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Shipwrecks, Mummies, and Spoils: How (Almost) 6 Ancient Masterpieces Were Discovered Accidentally

Shipwrecks, Mummies, and Spoils: How (Almost) 6 Ancient Masterpieces Were Discovered Accidentally
Divers at the Antikythera ship wreck site. Image credit: Brett Seymour / EUA / WHOI / ARGO. Via Sci-News.

It's almost hard to imagine that the ancient art at museums like the Met or the Louvre hasn't always been on display, revered as relics for centuries, pondered upon by generations and generations of people. They seem almost out of time, as if they'd always been there standing still while the world around them changed. But the truth is, most of these ancient artworks were buried, drowned, or lost for the grand majority of their lifespans, and have only been on display, and in public view, for a few decades. (And just think of all those ancient artifacts that still remain buried and "undiscovered"!)

The Winged Victory and Nefertiti, for instance, weren’t always household names—once, they were unearthed. Despite the crowds that perpetually flock to see these works, the stories of how they were found are less well-known. Here, we take a look at six famous ancient artworks that were once lost to time, and describe the tales of where, when, and how they were rediscovered.


Image via Louvre Museum. Image via Louvre Museum.

Winged Victory, otherwise known as Nike of Samothrace, occupies a position of drama and glory at the head of the grand Daru staircase in the Louvre. (You also might recognize her from "Apeshit," Beyonce and Jay Z's most recent music video, filmed at the Louvre .) The goddess of Victory extends her marble wings proudly atop a boat prow as she seemingly fights off an invisible wind. Nike was likely created to commemorate a naval victory, though there is little consensus on which battle was being celebrated. The sculpture, created in the 2nd century BC, is one of few surviving original statutes from the Hellenistic period, and is widely considered one of the greatest works of its time.

In the spring of 1863, Charles Champoiseau, a French politician with aspirations for becoming an archeologist, began excavating the ruins of an ancient sanctuary on Samothrace, a mountainous island off the coast of north-eastern Greece. As an amateur archaeologist, he did surprisingly well for himself; on April 15, his workers stumbled upon parts of a female statue, including fragments with feathers and drapery typical of depictions of the goddess Victory. These pieces were sent to the Louvre where just the lower torso and legs were put on display in 1866. It wasn’t until 1884 that Nike as we know her was completed: the Louvre antiquities curator at the time, Félix Ravaisson Mollien, initiated a restoration of the full figure, using original pieces of the torso and wings as well as plaster reconstructions to recreate the entire sculpture, excluding the head, arms, and feet. Winged Victory was then placed on top of the gray marble prow of a boat found at the sanctuary, and permanently installed in the Louvre.


Image via Wikipedia. Image via Wikipedia.

The Nefertiti Bust is one of the most famous artworks to come out of ancient Egypt. The limestone and stucco sculpture is believed to have been created in the year 1345 BC by the royal sculptor Thutmose. It depicts the wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, a woman who, thanks to the bust, is now popularly considered an icon of feminine beauty and power.

While the discovery of the bust of Nefertiti itself was not particularly unusual, it was how German archeologist Ludwig Borchardt handled this finding that makes for a more scandalous tale. In 1912, his team found the Nefertiti Bust buried upside down in the excavated workshop of Thutmose within the ancient Egyptian city Amarna, and he instantly recognized it as a unique, exquisite piece of art. The agreement was to divide up the results of the dig between Germany and Egypt, so (though some German officials argue that this is untrue) Borchardt concealed the true value of the bust hoping the Egyptians would pass it over. He was even quoted in a 1913 meeting as saying that he “wanted the bust for us,” and thus provided an unflattering photograph of it during the negotiations. His plan worked, and the Nefertiti Bust became one of Berlin’s major art attractions. This remains true to this day, despite multiple attempts by the Egyptian government to return the statue to what they believe is its rightful home.


Image via Art Resource. Image via Art Resource.

You might think that salt water would corrode sculptures beyond recognition, making it near impossible to find ancient artifacts in the ocean. But the number of intact ancient sculptures found on the ocean floor is surprising; on multiple occasions, well-preserved ancient bronze sculptures have been rediscovered in the sea.

One of the most famous examples of drowned ancient art is the two life-size statues known as the Riace Bronzes or the Riace Warriors, which were discovered by chance and mark one of the most important archeological findings of the 20th century. It is unclear as to how the Riace Bronzes ended up where they did, as there is no known associated shipwreck, but it was in the shallow, sandy waters off the coast of the Italian region of Calabria that Stefano Mariottini, then a chemist from Rome, stumbled upon the Bronzes while snorkeling on vacation in 1972. To his shock, Mariottini glimpsed an arm jutting out of the sand and thought he had come across a dead body. Luckily, he had the guts to further examine the scene, and realized that the arm was in fact bronze. He then found a second statue and called the police, who, with the help of the Museo Nazionale della Magna Grecia, recovered the Riace Warriors. It took an extensive, nearly ten-year study and restoration project for the Bronzes to be ready for display, but in the summer of 1981 they finally began a tour of Italy before settling at the Museo Nazionale.

