Magazine article The Spectator

Follow the Snake Goddess to Find a Famous Forger

Magazine article The Spectator

Follow the Snake Goddess to Find a Famous Forger

Article excerpt

The Today programme would call her iconic, but since she is a 16.1cm gold and ivory ('chryselephantine') statuette, it would not be saying much. She stands there, erect, shoulders back, thrusting forward impressive bare breasts (one nipple the tip of a golden nail), both hands holding snakes that, twined round her arms, stretch outwards from her, tongues flickering. The best-known of all the ancient Cretan snake goddesses, she has graced the covers of, and been reproduced in, a thousand books.

It is her face that has caught the imagination. With her pouting lips and deep-set eyes, she has been hailed as 'charmingly serene', 'radiant', 'demure', 'expressive of individuality' and 'arresting'. 'Rendered with a freedom and naturalness that are exceptional' she 'shows all the distinguishing features of Cretan art at its best' and is a 'unique' masterpiece.

For Lacey D. Caskey, curator of the Classical Department at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, her acquisition was the 'event of the year' (the year was 1914).

For Sir Arthur Evans, the man who excavated Knossos from 1900-1944, she was yet another piece in a jigsaw that would fulfil all his fantasies about the ancient civilisation he was to call Minoan Crete (after its legendary King Minos).

She is a fake. So are most of the other Cretan snake goddesses, not to mention the ivory Boy-gods associated by Evans with them (their ivory is no more than 500 years old). In his Mysteries of the Snake Goddess, the American archaeologist and art historian Kenneth Lapatin (associate curator at the Getty) reveals all in an investigation of which Inspector Morse would have been proud.

The starting point is that no one in 1914 had the remotest idea where the snake goddess had been found. Indeed, the Boston curator admitted as much. Evans did not know either, but assumed it came from a site where material resembling it had been discovered in 1902-03. Caskey's successor at the Museum of Fine Arts claimed that a Boston lady had picked it up from a Cretan immigrant whom she had met on board the ship on which she was travelling home. Not only could the lady (in someone else's account a man) not be found, but not a single ship sailed from Piraeus to Boston in 1913 or 1914. It emerges, then, that not only was the snake goddess's findspot unknown, so too was its history.

At one level, none of this was surprising. The finds at Knossos were not just enormously romantic in themselves, but were also actively romanticised by Evans in line with current theories of the day about matriarchal societies and Mother Goddesses. The snakes added a yet further fashionable touch. Forgers flourish under such conditions, and they were quick to provide punters with what they wanted.

The punters, meanwhile, did not always fall over themselves to inquire about findspots; nor, more culpably, did museums, swept away by Minoamania.

Evans himself was well aware of the problem. Sir Leonard Woolley, excavator of Ur in Mesopotamia, recalls accompanying him to the home of a forger betrayed to the police by his dying accomplice.

Everything that was needed to construct a snake goddess was there -- ivory, gold, acids baths to give the ageing effect, and so on. Woolley's account is fuzzy, but there is no doubt about the essential truth of his story, datable to 1923-24. Further, he documents that the forgers' day-time job was working under the Swiss artists and restorers Émile Gilliéron and his son, who advised Evans on the restoration of the famous Knossos frescoes. …

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