price.

Hitler was enraptured by Classical Greek art, describing it in Mein Kampf as “the wonderful combination of the most glorious physical beauty with a brilliant mind and the noblest soul.” That harmony was in stark contrast, he believed, to the “degenerate” aesthetics of Modernist art. The representation of the heroic male nude was a particular favorite of his as it tied to his ideals of the perfectly fit, strong and muscular Aryan male, trained in sport and war.

The prologue to Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 Olympia, her influential albeit interminable movie dedicated to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, makes the connection between the Classical ideal of beauty and the New German Man explicit: a long montage of the ruins of the Acropolis dissolving into famous Greco-Roman statues, prominently featuring ones in German collections.

The first is the Barberini Faun, which was sold to Ludwig, Crown Prince of Bavaria, in 1827, and has been in the Glyptothek in Munich, built by Ludwig specifically to house his huge collection of Greek and Roman sculpture, since it opened in 1830. Riefenstahl returns to the faun several times. The second is an extreme closeup of the Medusa Rondanini, also collected by Ludwig on his Grand Tour and in the Glyptothek. The Glyptothek’s Braschi Aphrodite makes an appearance as well.

Then, out of a cloud of dramatic smoke rises the Discobolus who morphs into a chiseled German athlete nude in a field throwing a discus into the sun-broken clouds in slow motion. Nude shot-putters, javelin throwers and more discus shots follow, as Riefenstahl claims the inheritance of ancient Greek representations of beauty and athleticism for the Master Race.

In 1937, the year after the Berlin Olympics, Prince Philip of Hesse went to Italy as head of an art buying expedition commissioned by Adolph Hitler. The Discobolus was at the top of the Führer’s wish list. Mussolini was glad to sell the black shirt of his own back to curry favor with Hitler, and the cultural patrimony of the nation was just as expendable. The Minister of Education protested the prospective sale, pointing out that by law the sculpture could not be exported, but Mussolini overrode all objections and ordered that Hitler get his heart’s desire. Mussolini’s son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, then Foreign Minister, arranged a private sale. On April 20th, 1938, Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia debuted in movie theaters. On May 18th, 1938, the German government paid Prince Lancellotti 16 million lire in cash for the priceless Discobolus. In June 1938, Hitler presented it to the Glyptothek in Munich as a gift to the German people.

Ten years later, it was returned to Italy, one of thousands of artworks stolen, coerced or illegally purchased by the Nazis that were restituted after the war thanks to the diligence of Monuments Men from the Allied armies and national delegates to the task force. Germany strenuously objected to the repatriation of the Discobolus as it had been bought from a willing seller for exorbitant piles of cash, not looted or the product of a forced sale. They took it to the courts repeatedly and went so far as to lodge an official appeal with the President of the United States, Harry Truman. It didn’t work and the Discobolus has been in Italy since November 1948, now in the permanent collection of the National Roman Museum at the Palazzo Massimo.

Amazingly enough, it seems after 75 years, Bavarian museum officials still harbor delusions that their brief, illegal possession of the Discobolus has a chance in Hell of being reinstated.

The dispute arose when the director of the National Roman Museum requested the statue’s 17th Century marble base be returned from the Antikensammlungen state antiquities collection. The German museum instead asked for the return of the Discobolus Palombara, saying it had been illegally transported to Italy in 1948, the Corriere della Sera newspaper reported Friday.

Italy’s culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, expressed doubts that the German culture minister, Claudia Roth, was aware of the Bavarian request.

“Over my dead body. The work absolutely must remain in Italy because it is a national treasure,’’ Sangiuliano was quoted by Corriere as saying, adding that he hoped that the base would be returned.

The fraught history of the Discobolus Palombara was just recently brought to the forefront again when it was featured in the Liberated Art 1937-1947 exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome early this year.