Claims and counter-claims about a sculptural fragment held by the British Museum brought a touch of trepidation to a celebrity visit during excavations at Knidos, the Turkish city of Aphrodite, in 1971, as Richard Hodges remembers in this exclusive extract from his latest book.
‘Sir Mort’s coming. That’ll put the cat among the p-pigeons!’, Tim exclaimed with a mischievous smile directed at Henry. Henry looked at him, puzzled, then startled. Tim had heard about the visit from Sheila Gibson, talismanic architect on the Knidos team, when she was drawing the Hellenistic houses at the Stepped Street. Sheila had heard it directly from excavation director Iris Love, because Iris – for all her Manhattan bluster – knew that Sheila might find this visit a little hard to take, and Sheila was the one person on the project whom Iris valued as much as or perhaps more than herself. If Sheila was nervous, I failed to detect it.
Sir Mortimer Wheeler, often self-styled the greatest archaeologist of the 20th century, brilliant at parodying himself, was a guest lecturer on a Swan Hellenic cruise. Visiting Knidos, the city of Aphrodite, with Ms Love in residence was too good an opportunity to overlook for this supreme opportunist. Now, as it happened, also on the ship, as we all were to learn, was Sir John Wolfenden, the Director of the British Museum and ad interim guardian of trophies collected by (Sir Charles) Newton from Knidos in 1857-1858, including the battered head of a goddess that Iris had transformed into an international celebrity. Herein was the nub of the soap opera. As much as Sir Mort coveted controversy, having matured with the Bloomsbury writers, Sir John eschewed it.
Hidden in plain sight?
The controversy was about judgement: academic judgement and plain old judgement. In November 1970, Iris announced in The New York Times that she had discovered in the British Museum basement the battered head of a famous statue of Aphrodite crafted by the peerless ancient Greek sculptor, Praxiteles. Iris afterwards claimed that she had been forced into a premature revelation. Hearing the story many times, listeners tended to divide along ethnic lines. The Americans mostly had sympathy for her and noted the implicit subtexts: how is it those Brits didn’t have a handle on their own stuff? The old colonialists needed taking down a peg or two. The Europeans tended to take the British Museum’s part in the story.
In May the previous year, Iris – accompanied by her cousin, Margot, and Sheila – asked to see the sculptures collected by Sir Charles Newton at Knidos but not on display. The British Museum dutifully acceded. Proctors were dispatched to the museum’s cavernous basements, from which they retrieved a galaxy of fingers, toes, and battered bits, then lay them out in the hallowed halls of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities for their honoured guests. In Newton’s erstwhile bailiwick, his metaphorical successor a century later was paying homage to the treasures he had found.
Alas, one piece was missing. Was it deliberate or an inadvertent error made in the haste to deal with Iris and her party? Iris spotted this in a jiffy, as Sheila recalled with measured bemusement. Newton’s catalogue number 1314 was the object that Iris had set her heart on handling from the outset. Bust 1314, according to Newton and affirmed by his great successor Sir Bernard Ashmole (a former Director of the British School at Rome), dated to the 4th century BC and was very likely the work of one of Praxiteles’s contemporaries.
The encounter in the British Museum entered legend.
‘As soon as I saw it’, Iris recalled, ‘I thought, was it, could it be… the head? Her eyes had that limpid gaze that has been described so often. They were so Praxitelean! So I screamed at Margot, “I think this might be the Aphrodite.”’
That summer, Iris had found the epigraphic fragment that read ‘PRAX’ in Greek and a hand of Parian marble that was right for Bust 1314, Iris’s Aphrodite. The fingers of the trophy hand had been dowelled, employing a technique used in Praxiteles’s only known surviving masterpiece, the statue of Hermes at Olympia. I could only imagine the nightly festivities enjoyed by Knidos’s excavators as Iris’s stated quest neared its triumphant end.
Bust 1314 is a gruesome object. The nub of the dispute was about hairdos. In most classical female statues, the hair is drawn back above the ears in a bun on the back of the head. Aphrodite, Iris insisted, was different. She wore her hair half covering her ears, ending in a bun low on the nape of her neck. Numerous imitations attest to the celebrated idiosyncrasy of Praxiteles’s muse. Unfortunately, 1314 had been broken off at the back and cut back in preparation for reuse. The Bloomsbury team was adamant that the statue may have had a headdress. As such, it could not have been Aphrodite. Ashmole, to muddy the waters, even proposed it was Persephone. The Keeper, his nose well and truly out of joint, published a rebuttal in German, proposing it might be a Demeter.
History has remembered Iris for this spirited spat, not her lingering aspirations at the time when Sir Mort was about to visit. Later she was to muse: ‘I hope I am wrong. I’d still like to find Aphrodite in her magnificent pristine condition, not with a battered face and dismembered body.’
Sir Mort was soon in our midst. His ship arrived mid-morning and set up the calculated cry from workmen on all the excavations: geliyor. The compact white steamer steadied to a halt just outside the Commercial Harbour, and we heard the grinding of its anchor as it plunged into the crystalline waters. All eyes were on the stilled ship, as no doubt its passengers were eyeing us. The anticipation was aching: knowing a little of the two contenders, Iris Cornelia Love and Sir Mort, it promised the tension of a world-class boxing bout.
More than anyone else in the field, Sir Mortimer had brought mastery and rigour to the theatre and arts of excavation. Now a stout, upright 80-year-old with a bullhorn voice, he had a formidable Victorian aura. Known universally as Rik to his friends, he simply overshadowed whomever he stood next to.