Though they were found together and appear similar in size and pose, the Riace Bronzes were likely created by two different artists about 30 years apart in the 5th century BC; closer scrutiny of the statues reveals distinct differences in the faces and other details. They are excellent examples of the early Classical style in Greece, in which sculptures of the human figure became more lifelike and realistic than ever before, both in pose and in facial features. No one knows who these sculptures were meant to represent (though likely mythological figures or great generals) so they've come to be known, respectively, as A and B... creative, right?


Image via Wikipedia. Image via Wikipedia.

The Mask of Agamemnon, unearthed in 1876 by archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, is a funeral mask that was found in a burial shaft at the ancient Greek archeological site of Mycenae. From the Greek Bronze Age, the piece was designed to cover the face of a dead Mycenaean leader. The mask was found alongside several others in a series of royal graves, but as this was the most detailed and stylistically unique mask, it became the most famous.

The mask (evident by its name) is commonly associated with Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae in legend and the leader of the Greek attack on Troy, known best from the epic poems of Homer and the tragedies of Euripides. Supposedly, Schliemann notified a Greek newspaper of his discovery with the line “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon.” He apparently believed he had found the tombs of several Greek heroes of the Trojan War, but modern research suggests that the masks were created around 300 years before the war would have occurred, in around 1550-1500 BC. Though the body that the mask was found on was never identified as Agamemnon, the name stuck.

Around the end of the 20th century, controversy swirled around this finding after its legitimacy was questioned by historians William M. Calder III and David Traill. Turns out, Schliemann was infamous for planting inauthentic artifacts at dig sites and for other sketchy practices, and Calder distrusted any unverified discovery of his. This wariness was exacerbated in this case by the fact that the so-called Mask of Agamemnon was so stylistically distinct from some of the other masks found with it. But because this dig was supervised closely, and because Calder and Traill's evidence was only circumstantial, the claim of falsity is not widely accepted, even today.


Image via Khan Academy. Image via Khan Academy.

There are innumerable ancient Chinese artworks that have been discovered over the years, ranging from ceramics and paintings to jade sculptures and bronze. But this particular artifact gives valuable insight into funeral practices of the western Han Dynasty, as it was found within the lavish tomb of Xin Zhui (also known as Lady Dai), the wife of a high-ranking civil servant. The painted silk funeral banner was among the many cosmetics, silk garments, and lacquerwares found in her elaborately decorated nesting coffins. Her mummified body was around 2,000 years old when, after workers began digging an air raid shelter for a hospital and struck archeological "gold" in 1971, her burial ground (which also included the tombs of her husband and son) became an archeological site in Changsha, China. After enlisting the help of over 1,500 local high schoolers, archeologists began excavations in January of 1972.

Image via Khan Academy. Image via Khan Academy.

The tomb of Lady Dai is one of the most important archeological discoveries of the 20th century, for multiple reasons: first, her mummified body is one of the best preserved corpses ever found (she still had hair, blood in her veins, muscles, and skin when excavated), and her tomb was filled with items that provided new understandings about the Han Dynasty. The funeral banner, which was found draped over her coffin, may have been made to aid the spirit in its journey to the afterlife. It depicts Xin Zhui’s accession to heaven through three realms of Earth, Heaven, and the Underworld. Not only did the painted silk banner provide insights into Han beliefs surrounding afterlife, it was also hugely significant art historically: it's the first known Chinese portrait and one of the earliest examples of Chinese pictorial art.


Image via Wikipedia. Image via Wikipedia.

In the first century BC, a ship filled with coins, bronze and marble sculpture, glasswork, and other artifacts sank off the coast of the island of Antikythera, near Crete. Hundreds of years later, in 1900, a group of sponge divers paused on the island to wait for favorable winds and decided to dive its coast. Dressed in the diving gear of the time—a canvas suit and copper helmet—Elias Stadiatis descended to a depth of about 150 feet before quickly signaling to be pulled back up. He frantically described a ghastly scene: rotting corpses and dead horses strewn across the ocean floor. The group’s leader thought Stadiatis must have become “drunk” from the gas in his helmet, and checked it out himself. He resurfaced carrying a bronze arm (sound familiar?); they had discovered one of the most spectacular archeological finds ever.

Arguably the most famous and important artifact recovered from this wreck is known as the Antikythera Ephebe or the Antikythera Youth. The statue of a young man with an outstretched arm is thought to have originally held a spherical object that didn't survive the wreck, making historians believe it represented a mythological figure like Paris or Heracles, both of whom are often depicted holding apples. Just like the Riace Bronzes, the Antikythera Youth is emblematic of the Classical style: it stands in the contrapposto (leaning on one leg) and appears life-like and natural. Its discovery deeply impacted the world’s view of ancient Greek sculptures and it remains, to this day, one of the only surviving original ancient Greek bronzes.


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