Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Mystery of the Getty Kouros

The saga of the Getty Kouros is a perfect example of a mystery that neither scientists nor classical archaeologists can solve. In the late 1980's the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, heard of an unusually fine Greek marble statue, a kouros or youth, available for purchase. Stylistically, it appeared to date to the sixth century B.C., but experts were divided about whether the statue was authentic. Why was it so pristine and white? Why did the style of the hair not match that of the feet? Would an ancient sculptor have mixed so many styles in one statue? The discussion was complicated by the fact that most existing kouroi are in fragments--only about thirteen exist that are in as good condition as this one.

So how does an archaeologist or museum curator proceed? The Getty Museum asked for some scientific testing of the marble, hoping geologists could determine where the marble came from and whether the surface crust was ancient or modern.

Here’s where the story gets as twisty as a good Agatha Christie novel before Hercule Poirot steps in. A geologist sourced the marble to the island of Thasos, an ancient quarry site, and said the statue had a calcite crust that could have only developed over a long period of time. This was enough for the Getty, and they purchased the statue.

But then it emerged that the provenance papers were faked(!) and there was another torso, an obvious fake, with striking stylistic similarities. The Museum purchased that sculpture too and took the kouros off display for further tests.

New results revealed that the surface crust on the kouros was much more complex that originally thought (a calcium oxalate monohydrate rather than calcium carbonate) with certain characteristics that could not be duplicated in the laboratory. Furthermore, the kouros did not have the same surface as the torso, which was apparently treated in an acid bath.

At a conference in 1992, archaeologists and scientists met to debate all the evidence. Unfortunately, no forger stood up and confessed; the scholars were split down the middle on the authenticity of the kouros. The Getty kouros remains either one of the finest ancient Greek statues ever discovered, or one of the best fakes ever produced.

Even Poirot can’t solve this one…