Archaeologists sifting through tons of discarded earth at a dig on the island of Crete have found more fragments of a unique gold-and-ivory figurine acclaimed as a masterpiece of Minoan sculpture.
The ivory torso and arms of a young man were unearthed last year. They had been partly burned in a fire that swept through a prehistoric town at Palaikastro on the island's eastern coast around 1,450 B.C.This summer, the excavators recovered more than 100 new fragments including shreds of gold leaf from the figure's clothing, two finely modeled ivory feet, an ivory ear, and - most surprising of all - a stone head that would have fit the missing ivory face.
"It's the figure of a young god. It's the most important Minoan sculpture ever found, and we want to recover as much of it as we possibly can," Sandy MacGillivray, co-director of the excavation, said in an interview Friday.
The Minoan civilization was Europe's earliest high culture, flourishing in the Bronze Age between 3,000 and 1,400 B.C.
It was named for legendary King Minos, who kept a half-man, half-bull monster known as the Minotaur in a labyrinth beneath his palace at Knossos on Crete.
MacGillivray, who teaches archaeology at Columbia University in New York, said two excavators found the fragments in "two months of working a water sieve to sift through 41/2 tons of earth" from the area where the statue was located.
The figure originally stood 16 inches high and apparently shattered when it fell into a courtyard from a shrine in the upper story of a large building.
It probably was crafted around 1,500 B.C. in a period that produced some of the best Minoan art, MacGillivray said.
It portrayed a shaven-headed young man with a topknot, or headdress, like an American Indian standing with arms clenched across his bare chest.
"The stone head with its topknot was carved from gray serpentine. . . . We found it in three pieces and thought at first it might be a helmet," said Hugh Sackett, of Groton School in Connecticut, the dig's other co-director.
He said two pieces of rock crystal "each the size of a seed" represented the whites of the eye, but that the stones used for the iris hadn't been found.
"There's been a theory the Minoans used different materials in the same piece of sculpture, but this is the first example discovered," Sackett said.
The excavators said dowels on the feet could have fit into wooden legs that were destroyed in the fire. They speculate the figure wore a gold kilt with a dagger stuck in the belt.
"It may be an early representation of the `beardless Zeus' who was worshipped on Crete later in ancient times," MacGillivray said. Zeus was the king of the gods in Greek mythology and, according to some accounts, was born on Crete.
Finds from Cretan sites of delicately painted vases, carved gemstones and miniature sculptures indicate the Minoans had a keen eye for nature and the human form.
"The figurine is extremely naturalistic. There's evidence of very accurate observation in the musculature and especially in the rendering of veins and tendons," said Dr. Jonathan Musgrave, who teaches anatomy at Bristol University in England and has examined the figurine on Crete.
The restored figurine will go on display in Sitia Museum in east Crete next year, and the excavators said they will sift through the same debris again in search of more fragments.
"It's tantalizing not to have the eyes, but we'll sieve all the earth again next year so we might find them," MacGillivray said.